The brain, like a computer, is complex. But it is also simple. It loves efficiency. It loves to create links and associations so as to streamline the process of converting thinking to acting. Our associations dictate our behavior. For example, in Pavlov’s Dog’s study, he discovered that any object or event which the dogs learned to associate with food (such as his or his lab assistant’s footsteps) would trigger the dogs to salivate. If we associate snakes with danger, we will wear tall boots in grass and jump out of our boots if we see a stick that looks like a snake. If we associate love with losing ourselves, in relationships we will become avoidant and push our partners away. Most of these associations are subconscious. We are not fully consciously aware of them.
Each and every one of us is full of associations. Some of them may serve us. Many of them do not. Obviously, if what we want is a good relationship but we have formed an association between love and losing ourselves, the association is running contrary to our desire. There is a way for us to change our associations and that is to replace them.
Before I teach you how to do this, I need say that this tool, like every other tool can be used for good or used for harm. We could create a negative association in our minds so as to overcome an addiction, which benefits us or we could create a negative association in our minds so as to prevent us from something good, which harms us. We could create a positive association in our minds so as to help us achieve success, which benefits us. Or we could create a positive association in our minds so as to force us to gravitate towards something that is detrimental to us, which harms us. This tool should not be used as a tool of denial, escapism, self-avoidance, self-resistance or controlling and manipulating someone else. A person can do a lot of damage with intentionally creating associations so as to influence behavior. Cult trainers do it all the time. It is the hallmark of conditioning.
A while ago I was working with a woman who had a super violent father. He was an alcoholic and used to smash glass bottles when he was angry. She formed an association between the sound of breaking glass and getting beaten. The reaction her body had in response to this association was so extreme that if she heard the sound of breaking glass, she would immediately become frozen and flooded with so much anxiety, she would hyperventilate and often pass out. Obviously, this kind of association is a real problem if she was out at a restaurant for dinner and a server dropped a glass or if she was at home with her kids and one of them dropped a glass.
What I did is help her come up with a different, positive and believable association with that same sound. She loved Disney movies and she related to the character of snow white in the glass coffin. She said that she could imagine that sound as maybe being the sound of the glass coffin breaking with her inside it, like Snow white was, and that when it breaks, she could feel a full body sense of feeling set free and rescued as if by a prince; and ready to start a new life that is free from harm. So we practiced to form a different association between the sound of breaking glass and that experience/feeling of set free and rescued as if by a prince and ready to start a new life that is free from harm.
You can do this with any kind of situation. To do it, pick some association that you have that is negatively impacting your life. Recognize what the trigger is for this association to be set off and produce the unwanted result. And think of some other positive association you could form with that thing and/or that trigger. Pick something positive and compelling to you personally. I find that the most successful are the ones that are most believable and accessible to the individual themselves.
Close your eyes and recognize the reaction that this negative association creates within you such as thoughts, feelings, sensations and images. Imagine yourself in that very scenario. See it first from third person perspective, as if you are watching yourself like a fly on the wall and then in first person perspective.
Now recognize the reaction you would have to the new positive thing you chose. What does it cause in you, such as feelings, thoughts, sensations and images? Imagine yourself in that very scenario. See it first from third person perspective, as if you are watching yourself like a fly on the wall and then in first person perspective.
Now imagine a color, perhaps a favorite color or whatever color helps you to feel a sense of re-setting your mind and getting your focus entirely off either scenario. Alternatively, you could imagine taking an eraser and wiping the thoughts and images and scene you are observing clean from the canvass of your mind with a dry eraser.
Now imagine that first negative association state. For the woman in my example above, this would be experiencing a situation where a glass breaks. Imagine it happening in first person perspective. When holding the image and imagining the experience begins to intensify the feelings and sensations in your body, immediately imagine the image of the positive replacement association coming in to quickly and aggressively replace that negative scene. For the woman in my above example, this would be the image of the glass coffin breaking from third person perspective. Once it has completely taken over the negative scene, experience that scene in first person perspective. For the woman in my above example, this would be to fully imagine being inside that coffin and the sound of glass shattering being the sound of the coffin breaking open so she is set free and rescued as if by a prince and ready to start a new life that is free from harm. Spend a few minutes really feeling that experience in your whole body. Feel it settling into your cells.
Now again, imagine a color or imagine taking an eraser and wiping the thoughts, and images and scene you are observing clean from the canvass of your mind with a dry eraser. Do this until you feel you are re-set.
Repeat this process of imagining that first negative association state in first person perspective and immediately imagining the image of the positive replacement association coming in to quickly and aggressively replace that negative scene. And once it has completely taken over the negative scene, experiencing that scene in first person perspective as deeply as possible so as to feel that relief and positive state in your body 11 times. Making sure to re-set your mind with the color or eraser technique in-between each time.
The new association has been made in your subconscious mind. The old pattern of behavior that was a byproduct of the old association is no longer as automatic as it once was. And from there, every time you encounter the stimulus that used to cause the negative association to become triggered, you simply imagine the replacement image/association, and link what has just occurred to that positive association replacement. For the woman in my above example, any time a glass bloke, she would use it as a trigger to intentionally and immediately close her eyes and imagine being inside that coffin and the sound of glass shattering being the sound of the coffin breaking open so she is set free and rescued as if by a prince and ready to start a new life that is free from harm.
In this woman’s case, at first she was able to get to a point where she did not have a panic attack when glass broke near her, she simply felt tense. After 2 months of practice, she was able to get to a point where she could feel good when glass broke, as if each glass breaking was an opportunity to be set more and more free.
Automatic thoughts, feelings and behaviors do not have to stay automatic and oppose your sense of free will forever. If a negative association is negatively impacting your life, you can replace it so that it becomes a positive one.