Somehow, the idea of personal power has repeatedly been popping up in my research and conversations lately. So many people relinquish their personal power and choose to simply shrug their shoulders when faced with adversity. It’s like nails down a chalkboard to me.
- “I have no power to change my negative relationship.”
- “I have no choice but to stay in my terrible job forever.”
- “I’m just not athletic, so I can’t work out.”
I’m here to tell you that these statements have all been proven categorically untrue by science in the past 20 years.
You have power in every circumstance.
No, you can’t swap bodies with Olivia Munn, you can’t make your spouse stop picking on you, and you may not currently be able to financially afford to leave what you perceive to be your dead-end job.
But, you can control your reaction to all of these situations as well as the way your brain perceives them. And that, my friends, is complete personal power. You can convince yourself that working out five more minutes every week is the most important thing you can do, you can choose to reframe the way you perceive your spouse’s comments, and you can mentally prioritize the side hustle that will one day allow you to leave your current place of employment.
Our power lies not just in how we react to things with our words and with our actions. Our power lies in how we choose to perceive things, where we choose to allow our brains to focus, and how we choose to craft the inner monologue that consistently runs through our brains.
Getting Nerdy About Your Noggin
Let’s talk for a little bit about how the brain works. The human brain is a fascinating and ever-morphing organ. We tend to think that our brains are stagnant and that we’re born with tendencies and/or characteristics that are immovable or inalterable. “I’m just not good at finances.” “Public speaking isn’t in my DNA.” If you happen to have any thoughts like this, I’ve got a little bit of science to share with you to perhaps change your mind.
Neuroplasticity is the study of how the brain alters itself due to internal and external stimuli. Until recently, many people thought that our brains only form when we’re growing up. Recent studies have proven that “mechanisms of neuroplasticity are extremely variable across individuals and throughout the lifetime.” Meaning, you can change your brain no matter how old you are. And you have the power to do this in any situation.
See, our brains have many “roads” that have been formed by past experience, worn in by repetition, that guide our everyday actions. We call these neural pathways. I like to imagine them as interstates to behaviors.
When I wake up, I crave coffee because I always have coffee first thing in the morning. This is because the neurons in my brains have been connected by dendrites (a nerve cell extension) to fast track the wake up-coffee connection. This is a behavior that I have participated in for many years and my brain has effectively connected the two things. I wake up and crave coffee.
These neural pathways, whether we like it or not, generally dictate our everyday actions. From mindlessly brushing your teeth before bed all the way to anger that spikes with memories of a previous traumatic experience — unless we tell it otherwise, our brain map runs the same course on repeat.
It could be a thought pattern, a positive morning routine, or an unhealthy habit — our brains, unless we actively choose to intervene, inevitably hit the repeat button.
The great news is that we have the power to change these roads and to alter the topography of our brain’s behavior road maps.
MIT senior lecturer Tara Swart says in her book, Neuroscience for Leadership, “Depending on the complexity of the activity, [experiments have required] four and a half months, 144 days or even three months for a new brain map, equal in complexity to an old one, to be created in the motor cortex.”
What does this mean? We can reshape our brains . . . but it takes time and repeated behavior. Around 4 1/2 months to be exact. I don’t know about you, but I definitely have a few things that I’d like to change in the next 4 1/2 months.
So, if you want to establish a different way of mentally framing your interactions with your partner, you can’t just choose to alter your response once and expect to see results. However, if you choose to alter your responses for, say, six months, you will most likely have formed yourself a new brain map. And a new behavior or habit.
Why? With every repetitive choice, those neural pathways become more and more ingrained in your noggin. And you become more and more successful.
How to Apply This to Your Life
In the past year, I have begun to recognize my brain’s patterns. For all intents and purposes, I have become an observer of myself. I have also come to realize that I have much more power over my state of mind and my current situation than I previously believed. In short, I have begun to actively recognize negative or potentially future negative situations and reroute my choices. I am actively changing my brain map one wise decision at a time.
You can apply these principles of neuroscience to many situations. Whether it’s the choices you make related to food and exercise, the way you view your interactions with others, or your internal dialogue, the longer you are able to maintain a change in your behavior and/or thoughts, the more likely that change will be to stick.
And what if you’re in a situation that you can’t physically change? Well, just ask Nelson Mandela. He could have let 27 years of incarceration change his mindset. But, to the benefit of the entire world, he didn’t. He said, “It is what we make out of what we have been given, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.”
You are where you are right now and you can’t necessarily change your situation immediately. This is something I need to consistently remind myself of every day, particularly when I get frustrated and impatient. But, it is how you choose to view yourself, how you choose to reframe your mindset, and how you choose to move forward — that will make all the difference.
Friends, whatever your situation, I encourage you to find inspiration in the fact that we have the power to change practically anything. And, if we can’t change a physical thing, we can always change how we perceive it. While long-term change does not happen overnight, if you choose to make something happen and continue to choose it over and over again, it will eventually happen.
You can make the choice every day to change, to grow, and to physically reform your brain. With repetition, you can take charge of almost any situation, no matter how dire or insignificant. Small consistent choices will lead to large long-term changes.
You are powerful beyond all measure.