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POWER TOOL #3: REPETITION

Almost without exception, those we know as masters are zealots of practice, connoisseurs of the small incremental step.

—GEORGE LEONARD

 

ONLY REPETITION REWIRES

We are what we repeatedly do.

—ARISTOTLE

As you recall, the first two steps in The Rewire Response are (1) Recognize—observe any negative or unhealthy thoughts or feelings with curiosity, not criticism; and (2) Reframe—find ways to perceive the situation differently. These steps have one purpose: to transform your thinking, which will set you up to successfully engage in the third step, Respond Differently, not habitually. This third step, like an ignition key, actually switches on the rewiring process.

But without consciously and constantly employing the third Power Tool, Repetition, permanent rewiring is virtually impossible. Responding differently, not once, but over and over again, is what solidifies and locks in nascent neural connections. Research published in Psychological Review found that “forming good (and bad) habits depends more on how often you perform an action than on how much satisfaction you get from it.”1

AN EXERCISE IN REPETITION

When people have the capacity to choose, they have the ability to change.

—MADELEINE ALBRIGHT

Before we go any further, I’d like you to try an experiment. Bring both your hands together, interlacing your fingers. Now take your hands apart. Then clasp them together once more, interlacing your fingers. Again, take them apart. Do this a few more times. Together. Apart. Together. Apart. (C’mon, clasp and unclasp your hands a few times. I promise, I’m making a point here.)

What did you notice? If you’re like most people, you probably folded your fingers into the same configuration each time, right?

This time, I want you to bring your hands back together, interlacing your fingers however feels comfortable. Now, let’s rearrange your fingers. Take the top thumb and put it underneath the thumb under it. Bring the top index finger underneath the one below it. Do the same with the top middle finger, putting it underneath the finger beneath it. Continue with the ring finger, and finally the pinky.

How does that feel? Awkward? Uncomfortable? Weird? I’m guessing, when I ask you one last time to take them apart and bring them back together, you’ll revert to the first formation that feels more “normal” because that’s the way you’ve been wired. And challenging that wiring feels so uncomfortable, you instinctively revert to your old ways for temporary relief.

Now, imagine that your fingers, in this exercise, represent your thoughts, your feelings, or your actions. Your first attempts at thinking, feeling, or acting differently (like arranging your fingers differently) won’t feel right. But rewiring requires you to respond differently again and again and again. Unless you keep exerting intense effort, the colossal force of the old circuitry will suck you back every time.

Responding differently is to an emerging neuropathway what weightlifting is to an atrophied muscle. You must do what you don’t always feel like doing over and over again. The more often you repeat, the stronger the neuropathway (or muscle) grows. But it’s so grueling at the outset that many give up. I guarantee, the more consistently you respond differently, the stronger the bonds between the new neurons grow, the less effort is required as the old connections wither and die until it actually becomes easy. And voilà, a new habit is formed.

HEY, THIS DOESN’T FEEL GOOD!

We don’t stop because [we’re] incapable of continuing, but because the effort required to continue is greater than we’re willing to exert.

—ALEX HUTCHINSON

Yes, your first attempts to respond differently than you normally would will feel uncomfortable, weird, awkward, and definitely not satisfying. But don’t ignore or fight the discomfort. Instead, acknowledge and feel your frustration. Unless you give voice to your feelings, you’re apt to fall prey to anything that offers temporary relief, like a shopping spree, an eating binge, or various other addictions.

Nir Eyal, in his book Indistractable, describes a smoking cessation study in which, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal, “participants who acknowledged and explored their cravings quit at double the rate of those in the American Lung Association’s best-performing program.”2 Honoring your feelings, as I’ve mentioned throughout this book, is fundamental to both financial and personal health.

I recently got an email from an attorney and former client, Cindy Lou, who came to me frustrated with her inability to reach her personal or financial potential.

“Your biggest gift to me was your admonition to commit myself to being uncomfortable for the sake of financial growth and, to a certain extent, self-respect. In my case, that willingness to be uncomfortable took the form of asking for more money even when there was a clear possibility—even likelihood—of disappointment.

“I set a goal of $100,000 in billings for this year. I raised my prices. I didn’t back down when someone got upset or angry or said they couldn’t afford me. It was really hard, but I made myself. And I am happy to tell you I had exceeded that goal by the end of May.”

I was thrilled to hear about her success. However, the real payoff for constant repetition, despite the discomfort, was revealed in her final sentences.

What’s more, being uncomfortable is no longer very uncomfortable. Disappointments and even outright refusals or rejections now feel like part of the landscape instead of the monumental cliffs I had imagined them to be before.”

What once took intense effort became a nonissue for Cindy Lou. Just as it will for you.

FOUR PRACTICES FOR CONTINUALLY RESPONDING DIFFERENTLY

To help strengthen your resolve and not succumb to the old wiring, here are four practices you can use to support your initial efforts to repeatedly respond differently.

1.  Watch Your Words

2.  Visualize

3.  Meditate

4.  Celebrate

Practice 1: Watch Your Words

We don’t describe the world we see, but see the world we describe. We see only what we talk about.

—JOSEPH JAWORSKI

Phil Hellmuth is a professional poker player who has, as of this writing, won a record 14 World Series of Poker. But prior to that he suffered an eight-year losing streak. No matter what he did, his bad luck wasn’t budging. Then one day he changed a few words he regularly used and his life turned around. He altered his email address from “tryingtobethegreatest” to “beingthegreatest.” To date he’s won over $22 million.

“I wasn’t winning anything,” he told a Wall Street Journal reporter. “Then I just started smashing it. I’m a big believer in the power of your own words.”3

Language has a profound impact on your brain. Whatever you repeat often enough, even if it’s a lie, will eventually become your truth. Negative words mobilize the fear center of the brain, increasing stress and anxiety. Positive words activate the rational brain, producing a general sense of well-being.

As Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman wrote in their book Words Can Change Your Brain, “By holding a positive and optimistic word in your mind, you stimulate frontal lobe activity. This area includes specific language centers that connect directly to the motor cortex responsible for moving you into action.”4

I discovered the weight my words carried years ago, when I was going through a very rough patch in my life. My therapist gave me an assignment.

“For two weeks,” she told me, “I want you to observe your conversations, without changing a thing.”

I was aghast when I realized how often I put myself down, without even realizing it. I’d dismiss my skills (“Oh, that’s no big thing”), deflect praise (“I thought I was awful”), and diminish my successes (“But I could’ve done so much better”).

“Self-depreciation is your comfort zone,” she told me. What felt like humility was, in truth, wreaking havoc on my self-esteem, eroding my self-confidence.

“What you share you strengthen,” explains A Course in Miracles.5 No wonder I was struggling. I immediately instructed some friends, “When you hear me putting myself down, call me on it.” And they did. I was struck by how different I felt just by changing the language I used.

I again witnessed the power of words during the depth of the dot-com bust in 2001. I noticed I was having very different conversations with high earners than with their lower-paid peers. Underearners were constantly grumbling about the lousy economy and the lack of jobs. They refused to believe life could possibly improve, so why even try. But the high earners, even those who had been hit by hard times, were surprisingly upbeat about the opportunities that were out there and their likelihood of finding success.

I saw how each person’s reality directly reflected their differing perspectives. Their words became self-fulfilling prophecies. George Orwell once said, “If you want to control people’s thoughts, commandeer their words.” So too, if you want to control your thoughts and feelings (which, as we’ve seen, are directly responsible for sculpting your brain), be hypervigilant about the words you use.

From this moment on, talk only about what you’re committed to, not what you’re worried about. Stop apologizing unnecessarily or belittling yourself in any way. Speak about the life you desire to create, who you want to be, how you’d love to feel. And for heaven’s sake, Stop. Telling. Your. Old. Story. This is always my first order of business with clients.

“If you keep talking about your past,” I say emphatically, “I guarantee you’ll continue to repeat it. On the other hand, every time you talk about your dreams and aspirations, you literally weaken the old dysfunctional neuropathways and strengthen new, more desirable ones.”

I was on the phone with Joyce Griggs after she’d just given away most of her belongings in preparation to move to Greece. When I asked how she felt, her response was striking. “Uncertainty is my friend. I’m excited to see what happens in my life as I make this transition.”

Even after her travel plans were suspended indefinitely by the coronavirus, she remained calm, embracing uncertainty, emailing her Greek friends and eagerly anticipating the lifting of restrictions, which she kept reminding herself would happen eventually.

Remember Patti Fagan, whose mother rejected and shamed her because she was the product of an unwanted pregnancy? She worked hard on rewiring those feelings by repeating an affirmation: “God chose me.”

Be warned, however. Those old neuropathways you thought had withered away could suddenly reappear. Repeating affirmations—short statements declaring what you want as if it’s already yours—are like waving a magic wand. Eventually the unwanted behaviors will disappear. And you don’t even have to believe the affirmations are true. The power is in the repetition.

During our interview, I asked Patti if feelings of rejection ever come up anymore.

“Oh yeah, but not very often,” she laughed. “A couple of weeks ago, I went with my husband to a dinner where all the dentists bring their spouses. I caught myself thinking I’m going to be rejected. I don’t know anyone and I’m not going to have anyone to talk to.”

She immediately recognized she was repeating her old story. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute! If they reject me, who cares?’ I was needing everyone to accept me. But I realized that not everyone’s going to accept me and that’s okay. God has chosen me.” She ended up having a marvelous time.

(Note: Affirmations only work if what you say you want is what you really want. If you’re not having success with them, I suggest you reread Chapter 8 and do the resistance work.)

Rewire in Action

WHAT AM I SAYING?

Spend a week observing your conversations. Start noticing what you talk about and how you’re feeling. Don’t change anything, don’t try to edit what comes out of your mouth. Then ask yourself this question: Is what I’m sharing with others how I want to wire my brain?

The following week, consciously choose to only talk about possibilities, not problems; about what you aspire to achieve, rather than everything that is going (or could go) wrong. Talk as if you’re a powerful adult, not a hapless victim. How does this feel? What do you notice? Is your speaking reflecting the decisions you’ve made or the fear that you feel?

When you do this, you’ll likely feel strange, awkward, somewhat arrogant, and probably phony (especially if you’re hanging out with negative folks). But, that’s exactly how rewiring feels—like “this isn’t me.”

Do the same thing with the conversation going on in your head, the little voices telling you what you can and can’t do, urging you to play small, be safe, hold back. We are by far the worst naysayers we’ll ever encounter. Thank those voices for sharing, and start a new conversation based on what you’ve learned from this book.

Practice 2: Visualize

You don’t have to move an inch to drive positive plastic changes in your brain.

—MICHAEL MERZENICH

In 1994, a Harvard neuroscientist made a stunning discovery—visualization, or mental rehearsal, changed the physical structure of the brain, without anyone actually having to do anything.6

Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone had a group of volunteers practice a simple song on the piano for two hours a day over a five-day period. He told another group to practice the same song for the same amount of time. But with one big difference: he instructed the second group to hold their hands still and simply imagine how they would move their fingers. Brain image data revealed that the area of the brain that controlled the finger movements was enlarged in both groups, whether they were imagining or actually playing the piano.

This is exciting news.

Repetition, whether real or imagined, is equally effective at creating new neural circuits. By merely visualizing yourself doing something—like giving a captivating presentation or setting up an automatic savings plan—you actually strengthen the same neuropathways without having to physically perform.

“The brain is changed by internal mental rehearsal in the same ways and involving precisely the same processes that control changes achieved through interaction with the external world,” explains acclaimed neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich.7

Rebecca, an executive vice president of an accounting firm, wanted my help in asking for a raise. She came across as a strong, confident woman. She also firmly believed she deserved that raise since she’d been there for years without any increase in salary, but she was seriously intimidated by her difficult boss.

“He’s such an imposing man. And he’s so abrupt,” she said in an uncharacteristically halting manner. “I literally lose my voice when I’m around him.”

I assigned her the standard homework: research the going rate for positions like hers, document her contributions to the company, compose a script, and practice with a friend. We also explored how her past might be affecting her reaction to her boss. Months later, she still wasn’t able to work up the courage to make the request.

Finally, I got an idea, and she was game. I asked her to close her eyes and picture herself walking into her boss’s office, dressed to the nines, feeling poised, powerful, full of confidence, and actually excited to ask for a raise because she knew she was worth it. She continued doing this visualization daily, putting as much positive emotion into it as she possibly could.

In our next appointment, I could hear the excitement in her voice. “I wasn’t nervous at all,” she declared. “I’m so proud of myself. I asked for what I wanted and told him why I deserved it. It felt really good. And I could tell he was impressed.” She paused, but was still upbeat when she told me he had refused her request because of budgetary restraints. Instead of crumbling in defeat, she stayed surprisingly motivated.

“I said to him, ‘I understand. What can I do to get a raise in the future?’” They brainstormed what he needed to do, things she could do, and agreed to revisit the issue in three months. She was thrilled. Sure, she didn’t get what she wanted right away, but repeatedly visualizing the conversation significantly boosted her confidence, allowed her to bond with her boss, and kept the door open for future discussions. Less than a year later, she got her raise.

Rewire in Action

PERFECT DAY VISUALIZATION

I want you to get comfortable and begin to picture your perfect day. See yourself waking up in the morning, excited to start your day. Take in your surroundings. Are you with someone or alone? Once you get moving, where do you go? What do you do? Who do you interact with? What activities do you engage in that give you great joy and satisfaction? Imagine this day in vivid detail and feel the pleasure it gives you. As the day comes to a close, where do you go? With whom? What do you do about dinner? Do you do anything afterward? Then it’s time to get ready for bed. As you fall asleep, review your day and the happiness it brought you.

Practice 3: Meditate

Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there—buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day.

—DEEPAK CHOPRA

Extensive research has proven that, aside from toxins and injuries, nothing damages your brain more than stress.

“Chronic stress can lead to a rut in the brain in which the wiring of our neural networks keeps us repeating the same dysfunctional behavior,” writes neurologist David Perlmutter in Power Up Your Brain. “Because of the way our brains have been wired by stress or trauma, we’re unable to think or feel our way out of a crisis. So, we keep recreating early experiences over and over.”8

When under stress, your brain will always default to the strongest pathways and actually kill off the weaker ones, preventing you from responding differently.

Practicing mindful meditation on a regular basis, however, has been proven to significantly lower stress. In a 2015 Harvard Study, neuroscientist Sarah Lazar found that meditating for 5 to 10 minutes a day changes the neocortex, improving memory, resilience to stress, decision making, and well-being.9

“It’s a form of mental exercise, really,” Dr. Lazar told a reporter for the Washington Post. “And just as exercise increases health, helps us handle stress better and promotes longevity, meditation confers some of those same benefits.”

Mindful meditation is, indeed, an exercise in calming your mind and relaxing your body. But beyond that, meditation is unsurpassable for training your mind to focus, which is a prerequisite to rewiring.

In short, mindful meditation means observing and accepting thoughts and feelings without judgment. There are many ways to do this. The one I find easiest yet very effective is to sit quietly and focus on your breath, a mantra, an image in your head, or an actual object, like a candle. When thoughts pop up, as they always do, redirect your attention back to your breath or whatever you’re concentrating on, without any mental commentary. I love science writer Sharon Begley’s suggestion to react “to intruding thoughts [as if] they’re a butterfly floating into your field of vision.”10

People often think meditating means eliminating all thoughts, but that’s a myth insists Daniel Goleman in his excellent book Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.11 “Your mind must wander in order for meditation to have the training effect. Every time you bring your mind back to your meditation, you make the neural circuitry in your brain a little stronger.”

As Dr. Goleman points out: “The same circuitry in the brain that focuses attention also manages the amygdala, which causes you to get anxious, upset or depressed. [Meditators] have a double benefit: They react less strongly to things that used to upset them and recover more quickly when they do get upset.”

Rewire in Action

MEDITATION PRACTICE

Set a timer for 5 minutes. Sit in a comfortable position while concentrating on your in-breath and out-breath. You can repeat the mantra: “I’m breathing in. I’m breathing out” with each inhale and exhale. Or try counting each breath. When your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath or start counting from the beginning.

Practice 4: Celebrate

You are allowed to be both a masterpiece and a work in progress, simultaneously.

—SOPHIA BUSH

Here’s a question for you. When was the last time you celebrated or even acknowledged yourself for responding differently or making even the tiniest bit of progress, despite the difficulty? Sadly, the answer for most will be “rarely.”

Positive reinforcement—anything from patting yourself on the back to popping open the bubbly—works for one simple fact. Rewarding yourself feels good. And any pleasant sensation triggers the release of pleasurable chemicals, like dopamine, encouraging the brain to keep repeating the behavior.

“It’s no secret that we derive pleasure from doing things we enjoy,” said neuroscientist Rui Costa, CEO of Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute. “The brain learns which activity patterns lead to feel-good sensations and reshapes itself to more efficiently reproduce those patterns.”12 It’s why teachers give kids gold stars and cute stickers to encourage behaviors that may not come naturally or feel good right away.

Rewiring for wealth is anything but pleasurable in the beginning because it often requires delayed gratification. There’s no immediate reward for spending less, saving more, or investing wisely. But the intrinsic payoff for dining out, buying a new pair of shoes, or traveling to Tahiti is instantaneous.

However, with repetition, wealth-building activities will eventually become gratifying in themselves. But until they do, they need to be positively reinforced.

As Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal wrote in The Willpower Instinct, “Celebrating tells your brain a behavior is beneficial, and that it should look for more opportunities to engage in it.”13

Dr. Merzenich, known as the father of neuroplasticity, is a big proponent of celebrating and appreciating yourself. “Count every little indication of progress as success and reward yourself, in your mind, for those growing achievements,” he says, explaining that the more positive you feel about an activity, “the more your brain has been turning on its Save-it machinery.”14

These four practices (Watch Your Words, Visualize, Meditate, and Celebrate), when used consistently, in conjunction with the other two Power Tools (Resistance Work and Reparenting), are like little machetes, quickly clearing any deep-rooted, unwanted neuropathways, prompting new ones to sprout in their place.

CARMELA’S STORY

You are very powerful, provided you know how powerful you are.

—YOGI BHAJAN

Carmela grew up impoverished, lived in the projects, married a successful lawyer, and 34 years later, received a multimillion-dollar divorce settlement. But by the time she joined Rewire, most of the money was gone. Though she was a sophisticated, accomplished professional, she never looked at her financial statements, had no idea what she spent, and was $8,000 in debt. I assumed the cause of her troubles would be found in her upbringing.

“My parents thought money was an ugly burden,” she recalled, in a thick New York accent. “They were always angry. I grew up in fear. They never said ‘you can do anything’ or told me I was great or smart or anything positive. They said they didn’t want me to get a swelled head. They thought the world was a dangerous place, where I could get hurt. I realize I’m saying stuff like that to myself all the time.”

Clearly, Carmela’s brain had been hardwired to see only fear and scarcity. Even when she had millions in the bank and a house in the Hamptons, she said, “I was still financially insecure.” She stubbornly kept telling her old story: “I’m not enough.” “I’ll never have enough.” “I’m not worth it.” “I don’t deserve it.”

When I led her through a reparenting visualization, something shifted. “I never heard how scared little Carmela was,” Carmela said. “I’m realizing my fear of showing up in the world is my child’s, not mine. I’m telling her what I never heard: ‘You can do anything.’ I told her she’s safe, that I’ll take care of her from now on.”

“You know what that means, Carmela,” I said. “From here on out, you must consistently respond differently. Repetition is the key to permanently wiring in those new beliefs. Let me suggest four practices that will help.”

Introducing Practice 1, Watch Your Words, I told her: “I want you to pay attention to your words. Every time you open your mouth, you have a choice: repeat your story of ‘not enough’ or talk about how excited you are to become financially savvy and successful.”

Her energy was completely different when we next spoke. “I feel like I’m shaking off cobwebs by watching what I say. I’m starting to use a whole new vocabulary, especially in the way I talk to myself.”

Excited to try Practice 2, Visualize, she visualized herself “taking the stage of a very large workshop, putting together a large coalition of women to promote it. I have a lot to say. And people respond.”

Practice 3, Meditate, seemed to come naturally. She reduced her pace significantly, taking time to meditate, do yoga. “I got quiet and stopped all the running around. Slowing down gave me a chance to focus on what I wanted to do.”

Then she began Practice 4, Celebrate. “I’m taking time to appreciate who I am and what I’ve done, telling myself things like “Good job.’ ‘You’ve come a long way,’” she said proudly.

“People have said positive things to me, but I couldn’t hear it. Now I can. Even better, I am experiencing my own value. I’ve gotten awards. I’ve been the associate producer on two major movies. I accomplished this without any encouragement.”

One day, she reported, these words came to her: I’m the one I’ve been waiting for. “That’s my new mantra,” she enthused. “To be fully myself and love myself. I trust everything is in place and I’m safe to move forward.”

During this period, she fell in love with a very smart and supportive man who’s helping her start her own seminar business. “He really believes in me. I’m no longer dimming my light. I’m free to be who I am. Everyone is saying Alan is so lucky to have me. And I tell myself, ‘Take it in, Carmela. Let yourself hear it.’”

With a new sense of self-esteem, she felt like a different person. “The feeling of being unworthy caused me to avoid money,” she realized. “But the only way to stay on top of it is to look at it.”

Carmela eagerly began tracking her spending (“It was confronting, but I’ll have my debt paid off by December.”), did a budget (“First time ever.”) and met with an advisor (“We redid my accounts to make sure they’re diversified.”)

Her life only got better. “I’m not wallowing in my past at all. I realized I can put that to rest,” she said, neatly summarizing the rewiring process—putting unwanted parts of your past to rest and waking up to a brighter future.

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