Positive Neuroplasticity: Hardwiring Behaviour Change and Building Inner Resources

What do you want to become ‘more’ of?  More patient, more confident, more assertive, more light-hearted? This article explores how we can identify the inner resources we need and want to develop, and the practical ways that we can ‘hardwire change’ in our minds.

As I mentioned in my previous article, there is a growing body of research in the area of neuroplasticity that supports the idea that our talents, abilities and strengths are not fixed.  We are all very quick to put ourselves (and others) into boxes which limit us.  In fact, we all have the capacity to change, grow and develop – we just didn’t receive the training for how to do this at school or university!

Each of us has a unique build, or make up, of inner strengths and vulnerabilities.  We often describe this as our personality, comprising stable and enduring traits.  Another way of thinking about these inner strengths and vulnerabilities is recognising that they are built from brain structure, and in fact two thirds of our inner strengths are usually learnt.  (Hint: This means they can be un-learnt or re-learnt!)

You may have heard of the saying ‘Neurons that fire together wire together’ (Hebb, 1949).  If we can ‘fire up’ certain neural pathways repeatedly, they will more easily ‘fire up’ in the future.  We build mental and emotional inner resources, or mental muscle, this way.  But how do you work out which neural pathways you want to ‘fire up’?  You do this by matching the required inner resource to the challenges you are facing. We need to analyse the current (or likely pending) challenges we face, and determine the inner resources we need to meet these challenges.  Some pertinent questions in identifying the required inner resources might be:

  1. What challenges am I facing or am I likely to face?
  2. What inner strength would really help in facing those challenges?
  3. When do I show this inner strength at the moment?
  4. How could I build this inner strength further?

 Sometimes identifying the inner strengths that you need to build involves ‘matching the opposites’.  For example, I might know that I avoid conflict situations because I’m not confident that I can express my views and needs without getting too emotional.  The inner resources that ‘match’ this need might include being able to put words to my views, or building the confidence that I can handle my own emotions (even when they are particularly strong).  Another example may be that I don’t put my hand up for new challenges because I don’t have the confidence that I will follow-through.  The inner strengths I might focus on here are persistence, resilience or self-worth.  The key message here is that we have the greatest impact when we 1) understand our challenges, 2) recognise our vulnerabilities, AND 3) shift our focus to building inner resources.

As I mentioned in my last article, the mistake many of us make in building our inner resources is that we try and do ‘too much too soon’, and then give ourselves a really hard time when we can’t do it! Just like you wouldn’t go to the gym and try 100kg for your first bench press, you don’t start building inner resources on the biggest challenges.  If you want to build your capacity to handle your own emotions, start with minor irritations – a traffic jam, late bus, or the barista getting your coffee order wrong.  You practice with the smaller things and build the mental muscle, until eventually you are ready to tackle the bigger challenges.  Another important point is that the brain cannot tell the different between what is ‘real’ and what is ‘replayed’.  This means that imagining what it would feel and look like to have this inner resource, or reflecting many times on when you have shown this inner resource, will fire up the neural pathway just the same as new experiences.  

Here’s some tips for hard-wiring inner resources in your mind:

  1. Know which inner resource you want to grow and develop.  
  2. Visualise what it will feel and look like when you have developed this inner resource.
  3. Reflect on times when you have shown even the smallest amount of this inner resource and replay these 'internal movies' in the mind.
  4. Pay attention to the smallest experiences of applying the inner resource and let these experiences really sink in by noticing what it feels like.

Within Consulting offer a range of coaching, workshops and consulting services for organisations, teams and individuals.  For more information, or questions regarding this article, contact Tamara Baker at tamara@withinconsulting.com.au.