What You Practice Will Continue

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Who among us hasn’t gotten fed up with some pattern to which we seemed to be unflinchingly committed and decided that today is the day to make a once-and-for-all change? We’ve bought the self-help books, read them all the way through, completed the exercises, and made a plan for ourselves. And then in a couple of weeks (if that) we’ve felt as though the book that was going to help us change our patterns (improve our relationship, help us get fit, connect us to happiness) never happened at all. It’s as though we never even picked them up. And that seems to be the best case scenario. It’s more likely that we’ve bought the books and gotten half or part-way through them and haven’t completed all (or any) of the exercises. We lose interest, lose steam, and we lose motivation to revisit them. We blame the books, ourselves, our busy schedules, other people.

This frustration is definitely not specific to self-help books. It can happen with anything- a motivational speech we attend, a heart-to-heart we have with a loved one about changing something in the relationship, a heart-to-heart we have with ourselves about not choosing the wrong people anymore. How many times have we found ourselves saying something like, “How many times do I have to tell you?!” or “How many times do we have to have this conversation?” and “I’ve tried to change this so many times. Nothing works.” It’s infuriating as hell, and it makes us feel like giving up and walking away.

And I know how it feels. I’ve had partially-read self-help books stack up on my bookshelf, too. I have also said, “How many times do we have to talk about this?!” Don’t lose heart. The human brain learns by doing, by experience. It would be awesome if we learned by doing something just one time, but we are people, not robots. In what sport do the players practice one time? In which subject do students have a one-time class? Do musicians attend one practice? Did any of us learn to drive by driving a car once? When have we ever been prescribed a one-pill antibiotic? (Actually, this one-time antibiotic might be a real thing now. I’m not sure.) Anyway, you get it.

Our brains are set up to let our sweet, little neurons flow wherever there is a synaptic connection. We strengthen those connections through use. The more we think about, practice, or experience something, the more we embed that synaptic connection. It will be the first path down which our cute neurons choose to travel. (Keep in mind that during sleep our brain experiences synaptic pruning which means that it discards all of the weak associations it has made. It identifies the strongest synaptic connection and saves them. It assumes they are most important.)

Don’t donate those self-help books quite yet. Consider rereading them. Keep having the same discussion about the distribution of household duties with your spouse. Keep trying to make the changes you’ve been trying to make. Remind yourself that, even though school might be forever out of session, studying is still a requirement for success. We study every day; we’re just not aware of it.

If I think and talk about how much I hate Brian from work, what an idiot he is, how clueless he is, I am studying how much I hate Brian. The more I think about how awful Brian is, the stronger I make that synaptic connection. The stronger the connection gets, the more important my brain thinks that information is, and the more neurons are inclined to choose that pathway. I can turn this in any direction. I can practice thinking about idiotic Brian or I can practice detaching and remind myself that his behavior isn’t about me. I can practice having important conversations about repeat-scenarios with someone in whom I am invested. I can practice the homework my therapist gives me and the exercises my health coach assigns and the exercises I read in self-help books to strengthen those neural networks. So, keep practicing, as often as you can. Keep getting back on the wagon after you’ve fallen off. It’s not as easy as a one-time fix, but it’s more realistic and sustainable.


Love and Be Loved,

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