“You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire”
― Lucius Annaeus Seneca
January 2020, welcome back to Stoic Answers, a journey of the mind.
Most goals are not going to be met. The reason for it is quite simple, people don’t actually believe that they can change, they are stuck in identity, whether they like it or not. I’m sure you’ve heard sometime before Henry Ford’s famous quote, “Whether you believe you can, or whether you believe you can’t, you are right”. It’s funny how you know this is totally true, but when it comes time for action, we forget it oh so easily.
People will eat a couple of healthy dishes here and there, do yoga, practice gratitude, better their finances, you name it, but give it a week or two and they will all go back to the same pity route.
Adopting a new behavior is hard, not due to the lack of willpower or personal strength, but rather because of the way in which you structure your belief systems. True, lasting change can only happen on an identity level.
It’s easy for a fit person to eat healthily because they just don’t resonate with eating junk food, it is not “who they are” anymore. For them, a kale salad with chickpeas is way more alluring than a fatty hamburger, hard to believe, but still true. Change requires you to kill parts of yourself, parts that don’t serve you anymore, this will not be easy, of course, as those parts don’t want to die.
If you feel this is a harsh way of seeing it, well, welcome to reality, think about what change implies. Change is the only constant in the universe, and for change to happen, death must happen, but so does rebirth. This is what you are looking for, to forever burn yourself and be reborn out of the ashes like the phoenix bird.
The school of a philosopher is a surgery. You are not to go out of it with pleasure, but with pain; for you do not come there in health; but one of you has a dislocated shoulder; another, an abscess; a third, a fistula; a fourth, the headache. And am I, then, to sit uttering pretty, trifling thoughts and little exclamations, that, when you have praised me, you may each of you go away with the same dislocated shoulder, the same aching head, the same fistula. and the same abscess that you brought? — Epicitetus
So how exactly do you go about actually changing?
I said before that you are not able to change because you don’t actually believe that you can change, remember? I believe that if you understand how your belief systems work, you’ll be able to control them, and therefore become able to change, definitely.
“A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something” — Donella H. Meadows in Thinking in Systems: A Primer
Please, think a minute about yourself, about what you are. You are a composition of things, that themselves make more things, and that together compose a big, greater, thing, which is yourself. You are, summarizing, a system, composed of smaller systems. Each system with its own goal. For example, your digestive system. It has the goal of keeping your body with enough energy to ensure that the other parts of the system will keep functioning. When the system feels that the energy is running low, it sends a signal to the brain of hunger, then you feed it, and it creates energy. It is constantly fulfilling its goal of achieving energy balance. The goal of a system is its most important attribute as it defines its very existence.
Belief systems. You are the way you are, not out of randomness, but out of carefully thought, however unconsciously, beliefs that help you function in the world as best as possible. Your belief systems, like any other system, function by striving to a goal. Human goals are universal, the easiest way to explain is them is through Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: physiological, safety, self-esteem, and self-actualization.
Although the goals may be simple, the ways that we use to reach them is most definitely not. Just imagine, the amount of experience you’ve gone through, experiences that have shaped your belief systems in such complex ways that it is literally impossible to find another person with the same personality as yours in the entire universe.
Your beliefs are extremely useful but they are not absolute, they are just “ways” with which you can see and understand reality to better function in it. The beliefs that you have at the moment just happen to be the perfect fit for the reality that you have been experiencing. At the same time, there are always better ways to live, better ways to reach our goals, better ways to understand reality. Belief systems must be always analyzed and optimized in order for us to keep growing.
Your belief systems will actively fight whatever challenges them. Why wouldn’t they? They’ve taken you this far right? This is why a culture shock is so impacting, it’s because it challenges our belief systems so hard, that you are forced to change them to adapt to the new environment. Adapting to something new does not feel nice, it’s not uncommon to feel anxious and frightened, but these emotions are normal and they are just signaling that change is happening within you.
Most people arrive at this phase of change, but then the hard emotions start to kick in and only a few stay on the ride. What’s the next step?
The decision is made, you want to change for the better. The next step is self-awareness. Yeah, the now cheesy concept repeated and repeated all over the internet until exhaustion. Bear with me.
You cannot know what needs to be changed or how to change it if you don’t know anything about it.
Becoming self-aware is becoming active in your psyche and your mental processes. If you get good at this, you will begin to understand why you act the way you act. You will become able to realize that there are areas of your life that you’d really wish to be better. Ideas will naturally spring from your mind indicating you what the next step is. But if you are not able to understand yourself, you will not even have a point of reference, to begin with.
Become an “experience” sommelier. Observe yourself, notice your patterns, notice your thoughts. Feel the feelings you feel when something happens, don’t wish them to go away because by wishing them to go away, you neglect valuable information that your very own deep self is trying to tell you.
Many people think that a stoic is a person that neglects their emotions, but that is not the case, all the contrary, a stoic is a person that feels his emotions intensely and understands them, but at the same time, he doesn’t act on them. Emotions don’t determine his actions, what determines his actions are his principles. There’s a great post by Mark Manson that can further help you understand the complex topic of emotions: Happiness is not enough.
Now that you know the what, let’s go to the how.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
― Viktor E. Frankl
Concern yourself solely with the things that are under your control and you will do good.
When you think about thinking, what comes to your mind? Images? Ideas?
The act of thinking is fascinating. Merriam-Webster’s definition: the action of using one’s mind to produce thoughts.
But thinking is so much more complex, it certainly not just is the appearance of thoughts in your head, that just happens. Thinking is active, it also involves the processes of identifying relationships within thoughts, and on a deeper level, it deals with how are our thoughts presented in our heads, or better said, how they are framed.
Imagine your head as a theater. Your thoughts are the actors, they call for most of your attention, but a theater is not only composed of actors it is of lights and scenery and music. A scene can be entirely different from another one if it is presented with dimmer lights and melancholic music. Just the same thing happens within your head, your thoughts are presented with different lights and music, that’s how they are framed.
You have control over the framing of your mind, which is not easy to see or feel, but once you begin noticing it, it becomes at least possible.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”― William Shakespear, Hamlet
The advice of “think happier thoughts”, is not useful, at all. Dark thoughts are not going to go anywhere, don’t think of a pink elephant! See? It’s just not possible. The mind will present whatever it will present, but the framing, oh, the framing of those thoughts is completely within our control.
Think about it, it’s within your own hands to decide if something bad is going to be the reason for your disgrace, or if it is going to be the reason for your betterment. It depends on how you frame your experience, like something bad or like something good from which you can gain experience.
Belief systems are hard, really hard frames that make themselves stronger each time you incur them. The more you practice it, the stronger it becomes.
Frames can be imposed on you as well. For example, if someone calls you fat, or a loser, what they are doing is that they are trying to frame you into a reality in which you are fat or where you are a loser. But, consider that you are super fit and that you are Brad Pitt, honestly, will you fall into that pity frame? Of course not. Your current frame of reality would be so strong that you would not even question it.
At the end of the day, a frame is not real, it is entirely created by you and by other people and reinforced with its practice. You are the one who decides the frames you are fitting in or not, you are the one creating your frame of reality, which at the end of the day, composes your entire reality. An identity change is simply a frame change, you change the lights, you change the scenery, and you begin to act your part, until you become so good, that you don’t question that frame anymore, you just become it.
“First say to yourself what you would be;
and then do what you have to do.”― Epictetus
For true, lasting change to happen, you’ll need to challenge your current belief systems. You’ll need to start reframing your reality and affirming it, even while others refuse it.
First, What do you want to do? Better said, Who do you want to be?
“Seek out that particular mental attribute which makes you feel most deeply and vitally alive, along with which comes the inner voice which says, ‘This is the real me,’ and when you have found that attitude, follow it.”
― William James, The Principles of Psychology
Second, become self-aware, identify your current belief systems, identify your frames, notice when you become anxious, when you become happy or when other frames are imposed on you. Notice yourself on every level, don’t push anything away, rather use it as valuable information.
Third and lastly, reframe. Adopt in your head that new you and reframe everything in your reality to accommodate your new desired identity. Shitty job? Nope, just a stair that’s helping me go up. Hard day? Hey, you cannot grow if you are not tested.
You are on your own, no one is going to do it for you, nor you want anyone else to do it for you.
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