Wednesday 7 December 2016

Well-being: Change your tune

When was the last time you re-examined your self-concept?

Published 11/10/2016 | 02:30

You can take steps to change your habits like buying a wallet to stop you losing things (Stock photo)
You can take steps to change your habits like buying a wallet to stop you losing things (Stock photo)

I used to lose a lot of things. Phones, jackets, keys - you know yourself. Eventually - mercifully - I got this habit in check. I bought a wallet for cards, designated a drawer for electronics and cables, and started taking cursory checks in the back of taxis before I shut the door behind me.

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However, these simple lifestyle changes were preceded by a seismic shift in my thinking: in order to stop losing things, I first had to shake off the persistent, lifelong belief that I was the type of person who lost things.

The emergence of neuroplasticity - the brain's ability to rewire itself - has taught us that we can overcome even the most entrenched habits. However, we can only change our ways when we believe that we are capable of changing them.

Many of us are still clinging to self-concepts that we formed decades ago. I'm terrible with names... I can't read maps... I can't parallel park...

We give ourselves credit for being older and wiser, yet we rarely reconsider the ideas that we formed about ourselves when we were younger and wider-eyed.

The people we surround ourselves with further entrench our self-concept. Like a hall of mirrors, they reflect our apparent shortcomings back at us until we're left in no doubt that we are beyond transformation.

For instance, while it has been years since I've lost something, my friends and family still roll their eyes to heaven when I go rooting in my handbag.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow - best known for his Hierarchy of Needs - said, "What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself". It helps if those around us change their awareness too.

"If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse," wrote Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. "However if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that."

In other words, we need those around us to reflect our potential as opposed to our erstwhile behaviour - or at least just acknowledge that we are trying to change our ways.

Many of us have been typecast in roles that no longer fit, and diminished by weaknesses that no longer apply. Therefore it's worth taking the time to re-examine these roles, and ask yourself if you still want to play them.

For instance, are you happy being the 'rescuer' in your romantic relationships, the 'black sheep' in your family dynamic, or the person who helps organise the Christmas party in your workplace?

Do you think of yourself as a jealous lover because your last partner told you so, or a poor people-manager because your last boss told you so?

Likewise, when was the last time you reconsidered the culture-borne stereotypical roles that society has thrust upon you? Have you subscribed to the expectations of your gender, nationality, job title or even your age?

Dr Mario Martinez, author of The MindBody Code, has conducted some interesting studies in this regard. According to the neuropsychologist, ageing accelerates when we accept fear-based misconceptions about the age bracket that we're in.

He advises people to refuse the 'senior discount' as he believes the acceptance of the 'senior citizen' label is in itself ageing.

He'd probably also advise women to stop buying into those magazine features that tell them how to look stylish in their 30s/40s/50s, and think of themselves as ageless instead.

Many people believe that their self-concept is derived from their personality traits. In actuality, one informs the other. It's a feedback loop in which your perception of your behaviour influences your behaviour, and vice versa.

The trouble is that we rarely re-examine the ideas that we have about ourselves. Perhaps shy people simply haven't shirked off the label that was ascribed to them during childhood. Perhaps impatient people haven't even contemplated the possibility of practising patience.

The good news is that self-concept is very malleable, so long as you're bold enough and brave enough to revolutionise your thinking.

Of course, the older you get, the harder it becomes. Being 'set in your ways' simply means that your neural programming is especially ingrained.

Psychiatrist Norman Doidge, who wrote about the frontiers of neuroplasticity in The Brain That Changes Itself, points out that the ageing brain is less adaptable.

"As we age and plasticity declines, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to change in response to the world, even if we want to," he writes.

"We find familiar types of stimulation pleasurable: we seek out like-minded individuals to associate with, and research shows we tend to ignore or forget or attempt to discredit, information that does not match our beliefs".

Compounding the issue is our tendency to demean those who change their ways after a certain age. The greater the transformation, the more likely we are to write it off as a mid-life crisis...

A regular re-examination of your self-concept is important. It's even more important to remember that your concept of self is largely informed by others.

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