“We all want the results of change, but few of us want to go through the process of change.” Every client of mine has inevitably heard me say those words. The truth is, change is hard. Our habitual thoughts and behaviors are the result of many influences, and they reflect deeply held beliefs about ourselves, about others, and about life. Over time I have developed and/or used a number of tools to help ease the pain of change, and reverse engineering is one of them.
Components of Memory
When we have intense experiences — whether positive or negative, single or recurring — the resulting memories are comprised of four essential components that imprint into our nervous system: images, emotions, body sensations, and beliefs.
This is why we can recall a wonderful experience and easily picture who was there (images), remember how happy we felt (emotions), re-experience the same excitement in our bodies (body sensations), and remember thinking that ‘life is good!’ (belief).
This is also why we can recall a deeply traumatic experience and picture the person or people involved, remember how frightened or emotionally devastated we felt, re-experience the same physical sensations we felt at that time, and have negative beliefs formed or reaffirmed about ourselves or others.
These four components of memory are intricately woven together to create our subjective experience of life. For better or worse they determine the way we then habitually respond to many situations in the present.
Take a moment and think about an intense experience from your past. Consider how the components of that memory (images, emotions, body sensations, and beliefs) may still impact your nervous system and thus your response to life. Would you like to change that response?
You can reverse engineer what the body and mind do automatically to intentionally heal or change what was previously imprinted into your nervous system. This in turn will help change your habitual responses. I talk about this in much more depth in Chapter 5 of Volume 2 of Dare to Dream: The Art of Co-Creating with God.
Merriam-Webster defines ‘reverse engineering’ as follows: to study the parts of (something) to see how it was made and how it works so that you can make something that is like it. Using this principle, I teach my readers how to apply what they learn about the nervous system to enhance their own change process. In this blog post I’ll give you an overview of what I discuss in my book.
How Does This Work?
If you begin using your creative imagination to envision (visualize) a positive change you desire and then incorporate the other three components of memory to support the change, your nervous system will soon begin to accept the new information, and the wheels of change begin turning. There are, however, some conditions that must be met for that to happen.
Since the nervous system imprints from intense or repetitive experiences, one or both must be part of the process. By incorporating intensity and repetition while engaging imagery, emotion, and body sensation, you will begin to establish new beliefs that support the changes you want to make. That is an application of reverse engineering.
Have you ever felt committed to making a change, then started imagining yourself as that changed person? Maybe you even added some affirmations but soon became discouraged because nothing changed? Many people have difficulty visualizing or affirming something that does not yet exist, feeling like they are lying to themselves. Perhaps you’ve had this experience?
Amazingly, our subconscious minds cannot distinguish between the truth and a lie. Our conscious awareness accounts for about 10% of our total awareness, which means our lives are run primarily by the 90% of our awareness that is unconscious (or subconscious). No wonder we do the crazy things we do!
If a beautiful child is told repeatedly that she is ugly and worthless, she will grow up believing at the deepest level that she is ugly and worthless, and her life as an adult will undoubtedly reflect that.
It doesn’t matter if people tell her later that she is beautiful and worthwhile. She won’t believe them, because the negative belief was so deeply imprinted into her subconscious mind by repeated, painful, early life experiences.
Is it true that she is ugly and worthless? No! But her subconscious mind cannot grasp that idea. It was fed lies and ultimately accepted them as truth. Will it feel like a lie if she starts telling herself that she is beautiful and worthwhile? Absolutely!
Does it make sense for her to challenge the negative belief and replace it with a positive one? Yes, of course. The same is true for whatever you want to change.
Maybe you believe that you are destined to be overweight, but you long to be thin. It may feel like a lie to picture yourself at your ideal weight. In the same way that your subconscious mind was programmed to believe that you will always be heavy, it can be re-trained to believe that you can achieve and maintain an ideal healthy weight.
Be sure to read to the end of this blog post, as I give you a very practical application for the use of reverse engineering at the end.
The Science of Change
Our brains are amazing. Through the wonder of neuroplasticity, they have the ability to reorganize themselves by creating new neural pathways to meet our changing needs and desires. How you use your mind actually changes your brain, which in turn changes your life.
Whatever you do or think about repetitively creates a neural pathway, much like a groove in the road. When you learn something new, you are not very skilled in the beginning, but with practice your skill increases (the groove deepens). This is because new neural connections are being made in the brain as synapses that don’t normally fire together begin to.
We create new neural pathways that connect one part of the nervous system with another whenever we learn something new and then consistently practice the unfamiliar way of thinking or behavior until it becomes familiar. It eventually becomes easier to slip into the new rut than into the old one. The more you strengthen the new pathway, the easier it becomes to respond in the new, changed way.
This is true for both physical and mental activities. Picturing something once or twice, or even three times isn’t going to change a belief or instill a new one. Purposefully picturing the desired outcome… again and again (repetition)… establishes a new neural pathway that becomes well-worn with repetition. Your subconscious mind is being retrained to accept a new image or reality of yourself. Nice, huh?
A very important key to successful change is repetition and consistency in thought and action. Getting clear about the change you actually want, then incorporating imagery and emotion as you repeatedly affirm or declare the change is reverse engineering in its finest form.
Let’s say you want to learn how to stay grounded and set appropriate boundaries with your teen age daughter, even when she is behaving poorly. Your typical response is anger, which further alienates your daughter and leaves you feeling disappointed in yourself. You’ve been wanting to change your angry response, but you’ve been too busy to focus on making that change.
Becoming more grounded and learning to set boundaries are changes that can actually be nurtured. But how do you make this a priority when you live such a busy, crazy life? What if it only takes a few focused minutes a day?
The change you desire is like a new plant that must send down roots in order to take hold and grow. These roots need to go deep so that the plant can withstand the elements (scorching sun, rain, wind, snow, etc.) For you, the elements are external and internal stressors that cause you to default to your angry response.
Establishing deep roots begins with you making you a priority. Change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes intention, but it doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Let me show you how to carve out an extra few minutes from your morning (or before you go to bed if you’re not a morning person) and how to use that time to promote change. Are you game?
Set your alarm 5-10 minutes earlier than usual. This is going to be ‘you’ time.
Before I get into the specifics of how to spend this time, I’d like you to download an app on your phone called ‘Calm,’ or open a free account of Calm.com on your computer and familiarize yourself with the site. You’ll be using this app or website to help you focus in these first few minutes of the day.
The Calm app has many free options for relaxation, mindfulness, and meditation. To start, click on the icon in the upper right-hand corner of your screen to choose a nature scene with a sound that appeals to you. For example, if you choose the beautiful Tropical Beach scene/video, you’ll experience the awesome sight and sound of waves as they cascade over the sandy beach. If you choose the Fireplace scene/video, you’ll experience the mesmerizing sight and sound of a wonderful crackling fireplace.
Now that you’re familiar with Calm.com, let’s get back to how to spend those precious few extra minutes in the morning. Upon waking, open up your Calm app (or Calm.com on your computer) to your chosen scene, put in your earbuds, adjust the volume to a background sound, and begin focusing on your breathing. Take a few deep breaths, then resume your normal breathing pattern.
The first time you do this, bring to mind a memory of an interaction with your daughter that did not go well. In these first few minutes of the day, you get to create a new outcome that you will reinforce in the days that follow. On subsequent days, start with an image of the changed you that you want to reinforce. Using reverse engineering principles discussed above, let’s bring in the components of memory (images, emotions, body sensations, beliefs) to start changing your habitual reaction.
Visualize yourself reacting to your daughter in a very positive, grounded, assertive (not angry) way. Hear the calm firmness (not aggressiveness) in your voice. Allow yourself to experience a relaxed, grounded feeling in your body (instead of stress).
Come up with a declarative statement that you repeat to yourself while imagining this new, changed you, such as “I love how good it feels to be fully in charge of myself whenever I interact with _______(daughter’s name).”
If there is a particular characteristic you want to develop in yourself regarding your interactions with her (e.g., confidence), incorporate that into your imagery and your declaration.
Feel free to bring the imagery to mind throughout the day, to repeat your declaration, and to imagine how it will feel when it’s finally true. Remember, the change isn’t true when you start this process. It becomes true as you continue to engage and affirm it.
Here is the key…you can’t just do this occasionally and expect things to change. You need to be consistent. In her book “Switch on Your Brain,” Caroline Leaf tells us it takes a minimum of 21 days to change a habit. Remember what I said above about repetition? You need to be consistently imagining yourself being different, reinforcing your ability to stay grounded, even when you’re in the middle of a storm.
You may know people who create vision boards. The same principles apply…they add images of things, behaviors, or ways of being they want to change. They likely put powerful, declarative statements on the board to support these changes. They allow themselves to really feel what it’s like to be the changed person. What may start out as a dream becomes reality as they consistently engage with these components of memory.
If you spend the first 5-10 minutes of your day very focused in the way I described above, you will begin creating new neural pathways in your brain. You may find yourself actually wanting to increase the time because it feels so good. Great! Do it.
Expect Resistance…Be Persistent
God designed us in the amazing ways I have been describing, and He wants us to grow and change to become more like His Son. If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you know that whatever God supports, Satan challenges. Whenever we step forward, the enemy steps forward with us…always determined to thwart our best intentions and efforts.
As you use reverse engineering principles to initiate change, expect resistance. It may come from you internally (our thought life is Satan’s playground), or it may come from those around you who may be uncomfortable with you changing (Satan also uses others to cause us to stumble). This is the subject for an entirely different blog post, but I want to at least caution you to be on the alert so that you don’t fall for Satan’s schemes. He will try to derail you. Remember, God is on your side and will reward your persistence. The enemy is no match for the Lord.
I’d love to hear about your experiences using reverse engineering to change some important area of your life!