Neuroplasticity: The Key to Breaking Free From Old Patterns

Do you ever feel like you’re on a hamster wheel, making the same bad decisions over and over again? Maybe you repeat toxic relationship dynamics with different partners. Maybe you think mean things about yourself. Maybe you are constantly late to everything, causing you stress. You know these thoughts and behaviors aren’t helping you, but they feel ingrained. You can’t help it. 

Humans are creatures of habit, and for the most part, we should be grateful for this fact. Habits are an adaptive neurological strategy to ensure that we do things without having to put in much effort and energy into motivating us. While this is helpful in some ways, not all patterns of behavior are ones we wish to keep repeating. Yet we feel resigned to them. So how do you break free of old patterns?

Simple, my friend: science. 

Using Neuroplasticity to Your Advantage

We’ve all heard that people don’t change. This is true to some degree: we are wired to be the way that we are. Our actions, emotions, and feelings create neural connections in the brain. Whenever we repeat them, the synapses are activated, and this strengthens them the more frequently we reinforce them. 

This means that while you may be wired to think and act in a certain way, you don’t have to keep strengthening the same patterns. By behaving and thinking differently frequently, you form new connections. This adaptable quality of our brains is called neuroplasticity.

I personally love the idea of neuroplasticity. I like to yell, “NEUROPLASTICITY!” at myself whenever I am feeling resigned to a negative habit. It’s not only fun to say, it helps me remember that I am not stuck behaving in a certain way. My brain can change, therefore, I can change. 

If you constantly think to yourself, “I am unworthy of love,” that thought is wired into your brain. On the other hand, if you challenge that thought and think to yourself, “I am worthy of love,” it creates a new connection. Every time you reinforce that connection, it strengthens, until it replaces the previous negative thought. Ta da! You have formed a positive belief about yourself! Congrats!

Be Patient

That being said, this is not something that will happen overnight. You may have heard the statistic that it takes 60 days to form a habit, but the reality is, it can take a lot longer than that. Like, over twice as long. 

That’s the main reason why people struggle to change so much: it takes time and consistency. You need to activate that synapse a LOT to form an enduring connection. Have patience with yourself. You didn’t fall into this pattern overnight, which is why you can’t climb out of it overnight. Give your brain time to rewire itself, and it will. 

Understand Your “Why”

To maintain the commitment necessary to overcome an unhelpful pattern, you need to have the right motivation. The right reason for changing will help get you through the initial discomfort of trying something new.  

Let’s say you really want to find an exclusive romantic partner, but you keep dating people who are emotionally unavailable. It started with your first partner and it’s been downhill ever since. You always seem to find yourself in “situationships” with people who can’t commit. They may even straight up tell you that they’re emotionally unavailable, and on some level, this may even intensify your attraction to them. Your brain is used to going after unavailable people, so this is part of your natural wiring. 

Breaking away from this pattern requires focusing your energy on emotionally available people, and this might be a turn-off for you initially. Someone expressing interest in your inner world, wanting to spend time with you, and being responsive to your needs might leave you feeling uneasy. Finding someone you connect with doesn’t happen overnight, and changing habits doesn’t happen overnight. This can lead to a perfect storm where you go running back to whatever hipster who “needs to spend more time focused on their art” you were chasing after before. 

This is when it’s essential to understand why you want to break this pattern. Saying “to find love” is not enough. This leaves you plenty of room to fill in the blanks about what that means, and waiting two days for a text back is not it. Be as specific as possible about what you are trying to accomplish and what that looks like for your daily life. In this example, write out all the qualities you want in a partner and what you want that partnership to look like. Read it every day and add more as you learn from your experience. This can help you to stay motivated to pursue people who fulfill these qualifies, and stay away from those who don’t. 

It’s worthwhile to note that this issue is probably due to a whole series of beliefs about yourself and what you deserve, and therefore, it may not be as simple as this. It may be beneficial for you to try cognitive behavioral therapy, which guides you through the process of challenging negative thought patterns with the help of a licensed therapist. 

Progress, Not Perfection

Perfectionism is the quickest way to kill all your efforts. Let’s say you’re trying to stop hitting snooze three times in the morning. You jump up with your alarm every day for four days, then the morning of the fifth day, you’re hitting snooze again. For many people, this is where their efforts are sabotaged. They’ve failed. Neuroplasticity be damned. That neural connection is lost forever. Better stay in bed and never leave. 

You don’t have to be perfect. In fact, you won’t be. You will fail. You will hit snooze again. But that doesn’t mean that all is lost. Instead of trying to get it perfect every time, see where you have room to improve just slightly. For example, try only hitting snooze twice for two weeks. Then, see if you can only hit it once for another two weeks. Then give not hitting it at all a try. It may be a less linear process than you’d like — that’s okay. Even if you sometimes stimulate the “hit snooze button three times” neural connection, you can still strengthen the “wake up with your alarm” connection every time you choose to. 

Get Support 

Breaking out of an old pattern is a lot of work. The good news is, you don’t have to do it alone. Talk to someone about what you’re trying to accomplish. Get the support of your friends and family. Post on social media for accountability. Again, cognitive behavioral therapy is always an option. Regardless of who you reach out to, do it. No one has to walk this path alone. 

What Do I Do If My Partner Doesn’t Change?

Dearest Ginzo,

We all have things that we could work on and change. It’s tough to do, but it’s easier when it’s just us and harder when we’re expecting our loved ones to make the changes. In my example, my partner has been incredibly receptive to my feelings and thoughts about our relationship, and they’ve stated that they’re willing to work on these things to better both themselves and our relationship.

I know that change takes time, and I don’t want to ask too much (nor too little). How do I find the balance of expecting a person to change some of their behaviors? What’s reasonable, what should I look for, and what do I do if change just isn’t happening in the way I want it to?

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Dear Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes,

I’m glad that you and your partner are able to talk about your concerns about the relationship, and that they have been open minded. Every relationship faces challenges, but the ones that work out are the ones where both partners are willing to talk about them and weather the storm together.

My therapist once told me, “You can’t change other people, but you can change the way you respond to them.” Clearly, you are aware that you can’t snap your fingers and make your partner change, and you have done the tough work of being honest with them. Now it’s time to focus on how you respond. My main advice? Let go and have faith in the person you love.

This is an analogy that has probably been beaten to death, but human beings are a lot like plants. In order for them to grow, they need to be treated with care. When you’re hoping someone will change, micromanaging or criticizing them is like over-watering them — they’re going to look all withered and sad for a while, then die. Contrary to what many believe, people can and do change — but they need to feel accepted and loved, despite their flaws, to accomplish this. Don’t stand on the sidelines and wait for your partner to fail, or point out where they are not taking your feedback to heart at every opportunity — give them the benefit of the doubt that they will succeed, and root on (hehe, more plant analogies) their best efforts.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be honest when a concern comes up. Chances are, this will be an ongoing conversation, and it’s important to keep the lines of communication open. It’s more about where you are placing your attention. I would encourage you to, instead of looking for signs of change in your partner, recognize signs of change in yourself. This not only gives them a little breathing room, it lets you focus on the one thing you can control — you. A great way to see how things have changed for you as a person and in a relationship is tuning into your emotions.

It’s easy to avoid our feelings. Feelings are icky sometimes, and it would (temporarily) feel better to numb out and avoid them. But emotions are one way your body tells you that something needs your attention.

Let’s say you’re trying to fall asleep but you’re distracted by a nagging sense of anxiety. Instead of running away from how you feel by scrolling through your phone for hours (I personally have done this more times that I’d like to admit), get curious about it. Take a minute to explore where this emotion is coming from, and sit with the feeling (or even journal about it). You may come to realize that your partner agreed to start texting you “goodnight” as a way to communicate love, and they didn’t that night. A need isn’t being met, and while this doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed, it’s important information to take note of.

Ultimately, if things in your relationship don’t improve, there is nothing wrong with walking away. Despite our best efforts, a lot of frustrating but totally valid things can get in the way of our relationships succeeding. Whether it’s timing, a fundamental difference in values, or it’s simply more work than you’re willing to put in, you don’t have to stay if you don’t want to. That is a good enough reason to break up even if your partner works very hard to make you happy.

It all comes down to trust. Trust your partner to do the things that you asked of them, and trust yourself to know when you need to move on.

XOXO,
Ginzo