There is an interplay between how our brain functions and how we experience the world. We are complex beings whose genes, history, and culture are in collaboration with the complex structure that is the brain. Learning how our brain works and how to best leverage its strengths is key to how we perceive, and therefore how we choose to show up in life.
The brain interprets input through a system of layers in which everything is about a predictability model and expectation violation. It uses our past experiences to search for familiarity in our present circumstances to see if we are what it perceives to be ‘safe’, and re-creates an expected outcome—a processing that occurs in an instant and without our conscious awareness.
If someone touches you, for example, your skin receptors are the first to interpret if you have experienced that in the past and to let you know if you like it or not. If the input is familiar at that level, there is no need for further analysis. If it is not familiar, the next step is at the level of your spinal cord, where you may have a reflexive response based on past information. The brain stem is the next level— it decides if the situation is threatening in a life or death sort of way. As we continue through the levels, we become more specific in our analysis. At the level of the thalamus, we begin to distinguish what is the kind of touch: Human? Animal? Mosquito? Should we still be unsure about the nature of the situation, we get to the level of the cortex where perception happens and we apply further reason to the investigation. With each level, the complexity goes up, and so too the potential for entropy (chaos)!
As we are urged to look at our ‘limiting beliefs’ and ‘step out of our comfort zone’, it is important to understand the system we are dealing with and what it was designed to do…
To actually jump outside of our comfort zone can be a threatening thing. Should we venture outside the box and get smacked down, the zone can recoil and we are then less inclined to try it again, as that becomes the past experience to which our brain ties all future risk-taking. The trick is to expand our comfort zone by pushing the boundaries—putting ourselves in an uncomfortable context in a limited way which will create a positive feedback loop. This decreases the perception of threat and gives us an opportunity to ‘fail successfully’.
A framework for what this looks like is this:
1. Do things that are in a novel environment.
- Introducing variability increases your tolerance for it.
2. Connect to something that is bigger than you.
- The less it is actually about you, the less pressure you perceive!
3. Emotionally prepare for ‘negative’ feelings, feedback,
- Being prepared improves your resiliency and lessens impact.
4. Have someone who gives positive feedback.
- Have people in your life that encourage and support you.
As an illustration of this process, for the second year, I am acting in a musical in a community theatre production. Although it causes some frustration and anxiety at times, and challenges me in many ways, it also allows me to challenge the belief that I have that I cannot sing.
Without natural aptitude, everything about singing and dancing feels complex, so I must look for variables that I can control—which are those that arise internally. The tendency to compare myself to the best singer and the best dancer does not decrease my anxiety or increase my performance—once our stress response is activated, we become more reactive and have less bandwidth to learn new things. So, I can choose instead to see how I am better than I was last week, thereby feeling more capable, expanding my zone, and managing that particular stressor.
I can also choose what I hope to gain from the experience and the goals I set for myself. Finding the balance between accepting the challenge of the task but setting a base value of what I want to get out of it. I am not aiming for Broadway, rather looking at how this might serve me to become better at life. If I explored something new and uncomfortable, and if I tried really hard to do my best, then that alone is magical, regardless of the outcome or what other series of events may occur.
And I can embrace the knowledge that a certain amount of chaos (entropy) is inevitable! Even within a controlled environment, with practice, and under direction, there is a fluidity to the experience. The uncertainty of the performance, all of the other people involved, and the irritation that arises when the director changes things on the fly and we have to adapt again after so much preparation. Yet one of the most beautiful things about acting is that 90% of it is reacting to what is happening in the present moment—which is a challenge in and of itself.
Our beliefs may be so deeply ingrained that they are interwoven into our DNA, influenced by epigenetics and the many facets of our environment that we have experienced since childhood. The challenging thing about beliefs is that we see the world through them, and we have a bias toward things that validate them. I am far more likely to take criticism than compliments when it comes to my singing, as that supports my belief. Yet, as we add a greater degree of consciousness and expose ourselves to feedback, we can observe if the reality actually matches our belief system.
While having a growth mindset may involve believing that you can change your beliefs, the main thing is to not let those beliefs govern your life. Being able to behaviorally push the boundary can help to immunize us to such beliefs, yet we must also understand that as we do so, the bar usually continues to raise! While I may continue to have the perception that I am not a great singer, I can shift the belief that, as an extension of speaking, I still have a right to sing.
For myself, I am challenged by my clients to practice what I preach, so whatever anxiety or discomfort I may feel, or whatever ego hits I may take in the process, it is by design to become a better clinician and to be more vivid and clear in my own voice. When I ask you to think or do things differently, I know how hard it is to change those patterns and confront those beliefs so, in that way, we have a shared skin in the game.
Expand your comfort zone by challenging your assumptions and controlling the complexity. Choose goals, situations, and perspectives that allow for the feedback and lessons that will diffuse into other aspects of your life, and celebrate your own small wins along the way. Regardless of the complexity or chaos that life is bound to throw your way, having the courage to sing your own song is part of the dance of life in which we all have a role to play.
Dr. Tabrizi is a chiropractor, osteopath and a passionate member of both the local and scientific community, whose goal is to teach that the pursuit of optimal health and wellness is much more than being symptom-free. His practice is rooted in the philosophy of treating the person rather than just treating the illness or ailment. As a result of his interdisciplinary training, Dr. Tabrizi has developed a neuroscience-based therapeutic education approach to treating his patients, focusing on healing illness from a wider perspective, placing equal responsibility on patient as well as practitioner. Dr. Tabrizi aims to educate his patients and provide them with the tools and framework needed to integrate pain management and healthy living into the fabric of their everyday lives.