I could see the worry. She was anxious when I arrived. Her mind was clearly distracted and eaten up with all the ways that things might implode in her new relationship. She told me that the whole week he’d been distracted and short in his responses. She was preparing for him to end things. We talked through how she was feeling, and she knew that she needed to bring up her fears and find out whether she was reading into things, or he was actually preparing to break things off. She wanted to address it several days before, but she stuffed it down. Now, he was on a trip out of town and she wanted his time there to be completely his—and to have a discussion in person after his return. I told her that I was proud of her for allowing his trip to be about his time with his friends. Watching how much she was suffering, I asked her if she wanted to continue always waiting for the other shoe to drop in the future, when things might be rocky or tense in their relationship. She thought for a moment and said, “I’m not really sure how to change that.”
Have you ever been there? Constantly waiting for everything to fall apart? For things to go sideways? This line of thinking doesn’t have to just be in your relationships—it could also show up in your career, or in your finances. It’s so common for many of us to end up in the realm of fear because our brain can only make decisions based on where we’ve been, not where we’re going.
That brain of yours, she can be a real a** panda.
If you let her be, that is.
Did you know that you get to decide?
Before we get to talking about the power that we all have to decide, it’s really important that we address that brain of ours.
For a really long time, people have fallen into the trap of believing that their brain is in control; that they are either victims of their biology or that they can’t heal from something that they’ve been through or are struggling with. (Spoiler alert: neither of those is true.)
Enter: Dr. Caroline Leaf, a cognitive neuroscientist whose work revolutionized my life. Dr. Leaf has been researching the brain for over thirty years. In 2018, she wrote: “Back in the [nineteen] eighties many scientists believed that a damaged brain could not change. Healthcare and therapy professionals like myself were taught to help their patients compensate for brain disabilities and mental ill health; total recovery was, for the most part, out of the question.”
Dr. Leaf would spend the next several decades disproving this theory. She came alongside patient after patient with traumatic brain injuries and helped them not only to heal their brains, but in some cases, dramatically increase their intelligence. In 2015, she gave a TEDx Talk called “Science of Thought.” She shared a story about a woman she saw back in the earliest part of her career who experienced a terrible car accident that left her in a coma for two weeks. At the time of the accident, doctors believed that if you were in a coma for longer than eight hours, you would become a vegetable. The woman came out of her coma, and fourteen months later, her parents brought her to see Dr. Leaf. At the time they began their work together, the young woman was cognitively operating at a fourth-grade level. Over the course of eight months by working with Leaf she not only graduated high school with her peers and went on to get a college degree, but she also increased her IQ by 20 points! We’ll focus on the ‘how’ in a little bit, but the general powerful takeaway here is that your brain is not a fixed organ, incapable of change and doomed to stay stuck when you hit a rough patch. Your brain is capable of becoming a smarter and more powerful ally if you set your mind to it.
Notice I emphasized the word mind, not brain. This is delicious.
We often use the words ‘mind’ and ‘brain’ interchangeably, but as it turns out, they are two separate things. This is going to get a little ambiguous, and for those of you who like control (trust me, I get it), it might be a little uncomfortable. There actually isn’t an agreed upon definition of the mind among the mental health, psychiatric and medical fields. Personally, I like the definition proposed by Dr. Daniel Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA school of Medicine, co-director of the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute:
… the human mind is, in a very real sense, much bigger and more expansive than the skull that we imagine (in our wrongly limiting way) to house it. Specifically, relationships are the sharing between people of energy and information flow. The brain and its whole body are the embodied mechanism of that flow, and the mind is the self-organizing process that regulates that flow—and what you do with your mind can change the structure of your brain.
Don’t get lost here. If this is your first time being introduced to the mind being a separate entity from the brain, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The way that I’ve chosen to think about it is that the mind regulates the brain. It’s the conductor of the orchestra or the CEO of the company; she is the master of it all and has the power to potty train your brain.
Yes, potty train her—dispose of the crap your brain might be carrying around and create a healthier, happier state of being and doing.
This takes work. I don’t have kids, but I do have dogs. When they’re young, you have to constantly stay vigilant and teach them over and over that the inside of your home is not their toilet, and your favorite pair of shoes is not their chew toy. It’s not always fun, but once you figure out your rhythm, you reach a new level of harmony.
Your brain is the same. It’s been trained over the course of your lifetime, even before you were born, taking in ideas and patterns from your family genes and experiences around you, learning what it means to be a human and how to survive. Although your survival is paramount, I believe that God didn’t want us to simply stay alive, He wanted us thrive. He wanted us to experience life to the full (John 10:10) and that expansive calling is built on the biblical and scientific truth that your thoughts (your mind’s instructions) will create the reality you live in (the limits and beliefs that your brain adheres to).
To further drive home how important this is, I’ll share some further words Dr. Leaf wrote in her blog post:
What we think influences every aspect of who we are and how we feel physically. A fascinating study, one of many of this kind, done at Ohio State University shows that healing can be slowed by as much as 40% when one is stressed. Considering that stress is the body’s reaction to our thought life, our state of mind (our thought life), is quite literally determining our mental and physical health.
It is your I-factor, your thoughts which encompass your beliefs and your feelings, which are able to create a virtuous cycle of health or a toxic cycle of sickness and unhappiness. It does not matter how sick or mentally challenged we may feel, we still have the ability to choose our thoughts and feelings.
The smarty-pants neuroscientist just told you that what we think influences every aspect of who we are, and how we feel physically.
Each day, we choose to be under some type of influence and governance. We agree to laws by obeying them or disregarding them. The same is true for our thought lives. Dr. Leaf has some incredible books out that can help you literally rewire your brain by taking control of your mind.
Earlier on, I told you that we all have the power to decide. Now that you know a little bit about how important your brain is and why the way that we think is so vital, let’s talk more about how we can practically train her.
I would say that a lot of the drama we stir up internally has to do with our relationships, and that 90% of the wars we wage with other people revolve around things that are never said, or assumptions we make about why someone does or says something to us. Most of it comes from our own insecurity. I see this regularly play out in our intimate relationships because we often end up with partners who are vastly different from us. Those differences can be a recipe for passion at times, but in the regular day-to-day rhythm of our lives, it can cause some major issues—kind of like that glob of hair you have building around your shower drain, but think: hey, fingers crossed it’ll clear on its own.
When our partners don’t do, say, or act in ways that make sense to us (a.k.a. they act like their own individual person), we begin assigning value and making assumptions about their behavior and choices based on how we would respond to the situation.
For example, when I ask my partner what he’s thinking about and he says,”Nothing,” my mind might go into full-stealth ninja-mode constructing and decoding his LIES. Because I’m NEVER thinking about NOTHING. So my brilliant brain goes to work: He doesn’t want to talk to you about the other woman he’s thinking about Evelyn, she’s prettier and way funnier than you. I mean, he’s shutting you out Evelyn, you know what this means? He hates you. You are the worst human being on the planet. Why can’t you just need less – huh? We’ve talked about this. You have way too many words and you need way too much.
And some of my thoughts ARE accurate. I have a lot of needs and lots of words, but it’s important to really break this scenario down. I asked him a question about him and when he didn’t respond in a way that made sense to ME, I began making the situation all about ME, and then all my doubts and insecurities about ME hijacked my initial intention, which was to connect with and support my partner. This doesn’t have to simply play out in an intimate relationship, this can crop up for you anywhere; a conversation with your boss, an exchange with a colleague, as you’re giving a presentation, a conversation with your absentee parent and on and on.
The good news is that you CAN develop your own internal framework for changing your thoughts and channeling them toward a centered, whole, healthy and kind person that you desire and aspire to be.
Let’s start here:
- Recognize Your Patterns
Our brains are old. One of their primary jobs for thousands of years was to keep us safe from lions, tigers and bears. Sometimes our brains get stuck in fear patterns they learned from our childhood when we truly weren’t safe, or a hard event we experienced in any stage of our life. We all have them; fears, insecurities, traumatic experiences, and suffering. The fancy name from what you’re suffering is called trauma. AND, we all have trauma. You can compare your issues with other people all day long to make sure they’re not as important or worthy of being labeled ‘trauma’ as you want to, but the fact remains true that at different points in your life you have suffered setbacks, heartbreaks, dangerous situations, and betrayal by people close to you that have left an impact on you. In an attempt to make sense of these things your brain has learned ways to try and protect you, sometimes by remaining hyper-vigilant so you always feel stuck in anxiety.
- Love Her For How She’s Trying to Have your Back (Have Grace with Yourself)
Those fear habits were developed in order to keep you safe. And some anxiety and fear are good for us. They help us respond to threats in real-time and can quite literally save our lives. So, on some level, begin to try and recognize that your brain IS trying to help you not die, but she may be trapped in a loop that has to be reset.
- Set an Intention
If your fear is hijacking your life and creating doubts about your abilities to achieve things that are important to you, set an intention of how you’re going to address it. Maybe it’s researching come counseling options that are available to you (talk therapy is our most readily available example in media and our culture but there are many options: EMDR, art therapy, coaching, somatic-based therapy, play therapy to name a miniscule portion of a GIGANTIC, varied list) or maybe it’s learning more mindfulness techniques through breathing, meditation or movement such as yoga.
- Own Your Junk
When you’ve handled a situation in a less than stellar way, take responsibility for your crazy. Recognize how it jumped up and hijacked a moment that created the exact opposite of what you meant and apologize. Going back to the example with my partner, I regularly have to come back and apologize for how I handled a conversation or event because it’s not how I truly wanted to show up. It shows him that I value him AND allows me the space to try and set a new habit for how I want my brain to handle these things.
OPTIONAL JOURNAL EXERCISES
1. How would you like to change your relationship with your mind? Write out three specific ways you can be intentional about cultivating a better relationship with her.
2. List out three instances when your brain hijacked your intention, then write out how you wish you would have shown up. *Bonus points for those of you who follow up with the other people it might’ve affected and take ownership!