How to undo negative mental muscle memory

Or, when the body has a mind of its own.  

​If you prefer to listen, here’s the podcast version of the article on Soundcloud and on iTunes.

When you suffer from habitual thinking that you don’t like and you have a hard time creating change, it’s because you’re trapped in a physically engrained system of thinking. For example, feelings of low self-worth, depression, fear of change, or even something like getting stuck in a lifestyle rut–they all result from mental muscle-memory and needs to be untrained with “exercise.”

If you’re feeling bad about yourself or you are professionally or personally stuck, your problem is likely you have been blinded and trapped in an habitual loop. You got stuck here not because you’re weak or untalented or “born this way.” There is no validity to the “causes” you might attribute to your suffering.  You can undo your cycle of negative feelings simply by consistently retraining your habits. You are suffering at the hand of your subconscious muscle-grooves. Your solution lies in three steps: awareness, commitment to your goal, and deliberate “retraining” of the mal-formed muscles. With this piece, I invite you to get you into some emotional physical therapy.  

What happens over time is your brain gets trained into feeling certain emotions and you grow used to them. You literally memorize the feelings and they become intertwined with your memory of the literal experiences. Once your body has memorized a specific emotion associated with a particular experience, it will automatically trigger you to feel that emotion when any new and related experience occurs. Feeling these old emotions becomes routine–just like when you have peeled an apple so many times, you don’t think about it anymore, an emotion can be embedded into your muscle memory. Even if they are unpleasant, they become where you feel the most inclined to be because they feel “comfortable.” When you feel an emotion repeatedly, your body grows a tolerance to the feeling and it becomes simply “normal” and therefore, to move opposite the feeling causes a sense of fear and anxiety. The feelings you’re used to, just like the way you peel that apple–that feeling is what you know, it’s where you feel safe.

When you’re working on creating positive change–or change of any kind, it will feel uncomfortable, tedious, or even scary and insurmountable because you’re moving away from “safe.” It’s not difficult in reality, but because you’re used to feeling a certain way–even when that feeling is bad, in your body it’s associated with comfort and safety.

Part 1: What it feels like to be trapped by a subconscious setting, aka your mental muscle memory.

A. Worried/Depressed/Life is Always Hard

“I hear you got a promotion! Congratulations! That’s so wonderful.”

“I’m lucky I didn’t get fired–they have been having layoffs at a company in Canada. I just saw it on the news. It’s all over the place. These days, just waiting for the other shoe to drop. . . ”

“Wow, yeah, that’s terrible. . .”

B. “Workahol” (or, a subconscious addiction to your job’s rules and culture)

“Hey babe–this hotel has like five different pools. I thought we could spend the day reading at each one of them. Are you on the phone? We’re on vacation. . . ”

“I. . . know. . . I am just replying. . . to. . .this chain about. . . this one. . . freelancer. . . who totally messed up. . . the copy machine. . . ”

“That will get solved without you writing back.”

“No, it won’t. They are helpless without me.”

“Your boss can figure it out.”

“She’s dealing with so many things she probably won’t get to it until the day is over. This is just faster and seriously, if I don’t help–no one knows how to work that thing. It’ll be a nightmare.”

C. Guilt (or, I am not good/I am undeserving of happiness)

“This dinner was amazing! Well done, so much work went into it.”

“Well, I didn’t get the potatoes out in time. I should have done that yesterday and reheated it. It would have been much better with the potatoes.”

“I wasn’t lacking anything, it was flawless. We had bread–it was perfect.”

“No, it should have been served with potatoes. I’m just not good at timing meals, or organizing things. I never have been.”

“You planned it all perfectly. You always plan things perfectly, and we all thought it was delicious.”

“No, it wasn’t. It was terrible. I am sorry you had to eat it.”

Think about yourself for a moment. Did any of these sound familiar? There are tons of different habit-addictions and that’s because most of the time you don’t even notice yourself falling into them.

Part 2: Why did this happen to you?

There are two different habitual traps. (If you want to read more about the science behind it, my references are posted at the end.) The first one is chemical. When you have a habit of feeling a certain way–like guilty–it results from an emotional belief that gets reinforced with subconscious repetition.  Because emotions give you a chemical charge, your body literally grows a tolerance to it. Just like a drug, you need more to get the same effects. I want to repeat that so it sinks in, so if you have a habit of feeling guilty, your body literally grows a tolerance to feelings of guilt.

Just like a drug, when you do a drug, your body grows a tolerance to it. The next time, you need more of it to feel the effects at all. What this means is: if you have an emotional belief–for example, I am not good at organizing things, that gives you a chemical gush, and your body grows used to it with repetition. So if you’re going through the same types of experiences, your body will memorize the emotions and that state of feeling bad about your abilities becomes your go-to state. Like, “Oh, this feels like stable footing–this is where I should be, emotion-wise.”

Are you the type who feels discomfort when complimented? If so, it’s likely a sign you have some trained in low self-worth thought structures. It doesn’t mean you are self-loathing consciously, it means you’re trapped in a cycle of behaving and thinking as someone who is self-loathing. So if you recognize this pattern, you owe it to yourself to change it.

The second habitual trap–is created by the routine itself.For example, a job is something that many people get stuck inside because you are rewarded for thinking within a structure. It’s especially immersive because you interact with others that adhere to the same set of values. It’s like a virtual country called “work” that demands your participation at all times, even when you are not there. Eventually, it becomes how you think. The feelings you have are attached to this place, and it grows more engrained with time. To give you a more extreme example, it’s like you started playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons everyday and were paid to live by the rules at all times. You would begin to abide the values and terms of the game and with time, winning at it would become your primary purpose and focus.

The reason this trap is so dangerous, is because if left unchecked, one day you’ll wake up and realize that years of your life have been robbed from you. It’s like you have been asleep. What do I mean by asleep? I mean, literally on autopilot–with all of your thinking and feeling habits. You were stuck in “work routine” and the loop didn’t stop until something external–maybe a major milestone or a shocking event–jolted you out of it.

In all of these cases, guilt, worry, “workahol,” stress, they must be manually untrained. They are bad operating systems that are preventing you from free-decision making, not to mention, blinding you to your own ability to be your best self. Which leads me to. . . 

Part 3: How to untrain negative muscle memory

For anyone trapped inside their own autopilot, this is a challenge to revolt and break free from your loop. Why? Because you are being auto-piloted right through a life you could be enjoying with missing facets that you might have chosen if you were present. For example, if you weren’t stuck in the world of your job, you might choose to change careers or countries or start learning a new instrument, or write a new book.  You might be missing something as simple as a sense of inner peace and the ability to be present with your family when you’re not at work.

If you don’t think it’s worth it to undo this, just look to your own life for the case studies; it’s a common experience. We all know someone who constantly plays a loser despite how awesome you can see that they are. That’s muscle memory that operates like a machine. At a certain point, the body had no awareness of a potential to change. After a while, it just is.

To untrain your muscle memory, it will take manual focusing: your instincts will not want to change.  You’ve got to logically tell yourself to change your focus and overcome the emotions that tell you you’d rather just stay unhappy because you deserve it, you’re never good at these types of things, or whatever other negative loop you’re used to telling yourself. The change itself is not hard or painful–it just takes a leap of faith and commitment. It won’t feel right, it will feel uncomfortable and foreign, almost like the feeling that something is a bad idea. You might catch yourself saying stuff like, “But I have to do (that old habit)” a lot. You’re going to have to decide to accept the outcome of your decisions–despite the fact that you’re worried about them. It’s like when you turn off your phone and you freak out, thinking “everything might have gone to hell” and then you turn it on and everything’s the same. You’ve got to let go of that panicky feeling and decide you’re sticking to this goal no matter what. Then it all comes down to staying consistent. When you’re creating change, you’ve got to treat it like you just escaped a hostage situation.  Don’t look back until you’re safe. Just keep on running ahead.

The process is super simple, but you’ve got to stay aware and force your focus to where it belongs.  You are going to use your logic to outsmart Hal9000, like you’re going into the wires and ignoring the voice guidance instructions.

1. Intentional change of focus

Whenever you start to hear you own broken-record thoughts come into your mind, shift your focus away from them IMMEDIATELY. Literally distract yourself. Change the subject in your mind or plug into something that can distract you–like a podcast or a breathing exercise. You are not allowed to let that same thought process play out in your mind. Tell it to “stop right now” and get yourself into another activity. This one will take effort at first, but it will get easier and more effective.

2.  Separation from routine

It’s the same thing they say helps you retain a healthy mind and memory–constantly learning new things. Invite newness. Take different routes. Try new hobbies. Break as many casual little habits just for the sake of change. If your schedule is extremely rigid, you can do this with focus alone. So on your commute, notice new things and decide to examine your existing environment and peers from a new vantage point–from “outside” it.

3. Practice maintaining ‘Brain Quiet’

Your focus belongs in the present. That’s where you exist and that’s what you can affect. So if you cannot find a state of mental emptiness–like if you hear mental chatter when you wake up and go to sleep–that’s something you should begin to medicate with a physical practice like breathing, yoga, or meditation. I choose yoga because it gives me a physical guide to facilitate the brain shutdown–also it’s a great way to soothe your physical body. If you have tried yoga and got bored, you weren’t doing it right. Give it another shot and breathe louder!

4. Future-you visualizations

Each morning, first thing, sit and visualize (in vivid detail) a future self that has escaped the bubble and is living awesomely. Feel the joy associated with that experience–literally savor the enjoyment and happiness that it brings you. Picture what the day is like, what room you’re in, what’s the event you are celebrating as a result of your awesome changes in life? This one is extremely helpful and moves you along quickly because when there’s emotion involved, your brain can’t tell the difference between a mental visualization and something that has really happened. So you are actively changing your experiences just by imaging them. I know it takes a lot of effort, but this one is worth it! Tell yourself a little story and just like when you were a kid, enjoy hearing it over and over and over.

5. Zag from others who reinforce conformity

A lot of the time, we fall into habits with everyone around us, so when you begin to change, your peers and family will continue to enact the same loop. You might face a bit of friction, but whatever you do, stay committed to your goal of change despite it. Be conscious of this factor and stay strong if you get stuck in any “habit-forming” situations. They will want to engage with you in the same ways and it’s your responsibility to yourself to avoid falling back into the same negative grooves with them. You might find yourself making a lot of excuses to leave the room–that’s to be expected. It’s got to happen. Let it go and keep your eyes on the horizon ahead. Don’t stop running until you’re safe.

Some call it a “wake up call” or “a midlife crisis”–I think of all of the typical life-crisis as an autopilot bubble that finally got popped. You have the power to see outside of your bubble right now. Your life can be whatever you want it to be. It’s not as scary as your muscle memory might make you think it is. It’s just untraining the bad habits. Treat this like a revolution. A thought revolution! Do it for the good of your life’s possibility. You control your mind and focus. Don’t forget to use it–keep at the wheel at all times. Otherwise, you’ll notice a week or a month slipped by without you even noticing you got back into your old habits. It’s easy to do if you’ve created a life that flows in the same direction.

I don’t want to make anyone think that all routine is bad and I am not suggesting you throw all that positive and growth-inspiring structure out the window. When it comes to extreme states of pain-management, trauma, and in times you need stability, a routine is extremely helpful. When you’re building consistent habits to better manage pain, improve your awareness or soothe your physical body, a routine can raise and support your bar for “normal” and help you build upwards in healthy ways. They’re also beneficial when you’re training new things into your mind, manually, like positivity and gratitude.

This is just about breaking out of the external structures that shackle you against your will so that you can choose what you want in your life, and what you don’t–outside of any fear.My goal is to give you the awareness and the tools to overcome this habit so that you can “wake up” and decide who you want to be and what you want to do with your life. Because this is your one and only and it’s yours to change in any direction you choose. Join the revolution! Think for yourself and free yourself of old fear! Because you can and will be exactly who you choose.

Happy Sunday, lovely friends!! I hope this helped in some way. Sending you my war cry of love and positivity!


Sarah May B.

References uno and dos.

Featured image via Flickr.

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