May 12, 2016

How your unconscious brain is ruining your life

Our unconscious brains are ruining our lives…

It’s taken over too much of our thoughts and behavior.

And you know what the worst thing is?

You probably don’t even know that it’s doing that to you.

I mean, hey… your unconscious brain is super useful:

You can breathe automatically thanks to your unconscious brain…

You can assess the danger of crossing the street in a MILISECOND thanks to it…

But what if I told you that your unconscious brain is also your greatest enemy?

What if your unconscious brain is limiting you IMMENSLY in your ability to live happy, secure and with confidence?

That’s the case when you have unconsciously internalized negative self-talk.

If you’re reading this, you probably agree that it’s sad to see how many moments we are feeling angry, hopeless, dependant or insecure.

Not being able to be our true selves.

Unable to respond authentically and with kindness.

And the worst thing is that it happens without us knowing exactly why and how it happened.

It ruins your day…

And it ruins your life.

Because if you don’t have enough positive moments in your life… It can just become one big slur of negativity and anxiety leading into depression.

But it’s DEFINITELY possible to live much better.

To live with more confidence, kindness and creativity EVERY day.

In this blog post I want to talk about:

  • How your unconscious brain tricks you
  • How to discover the negative self-talk and behavior that’s holding you back in life
  • How to train your unconscious brain and create habits so your brain will HELP YOU instead of limiting you to be a more positive, kind and confident person in life.

Sound good to you?

Let’s get into it.

This is how your unconscious brain tricks you

At times when I’m anxious, depressed or just feeling insecure about myself I used to think something was fundamentally wrong with me.

I can’t wrap my head around the fact that I might be in control of what I’m feeling.

Those feelings when I get upset, insecure… or the feeling of being incapable and fearing to be found out as an imposter.

I would notice those feelings come on and I didn’t know WHY exactly I felt that way.

I was convinced something inside me was wrong, broken… And that that faulty part in me made me feel so bad without a reason.

But it wasn’t.

My unconscious brain tricked me into thinking that my feelings all happened without a cause.

That there was no other explanation then that there was something fundamentally wrong with me.

That I am just naturally incapable, strange and stupid.

The trick my brain played on me was that it skipped the conscious thought process that comes before my feelings.

The trick was that my unconscious brain had an automatic response to situations which made me feel a certain way.

It took very long to learn and believe that my feelings originated from automatic thought patterns.

That’s why I didn’t notice why I felt a certain way.

I was not conscious of those thoughts.

And I can’t really blame myself.

My unconscious brain handles about 40.000 bits of information per second.

And I’m happy it does that much work in its own for me.

This makes sure I don’t have to think about how I need to put one foot in front of the other when I’m walking.

But…

When it makes automatic assumptions like: “I am a stupid person”, “nobody likes me” and “I am not worthy to be loved”, “people shouldn’t give me their time and attention”… suddenly it’s NOT so helpful.

How to discover your negative self-talk & bad behavior

But the brain is not to blame for automating our negative thoughts.

It just follows orders.

Whatever I feed my brain over and over again, it will automate for me.

So if I feed my brain thoughts like “I’m not good enough, I’m stupid, I’ll never be smart enough to provide something of real value, I’m ugly”… it’s going to automate those for me.

Whenever a challenge comes up, that  unconscious thought results in immediate feelings, bodily responses and negative behavior.

Try to think of it like a river flow

NASA picture from a river flow - just like neural pathways in your brain

I compare the brain to a river bed that has been carved out for years and now the water is flowing through it with ease.

It’s made its way through the rocky bottom and over time that water was able to flow easily and without much friction.

In a similar way, that’s how our brains forms neutral pathways:

By connecting the same situations, thoughts, feelings and behavior over and over again.

Let’s compare that process to the river stream again.

The river flows in a certain direction, it turns and twists.

Let’s say our brain-river also does makes several turns:

From perceiving the situation we are in to creating thoughts, feelings and ultimately behaviour.

That “flow” gets carved into our brains.

And after a while, it has almost zero resistance anymore.

At that point our brains are able to make us think, feel and behave in a certain situation without us actually being aware of it.

And so you enter a situation, whatever may be your trigger, a fight with your boyfriend, an argument with your boss or a higher-up, a comment from a stranger… and suddenly you feel horrible, sad, stupid or insecure.

And you don’t know why exactly.

You say to yourself: “How did that just happen?” “Why am I feeling so bad right now?” And “It all went so fast!”

That feeling sucks.

I’ve had enough of it in my life to know.

What if we could train our unconscious brains?

Wouldn’t that be great?

Having your brain helping you to be happier, more secure, have more fun and be more creative in life?

When you understand your own behaviour and can trace it back to your feelings and thoughts where it all stems from, you WIN.

Then you can reverse engineer that process and make sure you train your brain to create a flow of thoughts, feelings and behavior that are more positive.

So the key here is to become AWARE of your thoughts in those triggering moments when you feel bad without knowing why.

I’ll be honest:

In the beginning, you are not gonna change how you feel or behave because you still get overwhelmed with feelings almost all the time.

You still get overwhelmed with emotions seemingly without any reason.

But!

You will have gained ONE big step from where you were before.

At least now you will be able to take a step back and look at the situation and say:

“OK, it’s happening again, I’m feeling things and responding without really knowing what happened inside me.

That’s OK, I recognize this. And I don’t understand me right now, but I know I will at a later point when I analyze what happened here and what thoughts triggered my emotions and my behavior.

This is great. I am aware of the situation. That is big. I am not IN the situation anymore. I might still not understand the situation but at least I got myself out of it. And I am observing it. Big points for me.”

Use this 5 step method to become aware of your automatic thoughts

To help you analyze such situations and figure out what automatic thoughts are creating those unwanted emotions and behaviors, you can try the AAT-method (Analyzing Automatic Thoughts).

AAT method worksheet - 5 steps to analyze automatic thoughts and find destructive habits

This is where you go over 5 consecutive steps: The situation you were in, what thought(s) occured instantly (this is the hard part because you have to work hard to remember what that situation made you think instantly), what you felt after that and how that affected your behavior and ultimately: what the consequences of your behvior were.

  1. Situation: What is the factual situation you were just in? Just keep this to the facts, no emotions. Where you are, what you are doing and what happened.
  2. Thoughts: What fundamental thought went through your mind right when the above mentioned situation happened? This is where the magic lies. First, you won’t realize that a thought occured before you were overwhelmed with emotions. But this is exactly the problem. Your body skips the conscious thought process and you only become aware of the emotion you feel after the situation. In between lies the automatic thought.
  3. Feelings: What and how did you feel after the situation happened?
  4. Behaviour: How did you behave yourself after the situation happened? Or: What did you do after this happened?
  5. Consequences: What were the consequences of your behaviour after the situation? What were the results of your actions? Did it change your feelings? Or reinforce them? Change someone else’s feelings?

It’s a WIN to be able to mentally and emotionally seperate yourself from the situations where you would usually feel completely out of control and helpless.

You know what those situations are…

When your boss yells at you for making a mistake.

When a coworker tells you you’re stupid.

When someone in the store laughs at you.

When your boyfriend insults you.

When…. *fill in the blank*

You know those moments when you suddenly feel very small, lost, angry, sad or hopeless. It ruins your day.

So, the first win is to recognize those moments where you do not understand what’s going on. These are the moments you suddenly become overwhelmed with emotion without being able to put your finger on why you came to feel that way exactly.

Then, the second win, after a lot of hard work (read: analyzing your automatic thought patterns) is understanding what is going on in that moment. (Ooooh I instantly felt small and hopeless after that argument because the automatic thought that I didn’t catch at the time was telling me: “You are not worthy of other people’s love.” or “See, everybody hates me”.)

Great, I’m aware. Now how do I change those negative thoughts to positive ones?

Once you are able to pin point the negative self-talk you can start to show yourself they are not true.

First, you will need to deconstruct your current thoughts and show them they are not real.

Then, you can discover what is true and start brainwashing yourself with more realistic thoughts.

So to deconstruct your false assumptions and thoughts you can fact-check them.

It’s hard…

Because facts are not something you were used to live your life by.

You were used to believing lies that you were just stupid, insecure, uncreative etc.

And it hurts to shake up that “reality” you’ve created.

Literally… It hurts me when I challenge my own assumptions.

I guess it’s because this changes something in my brain.

It’s like a piece of brain that was bent that I’m pulling straight.

It hurts.

It’s hard.

No way around it.

But it’s worth it.

So you can check: Is it really true what you are saying to yourself?

Are you REALLY stupid? Is YOU, you’re complete you an insecure person? Does everybody really don’t like you?

How true are those claims you have become accustomed to believing?

What is the proof you have for those assumptions? And, maybe even MORE important: What is the proof you have to refute those claims?

Try to come up with every reason and example that shows that you are NOT stupid, that people DO like you and that you ARE loved.

Here is a worksheet to fact check your thoughts and assumptions that you can download, print and use freely if you want to.

screenshot of the worksheet to fact check your thoughts and assumptions

If you can’t break that train of thought and have no way of finding arguments to battle your negative assumptions, you need help.

Probably in the form of a professional cognitive therapist.

Just like me.

It’s great to do these exercises in therapy because it’s very hard to argue with yourself about these thoughts.

If you manage to do this by yourself… I applaud you. You are brave and strong for battling with your own negative thoughts and you are lucky the negative self-talk is not too deeply embedded inside you.

If you don’t have access to therapy, the next best thing are “regular” supportive people around you.

What I did next to therapy for example is be VERY AWARE of other people’s positive remarks and signals during the day and noting them down, remembering all the details so I could repeat them and remember them for myself later.

That way, I could build up a list of “positive moments” and use that as my positive proof.

It’s not ideal to rely on outside confirmation of your self-worth but you need it if your own internal dialogue is SO TOXIC.

We can worry about internalizing our own self worth later 🙂

What you will find out, contrary to your belief, is that there is actually a lot of proof, reason and examples that show you are an intelligent, loved, funny and creative person.

What would happen if we kept playing THAT record over and over again in our heads?

What if we train our unconscious brain to remind us in challenging situations that: “I’m creative and intelligent”?

When a new situation comes up, a big life change, a new job, a break-up.. And we have internalized that we are capable of dealing with this change because we are equipped, we will figure it out and we are creative…

Or: When we get into a heated discussion with someone or your boss yells at you about work… and you have internalized that “I am a loveable person” and “I am intelligent” and our behavior follows that thought…

That’s when life gets better.

That’s when we can stand in challenging situations and STILL be secure, strong, kind and loving.

And to be honest, I don’t need to tell you here how to train your brain to internalize positive and true thoughts about yourself.

Because once you discover what thoughts and assumptions about yourself are holding you back today…

And you start discovering in what situations (triggers) these unconscious thoughts come up for you…

Then you have changed the game forever.

You now have a skill that gives you SO MUCH power over your life.

And you will be more than capable of discovering what is really TRUE for you and how to train your brain to act from reality instead of negative self-talk.

And over time, you will be stronger, more confident, more secure and much less stressed and anxious in your life.

So when you notice those moments that might still be scarce today, when you are in flow, creative, full of energy…

Those periods are going to last longer. And the impact of a negative moment (trigger) will decrease and you’ll recover faster to a place where you can be yourself again.

That’s what happens when you take back control of your unconscious negative self-talk 🙂