Fewer things are more frustrating than failing to make changes that appear so simple.
It’s as if you were convinced you could press the change button at the left by touching your computer monitor. There it is…it looks so ready to be pushed. Yet, the button will not respond!
Millions of people struggle with personal change that is just as maddening and, in come cases, life threatening.
For 60 years my father struggled to control what he ate. Due to out-of-control type 2 diabetes, he went down the slippery, gruesome slope that awaits many diabetics. Heart disease, foot ulcers, vision problems, low immune function, depression, and a series of amputations paved his way to the grave.
Dad claimed that he did it to himself through decades of horribly unhealthy eating. In other words, it was self-sabotage, which is so often a life threatening condition. He said he could have prevented his condition, and even came close to healing completely with nutrition and natural supplements. In the end, he never sustained the change.
He used to say, “I don’t get it. I just don’t get it! How can you not control what goes in your mouth?”
It does seem simple. You control your hand. You control your mouth. Do not put bad stuff into your mouth. Problem solved.
Regardless of the behavior you want to change, if you are frustrated as to why this simple logic fails to play out in your life, this article will clarify the issue and point toward lasting solutions.
Once I had to change a simple plumbing seal in my home. It took less than a minute to change it. Getting to the seal, however, took hours. It was part of the plumbing that ran through an upstairs bathroom. The only way to get at it was through the first floor ceiling. This meant tearing out drywall, removing insulation, then repairing the drywall, re-texturing to match the original ceiling texture (quite a feat) and repainting to match. All for a 60-second fix!
The fact that the plumbing problem was embedded in the home’s infrastructure made the simplest change very difficult to access.
The infrastructure that forms your identity, what you stand for, and what you choose to do with your life is made of beliefs. Beliefs about what is important, what is right or wrong and who you really are literally create the reality you live in.
Many simple behaviors are tied to personal beliefs (example scenarios given below). In other words, to change the behavior, you first need to deal with the belief that holds it in place. Just like I had to go through the ceiling to get to my simple plumbing issue, to get to some behaviors, you need to go through the belief system. In other words, some behaviors are embedded in your psychological infrastructure.
The tricky part about psychological infrastructure, as opposed to a home’s physical infrastructure, is that most people do not recognize psychological infrastructure. Usually, only people who have experience doing belief-change work recognize it.
This fact alone is astounding. Beliefs are the most powerful psychological force any human being will ever encounter. People live and die for their beliefs. Yet, we often deny the influential beliefs in our lives, especially the most important ones to recognize – the self-defeating beliefs.
Imagine the attempt to repair my plumbing problem if I were denying the source of the issue. Water is leaking through the ceiling and I feel the urgency to repair the damage. Yet, I deny that the problem is behind the drywall and refuse to even look further. Soon, my home is ruined and I am throwing my hands in the air wondering how this could happen.
This phenomenon plays out every single day among millions of people who need to make simple behavioral changes, but do not recognize the source of the problem, their limiting beliefs.
Some people smoke out of curiosity or diversion, with no other attachment to it. These people rarely have a hard time quitting.
Others associate smoking with a belief, such as I am a rebel, or I am cool, or I can do what I want or This is what it means to be a man or This is how I fit in my family. These folks usually don’t quit until they change their beliefs.
If you ask, “Does smoking define your manhood?” you rarely get a clear admission. The elusive psychological infrastructure prevents access.
Out of Control Yelling
For years, Martha and her husband Rick fought like cats and dogs. On the verge of divorce, Martha came to me for help.
I don’t understand why I can’t control my mouth,” Martha said, exasperated. I can’t stop picking fights and screaming. Rick will ask a simple question about something I am doing, and I assume he is attacking me. So, I attack him back!
We soon discovered the psychological infrastructure that prevented Martha from controlling her behavior. Martha related the following:
My father was the most critical man I have ever met, yet he rarely criticized my older brother, Thomas. To dad, Thomas’ schoolwork was always well done. His hobbies were interesting and his comments and questions were smart.
I was the dumb and boring one, I guess, because dad usually criticized me. I felt like I couldn’t do anything right. When I became a teenager, I rebelled and then the stuff really hit the fan! But, I was beyond caring at that point. I was a loser in dad’s eyes regardless of what I did, so why bother trying?
When she got pregnant with her first child, Martha decided it was time to grow up and take life seriously. She really wanted to be a mature, responsible parent and do things right. However, she carried around an underlying anxiety that she was ultimately a loser who would screw things up somehow.
When Rick asked her simple questions like, “What are you making for dinner?” or “How did it go at the parent-teacher conference today?” Martha responded as if Rick were questioning her competence. At her core, Martha feared she was a loser and, ultimately needed to defend herself.
Martha’s yelling flowed directly from the fear and pain of feeling like a loser. As long as this belief was in place, she was compelled to protect herself. The belief determined how she saw Rick and his questions. Seeing Rick as unjustifiably critical, Martha naturally defended herself.
After Martha healed the emotional pain associated with the limiting belief and changed her perspective, her perception of Rick changed dramatically. She realized he loved her and considered her a competent, resourceful partner. In the end, Martha felt no urgency to defend herself because her belief about what was happening in the first place was different.
Limiting beliefs and the behaviors that flow from them come in all shapes and sizes. Imagine how hard it would be to change simple behaviors that came from the following beliefs:
I am worthless (so what’s the point?). Attempting any self-improvement effort while working against this belief is likely to end in self-sabotage. Motivation, courage and consistent hard work and sacrifice are hard to come by when you do not think you are worth the effort.
I can’t do anything right (so why try?). This belief breeds fear of failure and resignation to mediocrity.
I am not like everyone else (so I can’t be comfortable around them). This belief creates social anxiety and fear of success, not wanting to draw attention to yourself.
I am bad (so why try to do anything good). This belief encourages self-sabotage to any plan of action that would lead to greater self-respect.
This is just who I am (so it is impossible to be different). The worst habits are often held in place by this kind of belief. Smoking, overeating, drinking, fighting and other habitual behaviors are often cemented in place because you identify with yourself and family members with these behaviors.
There are unlimited combinations of beliefs and behaviors. This means there are unlimited possibilities for healing. You can change your beliefs! The process involves getting behind the drywall, negotiating the insulation and following the pipeline until you find the leak. This is 99% of the battle.
Most people need help from someone trained in belief-change work to begin this process. Regardless, if you begin any significant change process without being willing to look at limiting beliefs, prepare for frustration.