Set Points, Possibility and Why We Keep Ourselves Stuck

The first time I looked down and saw that my knee was straight, I couldn’t believe it.

I was never the flexible child, never the kid who could drop into the splits or walk backwards into a bridge. My gymnastics coach sneered at my attempts to flip and bend and cartwheel.

I couldn’t even get my knee fully straight.

Lying on my back one day in PE — I must have been fifteen or so — my leg outstretched in the air, a strap around my arch, I pulled and yanked and pushed my foot as far as it would go.

My knee still would not give. That slight bend persisted.

“You just have tight hamstrings,” the teacher told me. “Keep stretching.”

I stretched. I stretched at night in front of the television, I stretched before and after I hauled my sluggish body through the daily mile run I’d self-prescribed.

I tugged and yanked and coerced my muscles longer.

And I did get a bit more flexible, to some extent. But still I could not straighten my knee.

“Your tight hamstrings are ruining your stroke!” admonished my rowing coach.

Stretch! became the mantra. Punishment for an overly tight body.

It wasn’t until my early twenties when I met a mentor who would alter the course of not only my life but also my professional career that I learned the secret key that would liberate that knee.

Muscles, generally speaking, aren’t structurally too tight. They don’t need to be pulled longer like taffy because they aren’t an inanimate substance lacking intelligence that can be molded and sculpted like putty.

Muscles, it turns out, are linked to a brain.

And that brain has a subconscious set point for each and every muscle fiber in your body, a range of lengths within which those fibers function optimally.

To shift the set point, you have to engage the nervous system. You have to get it on board with what you want.

Until you do, all the tugging and pulling in the world is just a tug of war with your own self.

Thinking about this the other day, I realized that your life has a set point, too. Your brain has a mode of operating that is within normal range, a set of expectations from the world for what life will grant you.

Before you’re about a year and a half to two years old, before you can map the world with language, your body is mapping life through sensory experience.

Your environment conditions you. Your family, community and culture all shape your behavior and beliefs.

This is why oppression perpetuates even in the face of policy changes….because it gets encoded into our biology and shapes our behavior beneath conscious awareness.

And then it forms set points. Just like your muscles do as you wave your arms in the air and learn to crawl, later wobbling up to standing.

Your brain maps gravity, and it also maps people.

It learns just how much it should expect from life. It learns how to reach out and connect. It learns how to preserve your place in the tribe — which might not be the role you later want to fill.

As you grow into childhood and later adulthood, the ideas that are reinforced are the ones that become part of your fundamental operating system.

They steer you like an invisible autopilot, correcting course when you drift too far right or left.

And when you find that the world you’re in chafes and rubs you raw, that your hands are bound and your voice gagged, you stretch.

You stretch your mind the way I was stretching my body, tugging and pulling, like taffy.

You read books. Books on productivity and personal development. You clean up your diet, talk to a therapist, go to yoga, meditate and journal.

You do all the things. All of these things are good things.

But, just like stretching didn’t work until I lit up my nervous system in the right way, until I got it to buy into my cognitive efforts, all this taffy pulling tends to look like a lot of fury and madness without a lot of results.

Spinning in the same circles. Getting frustrated with yourself. Because you’re smart. And capable. And why can’t you just get it together already?

You are challenging your set point for possibility.

What you believe is available in the world for you. Or safe for you to claim as your own.

This shit is deep.

We’re taught that if we don’t like how things are, we should change them. Do something different.

But what do you do when your very neural makeup is hellbent on preserving the status quo?

When deep tension propels you toward change, but a visceral clenching simultaneously urges you to stop?

This process isn’t cognitive, just like the set points of your muscles aren’t either. Every time you take a step toward something you desire, your set point, like a proximity sensor in a fancy new car, feels you stepping close to the edge of your comfort circle and corrects your behavior.

You can, oddly, become quite comfortable inside a prison. Not happy, maybe, but biologically okay with things. Used to your circumstances.

I hired a business and life coach once who kept urging me to make huge, risky changes. When I expressed concern, she berated me for self sabotage.

But it wasn’t self sabotage. It was fear for my survival. Corrosion to financial and social support structures is just as threatening to us today as a tiger in the bushes would have been in the cave man times.

Years later, working with a different coach and consultant, I was beating myself up for said self sabotage.

“I don’t really believe in that,” he told me. “I think that fear has wisdom, so let’s delve into that.”

This is how you start to unpack the tug of war, to release the inner tension that’s whirling you around in spirals.

Not by denying the resistance, but asking it what wisdom it has to share.

Your resistance has smarts. It wants to keep you alive.

And inside of it lies the key to your escape, if you can only decode its secret message.

Sensation is the language of your lizard brain.

Using sensation, we can suss out the themes. We can pick apart the struggle and see what’s keeping us locked in a prison of our own conditioning.

And bit by bit, we craft an escape plan. Sometimes that plan is short and sweet, and other times it may be a process stretched across years.

But ultimately, the only way to affect change throughout your whole being and not just your thinking brain is to get your neurology on board.

And the only way to do that is to bring your whole self — body and brain — to the table.