My Titanic theory on changing direction

Posted on November 29th, 2012

Wanting to create change in your life just now? You might like today’s musing. I’d like to say the theory is mine. But I picked it up from the 92-year-old Russian Chinese man who taught me to hypnotise myself when I was 21.

Image by Marcel Dzama

Eugene Veshner was a former civil engineer who was told at age 40 he had only a year or two to live. He had diabetes. So had his mother and sister who both died at 40. He’d already lost part of his eyesight. To deal with the pain of such news he used his scientific brain to develop his own method of self-hypnosis to shift his outlook, which then, to everyone’s surprise, transformed his health.

The guy kept on living… another 50-plus years. And he got back most of his eyesight. And his carefully developed theory became the basis of the Nursing Mother’s Association huff ‘n’ puff classes.

I was Eugene’s last patient. He’d retired the year before, but he took me on because, he said, “You’re messy”.  I’d been working in a womb-ish, burgundy-curtained feminist café (it was the ’90s in Canberra and such things did in fact exist) and I’d quit because I couldn’t handle the two shifts a week I was doing serving coffee. My boss rang Eugene and asked him to see me.

Messy? Specifically? Well, to be honest, I’m not ready to share that story. But let’s say I was unwell. I gasped for breath. I also had insomnia. We can discuss that for now.

I loved Eugene. And I loved that I got to sit in his Jason recliner in his modest brick veneer home liberally snowflaked with doilies and always with a sprig of Jasmin in a little porcelain vase on his desk

I loved how he drummed his fingers on his desk when he explained important points. “Bad habits – and insomnia is a bad habit – can’t be reversed or eliminated. It’s not how the brain works,” he said. Drum, drum. He drew a line on paper with his fountain pen. “This is a habit, a series of thoughts. They clump together to form a neural pathway and the more thoughts you add to this the thicker it gets.” More lines drawn over the top.

“You don’t change a habit, ” he said. “You build a new one.”

Scratchy new fountain-penned line, this time parallel to the first clump of lines. “You feed this new habit, over and over. Thoughts clump, layer by layer and eventually it becomes stronger than the old habit.

“It overtakes and little by little the Titanic shifts direction.”

If we can believe for a moment that Captain Smith of the Titanic had known about those damn icebergs, I can tell you what he wouldn’t have done. He wouldn’t have, in a bold display of determination, jerked the steering wheel sharply to the left, steering the ship 90 degrees off course. Chandeliers wouldn’t have wobbled in the ballroom, martinis on topdeck wouldn’t have spilled.

No, he would have calmly turned the liner by one small, gentle degree. That’s all. And then, calmly, he would have loosened his grip on the wheel and let things chug along. As they were.

Nice and steady, the liner would have naturally eased a little to the left, and then a little more. One degree at a time. And, in good time – and all good things happen in good time – it would have breezed smoothly past the iceberg. Calamity averted.

With Eugene I slowly averted calamity by building new habits to counter my old ones, one by one. My old habit was thinking I had to get up and go to the toilet again in order to sleep. My new habit was getting the urge, and resisting it calmly. I visualized this. I pictured lying in bed and being cool with not getting up. After about three weeks of doing this every day, it played out in real life, in bed that night.

I worked through years of bad habits in this way, one clumpy neural path at a time. And so sleep came.

This is how change happens. I learned this back then. Neuroscience in the past couple of years confirm Eugene’s techniques. Our brains are no longer seen as rigid entities. They’re now referred to as being like plastic and we can shape them and steer them, and we do it by inching and building and clumping our way forward.

Yes, small moves, not Big Once and For All Overhauls. Which is a relief because not everyone can drop their responsibilities to totally change their lives. While we buy tickets to learn how to Unleash the Giant Within ™ and activate The Law of Attraction™ most of us get home to our ugg boots and Crime Scene Investigation On the Couch Nights and realize we don’t want to do a 180 degree, or even a 90 degree, flip. We have mortgages and partners and a family barbeque next Saturday that will actually be a lot of fun.

Besides, and this is the very important bit for anyone who is a little bit messy right now:

when you’re in a spot of bother, and need to make changes, you don’t tend to know what the One Overhaul is that will fix you.

That’s far too big a decision to make. Far better to inch in a general direction, even if the destination is merely “forward”.

Don’t you agree? Are you in a spot of bother? Would knowing you only have to move one degree at a time help?

 

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  • http://www.sparklingly.blogspot.com J @ Sparklingly

    Oh my goodness this is SO what I needed to read today! Crazy timing. What an amazing story and important lesson—thanks for sharing, Sarah!

    PS. Am curious as heck to know about your new mortgage! I saw something on Twitter and was remembering back to your pre-worldwanders trip about being on a quest for a new home in the world…

    PPS. Yes, am unabashedly nosy! :)

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  • http://www.kerriesaunders.com.au Kerrie

    Hi Sarah,
    Absolutely!
    As a clinical hypnotherapist working with women, I also use the Titanic analogy (thought it was mine :)) and love your succinct way of expressing such a powerful method of creating change. Visualisation + feeling = change. Repeat, repeat, repeat and your clear precise instruction to your subconscious mind becomes reality.
    Love your work :)
    Kerrie

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  • Nicole

    Thank you! Was it just a full a moon recently? I too really needed to hear this stuff right now!

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  • Kirrilee

    Hmmmm was it Tilley’s in Canberra?

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    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah WilsonSarah Wilson Reply:

    Yep!

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    Kirrilee Reply:

    Then you’ll be happy to know that in 2012… it’s still womb-ish, burgundy-curtained and feminist!

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    Steph Reply:

    I am Canadian but I lived in Canberra in the late 1990s and I think I remember this cafe! I can’t remember the name of the neighbourhood but I was living near the AIS and it wasn’t far from there. Did they have a stage and live music as well? Great article, by the way! I’ve discovered the hard way the “slow turn” method. :)

  • tracy

    How timely Sarah (of course!) – I’ve recently begun to un-collect my life…too much stuff from a lifetime of hanging onto objects of mine and those of deceased family members. Little by little, bag by bag, most of it is heading out the door to the Opp. shops. It’s taken me this long – 40+ years – to fill up my personal Titanic. And little by little, my Titanic is shifting course. Thanks for your great post!

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  • lionheartedgirl

    I love this Sarah! I highly recommend people read The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. It’s a fascinating journey about neuroplasticity and the potential we all have to change those well-worn neural pathways. After reading it I have never felt more filled with hope that I could ‘fix’ the parts of my thinking that I don’t like.

    One of the most interesting pieces of advice in it is how important it is to learn something new because this automatically forces the brain to create a new pathway. Apparently the best thing you can do is learn a foreign language because it challenges so many different areas of the brain.

    Here’s to a life of constant learning and shifting a degree at a time!

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  • Jackie

    I will use this to help me sleep through the night as my husband’s snoring is killing me!!! Also needed this today, one easy step at a time :-)

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  • http://www.boda.com.au Tara

    Great post Sarah.

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  • http://lauraelizabethhinely.com LH

    Sarah, several posts you’ve written in the last few months (especially the one about making Right decisions) have really helped me move forward. I gave my notice to my job today and I feel so ready and excited for my next adventure. Thanks for all the life-pondering things you write!

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    Angie Reply:

    I agree. The decision post has helped me so much. This one will too. I can tell. I have jotted these ideas in my own personal journal so I don’t forget them. Thank you Sarah.

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  • http://svasti.wordpress.com Svasti

    This is beautiful, and perfectly aligned with some of us yoga teachers out there who think slow is best. Work purposefully and perhaps a little strenuously, but there’s no need to kill yourself doing so. Take your time, no need to sweat like crazy. Just enjoy moving your body and the discoveries you make along the way.

    Then… slowly, you develop a stronger body. A more open and mobile body. Not all at once.

    I like this very much!

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  • http://toomanycommas.com Elissa

    This was beautiful — exactly what I needed to read. Thanks!

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  • vekideki

    Thank you Sarah, perfect timing for me too!

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  • http://heartcriesfowl.blogspot.com.au/ Angela

    Sarah, thank you so much for this today. I missed out on a big promotion that would have been a complete 360 flip for me, just before lunch time! To then read this, and know that inch by inch, I can make my own changes – well, just, thanks.
    A x

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    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah WilsonSarah Wilson Reply:

    I guarantee the promotion wasn’t the right thing right now!

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  • Stacey

    Thank you for this. I have insomnia and spend most nights awake, stressed and feeling that my health is getting worse and worse. I would be grateful for any other tips. Thanks again.

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    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah WilsonSarah Wilson Reply:

    Stacey, me too. I’ve not slept fully for 2 months now and it’s killing me. I will report back when I have some wisdom to share!

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  • Meg

    Thanks Sarah. Im seeing a sleep specialist for the first time tomorrow to address my insomnia and I too get up multiple times
    A night to go to the toilet when I can’t sleep. It was invaluable to read your strategy today x

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  • K.

    I totally agree with no big overhauls but I’m stuck as to what my one degree needs to be…

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    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah WilsonSarah Wilson Reply:

    Just walking a diff direction to the bus stop. Buying your coffee at a new place. Saying hello to a stranger. Not checking your texts for a whole day.

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    Em Reply:

    Little changes, as Sarah pointed out. They can be as simple as finding a better-feeling thought. :)

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  • http://www.thegook.com tee

    I think the hardest thing about titanic change is admitting to yourself that something needs to give, shift or turn. That part is the hard one, almost living in numbness – running round in circles – trying to pinpoint the problem(s). Once you’ve found the source – I find, that from there you can move forward, ask for help or try and make things work better for your lifestyle. Most of all, change is hard and our minds simply just don’t like it. But once we have combated change we think, ‘why didn’t I do this sooner…’ – that’s the true beauty of life turns.

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  • http://cleansemylife.wordpress.com Jenna Felicity

    The timing of this post is so serendipitous.

    Yesterday I had my first hypnotherapy appointment for a habit I’m trying to break, and I was told pretty much the same thing – it’s not about “breaking” a habit, it’s about replacing it with a new one.

    It’s wonderful to hear confirmation of a message you’ve just received.

    <3

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  • Jackie

    Day 12 & I am gaining weight, HELP!

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  • Jackie

    I have also cut out dairy & wheat

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    anne-marie Reply:

    cut out sugar, have you followed Sarah’ ebook!

    [Reply]

    Jackie Reply:

    Yes I have, now I am thinking I may be eating too many carbs

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  • emma

    This is how I quit smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Firstly, I had to WANT to change. After that I started only allowing myself 15 cigarettes a day, then 10, then 5, then rollies, then all natural cigarettes, then just 1 in the morning. AND THEN I realised I no longer needed it, so I cut it loose completely.

    That release from the “addiction” (the habit) took about 5 months all up.

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  • Alysa

    Hi Sarah,

    For someone who’s “messy” you have a lovely way of clarifying things for everyone else!

    Thanks health & life coach :o)

    [Reply]

  • anne-marie

    great post, Sarah, had forgotten I ‘knew’ this….thank you!

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  • sue

    thankyou so much.
    here i was thinking a divorce and a passport was my only way out!
    perhaps….just maybe, change is closer to home than i thought.
    bit by bit.

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  • Laura by the Sea

    Two years ago, I got the rude shock of self-awareness and realised that for the last decade I had been mentally bashing myself to pieces each and every day. I slowly and painfully created new thoughts that didn’t involve the constant self-brainwashing of I’m a loser/I will never amount to anything/I’m fat, ugly and a bad person/I will never have the career/man/life I want. I turned my personal titanic and I’m grateful every day for the work I put in to make that happen. Thank you, Sarah, for pointing out that significant change comes through small steps and is much more accessible than we realise.

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  • http://www.jessicamcomish.com Jessica

    They say that 21 days is the time it takes for the brain to change itself, and that you can learn one new habit every 21 days. If you stop with the habit for just one day, you need to start the 21 days again. Perhaps 2013 will be about making little incremental changes for me? Thanks Sarah, an amazing end to the week.
    Jessica

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  • elise

    one degree at a time. just perfect. i feel calmer already.

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  • http://the-labyrinth.com Michellina Van Loder

    Thank you for posting about this topic. It’s a timely message for me
    http://the-labyrinth.com/category/the-way-out/

    Cheers

    Miche

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  • Lisa Ingram

    I like this post. I have to say that the only way I got better at the quit sugar thing was that the ebook recognised that you have to be gentle, to persist, to give yourself permission to inch into it without calling the slips back failure, just the natural process of resetting habits and replacing them with ones you want. Plus it is not about giving stuff up, it is about replacing one less supporting aspect with one more supporting one- so you live your message. Ah, friend Sarah. Love your work. Lisa

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  • http://www.rebecca-burton.com Rebecca

    Hi Sarah, This was a great post. I have recently being going through an ‘I’m-42-and-I’ve-achieved-nothing-and-need-to-change-that-right-NOW’ phase (even though I’m the author of two published books for teenagers, with a third one well on the way!). I kept berating myself for not having the career success my family and sibling have achieved. Then I kept trying to work out what major life-changing decision I could make to change my direction immediately – do a Masters Degree? Get a qualification in Management? Apply for a promotion? Or give up and put my head in the sand? But then I got a temporary promotion at work for 6 weeks, and it feels like just dipping my toes in the water to see how I like it. I couldn’t work out why this felt more right than anything else I’ve thought of, but I think it’s what you’re saying – one little degree/step at a time. Cheers! PS I know you make a living from your e-books (which I have bought) but your advertising has stepped up massively recently, and I find it somewhat dismaying to be constantly bombarded with your please-buy-my-books posts all the time… Just sayin’.

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    Stacey Reply:

    I have to say…I don’t agree at all. You give a lot of yourself and I believe it is totally fair for you to advertise your ebooks.

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  • Jackie

    Thanks Sarah,

    I so needed to hear this right now. Been a bit messy myself lately and thus becoming more and more down on myself. First thing I need to do is give myself a break for being human. Once I am kinder to myself, I can be kinder to others too.

    Thank you!

    [Reply]

    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah WilsonSarah Wilson Reply:

    so true. how’s it going? did you hold onto that thinking?

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  • M

    Oh, how 22 year old me identifies with 21 year old you. I don’t quite have an old Russian-Chinese man, but I do have yoga and cognitive behavioural therapy and neurofeedback to help me out of this mess one sentence at a time.

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  • Chris

    Thanks Sarah

    One of your best posts yet!!! Hmm just re-reading the other comments I am the only male to make a comment. After 16 yrs of being sick & tired, I lost 70kg on a no sugar/low carb diet, worked part time for 18 mths, having one day to focus on my health & treating my super obesisty as an illness. I’ve gone from 7XL & blaming my poor wife for shrinking my clothese to L & even medium clothing.

    I’ve got both myself, my wife & my son to throw away a lot of “STUFF” – books we never read, clothes we never wear or just stuff sitting gathering dust. Stuff from my past like magazines or books that are no longer relevant….

    Now from next week returning back to full time hours. Now to turn around my finances after more than a decade of illness, doctors misdiagonisis etc for me costing us tens of thousands of dollars. My wife has recently been diagnosed with MS so on the positive side, she is only experiencing extreme tiredness and at least now she has a fit husband to help her with ironing etc.

    So thanks for this blog posting Sarah – like I did with my weight I will do with our finances & take it step by step & one degree at a time

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  • Agreed!

    Yes! I recently started a training program with the idea that in 12 weeks I would be super slim hot stuff (not long after having a bub, a la celebrity mums I suppose?). Not sure what I was thinking. Luckily the trainers philosophy set me straight – Try! Do what YOU can do! Don’t worry about what the person next to you is doing. Keep it up.

    Well, those points became my focus, and for the first time in my life I have actually enjoyed working out. It’s not a race or a competition. Two months in and I am not focused on how I look, but how I feel and what I can achieve, and as a happy side effects things are moving back into place, but in their own time :) I feel strong!

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  • Jenny

    Sarah, You would enjoy reading a book called “Who Switched off My Brain” by Dr. Caroline Leaf.

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  • http://absolutelybette.blogspot.com.au/ Sandy Dingwall

    What a perfect post to find today, of all days… a day when I had grand plans for change, but those plans melted away in a mix of heat (it’s a stinker here today), procrastination and wanderings.
    There are tiny steps I can take, to alter the ways things have been going :)
    Thanks and best wishes
    x

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  • Kat Valenzuela

    This is great! thank you for taking the time to share.

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  • http://www.jacintafleur.com jacinta

    Thank you so much. I have the wake up cant go back to sleep issue and this is exactly the inspiration that I needed to read

    [Reply]

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