Sheila Kelly tells me to stand, gaze down at the floor and raise my right arm to shoulder height. She holds my shoulder and pushes down on my wrist. “Be strong,” she says. Then she asks me to make a series of simple statements such as, “My name is …”
As I make each statement the strength of my arm is high if I believe it, weak if I don’t. This is called muscle testing. It is a simple way to see if the subconscious mind believes what the conscious mind is saying. Used by psychologists and athletes for decades, it is the cornerstone of a practice called Psych-K, which is designed to identify and deal with limiting beliefs.
Kelly is an experienced executive coach who is adding Psych-K to her repertoire. Using the body bypasses the limited conscious mind to reach directly into the subconscious. The subconscious contains a vast storehouse of information from your past. It also runs the stuff you don’t have to think about: Basic bodily processes; learned skills like walking and driving a car; and the ingrained habits that govern a lot of human behaviour. While the conscious mind offers willpower, reason and choice, most of the processing power of the mind lies beyond our conscious awareness.
The essence of Psych-K is to find where conscious goals are in conflict with unconscious beliefs and then to shift the underlying belief. The conscious mind makes decisions and sets plans in motion, but if the plan conflicts with what the subconscious believes at a deeper level, the subconscious will find ways to sabotage the plan. With a lot of effort you will take a few steps forward, but then drift back. Hence, the exercise gear that sits of the shelf, the $60 billion diet industry and all those well-meaning self-help programs that don’t quite cut it.
According to Rob Williams, founder of Psych-K, core beliefs help to define your behaviour and your physical and psychological health. The key questions are: What prevents you from experiencing a great life? Do you live primarily in growth mode or protection mode?
The answers to these questions tend to come from your childhood. Did you get more “I can” or “I can’t” messages when you were young? Was the dog next door friendly or threatening? These experiences create the subconscious programs that underlie beliefs, perceptions, habits and behaviours. For the rest of your life the subconscious will look to confirm these basic observations and protect you from perceived danger.
Despite our abstract intelligence, human beings are creatures of habit. By nature, habits are self-reinforcing. Williams uses the example of a two-year-old touching a candle. The experience hurts, which shapes perception. From now on, fire is dangerous. The child is in protection mode, which in this case is a good thing. Experiences shape perception. This creates belief, which reinforces perception, which changes experience, which reinforces belief. Around we go.
Unlike the candle episode, a cycle of self-deprecation doesn’t serve you. You need to rewrite your mental software to change your behaviour. As you treat yourself better, you will find that others treat you better as well. New opportunities appear. It seems the external world is changing, but really you are just noticing what was always there.
Psych-K allows the practitioner to tap into the subconscious by using muscle testing to tune into beliefs that are below conscious awareness. These techniques are an effective way to detect and replace inner conflict that takes a toll on the body, Williams says. Studies have shown that repressed anger, for example, can lead to heart disease and cancer.
During our session, Kelly identifies a goal that is in conflict with a core belief and she goes to work. In this case, the issue is about trusting my own power in negotiation. There is a conflict somewhere at an unconscious level. I agree that I want to discover and change this belief.
It is time to let the body take over so we can reach directly into the subconscious. Kelly leads me through a series of exercises designed to bypass the conscious mind so she can speak directly to the subconscious. She asks me to close my eyes and gets me to change my posture and shift the position of my hands and feet. It feels awkward, as intended. Her voice is calm. Minutes pass. I am skeptical. The whole process feels artificial but I am determined to give it a try. I lose track of time.
Then something shifts at a deep level. I feel a deep sense of peace. It happens quickly. My body relaxes. Kelly repeats the new belief statement. Yeah, that feels right on many levels.
It turns out that limiting beliefs take a lot of physical energy to maintain. We are often on guard, our muscles tense. Our subconscious mind is trying to protect us from some vague threat, real or imagined.
“Psych-K offers clarification for the subconscious mind,” Kelly says. Any problem that shows up repeatedly in our outer world may have a deeper root cause. “Negative beliefs can have many layers,” she says. “Getting to the basic ones is a discovery process. It can take some time.”
On the other hand, Psych-K can be a fast-acting way to reduce stress. We think about a difficult issue and get into the uncomfortable feeling it causes then get permission from the subconscious to proceed. There are kinesthetic techniques to “balance” these beliefs and create harmony between the conscious and subconscious minds. This quickly diffuses stress. Biochemically it reduces the amount of stress chemicals like cortisol.
“Today anxiety is a status symbol in the corporate world,” Kelly says. “It says, ‘I’m important—my life matters.’ But this is not helpful at all. It creates a lot of chaos for the individual and impacts the energy of others. When someone takes their frustration into the boardroom, it is hard to counteract.”
As individuals and as a group, we are either working from a base of fear and protection or from a sense of openness to new experiences, she says. “Our society is infected by a virus of fear. Many people are successful but they still have a lot of stress and anxiety. These are symptoms of the disease of becoming disconnected from ourselves. Psych-K removes the blocks to peace and happiness that for the most part are not conscious.”
“A lot of the time we are on autopilot. We take leadership and professional development courses, but they don’t go deep enough. As former US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld said, we live in a state of unconscious incompetence. We don’t know what we don’t know. The first step is to look inwards. Then we become consciously incompetent. This opens us to new possibilities. Eventually we become consciously competent and gain control of our own lives.”
Finding strength in the wound
Although she has degrees in science, education and counselling psychology, Sandra Wallin says her main teachers have been her horses. Based near Vancouver, she runs programs at a facility called Chiron’s Way, named after one of her horses. She divides her time between private practice and teaching Equine Guided Development and Psych-K locally and internationally.
In Greek mythology Chiron is the wounded healer, a centaur who was a philosopher, holistic healer and mentor of heroes. “Chiron teaches us to find strength in the wound, transmuting old pain so we can exemplify the mastery of a specific life lesson,” she says.
I am speaking to Wallin at a café at Halifax Stanfield International Airport. She was in town leading a Psych-K training session. Sheila Kelly is one of her students.
While still a teacher, Wallin took a course in Psych-K and saw how quickly it worked with troubled kids. She also saw it work with cancer patients and on a Korean War sniper who had been carrying his stress for 60 years.
Her own “aha!” moment came after a riding accident. She was taking a course in trail riding in the Rockies. Crossing a creek behind another horse, Chiron stumbled and she fell under him as he tried to regain his footing. She suffered multiple injuries from hearing loss to chipped vertebrae.
“I used Psych-K on myself and changed some beliefs about my ability to heal,” she recalls. “My body healed much faster than the doctors expected. A light bulb came on and I knew I wanted to teach. The accident turned out to be a blessing.”
Wallin herself was taught by Rob Williams, the creator of Psych-K. Williams left a successful career in business to get a master’s degree in counselling, only to discover that traditional talk therapies didn’t offer much help to those suffering from trauma and other deep-rooted issues.
Eventually he zeroed in on muscle testing as a way to bypass the conscious mind to tune into the subconscious patterns that can sabotage the best intentions. He demonstrated we can live in a safe and benevolent universe—a place of our own making.
Why do some people succeed and others fail, no matter how hard they try? Why do some people enjoy their lives no matter what the circumstances, while others are miserable no matter how much they have? Some of the answers, at least, lie deep within.
This article originally appeared in OptiMYz 905.