Using Small Shifts to Rewire Your Brain
Updated: Nov 18, 2022
It can be easy to feel like you’re not making any progress in reshaping your mindset.
Sometimes we feel like we’re stuck in the same spot we’ve always been. But every small shift you make adds up—it compounds, it grows, it expands.
Imagine you plant a seed in your garden in the backyard. At first, it won’t look like much. As a matter of fact, you won’t even be able to see how the seed is growing at first because it’s still so deep in the soil.
But then, one day you notice the first seedling sprout 🌱, and after several more weeks and months of water and sunshine, that seed is now growing into a beautiful plant. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, that little seed will eventually bear fruit if you continue to tend to it.
Maybe the slow process of rewiring your brain feels like a long road ahead. Think of it this way…
You could spend all day staring at that garden, complaining about how long the seed is taking to grow. Or you could enjoy the process of tending to your garden—being out in the sun, watering it, and pulling out weeds that will stunt any new growth. Where you put your time and energy matters…
Every chance you get to break a negative thought cycle and turn towards a more productive one puts you one step closer to rewiring your brain and creating that resilient mindset you want.
Whether you’ve encountered a momentary setback or a life-altering event, acknowledging where you are and then shifting your thoughts is the first step in moving forward.
Let’s walk through three different scenarios so you can see what I mean…
Side note: Notice that the initial emotions stay the same in both thought cycles. We don’t have a lot of control over the first, knee-jerk emotional response, and that’s okay. Those emotions are real, and they’re a normal part of being human. We don’t have to try to stop them; we just need to recognize them and then avoid letting them dictate how we respond.
A Slight Setback
Every single human on this Earth experiences day-to-day frustrations that can leave us feeling sad, stressed, and angry. Those smaller daily disturbances can start to compound and weigh us down unless we’ve got tools to actively address them.
Whether it’s because we’re stuck in traffic, we woke up late, or we’re hit an unexpected problem that needs to be addressed right away, running late is one of those things we’ve all experienced.
So what does it look like to Stop & Shift in these daily disruptions?
Initial Thought Cycle…
You’re irritated and maybe even anxious. Not only are you worried about how running late will make you look to your boss/your doctor/your kid’s teacher, you’re also spinning out all kinds of scenarios about what other setbacks you’ll face because you’re behind schedule.
So you lash out at the people closest to you—at your family as you shoo them out the door or at the first coworker you see when you get to the office.
That frustration pours into how you show up in your first meeting, and it snowballs throughout the day. It feels like nothing is going the way you planned it, and by the end of the day, you’re telling yourself that the whole day was a total disaster.
The Small Shift…
You’re irritated and maybe even anxious. You take a deep breath and think to yourself, “I wish I could teleport right now. But since I can’t, I’m just going to focus on getting there calmly and safely.” You stop playing out all the potential consequences of this single setback and focus instead on what you can do in this moment.
You can’t turn back the clock, but you can stay calm and find some peace in the present. You savor the hug from your kids when you walk out the door. You turn on some good music when you get in the car. You greet that first coworker and ask how their weekend was—and truly listen to what they tell you.
You handle whatever hiccups being late causes, and you move forward. When you find that you’re getting down on yourself for being late, you take a beat and remind yourself, It’s not the end of the world. By the end of the day, you’ve got space to feel gratitude for all the things that went right in the day, rather than focusing on those 10 minutes when you were behind.
A Moderate Setback
A lot of people in my close circle are currently finding themselves unexpectedly becoming a caretaker—for a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a friend. This isn’t a momentary setback like running late; it’s something they know will last a season, and how long or short that season will be isn’t always clear.
So how can you Stop & Shift so that you can step into that role in an intentional way?
Initial Thought Cycle...
You’re annoyed and maybe even overwhelmed. Let’s get real, we’re all busy. And even if you love that person, adding yet another thing to your plate feels like a big ask.
You start thinking about all the ways this new role will impose on your life and make it more difficult to pursue your goals. Maybe you’ll have to give up your weekly yoga class to get them to medical appointments. Maybe you’ll need to step back from some projects at work to free up enough time to support them. Maybe you’ll need to move temporarily to be closer to them. All of it feels like you’ll have to give up your life to take care of someone else.
You also find yourself worrying a lot, because you truly care about this person. You’re thinking about them all the time, and it feels like your whole life will now revolve around them.
The Small Shift...
You’re annoyed and maybe even overwhelmed. But you step back and remind yourself, “I don’t have to do everything.” You give yourself permission to just do what you can, both in the interests of this person but also to support your own well-being.
This may feel like an imposition in some ways, but you realize that it’s also a blessing to be in a position where you can help someone you love when they really need you. Sometimes it’s through time; sometimes it’s through financial means; sometimes it’s through emotional support. There are many ways you can fulfill your responsibilities, and you are fortunate that you can contribute in any way.
Maybe you’ll need to take some time off from work. Maybe you’ll have to readjust your schedule. Maybe you’ll have to make some changes in your living situation. But you remind yourself that you’re able to do all of that because you’ve built a life where you are in the driver’s seat and are empowered to make those tough choices.
Will this new season be a challenge? Probably so. But you remind yourself that being able to rise to that challenge is a reminder that you’ve successfully created a life that allows you to show up for the people you love.
An Epic Setback
When you think about setbacks, these are probably the kind that come to mind first. An epic setback is life-altering—a family member getting a life-threatening diagnosis, the death of a loved one, an accident that resulted in major injuries. These are the scenarios that we hope we never have to face, but they’re also the ones we’ve been preparing ourselves for with each of those small daily shifts.
So how can shifting your mindset help you navigate in the big moments and grow through it?
Initial Thought Cycle...
You are devastated, confused, and overwhelmed. When an epic setback happens in your life, you may feel like your thoughts are spinning out of control.
My life will never be the same.
I have no idea how I’m going to move forward.
How could I let this happen?
For some reason, our thoughts try to convince us that we could have done something to prevent this thing from happening. We need to assign blame for this tragedy, and we end up heaping too much of it back on ourselves.
You sit in that grief until you finally have no choice but to face the world. It feels too hard to hold space for both your pain and your responsibilities at the same time. So instead you try to push down your hard emotions and operate on autopilot.
Everything feels heavy, and even though you can stuff down your feelings for a while, you see them seeping out of you in unexpected ways. You worry that you’ll never feel whole again.
The Small Shift...
You are devastated, confused, and overwhelmed. You allow yourself to feel all of those feelings, and you remind yourself that even though you may not have been able to predict what was coming, you can choose how to respond to it. You give yourself permission to let go of the pressure to deal in the “perfect” way, and you commit to focusing on small steps toward healing.
You respond to the epic setback with extreme care. Every shift has to be gentle. You release yourself from feeling like moving forward means you should wake up tomorrow with a smile on your face. As humans, we’re too fragile for that, to be honest. You forgive yourself for not getting it all “right.”
When those hard emotions start to overwhelm you, you find ways to bring yourself into the present moment and put your focus on something you are grateful for. This is not about toxic positivity, my friend. Right now, you do not have to be grateful for anything related to this setback; you do not need to put a joyful spin on your heartbreak.
But find something positive in the moment—the clean sheets on your bed, the sunlight shining through the window, the clean water in your glass. Allow yourself to bask in the lightness of that gratitude, even if it only lasts for a moment.
And take comfort in knowing this: that moment literally created a change in your brain, and those small changes are what will allow you to come through the other side of this hard moment.
When it comes to rewiring your brain, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again:
small hinges move big doors!
Those small shifts, made moment by moment, day after day, are the foundation for living a resilient life. Every stressful experience—whether slight, moderate, or epic—is an opportunity to grow. These are the reps that build your mental strength!