Like so many of us, I go through a lot of phases when it comes to self-esteem. Sometimes, I think I’m amazing, and that I deserve to love myself. Other times I stand back, look at the darkest parts of my soul, and wonder how anything is ever going to turn out right. But there’s one concept that has given me a deep emotional stability throughout the years — that I can change; that ultimately I am the one who decides to be me. And I can consciously choose to be happy for most of every day.
The Darkness Almost Swallowed the Warrior
The darkness descended on the tough old warrior. He wasn’t alert or even worried. There had been other storms. Some with lightning, torrents of rain, and waves of ominous black clouds. He had always maneuvered his way through without even getting too wet.
He was stumbling around in a big wide circle after pulling over seconds after it almost got him. He glanced down the grade and saw the logging truck’s red taillights preparing for a tricky turn in the distance. The same rig that he had almost impulsively pulled his car in front of in a surprising move. A clear voice that sounded like his own had screamed: “Just do it!” He had jerked the wheel to the left and crossed one lane and was heading toward the giant metal creature that would have had no time to react and never could have stopped.
He saw his son’s face as if in a vision and that brought him back to this world. He took a turn at the next side road and scrambled out.
His legs gave out and he collapsed. He sat there stunned like a boxer who had taken a stiff left hook to the temple. What got him to a dark place like this? Well, the stress of another death may have been too much, but the answer was quite simple really. Like the boxer, he had let down his defenses, the ones that had always worked. In short, he gave up on the very coping skills that had always allowed him to let the cruelties and suffering he often witnessed roll off of him. They had never stuck before.
The he was me.
I shared the story of my near demise because I want to make it clear to those who find this transformation program that I am no sterile clinician spouting out advice from my office to those struggling. I am a humble traveler who has been given some knowledge. It is my mission to share such knowledge. Walk with me. We will stroll side-by-side as equal travelers not with me in the lead and you following. I am not exceptionally intelligent, or especially gifted and certainly do not think of myself as superior to anyone. What I do have is 41 years of experience working with children, families, sex offenders, foster kids, runaways, and the mentally ill. I taught and coached nearly two-thousand students, had over a hundred foster children and over 30,000 hours of direct, one-on-one contact with adult male clients and friends challenged with paranoid schizophrenia. I have a slideshow of memories and have developed a series of antics and activities that work to help people become happier.
“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”
Henry David Thoreau
In order for us to have a successful journey, I need you to accept certain premises. Henry David’s quote is the basis of my entire philosophy. It also shows that people have been thinking and experiencing such matters for many years. I am fascinated by the current and recent remarkable work that has been done on changing the brain’s structure and inner workings by the calibration of experienced Buddhist meditation experts and western neuroscience professionals. Those who seek change can do so with full confidence that the results are real and measurable. Things once thought of as “mystical” are now common knowledge in the neuroscience arena. This is tremendously exciting and provides a systematic way to make personal changes.
Marcus Aurelius: ““If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
We can’t choose what happens to us in life, but we can choose how to respond to it. In fact, the possible responses are infinite. We run into trouble when our brain’s protector sends us messages that are not facts but opinions that alert us to possible danger. This trait was once necessary to keep us safe and alive but is now often mostly false alarms that cloud our thinking and negatively influence our behaviors. These messages are pathways and are familiar to us. The brain likes familiar as it has experience with it and can predict what will likely happen. The problem is that we will take familiar paths that lead us to unhappy places over and over again because our mind has determined this is the safest thing to do as we already know this particular danger, which is a false opinion or a cruel joke. We can make new paths and immediately.
We have a limited amount of attention available to us each day. One can think of the brain’s attention center as a single glass of water and the rest of the brain as the Pacific Ocean. A cougar cannot focus its attention on hunting for food when his brain is engrossed with getting away from a nearby predator. When the human brain is consumed with other things, like perceived threats to common concerns like status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness (SCARF), then this sucks water out of the attention glass. The result is less creativity, focus and productivity on important tasks. In order to keep from losing all the water in the glass, we can learn to regulate our brain’s workings and emotions.
To understand this key to living a more successful, happy life, it is helpful to recognize that the logical, rational, Mr. Spock, part of our brains is way more limited than we think. Most insights and problem-solving happen elsewhere in the brain when things are quiet. The brain needs calm and silence to perform at its optimal level.
There is one major organizational principle at work at all times in the brain. It is the threat versus reward evaluations that are being performed constantly.
You are walking down the street and the brain is evaluating everyone who walks by, and its assumption is that every stranger is a potential foe or threat until proven otherwise. You see a book cover in the store window and make a judgment on that. You see a college student come racing by on his mountain bike on the sidewalk, then see a shop owner on a ladder a few steps away washing the windows. Your protector is scanning everybody and everything to make certain all is threat free. You see an attractive woman give you a smile and your brain pleasure (!) area is engaged for a few seconds before a siren goes off in the distance, which stops all that.
Here’s how it works:
This protector, the limbic system, has a very active role and set rule of thumb. It is hypersensitive to threats to survival and is constantly out to minimize danger and maximize rewards. However, the threats are much more powerful than the potential rewards and thus are much, much more dominant. Bad gets way more attention than positive rewards. The brain’s default appears to be to focus on the bad or threats and pay way more attention to them. These possible threats create a good deal of noise. But luckily, the front part of the brain can regulate these messages and transform them. Just as a weight-lifter can grow bigger and stronger with regular focus on specific muscle groups, the frontal lobe can be taught to make new pathways that will silence the noise of the threats. This is amazing and incredibly simple to learn to do.
Here is an example: You are walking down the street and see a good friend coming your way. Your brain assesses the situation and wants to move toward your friend as it will probably be pleasant and rewarding. You get a little dopamine hit which is pleasing. A block later you see a man who fired you unfairly at an agency where you both were working two years ago. You duck your head and turn down the alleyway to avoid him. Your heart is racing and you are breathing hard. If you have no skills you will be shook up for hours as the bad emotions have way more impact than delightful ones. In fact, you have totally forgotten about seeing your friend moments earlier.
This scenario can be completely changed with some knowledge and practice at Emotional Regulation- which is central to successful, happy living.
We manage emotions poorly and almost totally backward but by learning about what is going on in the brain we can get highly skilled at regulating them.
When we experience some stress (threat) we have three choices:
- Reassessment or Reframing (Cognitive Therapy)
We can learn how our brain works and it is important to learn that it is our brain responding to perceived threats not us. We can learn to say: “Oh, that’s just my brain trying to protect me.” We can go about expressing our emotions verbally but that is mostly maladaptive to most environments and may make us feel better briefly but will cause distress to those around us. It was once taught that we needed to not keep things bottled up but release our emotions. If we were angry it was once thought healthy to yell and release it.
However, this yelling simply reinforced the anger path and made it a deeper, more familiar, easier to use and a wider pathway in the brain. This technique did have a kernel of the truth. Suppression is ineffective, unpredictable and can be dangerous especially if one’s major goal is to be happy most of each day. If you suppress, like most do, then many others will feel intuitively that you are hiding something and perceive your behavior as a bit of a threat themselves. Suppression doesn’t work. If you try not to think of something then part of your brain keeps checking in to see if you are not thinking about it which makes you think of it! Suppression of emotions can cause attention to wander, memory loss and frustration. The body will respond with an increased pulse rate and other signs of stress. It is the most commonly used method, that is true, but certainly not the most effective.
What works when a stress or emotion pops up into your mind? Here are two simple things:
Labeling an emotion aloud will put on the brakes on the threat response, calm the brain and fill back up the glass of attention availability somewhat.
Reframing—You change the interpretation of the event, immediately. The brain becomes quieter, which is always a good thing.
Here’s a scenario to witness:
It’s three pm and I have got to drive down to this town 35 minutes away, pick up some brochures from the printer for tomorrow’s meeting, and be back by five pm to take my friend Rick, who uses a wheelchair, shopping that I promised to do a week ago. I am on the highway and about half-way there when, to my horror, a road construction crew has a line of cars stopped. I come to a stop. Now, here is where the content, wise and productive people show an advantage over the rest of us.
I am profoundly irritated at this point. I curse the universe for my bad luck, smack the steering wheel hard and start calling myself names. “You damn dummy! You always do this kind of thing. Why did you wait until the last minute? What a bonehead! Oh, shit, what about Rick? What am I going to do about breaking my promise? This is bullshit!”
Actually, I would never do such a thing anymore. ( I used to choose this type of option and did so many times) I have developed some other skills. I would reframe this, that would be my new choice. I would immediately laugh at the minor dilemma and say something like: “Oh, well. Everything is going to work out. It always does. ”
I respect myself too much to become my own abuser. I would probably call Rick and tell him I was going to be a little late, find some music on the radio or kick back and close my eyes. The possible responses are infinite and all in my control. I have no obligation or requirement for being angry or even irritated. Will this matter in a week? How about a month? I am not going to get my way for a few moments. If one gains patience and learns to be calm then the next few moments of waiting could be relaxing and quite pleasant.
Or I could always choose to be miserable and talk nonsense to myself. But why?
SKILL NUMBER ONE:
Change your self-talk this very minute and forever.
I have met too many people who call themselves names, have negative things they repeat over and over like a nasty, negative mantra and abuse themselves. I have seen too much abuse. You must make the commitment to stop repeating this ill-treatment. Are the words even yours? Or are they words from some abusive asshole from your childhood? When you make a mistake, say: “ That’s not like the new me. Oh, well. It isn’t the end of the world.” Then smile or laugh or clap your hands. Many people with negative self-talk habits will have deep pathways that are almost like river canyons and been traveled through too many times. Catch yourself doing this and stop it!
If you are going to assume more control over your inner environment and remake it into a more peaceful, happier place you must start here. Compliment yourself for good decisions and enjoyable times. Allow the poor decisions and mini-dilemmas to disappear like morning dew on the grass when hit by sunshine. Wave at your reflection. You do not need to be your own worst enemy. Enjoy who you are and try to improve things you don’t like about your behavior. Oh, I have another related question:
What was your big crime?
You were born into this world clean-handed, guiltless and sinless. So, what was the big crime you keep punishing yourself for with your negative words and basic unkindness to yourself? What was it? Now, take the stand and provide some evidence of your guilt. Little children are most often victims, not the criminals. Nobody cares what happened in the past anymore for nothing can be done about it other than setting yourself free from the prison you yourself built. The one with no keys; the door has never even been locked. Step out and walk to the sunshine. Perhaps, it is fear not a crime, that has you worried. Write it all out have someone analyze it with you.
I have a video to share. In this video, she provides you with an activity that we will close this lesson with today. You have a fun task to perform. Go to 31:36 to get it.
Finish this first session with the watching of the Stonecutters Story at 22:40. We are on the journey. If you want more information this site is filled with videos to watch about many subjects. I highly recommend the happy page at the top. Until part two, remember, now and always:
ENJOY YOUR LIFE!