You’ve skipped the gym for the second time this week, got drawn into an argument that was really unnecessary and now you can’t focus on the report that is due in an hour. All the old patterns of behaviour you most loath about yourself are repeating again and again. You want change, you know what needs to change, but you just can’t seem to make that change. Your inner critic is judging you - it doesn’t believe you can.
If your brain does not believe you can change, you won’t. Your brain will always seek to prove you right. It’s called confirmation bias: the subconscious search for evidence to support what you already believe. Being right not only releases feel-good chemicals in the brain it also takes less energy than challenging yourself, and the brain is big on efficiency. If you’re anything like me, your inner critic will have a long list of unwanted habits pinned next to an evidence case full of lost opportunities, each filed and labelled carefully in intricate detail. “I give you,” it says, “exhibit A”.
Habit and familiarity is our brain’s comfort food, but it is not the brain at its best. While confirmation bias is the brain’s most efficient way to survive the day, the reverse, the uncomfortable feeling of “cognitive dissonance” is the brain at its most effective. It is in the discomfort of accepting unfamiliar beliefs that we learn what we need to. Learning, at its very core, is when prior experience alters your future behaviour. The experience could be factual or it could be emotional. It could be pleasant or it could be painful. Any experience which changes your future behavior is a learning experience.
Though the brain is often compared to a computer (because both process and store masses of information) computers don’t learn. They can’t mature over time or change their programming based on what worked and what didn’t. The same annoying bugs will continue to annoy you until you upgrade it. But your brain can not only internally grow (neuroplasticity) it can also actually genetically change (epigenetics). Science is now starting to show us the technical side of learning, and this new knowledge leads us to better understand how to control that learning process for ourselves.
One such study is Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP. McDermott calls NLP ‘the study of excellence’ because it is based on research into what takes place when excellence is achieved through both interpersonal and intrapersonal action. The founders of NLP, Richard Bandler and John Grinder, believed it was possible to identify the patterns of thoughts and behaviours of successful individuals and to teach them to others. Their work led to NLP becoming a popular coaching technique involving the conscious use of language to bring about changes in thoughts and behaviour. In turn, this leads to an effective self-coaching strategy: self-modelling.
The basic premise behind this practice is that once you break down performance it can be described, and once it is described in detail it can be taught and learnt. NLP practitioners call this modelling and it is not dissimilar to how the term is used in teaching. Just as when learning to cook you need to practice by following the skills of a good cook, practising the basic elements of mental skills, such as reframing obstacles into opportunities, can alter the brain’s internal wiring to override previous mental habits. Epigenetics and neuroplasticity have proven that traits like a positive mindset, resilience and persistence aren’t just the result of good luck or birthright. They can be learnt and fostered by each of us.
Undoubtedly you already have something you do well. Whether in your personal, social or work life, there is likely to be a skill or personal quality that is your strength. It could be a hobby, a sport, a social skill or a creative talent. Most people consider this a ‘natural gift’ and underplay the importance of studying what has led to this strength. Doing so is a lost opportunity. When you do what you are successful at you are using a range of habits of mind and body. You have found a way to focus, find flow, and be present. You have a meta-cognitive overview of the task, the criteria, the strategies and skill needed for excellence. You have also overcome external and internal obstacles and have identified all the internal and external resources you need to be successful. You have been conscious of feedback and have used it to improve. You have become your own potential ‘model’ of excellence, with several lessons to teach yourself.
The first step is to understand what is happening in your own mind. This requires a close examination of not just what you are doing, but also your attitude to what you are doing. What do you believe about what you are doing while you are doing it? What do you say to yourself before and after you do it? How do you cope with any problems or mistakes along the way? This kind of close conversation and questioning of oneself requires time and patience. McDermott calls this self-modelling “Finding the difference that makes the difference”.
Self-modelling involves analysing what you do well and transferring those inner skills to other areas. Examples of excellence could range from meeting deadlines, saving money, maintaining long term relationships, or achieving in a sport. Any event that you repeatedly do well is an opportunity for you to break down your successful behaviours and attitudes and then apply them to other areas of your life. We are usually good at seeing this in others before we see it in ourselves, then lament our own inabilities. But by taking the time to do an in-depth analysis of your own patterns of thought and action you can become your own modelling of excellence.
The first trick is changing your emotion when you consider yourself and your behaviours. Rather than critique or judgement, an attitude of curiosity will help you dissociate and find a viewpoint that allows you to see the details discretely and objectively. Your goal is to consider not just the ‘you’ that is acting, but also the context and the feedback in which you are acting. Curiosity will help you explore that context for aspects that you might otherwise have taken for granted. When you approach your own behaviour with the readiness to experiment and a willingness to learn you will open up options and opportunities for yourself, you couldn’t see before. These options that come with behavioural flexibility gives you a better possibility of influencing situations happening around you.
There are things you are already good at - like recognising need in a friend and knowing exactly how to respond, or deflecting your child’s attention from the toy shop in the mall. Each of these successes are small moments of excellence that we can use as self models. When broken down and analysed there will be ways of being, thought patterns, skills, strategies that you use habitually in that situation that you can begin to apply to other situations (even those you might not have previously considered connected). The same skills you apply in your parenting can be applied in the meeting room or during customer interactions. How can you use what you do well as a friend or a mother to recognise a need in a customer or distract your colleague from the next ‘shiny object’ idea?
NLP methods suggest enhancing your model with some “contrastive analysis” - the process of comparing and contrasting two things that have some commonality but have different outcomes. For example, what is the difference between a work conversation that went well and one that did not? By comparing a detailed analysis of each you can discover the key elements of success that can be applied to create success in every situation. Don’t’ just look at what is said, examine the full context and the sequences of events. What was your mood coming into the conversations, exactly how did each person respond to that mood? Remember to reflect, but not to brood. The past is our teacher, not our judge and jury.
When you approach your own behaviours with an attitude of curiosity your inner critic loses strength. It is hard to argue with someone who is simply there to learn. So you skipped the gym again this week - yet last week you went every day? What was the difference? What was happening internally and externally that changed your behaviour? Which of these things can you control? Once you break it down you may find there is more you can control than you realise.