There are two types of change: incremental change, which is often slow and takes more effort to maintain, and transformational change, which can happen in a moment and is effortless to maintain. Given the benefits of the latter, this video outlines how to position ourselves to achieve transformational change.
While transformational change happens in a single moment, that isn’t to say it is easy. We have to be a bit strategic. Why? Because for transformational change to occur, the brain must be confronted with two very specific sources of information simultaneously. One–what we learned about reality in the past. And two–what we can witness about reality in our present. The first–which requires that we become aware of our brain’s deepest beliefs about how the world works–is easier said than done. That is because what our brain most fervently believes is often completely unconscious to us.
This video will explore how to achieve transformational change through making our unconscious beliefs more conscious, and how to pair these with experiences which will disconfirm or challenge (and hopefully update!) our view of reality.
Transcript for Transformational Change: A Deeper Kind of Growth
Today I’d like to talk to you about transformational change. There’s some exciting new research within the field of psychology about how to transform. In other words, how to more quickly achieve both a deeper and more lasting shift toward health and well-being. That shift can happen when our schemas which are our conditioned expectations of how reality works, and how we need to adapt to it, can dissolve or at least evolve so we’re more freed up to adapt to reality as it actually is. To make that shift and achieve transformational change, our brain must first enter a learning mode of sorts almost more akin to being a child.
Why is it so hard to change?
While during childhood we are constantly learning about reality and what to expect and how to respond, once we have those assumptions, we pretty much just stick with them through the rest of our adult life. Why? It would just simply be too cumbersome to always be walking around willing to learn how to be human again fresh every day. With no assumptions about what’s about to happen and how I should respond. Once we have the learning down we just automate it and assume that those rules are gonna stick with us and we can use them in an unconscious way moving forward.
The problem is those expectations or rules don’t always serve us anymore. Why? Well they’re based on a reality we’re no longer in. At the very least we are no longer the same. We’re not the same people. We’re adults now and as adults we have different capacities and different options. We’re also very likely around different people and it’s nice if our brain can like get that memo.
Now certainly we do learn from our adult experiences, but usually those learnings exist in different memory systems so that the new learning exists in parallel and in competition with the old without necessarily changing what we originally learned. Therapies like CBT do a good job of bolstering or strengthening the new learning so it can compete and perhaps even override our original felt sense of reality. That produces incremental change which is a good thing but it’s a slow process compared to transformation change. Also unlike transformational change, learnings achieved through incrimental change are subject to being overridden by our older maps of reality, particularly during times of stress.
What is Transformational Change?
But today I want to talk to you about transformational change, to borrow a term from Bruce Ecker. In transformational change we actually go to the original learning itself, update it with new information, so that then whatever symptoms or struggles were launched by this belief: “I can’t trust people, so I must keep people at a distance” or “I have to always please people, so I can never show my true feelings.” Whatever the troublesome behavior was that was associated with this belief is, through transformational change, the belief can be permanently rewritten and behavior can change without constantly having to try to override or convince ourselves that it is a good idea to do something that is different than what our original learning taught us.
So those original learnings traditionally have been called schemas so we’ll use that term. So some examples of schemas are
“In order to get attention I have to be perfect” or it could be “I have to be bad to get attention.”
“If I let myself feel sad I’ll be rejected and then I’ll be alone with the sadness in a way that’s so overwhelming that I have to find a way to not let myself feel sadness.”
“My passion will be too much for people so I must mute myself and when I’m starting to feel excited I’ll feel anxious instead.”
“If I take pride in my work my insecure mother will feel threatened so I’ll never take pride in my accomplishments, even if it means I won’t move forward professionally.”
We Can Rewrite Our Implicit Memories
So these underlying associations and beliefs about how the world works, these schemas, they exist in something called implicit memory. Now scientists used to believe that implicit memory once it was encoded cannot be changed. The good news is now we know that it is possible to update our implicit schemas. I went over the science of that in the last video on memory reconsolidation so let me just give the take-home point and then we’ll discuss application.
The bottom line is that if we want to change a schema held in implicit memory the first step is to reactivate it. We have to bring it into conscious awareness in a felt way. The second step is to provide disconfirming experiences, in other words, to have experiences or evidence that actually conflicts with the predictions made by our schema. Basically we need to have an experience that proves that our old mental map of reality does not line up with our new experience of reality.
Once the schema has information that really disconfirms its belief, it enters that learning mode that I mentioned earlier. It’s as if the brain says “okay, I’m listening. I just had an expectation and it’s not how things played out. Maybe I need to update my view of reality.” The schema begins to at least open to the possibility of learning and change. Now let’s talk about how to apply both parts of this transformational change process: the reactivation and the disconfirmation.
What is Reactivation?
If we want to change our unconscious schemas about reality we have to first make them conscious. This really is possible and it’s usually even possible to put them into words. Why? Because even though they were unconscious they’re usually highly specific. Like “if I’m not perfect, I won’t get love.” The reason we try to put them into words is simply so we can feel that we’re on the right track. We’re not using language here in a cognitive insight manner alone. It isn’t enough just to have the right words and rationally, theoretically, maybe assume I think this has something to do with the fact I wasn’t loved as a child.
We need to get the exact words and have them be felt. In fact, we use the words to almost ping off our unconscious. It’s like if we have words like “if I let myself feel good about myself I’ll become arrogant and narcissistic like my mother.” When we say those words, if they are right on with the schema it’s like our whole being will reverberate with how true that feels. It’s like “yeah, I mean I know intellectually that may not be true, but it feels true!” So as we’re exploring we put things into words to make sure we’re on the right track and to open up that “yes” inside that says absolutely that feels true to me in a visceral way!
So step one then is to really get to discover what the contents of the implicit belief are. What do we really believe and reactivating the schema in a felt way? Now let’s talk about how to do that, because the truth is it does take some inner exploration and not everybody is equally comfortable or as familiar with inner exploration. Let’s address that head-on. First, there’s a good chance that for this really to be sufficiently done we’ll need the help of a therapist. Why, because most of us don’t know how to take something that’s more unconscious and make it conscious. Why, because most of us had parents that didn’t speak the language of the brain or mind in the home. In other words they didn’t seem curious about the child’s in our world and help them and teach them to reflect and understand their own internal process.
Our Parents May Have Conditioned Us to Be Emotionally Illiterate
Often times parents fail that because honestly they themselves don’t know how to do that work or maybe they’re threatened by something that the child might feel or that the child might know. Like let’s say the child was able to put their experience into words and noticed “hey mom that hurts me when you do that!” Well the mom may not want to hear that. In a case like that, the brain isn’t learning, isn’t having chances to learn how to track its own internal signals and bring them all the way out into a verbal expression. In fact, it may be learning just the opposite that to survive and get loved it’s better just to push those things out of awareness.
So many of us actually have schemas that say, unconscious beliefs that say: “it’s safer not to know myself.” “It’s safer not to know what I feel or what I know or to really get what’s going on around me.” So if you’re someone who is in therapy and finds themself saying “I don’t know” a lot, then you may need to be curious about what kind of schema might I have that’s making it dangerous for me to know myself, to know my needs, to understand and have access to what’s going on inside?
The truth is, many of us came from families where it wasn’t that safe, or at least encouraged, to know ourselves. So given that’s the case, when we start inner growth work we have to appreciate we’re asking our mind to do something very new and perhaps that it may have beliefs about like: “don’t look inside, no one wants to know that.” “No one’s gonna find you interesting.” “Whatever I find there people can’t handle.” “Maybe I myself can’t handle it.” “No one really can handle the true me or my true needs.”
How to Facilitate Transformational Change in Therapy
So if you think that might be you then chances are you will need a therapist present with you to say: “tell me, I’m so curious.” When this question comes from someone who both seems interested and safe, and if the invitation is really clearly given and we feel safe, which does sometimes take a second to establish chances are the information will begin to come. That’s because this way of being able to understand and speak from a deeper part of ourselves is a very natural thing for the brain to do. As long as it’s given a clear invitation that feels safe, with a little bit of patience, information and insight may come, even if it never has before.
When it comes to this internal exploration work, I just want to give encouragement to try. Most of the time we just haven’t tried yet. If you do decide to look inward, remember this process is not rationally based. Sitting down and thinking about yourself or trying to analyze yourself is probably not going to be helpful and is different than developing internal awareness. A famous analyst named Christopher Bollas developed this term: “the unthought known.” I just love that term, the unthought known. See our brain really does know things, it’s like it just hasn’t had the thought yet.
When doing this work, sometimes it’s as simple as asking the question and a realization comes. My clients are often struck by how this information bubbles up into awareness. I might ask a client “hey, just turn and ask your mind: what’s so bad about leaving my husband, what am I so terrified will happen?” Very often a clear answer will occur to them. Often the answer simply comes with us asking the question and then shutting off thinking and really listening for a response.
So if you’re thinking this sounds a little bit like mindfulness, absolutely! As an aside, I know I said try not to think so much, but you know the forms of mindfulness that say “okay, just don’t think,” I tend to find those too difficult. So maybe an easier way then just saying don’t think is really more orienting toward listening. So asking a question and just paying attention. What’s gonna come up? What feelings do you notice? What image arises? What thought bubbles up?
Connecting Words to Feelings
Sometimes it does take some practice to decode those or begin to find words for them. I think of it like learning to read Braille. I imagine if I were suddenly trying to learn to read Braille, that moving my hand across the page, I would be pretty convinced, if I didn’t know better, that there was nothing meaningful there to find. It would just feel like a chaotic and random texture. But if I let myself keep trying and feeling it and feeling it and tracking it and learning and making patterns, let my mind do what it does, make patterns, suddenly the brain will start to decode it and make it meaningful.
So in a similar way that it would take you a little time and practice to learn Braille because something in the brain literally has to be developed, it takes a little bit of practice sometimes to learn how to make sense of the images, the little impulses, the impressions that begin to come to mind. Through practice we are able to connect these dots into an overarching reality or thought or truth that we can actually put into words.
Therapy Techniques for Reactivation
There’s all sorts of techniques that people have developed to make this process easier, many of which use imagination. One of my favorites is what’s called doing parts work. In other words, picturing these little schemas as a little person. As crazy as that sounds, when we picture that as a little personality or a little creature, person inside our mind it makes it easier for the brain to both ask questions and listen for answers. Simply because the brain is just much more accustomed to dialoguing with people. So if you picture it in that way the brain is just on more familiar territory.
These little schemas, they have within them, a worldview, an expectation of reality, emotions, impulses and behavioral patterns. So if you think about it in a way they are like these little simplified people or personalities. So actually the metaphor, that image helps the brain collect what otherwise could seem impossibly complex into one image because we’re used to people being that complex. We’re used to them having a take on reality and a behavior so that image actually will capture for us, make it more concrete for our mind, if we tune into a behavioral pattern or a critical inner voice and say okay if that were a person what would it look like?
Okay that’s me at 10 years old, curled up, I’m scared and I’m telling myself that it’s not safe. Or that’s a part of me that’s like really tough, it’s like a little scrappy little inner part and she’s angry. So we might begin to have an image like that simply because then we’ve more localized that schema and can more comfortably begin to have a conversation or relationship with it. So we might ask the little girl who’s in the corner: “okay, what are you doing there?” “Why are you so scared?” Why are you curled up?” “Why are you disconnecting from everybody you love?” Then if we asked it kindly, which interestingly the rules of relationship still apply, like if we go to a part of our mind and are critical like “God, why are you so afraid get over it!” We’re not gonna get information. Yet if we go nicely and really sincerely ask then that part will give us the response back and begin to open for us the information that is held in that part of the brain.
So there are many forms of therapy that work this way with parts most famously internal family systems. There is even a book called self therapy that teaches you how to work with your own parts in that manner. Whatever technique you use the important thing is to figure out what your mind believes. When you’re approaching that mission the first step is to start with where you’re suffering. Figure out what point of suffering or what pattern that either causes me pain or causes me to get stuck, what is it that I don’t like about my own way of processing life.
It’s easiest if you can start with a behavioral response like something you actually do like criticizing yourself, or nagging your husband, or shutting down when someone’s giving you a compliment. You can also start with just an anxious feeling or a depressed mood. Either way, begin to bring it into focus. If you do it with parts work you might see a person or you might just find it in your body like this is where that place lives. Then other images like a black hole or an animal might come. Then sure enough information will begin to come into awareness like associations that can give some meaning as to what the beliefs that underlie either that feeling or that behavioral patterns. Let’s say the pattern is self-criticism so you might tune in, you might picture the inner critic if you want to do it with parts, and ask it what are you afraid would happen if you stopped criticizing me? Again that’s what we’re getting toward, what are you afraid would happen if you stopped doing X Y & Z?
If you don’t want to do parts work, you can just tune into God when I’m feeling self-critical there’s like this tightness in my chest. You might just stay there and say okay and fill in the sentence: “I must be self-critical, I must tell myself I’m bad because if I don’t…” and just see what comes. Try it a number of times. “I must tell myself I’m bad because if I don’t…” Begin to let the coherent meaning, like the way that this actually does make sense and it is in a weird way adaptive or a solution to a problem, beginning to assume it’s there and letting that information emerge. If it really doesn’t feel like an adaptation, like it just feels like sadness and maybe you can even identify a part like that’s me at 10 years old when my dad died or something. Or it may be more like a memory of an emotion or an emotional truth of like aloneness, because there really was a time you were alone. In that moment the the next step would be to just show up for that part and give support, love, self compassion, connection in a way that is actually a disconfirmation. It’s a disconfirmation because you’re saying yes there’s a deep sense of aloneness but I’m here. Sometimes just giving care to a place that simply scared or hurting can be a wonderful first step.
By the way, if you have a trauma history it is advisable for you to do this with the help of a therapist. Really though, that can be helpful for anybody. That being said, I really wish that this process of transformational change was more available to all of us. In my fantasy future we would just do this with friends, certainly with our children, maybe with a teacher. It would just be a part of everyday life to slow down and get in touch with and really have a sense for what’s driving our feelings and our behaviors.
Non-rational Thought is Not Irrational
If all that seems like a little out there for you, too touchy-feely or kind of new age-y or something, this is not new age-y at all, it’s incredibly rational. I mean it’s kind of a funny thing because literally by nature it’s a non-rational process but there’s definitely a logic to our schemas. It’s very rational to do this non-rational process because until we update our old maps to reflect our current reality we are actually behaving very irrationally!
Because it’s just the nature of reality that our brain is processing all sorts of information non-consciously, and it’s the nature of reality that we have to use other forms than just logic to get that information. That we have to and that we can even if it’s a little bit more in a felt way. It may require using creativity, imagination or mindfulness, but that it is possible and logical to access and try to understand yourself. So that’s my little pep talk for us all learning to understand ourselves and you’d be surprised how much can shift just by making the implicit more explicit. If you’ve gone as far as to be able to put into words and really have a felt sense for what your implicit schemas and your marching orders for how to be human are, you’ve done the hardest part already.
What is Disconfirmation?
So now let’s talk about disconfirmation. I spent a lot of time talking about reactivation because making the unconscious, conscious is the step that people struggle with the most. I wanted to provide examples and highlight why the reactivation is such a critical part of transformational change. This process is so important that in coherence therapy which Bruce Ecker developed, at the end of each session, the therapist will really get clear about the schema identified in that session and will write the words out on an index card to give to the client with the homework assignment being: read this card that says the the words of your unconscious belief morning and night and really feel how true it feels.
Now some of my students were like “well isn’t it gonna convince them more?” No it won’t convince them more, their brain already believes this. It could not be any more convinced. Writing it down and rereading it just helps the brain get out of the habit of this being unconscious. This process anchors the schema in conscious awareness. It also opens up a chance for the disconfirmation to come. So for instance if somebody has on their card, let’s say it’s a woman, and she has” nobody cares about me.” Then she if she reads the card in the morning and then goes out you know to the kitchen and there’s her loving daughter or husband wanting to give her a hug.
To Notice the Disconfimation We Need to Pay Attention
Now it’s not that that hug is the first time she’s ever gotten love from her daughter or her husband, but it will land in a new way if she was just consciously aware that on some unconscious level she really believes that no one loves her. So by having it activated right there that’s activating that neural net where the memory lives. Then when the disconfirm happens that changes the implicit memory to now be opened for change. It goes into that learning mode. So now a five hour window opens where if she even just thinks of the hug again, or just any other additional disconfirmation, then the new information will come in that will forever erase the idea that nobody loves me.
Now I know you may be thinking, well what if that woman doesn’t have a daughter or husband to love her? Well the bottom line with that is we’re not trying to introduce an airy-fairy version of reality. We just want the brain to be really conscious of its reality and then walk around in the reality that the person actually lives in. Because there’s a good chance those are pretty different. We want to help people to update their schemas based on their actual lived context, not based on some idealized version of reality.
So if they’re still an abusive relationship and they’re still not safe, the brain should still believe “I’m not safe,” because that person is gonna have to be on guard and preparing. That being said, then the schema to work on first might be something about “this is what love looks.” Focusing on something that keeps them in that relationship. For example, through this process they might discover the unconscious belief: “I don’t deserve to be treated any differently.” So
there still might be a schema to work with.
The Disconfirming Evidence of Being an Adult
We’re only trying to bring people into reality as it is and there’s a pretty good chance that it is different than our expectation of it. You may think nothing’s changed since I was a child. I’m still alone. I’m still around unsafe people or cold people who are not nice to me, but the one difference that is always the case is that you’re no longer a child facing it. Your adult brain has more options available than it did when we were a child. I think some of our lingering sense of disempowerment and angsty frustration, or helplessness, or collapse often comes from an underlying association that tells us we’re weak or that there’s nothing we can do when really that is no longer true.
It’s there though because it certainly was true when we were young. We are pretty disempowered when we’re young. So that feeling can pull forward. But at the very least that’s a disconfirmation we all have available. Recently I was working with a client where I asked him to ask himself, this is an IFS technique, I asked him to ask that schema, that part, how old does that part think you are? He looked at me and he said “oh my gosh an answer just came, it said you’re 25. Absolutely of course you’re 25,” when really he’s 45. He just looked at me like wow this is real stuff. Even with something as simple as in that example, don’t assume your brain has even caught up to your real age. Now I know intellectually we all know what our real age is. But on a felt level when we’re kids we’re just getting the lay of the land. What is it to be human and one of the things that could get encoded is there’s nothing I can do. I’m powerless. These problems are too big for me because in truth they really were when we were young.
The Disconfimation of Self-Acceptance
On a similar note, one other disconfirmation we always have the potential to access is self compassion. Let me explain why that’s a disconfirmation. You know when we’re children and we’re alone, we’re really alone. So that implicit felt sense “I’m alone, I’m small, there’s no one there for me,” it’s true! But when were adults there’s always an adult available for us that can give comfort, ourselves! Even self-given comfort like “oh I’m here, I care about my feelings, I care about my experience,” can be incredibly powerful in terms of being comforting and resourcing.
So if you’re not good at self compassion there’s a good chance that’s because you simply haven’t got the schema online enough yet. How I see it in my office is that usually if that early learning is really made conscious, if they really get it: “wow, I really believed I didn’t deserve love” and they can look into that little kids eyes that feels that way and get it, usually because we all tend to have empathy for suffering, usually care begins to flow naturally without as much effort.
Now as wonderful as self-love is, if you’re wanting to change your original schemas and some of them are about relationships it probably wouldn’t hurt to also put yourself around some love or
seek out communities that are safe and supportive. Even just noticing the love that’s already there or the positive empowering experiences or hopeful experiences in your current life. When you notice disconfirming positive experiences, linger and put your awareness on them.
You see it takes the amygdala 20 seconds to register a positive experience. Whereas it takes only a quarter of a second to register a negative experience. So when we have good things happening to us, ones that may disconfirm our schema, we want to actually get in the practice of paying attention to those. When good things happen give yourself at least 20 seconds to take it in. That experience will then get internalized as a possible disconfirmation to use, either in the moment or later. So while you’re getting in the habit of noticing and lingering with the positive, of course it would also help to put yourself in new contexts where positive things are more likely to happen.
Other Avenues For Disconfirmations
I think group therapy is a great option. I’ve seen people witness all sorts of new things and have all sorts of new powerful learnings in group therapy. Other avenues for disconfirmation of relational schemas are communities like a church or even relating directly to God if that’s a reality for you. We could talk for a long time about how to use spirituality for the transformational process. You know feeling what you really believe and then turning to God to see what returns by way of a deeper truth. That could be an amazing disconfirmation. Or, of course, you can see a therapist to help facilitate this disconfirmation for you through their presence or through imaginal work.
Hopefully it’s clear that there’s not one way to achieve the process of transformational change. There’s lots of ways of achieving the reactivation of making the implicit explicit, whether it’s journaling or mindfulness or parts work. There’s also lots of ways of finding the disconfirmation, whether it’s self compassion work or being around new new people and new contexts or even simply filtering through your life experience to see if you already have the disconfirmation.
The disconfirmation can even be an experience from the past. It could be a disconfirmation that’s already somewhere living in your brain, something the brain knows, it just hasn’t connected and integrated to shift the first original take. For example you might notice: “okay, I’m really getting a sense that my anger will make people reject me, but you know my cousin, one time I got mad at her and she actually talked to me about it and we got closer through it.”
We Can Fully and Permanently Rewrite Our Maladaptive Schemas
So when you have both: reactivation and disconfirmation, however you get there, the next step is to let them both be an awareness at the same time. Tune into the original schema and feel how true it feels, “my anger is going to push people away.” Then tune into the new learning or the disconfirmation, which again can’t just be an idea, it has to feel true to the brain as well, and just go back and forth a few times. If you simply do that, it gives the brain the chance to actually update its view of reality. It doesn’t take long, but once that update happens it’s permanent.
I wish you the best in your journey toward transformational change. Whether it’s through journaling or parts work or prayer or therapy. I encourage you to find some way to really know what your brain believes. In its heart of hearts, what does your brain believe from the past and then let it come in contact experientially with the reality of your present. In our next video we’ll focus specifically about achieving transformational change in therapy and how to deepen your experience and get the most out of the process.