Stop Shoulding on Yourself!

 Interactions with other people wire the brain for resilience. This dharma talk parable illustrates how interactions can be positively and negatively encoded in the brain.  A seven-year-old boy and his family are having dinner at a local restaurant. The waitress, addressing the boy, asks “What would you like, hon?” And the boy cheerfully answers: “I would like a hotdog with fren…” when his mother interrupts and says: “No, no. You want the meatloaf with mashed potatoes and green beans. And I will have the salmon.”  The waitress continues around the table to each of the family members. And then turning back to the boy asks: “Do you want mustard on your hotdog?” The boy looks at his mother and says: “She thinks I am real.” The best protection we have against trauma, stress, or psychopathology is a secure inner base. Self-awareness and self-acceptance are the building blocks of relational intelligence.

In Bouncing Back: Rewiring your brain for maximum resilience and well-being, marriage and family therapist, Linda Graham outlines the five intelligences of resilience. Somatic intelligence is body sensed safety. A sigh is the body’s organic response to resetting the nervous system. Sighing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the foundation of well-being. Notice when you sigh and then double down, inhale deeply and exhale deeply. The value of intentional breathing during moments of stress or anxiety is that you cannot be both tense and relaxed simultaneously.

  • Phrase breathing: string together a series of 5-10 breaths. Notice the breath coming in is cool; the breath going out is warm. Notice where in your body you sense the breath: in your nose, your mouth, your chest-rising and falling. You may add a phrase to the breaths: breath in—“I am home.” Breath out—“I smile.”
  • Holding your thumb: in moments where you find your heart beating faster, your breathing becoming shallow, your anxiety rising, try holding the thumb of your non-dominate hand in your dominant hand. This gesture is calming, comforting and resonant with the deep memories of childhood.

Mastering Graham’s 5 C’s of resilience engages the brain in a process of recoding through neuroplasticity and conditioning. The brain learns by experience and is likely to attach more firmly to negative experiences than to positive experiences. When the brain is conditioned and reinforced to stay calm in a crisis; to have clarity about what is really happening; to connect to others for help; to demonstrate competency by relying on existing skills; and to have the courage to persevere until the “threat” has receded, resilience is encoded and, over time, becomes the default response.

Emotional Intelligence teaches the brain to have a bias towards the positive. Negative experiences are inevitable, as is the shame, guilt, disappointment, humiliation that results from a bad situation or interaction. Psychologist, Rick Hanson describes the brain function as Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive. How often do you receive and compliment or an offer of thanks and deflect by saying: “no, no. It was nothing.” Imago Relationship Therapy uses the practice of appreciations to build a foundation of positive feelings and brain pathways. This form of relational intelligence is direct towards others.  When you and your partner offer and reinforce each other’s well-being, you are recoding their brain as well as your brain for resilience. This means that when life is challenging, you have a default option that is flexible and adaptable.  Slow down and offer yourself compassion. Replace old negative experiences with new positive memories.

Compassionate Self-Talk: 
  • I accept this moment as it is.
  • May I be kind to myself at this moment
  • I accept myself as I am at this moment.
  • May I give myself all of the compassion that I need to respond wisely at this moment?

Your brain does not care if it is real! You can create new neural pathways by imagining what you long for in an outcome. Envision yourself feeling successful, hear your partner say that you are a rock star whenever you make the morning coffee. These small gestures noticed and offered as appreciations become part of the new supply of memories that the brain taps into when it is vulnerable. Receiving and not deflecting is critical to the process of creating neural pathways.

Take in the Good:
  • Notice: pause and envision the moment as if you are experiencing it again. Install that image in your brain.
  • Enrich: pay attention to your body. What are you feeling when your mate appreciates you; when you congratulate yourself for doing something well? Name the ‘felt sense’ in your body.
  • Absorb: breath in and hold the named sense for 10 seconds and breath out. Breath in and hold the named sense for 20 seconds and breath out. Breath in and hold the named sense for 30 seconds and breath out.
  • Repeat: do the last step (absorb) 6 times a day, for a total of 3 mins a day

More than anything else, you can “hang out with healthy brains.” Reflective intelligence is what we refer to as mindfulness. Buddhist might say that it is enlightenment. It is the moment of choice and then the making of choice.  Spend time with people who have a positive outlook; make healthy lifestyle choices; accept reality—shit happens; engage with other people in good time and bad times; look for the learning in the challenging moments of life; and write a coherent story that includes how you do things now based on what you learned then. Esther Perel suggests that we “write well and edit often.” Your brain will take it all in and respond accordingly.

Sources: Graham, L., March, 2018, Psychotherapy Networker Symposium. 304: Catalyzing Brain Change. Washington, D. C.