You are not who you are, but rather the product of many influences. The saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” exists for a reason: the longer you’ve been the person you think you are, the harder it becomes to change. The thing is, you can dramatically change who you are. It’s actually not so much that it’s difficult to change, but that you’ve developed patterns and habits that make it easier to do things the way you do them. Trying something in a new way can feel very awkward, it will be generally less efficient by virtue of being something new to you, and it often lacks excitement for you when it involves giving up the comfort associated with your way.
That’s not to say you aren’t born with some inherent abilities, but most of what you consider part of your identity is a product of influence. While we don’t know the exact ratio of nature to nurture, there is undoubtedly a combination of both that makes us who we are. We have a tendency to think that change is difficult, but it’s really just a matter of changing your influence. You’re probably familiar with Stockholm syndrome-the term used to describe how hostage victims tend to develop positive feelings towards their captors. Stockholm syndrome isn’t a kind of brainwashing by the captor; instead, the victim adapts to the poor situation he or she is in. If most people can adapt to something as awful as being kidnapped, most people can adapt to smaller positive changes in their own lives. You can even make enormous changes if you’re willing to put in the work and you provide yourself with the proper influences. We’re going to look at how to do that on high and low levels, from priming your brain to manipulating your own emotions, and also look at how your environment and the people you know shape your life.
Most of these methods won’t make you feel comfortable, and, at times, they may sound a bit crazy, but it is possible to “hack” your own brain. Here are just a few ways to do it.
Priming Your Brain
Priming is a ridiculously simple technique because all it involves is talking to yourself. On the dull end of the spectrum, it’s similar to self-affirmation. On the crazier end of the spectrum, it bears some similarities with neuro-linguistic programming. Priming your brain involves reciting a given set of words that are designed to alter your mindset. It is not brainwashing and it cannot make you do anything you don’t want to do. What it can accomplish, however, is putting you into a state of mind that will be more useful to you with a given situation or task.
Before we get into the specifics of how to prime your brain, let’s talk about how and why it works. If you were to say the word mustard out loud, and then you were to see a portion of the word later, you’d be reminded of mustard. For example, if you were to say “I must have this” you might be reminded of mustard because of the word must. If you were hungry and liked mustard, you may even want some. It’s the same phenomenon that compels you to buy a particular brand of shampoo that you saw on television even if you 1) don’t remember seeing the commercial, and 2) couldn’t care less what kind of shampoo you use. This is essentially how priming works, and it’s all thanks to your memory.
While you’re not going to remember everything you say, that doesn’t mean what you say is gone forever. While everything stored in your recent memory may not be immediately accessible, all you really need to bring something up is a trigger word. This is conceptually similar to using acronyms as a memory tool (e.g. Roy G. Biv) but isn’t designed to help you actually remember anything. Instead, the goal is to place common words that, when apart, have no real specific value, but when together, have an associative value that make you think of happy things, sad things, specific people, or ambition. If any of those common words come up again later in the day, you’ll immediately associate that word with the associative value of the group. Here’s an example:
This is a list of words synonymous with or related to ambition. It’s designed to be read aloud to put you in a more ambitious mindset, focusing your thoughts and priming your brain to react ambitiously when these words, or portions of these words, come up later in your day.
Another exercise involves taking a shorter list of priming words and making a sentence with it. Here’s an example:
These words can form the sentence “the girl looked and smiled,” which should bring to mind pleasant associations for most people. Constructing sentences out of word lists (which you can create yourself) can help put you in the right mindset.
These two methods can be used to prime your brain. They are not magic tricks that will instantly make you feel happy, ambitious, or whatever, but they can help to provide you with the mindset you need to better accomplish your daily tasks.
For more reading on priming, and a look at some really interesting studies, don’t forget to check out the references for this article.
Using Your Emotions
If you’ve ever found yourself making out-of-character decisions based on your emotional state—such as binging on ice cream after a breakup—you know how easily your feelings can overtake your actions. Rather than letting your emotions lead you towards poor judgment and irrational behavior, however, you can learn to compensate for different emotional states and to fabricate emotions to alter your mood. In order to do that you need to, simply put, get in touch with your feelings. The idea isn’t so much to cry into a pillow about your wasted childhood, but understand what you’re feeling when you’re feeling it, what the root cause is, and what you can do about it. We’re going to take a look at how you can dissect your emotional state to use it to your advantage, and also look at how you can fabricate emotion to change how you’re feeling.