“Can’t you see that this is not that and that is not this?” He barked out the response when she made reference to what had happened two years previously when we had been speaking of a current crisis.
I realized that his 10-word statement was a great representation of what I had just been studying about how things get processed in our brains.
I know that studying the brain and how it functions can seem boring. I understand. Because I think similarly about my laptop. I don’t really care about the inner workings of my MacBook Air, as long as it serves its purpose for me.
We are often the same with our brains.
But I hope you will stay with me, because truly, THIS is not THAT; and THAT is not THIS. And understanding a few things about your brain will help inform you how we often confuse things and misinterpret them. This is crucial in any situation, but certainly in marriage and in intimate relationships!
Recently, an amazing young woman said to me, (I chastised my 8 year old son for something he did, and he said this to me: “Mom, I just left the grape juice out, but you scolded me like I spilled it on the white carpet.“
It has happened to all of us. Did she speak more sternly than she thought? Or did the son overreact? Maybe one. Maybe the other. Maybe both!
I’m sure you remember a time when, looking back, you had no idea why you had such an intense reaction to something that occurred.
There was a long period of time in which the response to such situations was, “The devil made me do it!” Newsflash: YOU made you do it! But in this case, since you did not understand this in the past, we will blame it on your brain. Your brain made you do it!
My purpose for writing to you this week is to help you gain an understanding to what happens in your brain when you underreact or overreact. And how to avoid mistaking THIS for THAT, and THAT for THIS. Here is what that normally looks like:
- Overreactions (Intensity out of proportion to the situation)
- Shutting down (Blank stare or nod, or robot like responses)
I remember one time in my life that I somehow knew I was overreacting, but I could not stop. Despite the fact that I knew it was an overreaction.
Some things had occurred in the finances in my marriage that I did not understand. One of the results of the financial indiscretion was that I had to sell my horses.
I was heart broken, but knew I had no choice. My focus immediately turned to insuring that they each found a good home. Chocolate Drop was an “equine therapy horse” for my daughter with cerebral palsy. Dakota was the horse that all kids, visitors and guests rode because he was more of a dog than a horse! So sweet! Then there was my beloved Sundance. OH MY! How could I say goodbye to Sundance?
I made sure that Chocolate Drop and Dakota ended up in great homes. Sundance was being taken by someone as a gift for a girl who had wanted a beautiful horse for years.
When I loved on Chocolate Drop and Dakota before each of them left, I was very sad. But something “broke” in me when I loved on Sundance. As I got him in the horse trailer and watched him being pulled away. Something snapped in my heart, a bomb went off in my gut and I wanted to chase them down the lane.
I ran to the barn. I screamed out: “Sundance, come back! PLEASE come back!” Then I kicked the stall wall with the soles of my boot, over and over, screaming, “It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” (Thank God no one was around, I am sure they would have thought I was crazy!) And for those few moments, I was.
That was an overreaction.
Others shut down. At one point in my practice, I had to delivered news to a young man that his father has lost his business and was no longer able to support his education. He would have to drop out of school.
I had watched him dream about this in high school, making meticulous plans. Working diligently to keep his GPA high while other kids were partying. He was excelling in his course work in preparation for medical school.
As we sat together, he never broke his gaze. He asked in a very monotone voice, “Do you have any boxes I could borrow?”
He had shut down.
Regardless of whether you tend to overreact or shut down, it will help to avoid those moments if you understand what is going on in your brain, and, then, what you can do. Truly, THIS is not THAT … and THAT is not THIS!
Our brains have two hemispheres, the right brain and the left brain. I often say that the left side thinks in black and white, and the right side thinks in color. In the left brain, concrete things are considered, and it is where math calculations occur. In the right brain, abstract things are considered, things like symbolism, etc.
For example, when someone says something to you, the left brain is hearing words, but the right brain is listening to volume and tone. But they work together.
When we receive input in any situation, both sides of your brain are working together to assimilate the information and interpret it. It does this through neurons and neurotransmetters, sending messages to various parts of the brains.
However, when either of the two sides of the brain sense anything from “not pleasurable” to “dangerous” … the neurotransmitters send messages to the hippocampus to search the files for other similar situations. The hippocampus holds our memories, and is ever ready to produce them.
All of this occurs in less than a second. If we are not able to “press pause” it will direct our reaction (which may be mild, or may be an overreaction, or may cause us to shut down).
These occur in real time, because that’s how our brains develop. But we are not at the mercy of our brains. Neuroplasticity means that in any 30 day periods of time, the cells are completely replaced with new neurons. And we have the ability to commission them in what we want the new cells to look like, and how we want them to function.
For example, we know from research conducted at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, that if those who struggle with depression can focus on positive memories (which release dopamine – the feel good hormone), for a period of 30 days, they can significantly improve their depression levels. One of thousands of examples of our ability to train our brains to help us be and become our best!
For this week’s blog, we are looking at how to retrain our brains to prevent the catalog search that pulls up similar situations and piggy back them onto the current moment. Because of the property of neuroplasticity, we can do that! Instead of pulling up other events, we can trains our brains to press pause. To stay PRESENT in the moment.
If we fail to do so, “THAT becomes THIS” and “THIS becomes THAT.”
Like in my experience with Sundance. What actually happened is that all of a sudden the loss of my beloved Cracker Jack, the dog I loved with all my heart, found its way to piggy back on the current moment, when my Sundance was being pulled away. The grief of one major loss exploded in me, along with the heart wrenching moment of losing Sundance, and I was out kicking the barn and screaming.
The young man who I had to tell about his educational situation had experienced his right brain and left brain telling his hippocampus to search files for similar situations, and he recalled the moment that his mom walked out and left he and his dad when he was in first grade. It was more than he could process at the moment, so he shut down.
But neither of us realized the piggyback phenomenon at the moment. Thank goodness, I learned what I will be sharing with you today after my “crazy moment” in the barn, and I was able to help him consider what “past file” had been pulled up in his brain to piggyback on the moment.
We all do it dozens of times daily.
In the relationship realm, it creates cycles of arguing, misunderstanding and distress. When one shuts down when you are attempting to tell them that you are lonely. When another overreacts when you say you’d like to go do something with your friends.
When you have that sick feeling in your gut, that irritation, that desire to lash out, you are no longer in the current situation, you are piggy backing other things onto the moment. Or when you shut down and hear the deafening sound of silence between your ears. That is unfair. To both you and your partner.
When I can help couples (and individuals) retrain this process in their brains, relationships are remarkably improved. That has been my experience for many years.
I’d like to help you with five things that will help you in making sure you realize that “THAT is not THIS” … and … “THIS is not THAT.”
1. Learn to press pause before any reactions, verbally, physically, in your expressions … NONE!
This is a great skill to learn for every area of your life. In your relationships, in professional settings, in volunteer settings, in casual settings.
Anytime you have that sting in your throat, that knot In your gut, that rush of adrenaline that wants to lash out or disappear, PRESS PAUSE.
What does press pause mean? Close your mouth and breathe.
How do you do that? Well, actually I learned it by holding my breath for 10 seconds any time I felt any of those things. You cannot speak when you are holding your breath, and it was my signal to complete the next steps.
You must inform yourself that unless in grave danger, nothing will be dramatically different in the next 60 seconds.
Researchers found that leaders who had learned to choose a pause over reactivity had greater success, greater influence on employees and co-workers, and less health challenges. We, too, can have greater success, greater influence and a healthier life by learning to pause on this command to our brain to pull up past events and memories.
2. Decipher what thoughts and beliefs are directing your potential reactions.
During the “pause” … decipher what thoughts and beliefs you would have to have in order to react the way you might (if you had failed to complete step one and had not pressed pause).
Ask yourself: “What am I thinking or believing that makes me want to interrupt and put my husband in his place?” Or “What am I thinking or believing that makes me want to get up and walk out of this meeting?”
Let me say that sometimes, walking out of the meeting might be a good idea, but rarely if it is a reactive decision. Ask yourself: “What am I thinking or believing that makes me want to get up and walk out of this meeting?” Perhaps the response is, “Because I believe this strategy is deceptive and lacks integrity.”
That could present a situation that calls for a departure. But then if you were trying to make a point, before you act, you would want to consider what type of departure, and when, would make the greatest impact. Likely storming out the door in disgust would not make the desire impact.
Your brain can process all of that within seconds, then you can make a wise decision.
3. Identify what previous experiences are piggy-backing onto this moment.
In the beginning of training your brain for this pause, by the time you have pressed pause, your hippocampus will have already delivered files about other similar situations. Take a moment and name them (not out loud, to yourself), if the situation allows. If not, make note to do this step later, but as soon as possible.
Name the current situation, (for example, being spoken to in a disrespectful way, and wanting to blow up). Then name the file about a similar experience (for example, being humiliated by your boss in front of other employees).
In your pause moment, say to yourself, “Being spoken to disrespectfully by my son” is THIS. Being humiliated by my boss is THAT. THIS is not THAT. THAT is not THIS. This deems the file unusable and sends a strong message to the hippocampus to not provide similar, negative files.
This practice of separating THIS moment from THAT moment is more crucial and beneficial than you could possibly imagine!
4. Isolate the current moment.
Once you have done step two and three, look at the current moment in and of itself.
Do I believe you should just allow your son to speak disrespectfully to you? Of course not! But if you can respond to him, and him alone, you will be 100x more effective.
Connecting your son speaking disrespectfully to being humiliated by your boss speaking disrespectfully to you will likely result in you humiliating him. Instead, if you look at this situation alone, you will be more like to say something in a way that impacts him.
“Son, sit down with me a moment. I know you are frustrated that I won’t give you my car keys. But in life, you will often be frustrated. Don’t allow your frustration to drive you to speaking disrespectfully to people.”
We can only deliver powerful, effective messages to people, particularly in arguments, if we fail to isolate the current event.
5. Heal old wounds.
The reason our hippocampus is so eager to deliver negative files to piggyback onto our current event is that we have so many unhealed wounds.
Many people think tucking things away is a great way to deal with them. However, they continue to feed into every action we take, every decision we make, everything we say. All of this activity between the right brain and the left brain is unconscious.
I had no idea that the death of Cracker Jack piggybacked onto my loss of Sundance. It was all unconscious, until I developed these steps and began reflecting back on why I had the barn-kicking reaction.
I began my own process of healing wounds, and now I rarely experience overreactions, shutting down, or the devil making me do it!
The steps for healing old wounds are for another blog, perhaps next week. But I am inviting you today to make a decision to heal them. One by one, until you get to the tipping point, where the healing flows expansively.
I hope you will begin to take the time to realize that your life can become more calm, more fulfilled, more joyful and peaceful. All of that occurs when you begin to master THIS is not THAT. And THAT is not THIS! And the results of that? More intimate relationships, more success, greater fulfillment and improved health! And that is that!