Why We Don't Change & How We Can
Can you take a compliment?
I mean, really, hear something nice about your person or personality, and absorb it into your being, let it sink down deep into you and have it affect the way you think about yourself and your place in the world?
I didn't think so. Honestly, neither can I. There always seems to be some barrier, some instinctual prejudice against myself, so that I can't easily accept positive observations about me or my character, and have that be meaningful. I doubt I'm unique in this way. In fact, I'd wager that most of us have a pretty well-developed filter against affirming feedback.
If you're anything like me, there's always a nagging voice somewhere that says "this person is just being polite," or "they don't really mean it," or "they obviously don't know any better," or even "if they only knew... I know how it really is." It might even be "they have to say that." Or if the genuine niceness somehow gets through, then "why didn't they comment on X? What's wrong with that part of me?" If this sounds familiar, you're not broken, or psychotic, or doomed to a life of low self-esteem. You're actually normal.
Turns out, to a certain degree, our minds are built this way.
What makes us distinctly human is our ability to learn intentionally. We are able to focus our attention on something novel and explore it, master it, and imagine how we might use it. This was, of course, a phenomenal evolutionary leap. Part of what made this possible was the development of what we sometimes call the subconscious.
The subconscious is that part of our mind that is not instinctual (we fill it up with experiences, insights and learning), and that also lies below conscious awareness (hence "sub-conscious"). The remarkable thing about the subconscious is how well it is organized. Now, it isn't organized like anything the conscious mind would recognize - it isn't as if there are files listed alphabetically by topic, with cross-referenced indexes for author and date. The subconscious creates associations between things (experiences, feelings, thoughts, reflections, desires... whatever). Association is more efficient. For one thing, it is faster for recall. For instance, when our ancient ancestors encountered a saber-toothed tiger, they didn't have to think very hard or long to pull up their previous experiences, look for relevant information like appropriate feelings and strategies or multiple likely scenarios in order to compare their relative benefits and costs. (Any ancestor unfortunate enough to have to process that much in the wild was quickly culled from the gene pool.)
Our subconscious minds immediately link the visual stimuli of the saber-tooth tiger with previous outstanding experiences, and we unreflectively know to run and scream like a little baby. And voila! We live another day.
The genius of the subconscious mind is that once something is learned, we don't have to re-learn it. The subconscious mind is designed to not be easily changed. There is actually a function of the mind whose sole purpose is preventing unnecessary changes to our subconscious mind.
Hypnotists and others refer to this quality of the mind that prevents unnecessary change as "the critical factor" or "critical faculty." The name isn't as important as what it does. It is a filtering and comparing mechanism that looks at incoming information (experience, sensations, thoughts, feelings, knowledge, interpretation... whatever) and compares it with what the mind already "knows." "Knows" is in quotes because often what we "know" to be the case is really just an assumption, understanding or belief - even one that lies below conscious awareness.
One of the peculiar qualities of the subconscious mind is that "new"="bad" and "familiar"="good". Even when the familiar experience or belief is actually quite painful or limiting or self-destructive, it is often a preferable alternative (for the subconscious mind) to the danger of the unknown. This makes change even more difficult, since almost by definition the new understanding poses a greater threat than whatever the current belief is. We can see this played out in people's lives when they stick with abusive relationships because being outside the relationship is perceived as a greater threat (even though this is not reasonable on a conscious or logical level). Or when a self-destructive behavior or belief persists, despite not being "based in reality" and actually harmful to the individual, because the risk of being without the behavior or belief is too great. Or when we "choose" to eat too much, drink too much, smoke too much, whatever-too-much, maybe even at the same time that we say we should stop, this is bad for us, why am I doing this?! On a subconscious level, the "known" behavior or belief is the best the mind knows how to be. If it is true that it is the best (no matter how destructive), why would it change?
So the critical faculty compares new experience with previous experience. If a new experience confirms or agrees with known beliefs/experience/programming, then that information passes right through the filter and goes into the file of corroborating evidence, and the mind says, "See, I told you so!" If the new experience contradicts or conflicts with previous experience or understanding, then the critical faculty captures it and has two options.
First, the new experience or information could be deemed insignificant, and it is jettisoned from the mind. (Some psychologists and hypnotists believe this is what is happening in the latter stages of dreaming: the mind clearing out the proverbial garbage.)
A second option is to place the conflicting/contradictory information in a sort of holder file. If the experience is considered significant enough to hold on to, but it doesn't fit with what the mind already "knows" (believes/understands/assumes), then it is added to an inert file that isn't actively accessed on the topic or association. If that holder file gets large or compelling enough, it may eventually challenge the existing file (program/belief/assumption). But chances are against that, because the critical faculty will always privilege information and experience that corroborates what it already assumes to be true.
If the problem with this isn't already apparent, let us look at when most of our "beliefs" (or "truths") about the world are learned. For the first five or six years of our lives we are walking around in a kind of permanent hypnosis. That is, we are entirely open to suggestion. We don't have any filter. We just accept whatever happens as naturally the case. The problem is that as little kids with very little experience or understanding about the world - different contexts, personalities, stresses, moods, languages and so on - we are making very important and broad-ranging assumptions about how the world works and our place in it. A six year old can't necessarily understand that when parents divorce, for example, it doesn't have anything to do with the child... but that is what the child experiences (because kids don't have the experience to know differently yet) and so this understanding becomes part of their underlying reality.
It is a cruel and virtually unavoidable reality that we are making assumptions about the world when we are least able to make informed assumptions about the world. But that is precisely how we learn to make these assumptions. Largely by trial and error. The problem is that - because the development of the critical faculty ensures it - these understandings persist, expand, and adapt.
This evolutionary adaptation was vitally important in primitive life, when we could learn most of the information we needed to know about the world and relationships in our first decade or so of life. In modern life, however, the lessons we learned, the programs and categories and patterns and associations we established when we were children, might not be (probably aren't) accurate or insightful or even helpful. So, the problem arises when we WANT to change our subconscious programming. We are prevented from adapting by the very mechanism that helped us achieve such self-awareness and modern proficiency.
So, why is it so difficult to take a compliment?
Say, an individual early in life formulated the belief that they weren't smart, or pretty, or strong, or athletic, or a good singer, or whatever. (It doesn't matter if this is true or not. What matters is what we understand about our world to be true.) This is easy enough to imagine: a three year old misunderstands something or someone, or is told so by an adult or older kid or authority figure, and because the toddler doesn't know any better and hasn't yet accumulated enough experience to develop an adequate filter or self-esteem, the young child unreflectively accepts this new understanding as simply matter-of-fact. This belief in their own deficiency - not good enough, smart enough, strong enough, whatever - becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when that child next attempts or experiences something even remotely associated with it, and because they are just a child learning something new, the task or skill is difficult, they struggle, maybe even fail. They can't catch the ball, lift the block, stack the toys, solve the puzzle or riddle, aren't complimented enough or in an unfamiliar way... it could be anything. The experience is experienced through the lens of the matter-of-fact understanding. That experience reinforces the previous belief that interpreted and shaped it. And it becomes stronger.
We can see how easily this could start, and how powerful and profound it can shape the experience and identity of the child. And since this "belief" or understanding of how the world works and their identity isn't a conscious decision, it lies beneath conscious awareness, probably out of conscious memory or reflection. It still shapes and affects the individual, but the individual isn't aware of the effects, and only knows this as the way things are.
How do we discover these subconscious beliefs and understandings about ourselves? More to the point: how do we CHANGE these limiting beliefs and negative lenses, programs, and scripts?
We have all experienced that, too. Whether we call it a paradigm shift, conversion experience, "aha moment", or insight, virtually all of us have experienced discovering something about ourselves or the world to be profoundly and meaningfully different than we had previously been certain of. Occasionally in big ways; more often in small ones. Like when we happen upon the real lyrics of a pop song we've been singing since childhood, and realize we were totally wrong, and that the real lyrics make so much more sense. The insight catches us by surprise, when our defenses are down, or when we are open to new understanding. Unfortunately, we rarely find ourselves in such a mood, even when we would consciously choose it.
Our critical faculty preserves our preconceptions, protecting our subconscious from "unnecessary" changes. It is often difficult to set that critical filter aside, even when we consciously know better.
There are, however, circumstances in which our minds naturally let down their guards, suspend the critical factor, and are open (if temporarily and limitedly) to new experience and insight. If you've ever been lost in a film or a book, for instance, then you've experienced such a time. For a few moments, you weren't looking at a two-dimensional screen or ink marks on a page, and were entirely immersed in the experience. If someone asked you if you were REALLY in Edwardian England pining over Mr. Darcy, or witnessing Riley contend with savage aliens on a spacecraft in the future, you'd of course answer no. But for those few moments, that didn't matter. That nagging voice that cares about the difference between reality and fiction was stilled.
I suspect something similar is happening when people have profound religious experiences, or artistic inspiration, or ecstatic episodes, or are fantasizing.
When we are anxious, that barrier comes down, too. Under stress, the difficulties are magnified to the point where they seem virtually all-consuming. There seems no alternative or remedy, only the immediate problem projected into the infinite. This is, of course, not true in reality at all, and we are able to admit as much if we have a moment to reflect. That is precisely the coping strategy usually employed: breathe, relax, gain some perspective, and the problem doesn't seem quite so overwhelming. But, for a number of reasons, under such stress our critical faculty is overpowered and the difference between the "real" situation and our imagined worst-case-scenario doesn't matter. It is a cruel irony that precisely when we are opened up to the profound influence of our imagination, we should be giving ourselves the worst suggestions.
Surprise is another natural by-bass of the critical faculty. If someone jumps out of a dark alley and your friend yells "run" - you'll probably run. Not knowing where, or even precisely why. After a few moments, you may come to your wi