Episode #10: The Brain Connection
Our brains fill in gaps in information with fear and bias based on old data. We often ascribe meaning to the present based on the past. We can become consumed and overwrought by our own thoughts. And if we get too caught up in the stories in our mind, we can actually create and perpetuate interactions and outcomes that are the exact opposite of what we say we want or even what our heart and well-being truly demand. In this episode, we explore the role our thoughts have in our daily lives, and how we can begin to re-frame our thoughts in a way that supports our well-being.
Welcome to the Freedom from Empty Podcast: Building Strong, Effective, Resilient Leaders and Humans. My name is Booth Andrews, and I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode.
So, today I want to talk about our brains for a little bit, and not because I am a brain expert. So, issuing a disclaimer in advance: neurologists, neuropsychologists, psychiatrists, neurosurgeons . . . please forgive me. Um, I don’t claim to have your knowledge and understanding of the brain. But what I do understand, and what I have observed in my own life and in the lives of others, is that sometimes our brain isn’t helpful, even when it wants to be. And so, I am going to dive into that concept a little bit more deeply and at the end, talk a little bit about what I have learned in how we can start to maybe modify or reframe what is happening in our own minds in a way that serves us more fully and in a much more healthy way.
As early as 16 years old, I was aware that I used my brain as a tool . . . as both a weapon and a fortress. I developed a dry, sometimes caustic, wit; dripping with sarcasm. Daring anyone to challenge me.
It wasn’t until I was much older that it became clear to me how much I really relied on my brain--to make sense of the world, to protect me from pain, to out-maneuver any potential threat.
I was able to channel my intelligence to build a professional and personal reputation. One of which I was frankly very proud.
When I thought I was losing my mind--quite literally--I wondered what good I was to anyone, especially my children, if I lost my mind.
For me, losing my mind was the greatest betrayal, because, it turns out, that my mind was the only thing I trusted.
If I could think my way through a problem, if I could understand what had happened or what was happening, if I could intellectualize it, if I could rationalize it, I didn’t have to feel it. And I could solve even some of the most challenging puzzles. And I trusted myself implicitly to solve things with my brain. In hindsight, I believe there was a time when I trusted nothing (and no one) except my own brain.
My father was very smart. A wonderful physician. And he used his brain as an instrument of healing and also to generate income and support a family. I remember remarking on the sad irony as he succumbed to vascular dementia at an early age--his brain was failing him, and he was lost.
Now, I understand that our brains . . . MY brain . . . can cause us pain, if we allow them to run amuck, and to play too prominent a role in our lives. It may be more accurate to say that our THOUGHTS can both help and harm us, even as the circumstances around haven’t changed.
Clear as mud, right? Let me share some examples:
When I took a job as a CEO of an entity being formed through merger, I found myself with staff in three different cities. I did not have direct access to my staff for the first three months of my tenure--because my predecessors were all still in their roles. So, I started a blog. My thought was that I could share the same message at exactly the same time through the same medium with every member of my staff, as opposed to sharing the message with one group or another and waiting for the telephone game to butcher the message, and the intent.
So, imagine my surprise when I think I’m communicating the exact same message to every single person on my staff, when many months later, I learned that staff members would sometimes gather in an office, pull up my blog on their computers, and debate what I said, and what I meant! I was stunned to find out that the message wasn’t clear.
But I learned a very important lesson through that experience. I learned that we each fill in the unknowns--the gaps in information--our brain fills in that unknown information with our own fears, our own experience, and our own bias.
Our brain hears a word and thinks, “Oh! I know what that means!” as it sifts through the files of our memory banks and connects our past experiences to the present moment--defining the word, or the phrase or the scenario based as much upon old data as new--frankly probably relying MORE on the old data. Because it also seems, that once we have made the connection in our brain--that something seems familiar--we stop being curious. It’s like “oh, okay I get that, this, this looks like that other situation,” and then we move on.
And it seems logical, right? Perhaps that’s a very helpful process? And of course, it serves us in so many ways. And yet at the same time, our brain, all by itself, can send us into a tailspin.
Time and time again, I have observed myself and others who take a gap in information and fill it with fear or bias. One of my daughters has been struggling with this for several months. Actually, probably closer to a year.
Last year, her father was very, very ill for several months. And we were not sure if he was going to recover. Ever since that time, whenever anyone she cares about gets a sniffle, or a cough, or has a stomach ache, or a fever, she goes into full panic mode. We spent last flu season, with my then 15 year old daughter citing the daily flu stats to me, until I finally told her to stop looking them up because they were terrifying her.
Her brain tells her that one time her Dad got a “stomach bug” and almost died. In truth, it wasn’t a stomach bug at all . . . it was a random, and very serious health issue. But now, with every illness, no matter how minor, it carriers for her a flood of fear, anxiety and catastrophic thinking.
Our brain can justify all sorts of behavior and responses based on our past experiences. VERY REAL and VERY POWERFUL experiences.
So, what are the stories we tell ourselves, and what impact do those stories have in our lives? The truth is that often the stories we tell ourselves actually perpetuate things in our lives that we want to be different. They perpetuate things in our lives, that aren’t working for us.
Here is another example, at some point in my marriage, and as a relatively new parent, I don’t remember exactly when, I became convinced that I was “all alone, no one was going to help me, and if I wanted it done, I was going to have to do it myself.” Now there was a time in my life where that really was true--I really WAS on my own. And I DIDN’T have any help or support or a safety net available to me.
But in this moment, in my marriage, and in my relationship as a co-parent, I remember thinking to myself, “Well, if I am just going to be a ‘single mom’ then FINE I will just do it MYSELF [INSERT EXPLETIVE HERE!]”
But what did I actually want in that moment more than anything else? I didn’t WANT to be all alone. I was probably frustrated, and exhausted, and overwhelmed, and I WANTED HELP more than anything in the world.
But because I listened to the story in my head that told me I was all alone, and I was going to have to do it all myself, I did the exact opposite of what I could have done, what I really needed to do in that moment. Not only did I NOT ask for help, but I essentially, personally built another layer in the barrier in the middle of my relationship. A layer that would make me less likely to ask for help the next time. A layer that would help perpetuate the myth that I couldn’t rely on or trust anyone but myself. And what was I conditioning my husband to do?? I will leave that one as an open-ended question.
Do we believe everyone is going to let us down? If we believe that everyone is going to let us down, then there is a good chance they will. But it will be likely as much because of our own unwillingness to be vulnerable and to share the load, as it is that people are inherently unreliable and don’t want to be helpful.
Do we believe that we are the only ones who can do a certain thing? Or that we are the only ones who can do it “right”? Well, guess what, if we believe that, we probably aren’t going to go to the trouble to ask someone else to do it and risk that they might “mess it up” or not do it the way we would do it. If we are in the habit of acting like a superhero, then other people become accustomed to sitting back and letting us save the day.
Do we believe that the only way to prove our value is to be always available to our work--to the detriment of our family and our well-being? Then changing workplaces isn’t going to “fix” that for us.
Do we believe we are unworthy of love? Then we will likely attract people who treat us as if we are unworthy.
If we do not challenge the stories we tell ourselves . . . if we do not make adjustments to how we respond to certain stimuli . . . we will struggle to live our lives in a way that fully supports our well-being. Brene Brown calls it “rumbling” with our stories in her book Rising Strong.
We can change friends, partners, houses, jobs . . . but guess what? We take ourselves with us. Einstein is credited with saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. If we want to generate different results in our lives, then we have to re-wire our own habits, patterns, beliefs, and stories. The good news is, we actually can do that.
We start by noticing. By becoming aware of the story as it plays out in our head. And by “becoming aware of the story” I mean, KIND observation, not an internal brow-beating.
When we notice that we are replaying old highlight reels . . . we can ask ourselves whether the story we are telling ourselves still applies to our current circumstances and to the people involved. We can ask whether choosing to act based on these old storylines will actually serve us, and if it doesn’t, we can make a choice to respond differently. We can choose a different response . . . even to what our brain has determined is familiar and predictable stimulus.
Imagine that each time a certain pattern plays out in our mind, a piece of thread is woven into a rope that connects the synapses of our brain. Every time we replay the pattern based on old stimulus, we weave another thread into that connection. And here is the good news!! We can also change those connections over time.
Every time we choose to challenge our stories, to evaluate whether the stimulus really demands the same response, whether what is happening now, in this present moment really is the same thing as whatever has happened in the past. Every time we develop that awareness, notice the story and choose a different response, we start laying down new connections in our brain. And over time, the strength of those new connections can be stronger than the old.
This is really hard work. And it takes a lot of time, and it takes a lot of practice. It is very, very helpful to have someone in our lives who can help challenge the stories we tell ourselves--be that a friend, partner, or professional.
One of the ways I help clients is by helping them evaluate their stories and beliefs. I help them challenge whether these stories and beliefs are still beneficial to them, or whether they are reproducing the same results from the same behaviors in a way that is truly producing a lack of well-being or insanity in their own lives. And, I help them begin to learn how to lay down new patterns.
So, the next time your brain runs away with you, you might pause and say, “Hmmm, is this story helpful? Is it productive? Is it true? Am I filling in gaps of information with fear as opposed to actually pushing forward, considering that there might be another option, another choice that gets me closer to the person that I want to be, and the life I want to live and the relationships that I want to have in my life.
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I look forward to being back with you next time!