Spring cleaning for the mind

By Jason Duff - Contributing Columnist

The long awaited, first day of spring has come and gone. For those of us who are forced to endure these dreary, and often unpredictable Midwest winters, the turning of the season brings with it a universal sense of renewal. As trees bud with new growth and song birds return to serenade our mornings, this resurgence of life fills the air and refreshes our spirits.

We often think of the calendar new year as a time to start fresh and declare resolutions meant to create change within ourselves. But I have always found the spring season to inspire change on a more natural level. One example of such innate behavior is our practice of “spring cleaning.” We use our seasonally inspired vigor to go through our homes, cleaning away all of the dust, cobwebs, and excess clutter that has accumulated during those long and idle winter months.

Just as our environment is starting fresh, it beckons us, too, to emerge from the grayness with a renewed sense of hope and purpose. So, what if we were to revisit those New Year’s resolutions that we have most likely abandoned by now? What if we were to couple the action of implementing desired changes with the vibrancy and promise of a new season? What if the practice of assessing and cleaning our living spaces were to carry over into our lives?

The reason that New Year’s resolutions so often fail is because it is actually very difficult to shift a person’s behavior. That statement probably sounds pretty obvious, but the reasons might run deeper than you realize. Our behavior is a product of two different systems constantly running in our programming. The first system is that of our most basic instincts, being controlled by the oldest and most primitive part of our brains (commonly referred to as the limbic system). The second system is regulated by the most recently developed part of our brains (the neocortex) and is what we use to keep the first system in check. These two systems are in a constant state of contention. As humans, we have the unique ability to suppress our primal impulses in order to adhere to the cultural structures and social norms that we’ve created.

When I’m thirsty and walk into a gas station to buy a bottle of water, it’s that first system that tells me to guzzle the water as soon as I grab it from the cooler. The second system is what restrains me from opening it until after I’ve walked up to the counter and paid for it. I think the best metaphor for this relationship is that of a horse and its rider. The rider can use a set of reigns to steer the horse, stop it, and make it go faster. But, at the end of the day, the horse has a mind of its own and is capable of overpowering the rider when it really wants to. This is the problem we face when changing our behavior. We’re good at keeping our true nature in check for short-term purposes, but long-term changes require a fundamental change in the horse. Unfortunately, we can’t consciously access this part of ourselves like we can with the rider. This makes it very difficult to reprogram long lasting changes in our behavior.

Notice I said that it’s difficult, but not impossible. Retraining the horse isn’t something that can happen overnight. It has to happen habitually, and over a long period of time. You need to identify the changes you want to incite, and then be resolute in the execution. Is your goal to live a healthier lifestyle? Write down a plan to incorporate regular exercise into your routine and to limit those bad foods that you over indulge on. Start with small changes that you can realistically build on over time. Stay vigilant in your commitment, keeping record of victories as well as failures. It’s ok to fail. That just means you know what to start improving on tomorrow.

You can also identify areas in your life that need adjusting in order to better facilitate change. Maybe you have relationships with people who are holding you back rather than encouraging you to progress. Maybe you have an unhealthy relationship with your phone and spend too much time on social media. Just as it takes time to spark long-term positive reform, toxic relationships are also often developed over long periods of time. They become part of our self-identity, making them difficult to walk away from. But, if you are adamant and uncompromising in your commitment to change, you’ll soon find that the benefits of cutting those ties will, in the long run, outweigh the costs.

So, after you clean out your literal closets, turn to the more metaphorical ones. Visit those dark corners of your mind which have gone neglected for too long. Assess the cobwebs and clutter that need cleaned out. Use this season of life and rejuvenation to nurture the seeds of change that have been lying dormant inside of you, waiting to flourish.

Jason Duff is a local resident and contributor to the Record-Herald.

By Jason Duff

Contributing Columnist