We all have a story that we believe about ourselves. It’s what we live out of each and every day.
What we think about ourselves is reflected in our behaviors, thoughts and feelings. And our behaviors, thoughts and feelings impact the way we think about ourselves. One could say it's sort of a circular relationship.
But how often do we stop to think about what it is that has helped us build our story of self? Where did the things we tell ourselves most often about who we really are originate?
As adults, we all too readily accept the thoughts we think about ourselves as being exclusively ours. But what if the reality is that some of those thoughts didn’t originate with us? And if we were able to see where it was that they actually came from, would we be less-than-accepting of some of them.
The truth is, the way you think about yourself today began way before you had the ability to make a choice about it. From our first breath, we began to take in messages about ourselves, the world around us, other people, even God, from those who were charged with our care and had the most influence in our lives. Of course, the hope is that those messages were positive ones, backed up with positive actions.
However, what happens when those messages aren’t positive? What happens when they’re unhealthy; even toxic? What happens when the messages about who we are taint and distort who it is we were created to be?
For many of us, it can be difficult to see that “unhealthy perspective of self” is at the root of many of our challenges in relationships and life in general. And while there are a variety of ways to heal and grow from the wounds we’ve experienced in our past, there are also ways to increase what we want to be most true about ourselves. Ways to "change the script" if you will.
One of the ways we can do this is by harnessing what is typically an automatic process in the brain called consolidation. By creating opportunities to direct this process, we can begin to intentionally shape the story of who we are.
As I tell my clients, the story we tell ourselves most often is the one that becomes most true. Therefore, it’s important to pay attention to what we’re paying attention to. And, to be intentional about creating opportunities to experience what will contribute to shaping our healthy story of self.
We can then use consolidation to add those experiences to our self-narrative, which changes the story we believe about who we are.
Let me explain…
In short, consolidation occurs when some of the events we experience move from short-term memory into long-term memory. Those memories and experiences that have the deepest significance and emotional salience have the greatest chance of being consolidated. That is why it is important to direct our thoughts and actions toward what it is we want to make a part of our story as often as possible.
One of the best ways to increase what we want to be true about ourselves is by developing the character traits associated with the behaviors we desire most. For example, if we often find that we’re fearful of new experiences or really putting ourselves out there, we could choose to work on bravery; remembering that bravery isn’t the absence of fear, but the ability to act in spite of it.
As you’re considering what trait you want to work on strengthening, it will be important to make sure you have a clear definition of it in order to be as intentional as you can about creating opportunities to demonstrate that trait in your daily life.
Once you establish what character trait you would like to strengthen, you will want to create ways to “live it out” at least three times a day. Then, repeat the process (with new ideas and opportunities to express that trait) for 30 days.
Remember, the expressions of your chosen trait do not have to be grandiose. They can be as simple as striking up a conversation with someone in line when you’d rather pretend to be doing something terribly important on your phone. (I said simple, not easy.)
And why 30 days?
You may be thinking: “I know this one!”
If your answer is because it takes 30 days to form a habit, you are correct.
And, it takes roughly 30 days to form a habit because that’s about how long it takes for neurons in the brain to be born, mature, link up with other neurons and fire with one another to form the networks responsible for your new behavior or ways of thinking.
FYI- Sadly, it doesn’t take 30 days to break a habit.
Now, for the consolidation part. In the evening, as you’re falling off to sleep, you’re going to recall those three instances and play them over and over in your mind. Essentially, you will “rehearse” them.
Think about them in detail and how you feel about having stepped-up to the challenge. We want to include those feelings because remember? Those memories with emotional salience have the greatest chance of moving into our long-term memory.
You may be curious about why we work on this as we’re falling asleep. Well, this tends to be the time when your hippocampus (an area of the brain crucial to consolidation) isn’t being bombarded with other information it needs to process. As we’re preparing to fall asleep, we aren’t usually taking in a bunch of other messages or working on a task. Unless you have small children. Then, you may find this part a little bit more challenging.
If you tend to be someone who struggles with thoughts of unresolved tasks or half-finished projects from the day intruding as you’re trying to fall asleep, know that this is a common challenge and has some significant research behind it. It even has a name: The Ziegarnik Effect.
Briefly stated, a psychologist and researcher named Bluma Ziegranik, around 1927, discovered that tasks left unfinished continue to call themselves up to the front of our focus until resolved. However, a way around this is to keep paper and pen by the bed and write down what needs to be finished as it comes to you. This sort of tricks your mind into thinking you’ve done something with it and will allow it to have a sort of holding space until the next day. It will free you up to resume your consolidation exercise.
If you’re a person of faith, I highly recommend incorporating prayer in your consolidation process. Something like “God, thank you for the opportunity to speak with that woman in line today. Help me to grow my bravery to become all you’ve created me to be.”
The research shows that incorporating prayer offers additional benefits for the brain. It can also help with your consolidation goals and allow more areas of the brain to become involved with the process.
But more importantly, it will help you experience God’s grace as you grow and even allow Him to tell you what He thinks about who you are. (PSSST! Spoiler alert: He loves you unconditionally.)
At the end of your 30 days, you can continue with your selected trait or move on to a new one. This process can be done as often as you like. It’s a great one to use with our kiddos too. The younger we begin to develop character, the healthier our sense of self will be.
How about you? Is the story you’re telling yourself about who you are the one you’ve truly been created for?
You can begin to take charge of your self-narrative today. What character trait will you choose to work on for the next 30 days?
*This is a take on the original Healthy Hippocampus Exercise from Your Faithful Brain (Matheson) and Your Faithful Brain Ignited! (Agovino, Birkemeier).For more information on this consolidation exercise and other material to help you build optimal brain health and a healthier heart-brain connection at the intersection of faith and science, check out Your Faithful Brain Ignited! and Your Faithful Brain.