The Richard Nicholls Podcast

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Episode 156: What We Fight, We Invite

There’s an annoying quirk to our psychology that means we can easily be drawn towards the exact thing that we’re trying to avoid, and anyone who either has children or works with them will know this. After all what happens if you tell a child not to touch something, they’re going to touch it. If they strop off out of the room and you say “Don’t slam the door” guess what? The door's almost off its hinges.
So, what happens if you tell yourself not to panic? Well, your heart rate’s probably going to rise and you’ll start to feel anxious. If you prepare for a job interview by telling yourself “I won’t stuff this up, I won’t stammer over my words, I won’t become a gibbering mess of sweat!” Then you’re far more likely to actually make it happen. That’s just how the brain works.
In order to NOT think about something, you have to actually think about it first in order to know what not to think about and so your brain fires of the strings of neurons to prepare you for the exact thing that you’re trying not to avoid.
When creating an expectation of what we’d like to see happen next we need to ensure that the language we use stays positive. Instead of “Don’t touch” say “Leave alone” instead of “Don’t panic” say “Be calm”.
Don’t plant the seeds for the things you fear, as the old saying goes “Be careful what you look for, because you just might find it.”
But the problem is that the thing we fear will often be on our minds. If our biggest fear is that our partner is going to leave us then evidence to support it is all that we’ll see. If our biggest fear is a heart attack, then we’ll become super sensitive to any changes that go on in our hearts rhythm.
Years ago, the psychologist Carl Jung said that “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.” And he was right and that concept is the same for so many things.
If you’re stuck in traffic, there’s no point in being angry about it, you won’t get to your destination any quicker. But creating all that negative emotion when you ARE stuck means that when the traffic starts moving again you’ve woken up neurological pathways in the brain for feeling angry and carry it with you as you drive, angrily up the motorway.
If this happens often enough then the ability to become angry becomes a skill, a habit, a routine. We have the ability to make something that was conscious become unconscious through repetition, that’s how we learn.
We can learn how to walk how to talk or how to play the didgeridoo. But everything that we practice starts off consciously. We are aware that we are firing off neurons, or at least we’re aware of what we’re doing. But with enough repetition this neurons become thicker, stronger and more efficient at transmitting the electrical signals that get passed from neuron to neuron so that they fire off outside of conscious awareness because they’re too fast.
That’s why someone who has a phobia of spiders will see more spiders than someone who doesn’t. Because looking for spiders has become an unconscious skill, they’ve become so good at spider spotting they can do it without trying. Because of this they they end up with a complex because it seems that spiders must be out to get them, as if they’re following them around. It might seem as if no-one else in their social circle is seeing them as often as they do, but that’s not because those spiders aren’t there, it’s because no-one else is unconsciously priming themselves to find them. What we fight, we invite you see.
But although we might think of these skills as being hard wired in the brain, in reality there’s no such thing as hard wiring, our brain is flexible.
We can learn and unlearn. It takes a while but with practise you can unlearn something that you thought was totally ingrained in you. You CAN forget how to ride a bike actually, but it takes daily practise of riding a differently designed bike for about 8 months. Destin Sandlin, an engineer from the website Smarter Every Day, did exactly that. He learned how to ride a bike with a cog in its handlebars so that if you turned the handlebars left the front wheel turned right, and vice versa.
He had to ride it for 5 minutes every day for 8 months to learn how to balance properly. The thing is because the process of riding the backwards bike is so entwined with riding a normal bike he forgot how to ride a normal one. The first time he did he couldn’t balance and had to practise for half an hour before his brain clicked that he needed to go back to the old way of thinking again, and allowed him access to the skills that he’d been using since he was 6 years old.
There have been many experiments undertaken in brain injury and stroke research that shows that old phrase that I come back to so often. “If you don’t use it you lose it.” And when it comes to old programming such as looking for spiders, looking for an argument, looking to be the victimised, it’s worth spending some time looking for the opposite.
Look for reasons to feel happy, safe, respected or included. By practising optimism you’ll unlearn pessimism. By practising self respect, you’ll let go of shame or guilt. If you practise calmness you’ll find it harder to be angry.
Rather than trying to fight the existing emotion, encourage a better one to take its place instead. It’s the basis of what’s often called in therapy ACT, Acceptance and commitment therapy. It used to be called comprehensive distancing, but during the 1980’s the ideas behind it were formed into a specific branch of counselling and psychotherapy.
The idea with ACT being that instead of resisting the negative emotions and avoiding situations that cause them, you accept that they exist and open yourself up to experiencing these emotions as a better way of understanding them. On the surface it almost sounds like giving in to it and being hopeless. But rather than a defeatist attitude the reason this helps is because by accepting what is, you put yourself in the best possible position to be able to do something about it.
I can’t reiterate enough that in order to improve your chances of getting what you want out of life, it’s pointless dedicating your time and energy to resisting what you don’t want. I know it might sound counter-intuitive but in the same way as it’s almost impossible to NOT think about a pink elephant when someone tells you not to what you need to do instead is to focus your attention towards what you do want to embrace about life and plan a course of action to make it happen.
Because the alternative means that you’ll actually have made yourself part of the problem, rather than the solution.