The Challenge of Change – Breaking Through with Conscious Awareness

Struggling to realise the changes you want to create in your life? Here’s why, and what you can do about it.

The challenge of making positive change in our lives is real.

Many of us will be familiar with the feeling: hot off the festive and new year season, we might have started off well with our resolutions but come Spring, our efforts have likely started to wane and before we know it, we’re back to our default settings. We are then likely to feel bad about ourselves, which in turn has further negative implications on our ability to create lasting change in our lives and will often see us returning more strongly to the familiar comforts we are trying to turn away from.

We might intend to lose or gain weight, eat more healthily or give up drinking. We may be trying to develop new work and career opportunities or start writing that novel. We could be making efforts to find love, new friendships or hobbies, or just trying to be kinder to ourselves. Whatever the change is we are attempting to make in our lives, many of us will struggle to realise and sustain it. So why is this the case?

Protective Thoughts – These are our go-to excuses and defensive reasonings to ourselves about why we can’t or shouldn’t do something we otherwise want to, that allow us to let ourselves off the hook. They generally kick in automatically to maintain the status quo when our brain recognises a break from our normal habits, and usually serve a protective function that keep us from deeper, more painful core beliefs. Compounding this further, when we try to implement change, it is usually accompanied by uncomfortable sensations in our body which brings on the protective thoughts, making us more likely to move away from the desired change and back to the relative safe zone of our previous behaviours and habits. Someone trying to get healthy might experience a racing heart or fluttering in their stomach that they associate with being bullied for being overweight as a child when they think about giving up comfort food, inducing protective thoughts like, “I just can’t lose weight.” Similarly, after experiencing a rejection in our dating attempts, sensations like burning cheeks and chest tension could remind us of our first heartbreak. We might then associate such sensations with shame or sadness and think, “Maybe there’s no one out there that’s right for me.”

Core Beliefs – These are the thoughts that we have about life and about ourselves that we hold to be true.  They form from repeated and/or impactful experiences in our lives, and are often unknown or hidden, unconsciously driving our behaviour, choices and thought processes. Core beliefs can be positive and affirming, such as “I can do anything!” or “I am loveable!”, and they can also be negative, limiting and painful: “I’m not good enough,” or “I’m not worthy of love”. We will then unconsciously act from these thoughts and beliefs and experience them reflected in our life.

In short, when we believe something to be true, it becomes our base-line way of thinking and of seeing the world and ourselves. When we try to implement changes that might challenge these beliefs, we encounter inner resistance through uncomfortable sensations and protective thoughts that bring us away from our initial goal. Often, we are not even aware that the sensations are driving the protective thoughts, because we attach to those thoughts so easily. We then get stuck in a catch-22 loop of knowing what we want to change, thinking we can, doing so for a bit, but then returning to our default actions and thought processes through our unconscious underlying beliefs. We might now feel better as we push away the uncomfortable sensations that come with change, but we are now also not experiencing the changes we want to see in our lives.

Let’s have a look at how this might all play out. When we feel unhappy about something and decide we want to make a change, we might start off in trying to implement that change feeling positive and inspired by what we want to achieve: “I want to lose weight – I can do this!” We might then go the gym a few times and eat healthily for a few weeks or months, but before we know it, we might feel sensations we associate with anxiety or hopelessness, such as a tight throat or tingling in our hands and we’re back to our default behaviours via those excusing and protective thoughts: “I have no one to go to the gym with…I just can’t lose weight…My efforts don’t seem to make a difference…” These protective thoughts lie just above our deeper beliefs about ourselves, which in this case, might be: “I don’t matter.” When we try to make changes in our lives, we return to our default thought settings despite our good intentions, and those subconscious beliefs continue to run the show.

It then follows that in order to make real and lasting change in our lives, we must address our default thoughts and beliefs, and the uncomfortable sensations that arise when we deviate away from these thoughts and beliefs. However, this can feel like quite a daunting and overwhelming feat because a) we have a lot of thoughts and sensations, b) we tend to think of beliefs we hold as fixed and ascribe particular meanings to our bodily sensations, and c) if these thoughts and sensations are subconscious and/or unseen, how can we address this problem?

Conscious Awareness – In its most simplified form, conscious awareness is presence to your thoughts, sensations and environment; an understanding and witnessing of our very existence. In practice, conscious awareness is relatively easy to demonstrate.

Imagine for a moment a blue frog, hopping up and down. Have you got it? You will likely be able to ‘see’ this image in your mind’s eye instantaneously. You are not the brain having the thought, nor are you the thought itself. The real ‘You’ is the awareness behind all of that, observing yourself experiencing the thought of a blue frog, hopping up and down. This is true of everything that we experience in our lives, be it thought, feeling or bodily sensation. Our experience of life comes from the highly individual perception we ascribe to these thoughts and sensations, and those perceptions are largely a result of the beliefs that we hold to be true, formed from our previous experiences.

So how does this knowledge of conscious awareness help us?

  • It allows us to detach from our thoughts and sensations – not so that we can disown or ignore them, but rather so that we can take a step back and see them for exactly what they are – just thoughts and sensations!
  • It helps to ground us in the present moment – In observing what bodily sensations and thoughts we might be experiencing in a particular moment, we are ultimately bringing presence to the immediate, bringing our attention away from the past or future to the only place that really matters – now.
  • Utilising it is restorative to our sense of personal power – When we take the time to recognise that we are not bound to specific thoughts, or to give a particular meaning to bodily sensations that we might experience, we become free to choose our thoughts and act in the way we want to, regardless of any sensations that might occur.
  • In looking at our lives as an observer, we can often see our ‘hidden’ beliefs in plain sight – a lack of love or relationships in our life might reveal that we believe we are not loveable or that there is no one out there for us. If we struggle with money, we might believe that we are only capable of earning or having a certain amount. If we are stuck in a job that doesn’t inspire us, we might think that the job we really want isn’t out there for us, or that we are not deserving of it, smart enough for it, etc.

How to practice conscious awareness

This simple exercise would ideally take you about 5 minutes. Find a quiet place and close your eyes. Spend a few minutes just noticing the sensations that occur in your body, without ascribing any meaning to them. This might look like, ‘Tingling legs. An itch. Tight throat. Heaviness in chest. Fullness of breath. Racing heart.’ If you notice your mind wander, gently bring your focus back to the sensations. Then, bring your attention to your thoughts. Again, spend a few minutes noticing the thoughts that occur, as if floating by in little clouds. If you find yourself getting drawn into or lost in a thought, take a deep breath and pull back to just noticing, letting the thoughts come and go. When you’re ready, open your eyes. This noticer, observing the sensations and thoughts, is the real you.

How to use conscious awareness to implement change

  • Pick something you want to change or a goal you want to work towards.
  • Write down all the protective thoughts you can think of that might arise when you try to implement this change. Then next to them, write down thoughts that challenge these protective thoughts, supporting your desired change.
  • Write down all of the sensations you might experience when you try to implement this change.
  • Implement the change or start making movement towards it.
  • When you experience resistance in the form of uncomfortable sensations and protective thoughts that move you away from your desired change, recognise them for what they are – just thoughts and sensations that you are experiencing – they have no real power over you.
  • When these protective thoughts occur, notice what sensations have arisen within your body, and just be with them. Then go to your list of thoughts that support your change and switch out the protective thought for a supportive one.
  • Keep doing this until your desired change becomes a habit or has appeared in your life.
  • Remember that ultimately, protective thoughts and sensations have no intrinsic meaning: if you can stay with the sensations – and you can – you can choose the thoughts that support the change you want to see and keep moving towards it.

In practice, this might look like:

Change/goal: I want to write/be a writer.

Protective thought: I’m not good enough. Supportive thought: I am good enough and I’ll get better with practice.

Protective thought: People will laugh at me or criticise me. Supportive thought: It only matters what I think of me.

Protective thought: It’s too hard! Supportive thought: I can do it, one step at a time.

Protective thought: People will think I’m crazy! Supportive thought: Who gives a shit?

Sensations: Pounding heart, sweaty hands, tight throat, heaviness in stomach, tight chest, wobbly legs.

I sit down to write, experience the thought, “I can’t do this, I’m not good enough!” and I take this as my cue to notice the sensations I’m experiencing in my body – tight throat, pounding heart. I notice these for a few minutes and then switch out the protective thought for the supportive thought, “I am good enough and I’ll get better with practice.” I go back to writing and after a while I notice I’m thinking, “It’s too hard!” so I turn again to the sensations – tight chest, heaviness in stomach, and after a few minutes of allowing the sensations, I switch out the thought to, “I can do this, one step at a time.” I finish the article and instead of publishing it, I panic and think, “People will think I’m crazy!” I turn instead to the sensations I’m experiencing of sweaty hands and a tight throat, then I switch to the supportive thought of, “Who gives a shit?” and hit that ‘Publish’ button.

Using conscious awareness to become familiar with the thoughts and sensations we experience that might get in the way of us realising the change we want to create, ultimately reminds us that we have a choice in every moment: we and only we have the power to change and direct our own life. We are not limited to certain thoughts, and we do not have to ascribe particular meanings to bodily sensations that we might experience. When we can take and hold the position of observer of our thoughts and sensations, a whole world of infinite possibilities becomes available to us as through this perspective, all change – big or small – becomes possible.

For further reading on this topic, see The Thought Exchange, by David Friedman (2011)

©Dr Madeleine Smith, 2022.

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