Our communication with other people is generally done through thoughtful words, conversations and text messages; but also the sighs we hide, the nervous laughter we stifle and the subtle arching of our brows.
Looking at the bigger picture, how we react to the events which take place around us is the way in which we interact with the world. The sum of these daily encounters and outcomes shapes our lives.
We control most of our verbal communication, but how we communicate nonverbally proves that most of our reactions are out of our conscious reach.
In fact, psychology, as well as neuroscience, have shown that we don’t fully control our reactions. They don’t derive from our conscious thinking patterns. In reality, our reactions are automatic responses monitored by our subconscious minds.
The story I’m about to share with you is a walkthrough to understand how our automatic reactions are generated and how to actively change them.
One cold night in November 2019, I was chilling on my sofa finishing up an application to speak at a TEDx event.
In the last section, I was asked to leave a personal note. It’s where you’re supposed to make a good impression.
I asked my best friend who was sitting next to me to proofread my text before I submitted it.
As she went through my first sentence, she gave me her infamous “surprised-but-not-in-a-good-way look”.
She explained that where I’d written:
“I’d understand if you chose an expert with a degree in neuroscience to breakdown such a subject but I am passionate and motivated.”
“Hey guys I know that I’m not good enough, and it’d be natural not to pick me but please do so anyway.”
I thought about what she said and realized that my self-deprecating statements derived from a deep-seated belief of mine:
“I don’t deserve success because I’m not good enough.”
I was about to sabotage a project that I care deeply about because I was going to allow the manifestation of my subconscious mind to take over my conscious actions.
I am already aware of this limiting belief, and yet — I still somehow was about to let this belief to seep into my day to day communications with others.
I was lucky enough to have a friend point my potential faux-pas out to me.
With this being said, I couldn’t afford to keep on relying on luck, or having a friend around to let me know when I was about to make the same mistake again. I considered that night as a call-for-action to make changes; tangible, scientifically-based changes.
I focused my approach on:
- Decrypting decision-making and subconscious responses based on the latest discoveries in neuroscience and psychology.
- Finding ways to actively hack my reactions instead of watching them taking over my life. Then test them.
In the following sections, we’ll uncover how our minds operate to generate our reactions. Then, we’ll dive into the mechanisms behind them. That way, we’ll identify the levers to pull in order to consciously reshape our innermost reactions.
Section 1 — Our reactions are based on our beliefs.
When we react, we make an instantaneous decision followed by an action. The decision that we take derives from our life experience. The latter shapes a set of beliefs that monitors our thinking patterns in both conscious and subconscious ways.
In other words, we interact with the world according to our past.
Here’s an example:
My father has spent his whole life working as a policeman. During one of the arrests he made, the man bit off part of one of his fingers. He spent a couple of days in the hospital. The first thing he did when he got out was dropping the charges against the guy that attacked him. He said: “maybe it’ll do him good, plus I don’t want to carry the weight of grudge”. #🔴
During the medical leave that followed, we spent hours playing cards every day. We are both pretty good players with equivalent skills. However, he has this trick of card counting. It’s not considered cheating because it’s extremely difficult to master, not to mention tiring.
You have to memorize the cards and make mental calculations throughout the whole game which allows you to guess the three cards that your opponent is holding in the last round of each game. The only return on investment for my dad was, at the very best, one point per game.
His technique seemed worthless to me. Obviously, I was naive.
These “insignificant” points gained from some of the games we played kept on stacking up over the global scoreboard that included more than 50 games. Needless to say, he won. #🔵
These experiences carved specific beliefs in my mind. They later become the foundation of certain thinking patterns of mine.
- Being kind is self-satisfying and liberating. #🔴
- Doing small, smart things consistently pays off in the long run. #🔵
How have I applied these teachings to my own life?
Whenever I jump on a train, I always make sure I’m the last to get on. I feel good about giving away a seat to someone who may need it more than myself.
When I see people sitting down I think to myself: “maybe it’ll do them good”. Perhaps, being seated during a commute would allow them to send a nice text to their family or to a loved one. Maybe, it might soften their mood since they won’t be swinging across the wagon at every subway turn, and they may feel inclined to pay the good deed forward. #🔴🔴
Additionally, I always stand near the door, meaning that I am the first to get off. That way, I can save time while switching from subway A to subway B.
This small trick allows me to save up to one hour per day on my commute, by optimizing the time it takes to make platform changes. #🔵🔵
As you have seen, my behavior in public transport: #🔴🔴 and #🔵🔵 derives from two beliefs tied to childhood events: #🔴 and #🔵.
The same pattern applies to all our ways of reacting to the world.
Our beliefs dictate our thoughts which dictate our actions and reactions alongside the emotions that come with them.
Our actions, stacked over time, shape our behavior.
Now, the subway story highlights positive behaviors, both for me and my fellow commuters.
Unfortunately, the same logic applies to negative behaviors as well.
As I explained in another story, I was a strong believer in the “no pain, no gain” philosophy.
I used to decline a lot of invitations to hang out with friends and co-workers. I’d work myself into oblivion on personal projects instead.
I used to go to the gym even when I was injured. Because, hey, no pain, no gain, right?
It goes without saying that these behaviors were no good for my physical or mental health.
The recurring feelings of loneliness and shoulder aches were a testament to that.
Yet, I kept doing the same things over and over again for years because my own beliefs wired my brain to lean towards pain.
Even after noticing the origin of my self-harming conduct, I couldn’t change it because “the need for pain” was still deeply rooted in my mind.
🔸 In this section, we saw that our past experiences shape our beliefs. Then, our beliefs shape our thoughts and behaviors. However, this does not explain why the same patterns keep on happening.
Section 2 — The self-sustained loop of our reactions.
When it comes to our reactions, history repeats itself for two reasons: survival instincts and neuroplasticity.
According to neuroscientists, the limbic system is the one in control of emotions and other brain functions related to our instincts and memories. You could picture it as the hardware of our subconscious minds.
Amongst other things, our subconscious minds mainly strive to keep us alive. After all, survival is our primal instinct.
With that being said, it often gets tricky, because our subconscious minds do not distinguish the good from the bad.
Our limbic brains are only interested in distinguishing lethal from non-lethal things.
Therefore, as long as what you are doing doesn’t present an immediate risk of death, your subconscious mind won’t protest via its famous fight, flight or freeze response.
For example, smoking a cigarette or eating an apple every morning are the same things for the subconscious mind. The subconscious mind doesn’t take into account the long term benefits of eating fruits nor the harm caused by regularly inhaling small doses of poison.
Both routines don’t immediately put you in a deadly situation so both are “safe”.
On the other hand, our brains are addicted to efficiency and automation. In fact, whenever the brain gets used to any behavior or reaction, it rewires itself to get better at doing it. Step by step, it consumes less energy and less time. This optimization process is carried out by neuroplasticity. That’s how habits and specific conducts are shaped.
The drawback of neuroplasticity is its resistance to change. It makes sense since familiar automatic responses are cost-effective and easier to carry out. By contrast, changing our behaviors translate into rewiring our brain circuits. The creation of new brain patterns needed for new routines cost time and energy. Naturally, our brains prefer the path of least resistance, even if it’s harmful.
This is exactly why we have a hard time changing our habits; whether they’re bad ones like smoking or good ones like taking morning walks, no matter the weather.
In a nutshell, our subconscious minds are blind to good and bad behaviors, as well as the long term impact these behaviors entail. They are also keen on efficiency, therefore, they hate change. As a consequence, our limbic brains favor the devil they know, rather than the angel they don’t.
Because of all this, we subconsciously stick to the same patterns as dictated by our deep-seated beliefs. Naturally, we end up with the same outcomes as the process repeats itself. The experiences that result take the form of validation — a big plus for our beliefs as well as our brains.
Applying these findings to my own experiences, the gratification I get from my behavior in the subway validates my beliefs regarding kindness and the importance of taking small, smart and consistent actions in the long run.
In the same way, I feel pain when I overwork myself, or when I spend a lot of time alone, and overtrain myself at the gym. These behaviors are followed by results such as publishing more articles, delivering successful projects in my consulting job, and gaining more muscle mass. Therefore, the “no pain no gain” motto deeply entrenched in my mind gets approved continuously.
“ I had the same reaction, I observed the same outcome and I am not in a deadly danger. So let’s keep on doing the same thing” My Limbic Brain.
That’s how we found ourselves stuck in self-sustained loops of reactions and behaviors regardless of their benefits and harms.
🔸 In this section, we saw that our survival instincts and neuroplasticity form self-sustained loops that repeatedly generate the same reactions and outcomes.
Section 3 — The reaction loop modelized.
We now know that our reactions follow the same cycles based on our beliefs.
For us to hack this sophisticated loop, we need to understand each one of its functions. To that end, we’ll use simple analogies inspired by common technologies.
In that sense, you could picture a reaction as the output of a machine endowed with intelligence. It responds in a specific way depending on the input: the situation.
As I was drawing this diagram, I figured out that the best way to explain it is to break down the process backwards, to better illustrate this concept, we’ll use the TEDx application story as our baseline.
Our reactions are carried out by operators. They involve our bodies and our conscious thinking. As I filled the speaking event application form, the operators were the thoughts that formulated the note and my fingers which typed them.
The operators act upon commands coming from the activators. The activators are comparable to a set of buttons that the mind pushes to engage certain parts of our bodies and thoughts. In the TEDx example, my basic reaction-mechanism sent electrical commands to my brain cells, arms, hands, and fingers.
Behind the activators is what we refer to as a decision. It’s the list of buttons to push. In my case, the decision was to self-sabotage my application because I don’t deserve a successful outcome. The decision is concocted by an algorithm.
This algorithm is run by our subconscious mind. In the process of making a decision, it executes three tasks:
- Assessing the situation
- Relating to the situation
- Formulating a decision
The previous operations are carried out almost simultaneously through several interactions between the following components:
⚪ Emotions: they intervene in assessing the current situation and comparing it to previous ones. They help our brains classify our past, current and upcoming experiences.
“ I am submitting an application, I feel stressed and bad about it since I might succeed even though I don’t deserve it because I am not good enough” My Limbic Brain
⚪ Comparators: they qualify the current situation and pick a suitable response related to it. The identification of similar known situations is done mainly through comparisons based on emotions. As for the response-selection, it’s extracted from frames of references stored in our minds.
“ This feels like the time I wanted to be selected in the school basketball team and I was afraid of successfully getting on the team list despite not being good enough” My Limbic Brain
⚪ Frames of reference: As we saw beforehand, our brains are addicted to efficiency. Therefore, they strive to build standard frames of reference to rely on to make decisions.
These frames of reference are based on our experiences. First, the mind classifies the events we go through as well as their outcomes. Then, it shapes standard responses ready for us to use whenever a situation similar to an already-processed one arises.
Each frame of reference is composed of:
- Records of equivalent experiences: memories.
- The emotions felt during these recorded events.
- The meaning that we give to the combination of memories & emotions.
- The “proper reaction”. The one that’s known, easy to carry out, and non-lethal.
“ If I self-sabotage my application like I did with the basketball team by not showing up, I won’t achieve something that I don’t deserve in the first place and I won’t die.“ My Limbic Brain
🔸 In this section, we saw that our reactions unfold according to a step-by-step process. The core elements of this process are composed of personal frames of reference.
Section 4 — what is a belief and how a belief can hack our reactions
The cornerstone of a frame of reference is based on its first three elements: memories, emotions, and meaning. Where these three elements intersect is what we call a belief.
David Bayer, who is an author, speaker and leading expert on mindset and business coaching, explains it in his book “The Mind Hack” as follows
“Beliefs are a series of connections in the brain that represent the memory of experience AND the meaning you gave it. When an individual has a fear of dogs, it’s because at some point they had an experience with a dog and the meaning they gave that experience was that dogs are dangerous. From that moment onward, unless a new meaning becomes attributed to the experience, the brain will experience every subsequent interaction with a dog as dangerous.”
In his methods, David Bayer focuses on the meaning that we give to our experiences which are a subdivision of our beliefs. He states that it’s the only way to change our default reactions.
In line with our previous analogies, we need to redraft our frames of references by updating our beliefs. It’s like rewriting the database of our algorithm by changing its content.
Keeping the example used by David Bayer, the idea would be to introduce the belief of “dogs are friendly and harmless” instead of “dogs are dangerous”.
The altered database generates an updated decision replacing the old default one “run away from the little monster” with “pet the dog”.
As the rest of the process unfolds, we end up with an updated reaction based on the updated algorithm.
Updating your algorithm through rewriting your database of references is achievable in two ways:
- 1- Acting on our beliefs directly by changing the meaning that we give to our experiences.
- 2- Acting upon our reactions which indirectly alter the meaning that we give to our experiences.
Now, reshaping your beliefs can be done instantly using the first method. This requires advanced techniques — requiring time and practice — that’ll be the subject of another story.
For the purpose of this article, we will focus on the indirect approach centered on hacking our reactions as they happen. It’s slower but way more accessible.
🔸 In this section, we saw that our inner algorithm responsible for our instant decision-making is hackable. To do so, we are required to update our beliefs by reshaping the meaning that we give to our previous experiences.
Section 5: The reaction hack
In his book, David Bayer explains that even if you artificially reframe your reaction, you are still creating a new experience that holds a new meaning. These new experiences have the power to alter your pre-existing beliefs.
Technically speaking, the experiences coming from artificially reframed reactions affect the feedback that the algorithm receives. The more altered feedback you give your algorithm, the more impact it will have on your database of reference.
Artificially created experiences start to considerably populate your frames of reference with repetition.
In time, the brain rewires itself to respond according to the freshly integrated set of beliefs. As we saw before, the rewiring process responsible for updating our algorithm is carried out through neuroplasticity.
That way, you end up with the same updated reaction-mechanism as before:
This empowered reaction mechanism comes as a result of a progressive build-up. The latter happens through consciously forcing a reframing of our default reactions as they happen.
To illustrate the point further, picture it as adding a filter that helps you to generate a new input composed of artificially shaped reactions and experiences resulting from them.
For the filter to work, we need to go through two complementary functions:
Since we’re not responsible for altering our beliefs first hand, we can’t change the generated decisions or the commands.
What we can do, however, is to act on the feedback that the algorithm expects. The idea here is to prevent the loop from closing up by creating a downtime; this is the result of postponing any immediate reaction.
Don’t speak. Don’t walk away. Don’t send an email.
- Basically, don’t react.
From this point onwards, you begin to gain control over your reactions. Not only does this help you to avoid unwanted outcomes, but your algorithm also opens itself to new possibilities.
It seems easy, but it’s not; especially for impulsive people like myself. Luckily, the delay doesn’t have to translate into literally remaining still.
I came up with a trick that allows me to postpone my reactions without feeling like I’m not fighting back:
- Delay the reaction with another action
I’ll give an example. I was recently stood up on a date.
I wanted to send the lady an aggressive, salty text out of frustration.
I knew it wasn’t the reaction I wanted to have.
So, to delay it, I spoke to my best friend. This allowed me to avoid acting on a whim that I knew I’d instantly regret. It also helped me remain calm and seek objective advice.
Come to think of it, there are plenty of delay-through-doing-something-else-techniques at our disposal:
- Write notes about what happened.
- Record a voice message for yourself.
- Call someone that you trust and feel comfortable with.
- Watch a video or listen to a song.
- Go for a walk without your phone.
In the long-term, the goal is to use tricks or hacks of your choosing to make “no reaction” your new default reaction.
Once you get used to it, restraining yourself from acting on an impulse will gradually become easier. Progressively, your brain rewires itself to automate the delay — thanks to neuroplasticity, again
While delaying your reactions enables you to break the cycle by deleting the original feedback, reframing is about changing the feedback that the algorithm receives. This is where you can create new experiences with different meanings.
When you reshape your reaction, your brain records it and considers it as feedback. It stores it in the same spot that generated the basic reaction that you suppressed and subsequently redesigned.
For a filtered reaction to become a standard one, repetition and time are necessary.
It’s like working out in the gym. In the first few weeks, you don’t see results because they are taking place at a cellular level. Then, consistency brings macro visible results. It’s exactly the same when you’re working out your brain. As you can see, patience is essential here.
In order to be successful at the reframing game, you need to be engaged with your self-growth so that your “artificial” experiences lift you up.
In this regard, my personal trick is asking myself:
“What would the best version of me do in this case?”
The question is simple. The answer is not. You need to think about it. Thinking takes time.
It’s easier to actively apply reframing when it comes to things such as answering texts, or emails — they’re actions that can be delayed. Not so much when it comes to real life, spur of the moment conversations or interactions.
In the story with the lady that stood me up, I reframed my reaction over the following two days and sent a text that expressed my wonderment without any resentment.
In that two day period, I had the time to reflect and put myself in her shoes. My text was genuinely compassionate; I just wanted to understand.
This wasn’t an easy process to go through; there were times where I was overthinking and having doubts, feeling insecure.
I leaned on my friend to help me through it.
When you reframe a reaction, expect it to be difficult to apply at first. After all, you’re fighting your own nature. You’ll figure out soon enough that your efforts are awarded.
And who knows, it may all work out immediately.
Eventually, the text I sent the woman who stood me up led to a whole conversation that helped me to have a better understanding of who she was as a person. Funnily enough, we met several times after that conversation.
The great news about reframing is that once you settle on an answer, you don’t have to do the thinking all over again for the next reaction reframe.
All you have to do is to remember the reaction that you chose and re-apply it.
Now, if I ever get ignored or forgotten by a peer or a friend, my first reaction is to stop for a moment and to approach them in a compassionate way in order to understand what happened.
I don’t immediately drown them with waves of resentment and accusations. Then, I reflect and decide if I am over-expecting from these people or if it was an unfortunate chain of events that does not define my relationship with them.
There are other easily delayable reactions such as reconsidering your approaches in your professional life. For instance, instead of immediately abandoning a product that’s not selling, you could look for ways to improve it or put more effort into its marketing.
I’d recommend focusing on this type of reaction at first before moving to your instant responses such as live dialogue and other types of social interactions. Those are trickier due to their immediacy.
Starting with the easily delayable reactions is great for practice as well as for tracking results.
In my case, my text messages and email responses improved in terms of wording in accordance with what I was trying to convey. I also got faster at responding since the delay time got shortened and I knew what patterns to follow in order to produce the best reactions possible — Thank you, neuroplasticity.
Over time, my reframed reactions started to manifest in my spoken dialogue with my clients, friends, and family.
I even impressed myself recently.
I managed to value my efforts regarding a successful project at work.
My employer asked me how my current project was unfolding and instead of saying the classic “thanks to the efforts of everyone we are managing to make progress despite the messy organization and the poor communication”, I answered with “In order to make sure that everyone is on board, I drew several deliverables that contain all the details and results of our recent workshops. That way we had a baseline to follow in order to identify the upcoming actions and the problems to solve.”
I took credit for my daily efforts.
It was the first act of rebellion against my belief of not being good enough and not being worthy of success. It came to me after months of improving my written reactions and thinking patterns; my brain learned to reshape not only my writing, but also spoken words according to the reframing.
- Reframing is about writing down the perfect script for your reactions.
- Then, you play the role of the person that you aspire to become until your brain learns how to perform as that person, automatically.
It’s the healthy personal development version of “fake it till you make it.”
🔸 In this section, we saw that hacking our reactions is done through a two-step process: delaying your reaction, then reframing it. Over time, both of the techniques become easier to carry out thanks to neuroplasticity. After a period of time, your artificially reframed reactions become the standard automatic ones.
♦ In short
As we all know, we can’t do much about the things that happen around us. Nevertheless, we always have a say when it comes to our way of reacting to them.
Your reactions are not defined by your conscious thinking. They’re the result of a complex set of subconscious operations carried out by your mind.
The most efficient way to hack your reactions is to reshape your beliefs. To do so, the most accessible method is to:
- #1 delay your reactions
- #2 reframe them according to a self-conscious analysis.
The artificially altered responses build freshly-emerging experiences that reshape your beliefs over time and repetition.
The process is time-consuming at first. As you get used to it, the two-step shifting technique becomes more effective and efficient thanks to neuroplasticity. Ultimately, your subconscious reaction mechanism morphs allowing artificially upgraded reactions to become the new automated standards.
📚 Sources & References
⚪ Neuroscientific studies carried out at the National Center for Biotechnology Information- The United States of America:
- The Multifold Relationship Between Memory and Decision Making: An Individual-Differences Study.
- Subliminally And Supraliminally Acquired Long-Term Memories Jointly Bias Delayed Decisions.
- Brain Mechanisms Underlying Automatic and Unconscious Control of Motor Action.
⚪ Books and online lectures:
- Jordan Peterson — Online lectures and podcasts — Psychology.
- David Bayer — The Mind Hack — Mindset & personal growth book.
- John Assaraf — Innercise — Neuroscience research-based book
⚪ Personal reflection and experience