A couple of months ago as I was reading a book I came to a chapter that describes an ancient war during which prisoners from the opposing army were used to fortify defenses of the cities. This was not just free labor, but was meant to keep the prisoners occupied so they wouldn’t have the energy to rebel or try to escape. Upon completing the defenses and various structures, the prisoners were then placed in prison; one they had built themselves. I found this very interesting. Had the prisoners known they were making their own prison? Either way, by the end they found themselves in prisons made by their own hands.
I couldn’t help but see the parallel between this story and where we sometimes find ourselves in life. While I hope that none of us ever find ourselves in a physical prison, it is true that we can find ourselves in a “self-made prison”.
These prisons include chronic stress, anxiety, illnesses, prejudices, cynicism, shyness, self-doubt, limited beliefs, and even financial worries. How do we create these “prisons”? It really all starts with our thoughts.
Earl Nightingale has said, “You are now, and you do become, what you think about.” It seems that most of us have heard some rendition of this. We’ve been told to watch our thoughts or to think positively. But why? Why are thoughts so important and what role do they play in building self-made prisons? Without getting into too much detail, it is with our thoughts that we create associations, which creates our perception of the world. The brain is doing this all the time as a way to not have to continually relearn things.
For example, as a child did you ever burn your hand on the stove? It was painful, wasn’t it? Well once (hopefully no more than twice) is enough for our brains to create an association that touching a hot stove equals pain. Since we have created this association, we know to avoid a hot stove.
This same process is used for positive things as well, such as associating parents or spouses with love or a favorite hobby with fun or peace. The problem however, arises when we create untrue associations or labels for a person, place, or thing. This means we can associate pain or suffering with our spouse, or children, or money, or a million other things that aren’t true. How we think about our spouse or children is what becomes the association.
As we build these associations they become a habitual way of thinking. These habitual thoughts lead to habitual emotions, behaviors and actions. Before we know it we’ve created neural pathways in the brain that lead to habitually being someone we don’t want to be. We might be anxious all the time, or get easily offended or angry. Perhaps we purposely push others away. All of these are what I call self-made prisons; habitual thoughts, emotions, or behaviors that keep us from living a happier life. Most of the time the only thing keeping us from more fully enjoying life, our family, work, etc is our own prisons.
Again, why do I call these prisons? Say we’ve developed a shyness, we don’t feel like we can talk to people. What is this shyness keeping us from? Could we be missing out on wonderful friendships and relationships that could enrich our lives? If we’re easily angered or offended, could this be keeping us from experiencing more love, empathy, and compassion? Could pride be keeping us from feelings of gratitude, learning opportunities, or developing relationships? And on it goes.
There is good news however. It’s something that is not talked about enough and believed even less. It is that we can change. When I say this I’m not just saying it in a motivational sense, I mean from a biological and physiological standpoint our brains are literally designed to change. In fact we’re changing more often than we realize, for better or worse. Our brains have plasticity. This means they can be rewired; the associations we’ve created can be changed. We can change our thoughts, habits, behaviors, and even our personalities to be in line with the kind of person and life we want to have. We can become a person who is full of love, or who achieves their goals, or who develops great relationships.
Anyone who has made a change knows that it generally doesn’t happen overnight, but rather one day at a time, little by little, with some failure along the way. But they do happen when we apply consistent courageous effort. To aid people, we’ve developed our Cognitive Therapi program which is a 6 week program designed to provide the knowledge, tools, and techniques needed to help rewire the mind. We invite all to take advantage of this program.
We’ll wrap up with one more note on self-made prisons. Perhaps the most common prison in the world today is that of victimization or not taking personal responsibility for your life. Too often I’ve heard people say “I could never do that” or “That’s just the way I am”. This is a self-made prison! This way of thinking keeps us from pursuing a better life, change, stronger relationships, etc. When we say “That’s just the way I am” then we are throwing in the towel and deciding not to change. Again, this is a learned way of thinking that we have created; we were not born this way.
I have a 7 month old daughter who is learning to crawl. She’s fallen down several times, lost her balance, and bonked her head. Yet never once has she stopped. I highly doubt she has ever said to herself, “Well I’m just a baby so I guess I won’t ever be able to crawl.” That’s absurd! Children know they can change. They know they can learn. And so can we. Whether we realize it or not, there are hundreds of thousands of people changing every day. The only difference between those who do, and those who don’t, is that the ones who do, choose to act, and the ones that don’t, choose not to act. In reality, saying, “This is just the way I am” stems from a limiting belief in our own ability to change.
As one who has been freed from “prisons” and who is still working on tearing down others, I can promise you that change is not only possible, but very worth it. Life becomes so much sweeter. Relationships become more enriched. Even business and work goes better. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s possible. It’s worth it. So what will you choose?