How To Unlearn Your Old Negative Programming
A few small tweaks could make a huge difference
It takes a lot of reinforcement to build a habit, a mindset, or a belief.
It also takes a lot of reinforcement to unlearn these things.
You’re going to need to remember this as you start. You might wonder why you’re still failing, why nothing seems to be changing, why you feel just as stuck and hopeless as you’ve felt for so long.
Don’t worry. It’s likely taken years, even decades to build your current habits, mindset, and beliefs. As I’ve learned after 7+ years of therapy and counseling: change won’t happen overnight.
But change can happen quickly — if you commit to the following exercises. Changing fundamental parts of yourself is difficult, but not impossible. Many times, you’ll be surprised at how fast things are going.
The amount of improvement you see will depend on your commitment and how much you’re willing to work. As they say in 12-step addiction programs, the most intense form of behavior change there is: “You get out what you put in.”
As soon as you’re ready to commit — even just a small bit for starters — let’s begin.
First, You Must Take Command of Where You’re Going.
“You cannot allow the actions of others to define your reality.” -Steven Pressfield
Everyone has a place they want to go. They want to go somewhere where they have financial independence, better intimacy with others, better health, more free time, a fulfilling career.
You can’t get there unless you take command of where you’re going.
Many people live their lives like a large, powerful boat, too afraid to sail into the high seas. There are storms, rocks, and fearsome sea monsters out there — it’s safer to stay in harbor.
But in the words of Navy Admiral Grace Hopper:
“A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.”
If you don’t take command of where you’re going, there’s no telling where you’ll end up. Worse still — others might begin calling the shots for you. If you don’t take control of your life, others will.
In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield warned: “Those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.” There is a heavy cost of not taking responsibility for your life.
Back in the day, I worked at a terrible corporate desk job. I was chronically bored, exhausted, and felt overworked even though I spent 75% of my time doing basically nothing but pretend to work.
For a long time, I blamed my annoying coworker, incompetent managers, and dysfunctional company for my troubles. I never took responsibility for what I wanted until years later. Eventually, I got so sick and tired of being sick and tired, I quit!
My wife and I took full responsibility. We quit our jobs, packed up our belongings, and moved to South Korea to travel the world and teach English. I was able to start a personal writing business where I work from home, making more money than my old corporate job only working 10 hours/week!
When you let others call the shots, you get stuck in a cycle you can’t break.
But when you take full responsibility for your life, that’s the moment where you can do anything with your life.
“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” -Greg Mckeown
Your Body Listens to What Your Mind Tells It
“Whatever the conscious reasoning mind believes, the subconscious mind will accept and act upon.” -Joseph Murphy, The Power of Your Subconscious Mind
Tony Robbins once described what happens when clients come to him for advice, but claim they’re hopeless. “I’m a smoker,” they declare. “And no matter what I do, I just can’t stop smoking.”
Robbins reaction? He agreed with them! “We all act consistent with who we think we are,” said Robbins. If a client came to him convinced they couldn’t succeed, then they certainly wouldn’t. They needed a mindset shift first.
Your body listens to what your mind tells it. If you tell yourself things like:
- “I’m a couch potato, I can’t exercise”
- “I’m just not a numbers person”
- “I can never remember people’s name’s”
- “I’m terrible with directions”
- “There’s no way I could start a business”
…What do you think will happen?? After months of reminding yourself of your inability, what makes you think you’ll suddenly achieve success?
I’ve been playing basketball my whole life. One game in high school, I stole the ball and ran towards the basket, wide-open. I was by myself — it was a guaranteed basket.
But I missed. It bonked off the rim. Everyone in the stands saw me totally fail.
That moment crippled me. For years after that moment, I switched my entire game style. I never shot the ball. I subconsciously believed I was not a shooter — not after what happened. I rarely shot the ball, and always passed when I could.
But a couple years ago, I finally got tired of being, frankly, a scared little wimp. So what if I missed the ball sometimes? So what if I totally air-balled? “I am a shooter,” I’d repeat to myself, over and over. It became an incantation. “I’m a shooter. I’m a shooter. I’m a shooter.”
You can guess what happened next. I became a very good shooter. I would make shots and practically gasp in disbelief as I watched it go in. I became one of the best basketball players at my local park.
Your body listens to what your mind tells it. Your incantations become reality. Good or bad, your body will follow the directions of the boss: your mind.
It’s time to unlearn those negative beliefs. It’s time to start reinforcing a different set of beliefs — that you can do it, it is possible, that you do have what it takes.
Most people are still repeating outdated and false incantations to themselves.
- I’m not book-smart.
- I don’t deserve to be here.
- I’m fat and lazy.
- I can’t do it.
- He’s the handsome one, I’m just the funny one.
These outdated, dusty old beliefs don’t serve us anymore. You need a new incantation, one that reflects what is really true: you can do it. You are worthy.
Once you replace the old phrases with new ones, you’ll find yourself with new energy, renewed focus, and a much brighter future. Suddenly, those ambitious goals won’t seem so impossible anymore. In fact, they become downright probable.
“Very often, we made decisions in our youth about what to believe, what we’re capable of, and who we are. That becomes the glass ceiling that controls us.” -Tony Robbins
Unlearn Your False Limits You Learned as a Child
Back when I was an emotional mess in therapy, my therapist instructed me to read David Richo’s How to Be an Adult.
Among the many gems I wrote down, this one was particularly powerful:“Unresolved baggage from our childhood can have severe impacts on our adulthood.”
Outdated and archaic limits we learned as children will have severe negative impacts on our adulthood, if left unresolved. If we don’t unlearn and replace them, we will continue living with the same childish limits under which we once lived.
We will never experience the rich, full success of a fully matured adult.
One afternoon when I was 10, my parents came home with a lot of groceries. My mom fussed that the bags were too heavy for us little kids. But my construction-worker dad disagreed. “Anthony, you’re fine. Now get off your ass and go help your mother with the bags.”
Guess what? The bags were heavy, but I could carry them. I was strong enough.
I appreciate my mom wanting to shield and protect me. But that type of learned helplessness has profound powerful consequences over time. Some people never get over it.
Due to learned helplessness, constant settling, and avoiding risk — habits we learned growing up — most people have begun to believe “this is as good as it gets.” They are content to walk the treadmill of mediocrity — breaking a little sweat, but never really getting anywhere.
This is not as good as it gets.
The first step of any 12 step program for addiction recovery goes something like this: “We admitted we were powerless over ______, and our lives had become unmanageable.”
The first step to unlearning negative mindsets is recognizing you have them, and how much power they’ve had (and still have) over you.
Identify what is holding you back — in relationships, career, finances, ability, and belief. Then you can move forward.
“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.” Sheryl Sandberg
Unlearning your old negative programming won’t happen overnight. Those reinforcement patterns run deep.
A mentor of mine used to be a smoker for 20 years. He quit. A few years ago, his dog died. Understandably, he was really sad and upset.
On the drive home from the vet, he mechanically reached up to his shirt pocket — the same pocket that held his packs of cigarettes for decades. It was empty now, he hadn’t carried cigarettes in years. But the impulse was still there.
Practice building a new mindset for yourself, one based on power and ability and discipline. Start with your childhood — what were the most powerful limits you learned? How can you overturn them, replace them with something new?
It’s time to stop letting those negative habits call the shots. Unlearn that negative programming, and build a new life for yourself.
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