A few years ago, some of my Silicon Valley executive coaching clients asked me if I had seen the Bob Newhart “Stop It” video. It was making the rounds in their company. When I saw it, I understood why they wanted me to watch it.
Bob Newhart plays a psychologist, Dr. Switzer, meeting with a patient, Katherine, who wants to overcome her fear of being buried alive in a box. Dr. Switzer tells Katherine that he charges $5 and can guarantee that the session will last no longer than five minutes.
Katherine explains that her long held fear of being buried alive prevents her from entering tunnels, elevators, houses, or anything “boxy shaped.” Dr. Switzer then asks her if she is claustrophobic. Katherine reluctantly responds, “Yes.” He then tells her he is going to give her a two-word solution that she can then take with her.
Katherine eagerly takes out a pen and pad out, ready for this important advice. Newhart leans in across his desk and sharply barks “Stop it!” Bewildered, she asks him what he means. He proceeds to repeat “Stop it,” over and over again. He adds that it would be terrifying to live her life afraid of being buried alive in a box and she needs to “Stop it!”
Katherine then shares a litany of fears and phobias, to which Dr. Switzer answers, “Stop it.” The skit ends hilariously and also leaves the viewer to wonder, why we can’t just stop self-sabotaging habits and behavior?
We Can Stop It--Thanks to Neuroplasticity
Bob Newhart, playing Dr. Switzer, was right, although he left out a few steps. Thanks to new findings in neuroscience, specifically neuroplasticity, we can stop self-sabotaging behavior. Norman Doidge in his new book, The Brains Way of Healing, eloquently describes neuroplasticity as our ability to change our brain's structure and how it functions “...in response activity and mental experience”. So consider Katherine, who was afraid of being buried alive. Applying neuroplasticity, Dr. Switzer could facilitate a discovery process to help Katherine uncover when this belief took root. He could also assist her in discovering that her fear, driven by an emotional memory, was undoubtedly valid in the moment, and yet, is no longer serving her. He could explain that based on this early memory, the neurons in her brain wired together so that when faced with a closed in space, she froze in fear.
Dr. Switzer can invite Katherine to identify a new, empowering belief, e.g., “I am safe in closed spaces,” and then have her repeatedly go into a closed space. By repeating her new behavior over and over again, Katherine will rewire the the neural pathways in her brain, therefore creating a new habit. She will in essence, be able to stop the old behavior.
How Leaders can “Stop It”
In a business context, if you are a leader who wants to change behaviors that occur automatically yet are holding back your career progression, the same principles apply. For instance, consider a leader who needs to delegate more and concentrate on strategy. An executive coach trained in the principles of neuroscience can be quite helpful here. The coach can help the leader identify the beliefs or assumptions that are guiding her seemingly automatic behavior of doing tasks herself.
In work I did with one leader, we discovered that her unconscious, unexplored belief was, “If I don’t do it, it will get messed up and I will be a failure.” I was able to facilitate a process that helped her discover that this belief is really an illusion. It was not true. With guidance, she realized that a more empowering belief was, “I can let go and others will learn.” I encouraged her to repeatedly delegate without abdicating. That is, she learned to provide clearer directions for the “what” she wanted and let go of how it was done. Repeating this new behavior over and over again created a new neural pathway in her brain. In time, delegating became a new habit.
The bottom line is that we can shape our mind and shape our habits. We can rewire our neurons and our brains. We can “stop it.” What automatic behaviors are getting in the way of your more effective leadership?
Check out Stop It clip on YouTube