The Power of Visual Images

Some of the most effective tools for developing better ways to navigate life are visual images. If we can link a strong mental image to the pause we take before we respond to a situation, it can become a meaningful springboard to our desired new habit. Using visual image cues can foster the improved life skills we want to incorporate into our relationships and daily lives.

When I find myself in the midst of a hard conversation, a tough decision, or simply a lot of stimulation overwhelm, I recall an image given by a beloved yoga instructor twenty years ago. “Plant your feet firmly on the ground and imagine roots growing right into the ground, anchoring you,” she offered.

There is something very powerful about this visual image, of being firmly planted on solid ground, with small roots stretching out, stabilizing us and our emotions, just long enough to slow our heart rate and feel anchored to our core values.

As we pause to feel our feet on the ground and focus briefly on the feeling of little roots anchoring us, we are giving ourselves a needed break, a boost of self confidence and a mini-reset to respond to a situation with more skill, clarity and kindness.

Brene Brown teaches us that “Clear is Kind”. This often means stating clearly what we wish to convey without a lot of strong emotion taking center stage. Too often it is our strong emotions that speak the loudest. This feet firmly planted image can serve as our cue card to strive to be calm and collected in the midst of hard things.

“If even one person on the boat stayed calm, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone.” This quote from Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hahn provides a powerful visual image for how we co-regulate each other — and the tremendous positive impact it can have when we are in the midst of a shared experience that might be scary, full of uncertainty, and chock full of a wide range of big emotions.

In emotionally turbulent times, if we pause and link this visual image of being the calm one in a boat full of people in rough seas, it supports our ability to switch from our default sympathetic nervous system to our mammalian care system. Rather than adding to the distress of the situation by automatically — and all too quickly – tapping into that part of our nervous system that houses our “threat-defense response”, we can override that option. It does take some will power, but if we care about the people in the same boat with us, we are more easily able to lean into the “tend and befriend” mammalian mode. The shortest path to calming down a tense situation, is to lead with caring calmness. Rather than “rocking the boat”, we can pivot to “being the ballast.”

Watch a parent soothe a child who has been frightened, and you will get a master class in how to switch from auto pilot to captain calm. Remember the key here is that we human beings co-regulate each other. Remaining calm in high stress situations is a super power.

Eckhart Tolle, renowned self discovery author, teaches us that what we fight, we strengthen and what we resist, persists.

When we find ourselves in resistance mode, the visual image of a gentle open hand, palm up and holding something lightly, can serve as a powerful reminder to do a check in.

What are we resisting and can we relax into it? Can we hold our strong opinions or perspectives lightly? Being willing to accept new ideas, change our minds, and let go of our need to control the outcome is all part of a healthy growth mindset.

The mental visual image of holding something lightly in the palm of our hands tends to relax us and opens us up to a fresh perspective. We pivot from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. We “open up” to the truth that we can be learning rather than resisting.

The iceberg visual is a powerful awareness cultivator; especially if we are working on developing a greater “other” awareness.

When we are interacting with another person, our natural tendency is to put their emotions and reactions through the same filter we have. We can find ourselves judging, criticizing and comparing. Yet the reality is that we have no idea what is really going on under the surface for anyone. Yes, even for our own partners, children, and friends.

Brene Brown has spent decades teaching us about how our 87+ emotions and experiences get threaded into all of our personal history. Each and every one of us will process and react to a similar experience using our filters that are as unique as our fingerprints. The result may vary.

If we find ourselves thinking someone is too sensitive, too difficult, too much — it is wise to imagine the iceberg and take a moment to be curious about what lies under the surface. Learning how to be more self-compassionate as Kristin Neff teaches enhances our “other” awareness in meaningful ways.

Linking the image of the iceberg can shift us from judgment to curiosity. Perhaps if we met that person with more compassion, a smile or a random act of kindness, we might discover our first assumption was all wrong. Trade judgment for curiosity — it helps all of us navigate more easily with our submerged parts.

In summary:

The old adage – “a picture is worth a thousand words” is really true for personal growth work. Strong visual images are remarkable tools for shifting us from unconsciously reacting to life the same old way everyday. We disrupt old habitual patterns embedded in our brains when we disrupt our normal routines. Imagine the transformational impacts that just 3 – 5 visual image moments can make over the course of a week in our daily lives.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

Check out this recent episode of Sharon McMahon’s dynamic podcast series: Persuaders are Meaning Makers with author Anand Giridharadas. Rest assured, you will be enlightened in a whole new way by the end of it.

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/heres-where-it-gets-interesting/id1576266622?i=1000585591137

Listen to this 20 minute YouTube episode with the remarkable Malcolm Gladwell. If you have read his book, Talking to Strangers, then you already are aware of how often we let the stuff in our submerged iceberg override updated information we have actually gained.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hgr1Wv8mwh8&t=938s

Krisin Neff’s body of work in the area of Self Compassion has become a cornerstone of psychology, neuroscience, mental health and personal growth modalities. This book will become an invaluable resource for improving your quality of life, your parenting skills, and your relationship skills. It’s the sort of book you will refer to time and again over the course of a lifetime.

External Roadblocks Matter Too…

So much of our personal growth work encourages us to get to know ourselves better, to take a long hard introspective view of our internal world. Yet there is another component to our personal development that is equally important:

The external roadblocks that can derail even our best intentions.

We can become fairly unaware of external obstacles that prevent us from gaining traction in our personal growth work. Our attention gets pulled in a lot of directions throughout the day and we lose track of our time and our good intentions. James Clear teaches us that consistent small investments of time and effort is the best pathway to developing new habits and skills. The one thing we really need to cultivate to help us gain traction with short and long term goals, with developing better habits and with improving our relationships is — self awareness.

A major external obstacle to cultivating greater self awareness is often in the palm of our hand…..our phone.

Let’s be candid about this. We do have a growing crisis with regard to our phones. We observe how so many people are walking down the street, their eyes fixated on their screens and not their surroundings. Parents at playgrounds are watching their phones and not their children. Families and friends in restaurants all sit with heads down, fingers flying across flat keyboards not engaging with each other or even the waitstaff. Standing in line at the grocery store or sitting at a red light in our cars seems to be an open invitation to check our phone. No one is immune from this. It is a habit that slowly seeped into our daily lives over time.

I’m old enough to remember a time when we did not have mobile phones on our bodies at all times. It makes me wonder what it might be like to measure the quality of our memories that were created more with our five senses than a camera roll of countless photos. I’m not being judgmental here, for I love the ease with which I can capture the moment on my thin phone too. I just wonder if we saw a chart or graph that could visibly show us the distinction of “being fully present in a moment” vs. “freezing a moment in time” would it help us want to moderate our phone usage?

While we may not have such a graph, we are learning through neuroscience about how we can enrich our present experiences and “store” them in our brains with all the sensory details to help override the brain’s default negativity bias. But in order to do this, we have to be aware of how we are letting our attention and our focus slip away.

BEING FULLY PRESENT: (even briefly…but a few times a day)

Dr. Rick Hanson has a brief and effective tip to help us capture more present moments. He calls it “taking the in the good”. Rather than reaching for your phone to take a photo, simply steep yourself in the full experience in real time. All it takes is 15-30 seconds to take it in — and imprint in your brain an incredible memory. Add sounds to your experience — listen to a child’s laugher as you watch her run through a pile of crunchy autumn leaves. Be aware of the sounds the crunchy leaves make and use your eyes to take in the rich autumn color palette. Gaze at the floating fluffy white clouds against a cerulean blue sky. For 15-30 seconds you are the creator and director of an internal movie memory; set it to music, imbue it with scents, enrich it with details.

Just doing this a few times each day will help in training our brains that we are in charge of our attention. We can resist the temptation to look at our phones and choose to fully be in the present moment. For fun, keep a little journal about your “fully present” moments each day for a week or two. It is a game-changer for cultivating greater self awareness and harvesting all the good that is showing up in our lives each day. Things we often miss…..because we are staring at our phones.

POSTURE AND SITUATIONAL AWARENESS:

Are you aware that our posture has been impacted by our phones? Dr. Andrew Huberman, neurobiologist at Stamford, recently referred to this as our “C” posture. Just look around today at the posture of others who are on their phones — do you see the “C” — forward neck position, slouched and rounded shoulders?

Many people are dealing with chronic pain in their necks, shoulders and spine as a direct result of spending a good portion of their day in this awkward “C” posture position. The tension we are adding to our bodies from our phone posture gets added to the stressors of our daily busy lives.

Do your own research as you go about your daily routine today: How many people do you observe with this “C” posture? How many missed opportunities to say “hello” or ask someone how their day is going? How many people do you see in the coffee shop or restaurant who are engaging with their phones and not their friends and families? Are people walking to their cars unaware of the traffic around them, heads down staring at their screens?

RESTORATIVE, RECHARGING BENEFITS OF SLEEP:

An essential way to care for our dynamic, powerful, personal processors — yes, I am describing our brains that way.….is to get consistently good sleep. There are simple things we can do to help us achieve the beneficial brain attributes of sleep. The easiest and most impactful is to not look at our phones first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

Instead, first thing in the morning take in 10-20 minutes of natural sunlight if you can. That will set your circadian rhythm. While it might seem silly, doing this in the morning actually helps you fall asleep at night. If you can’t get sunlight first thing, turn on the lights in your home and let your eyes take in that light. It is the blue light emission from our phones that inhibits the production of melatonin. The hot tip here is go “old school” and get an alarm clock if you need one to wake up, avoid looking at your phone for the first 30 minutes of your morning, and get some natural sunlight if possible. Just a few days of this new routine will make a noticeable positive difference in sleep patterns.

Of course, that blue light emission from our phones at night is also not helpful if we want to get a deep, recharging night of sleep. Best to put your phone on a charger and then do the same for yourself. Establish a simple nightly bedtime routine with reduced exposure to light, trying meditation or light reading to relax your busy brain and implementing some cues that work for you to signal that it is bedtime.

Neuroscience is proving that we need consistent quality sleep in order to operate a maximum efficiency for our cognitive and emotional well being. A key factor in our mental health wellness is deep, restorative, brain rewiring and rejuvenating sleep.

SOLVING THE CASE OF DISAPPEARING TIME AND ATTENTION:

Want to discover where so much of your time and attention has gone at the end of a day? Take a look at your average weekly screen time. That will be the biggest clue to solve your case of “disappearing time and attention”. All of can easily fall into the trance of mindless scrolling, or hopscotching from looking up a recipe to reading the latest scoop on a celebrity.

Even the most skilled practitioners of mindfulness, the best educated neuroscientists and the gurus of meditation will confess to using the password lock feature, turning their phone off completely for a set amount of time, locking their phone in a safe, giving it to a colleague or partner while they are working, or keeping the phone in a different room. So don’t feel too bad — you are not alone with regard to our attachment to our phones.

WHAT WE CAN’T GET BACK: (our time and out attention)

Dr. Amishi Jha wrote about how we are unconsciously giving away one of our most precious commodities — our attention — in her book Peak Mind. This won’t surprise you, but our attention is now a marketable commodity and there is even trading in futures for our attention. Now that is mind-blowing, isn’t it?

It is precisely because we are giving away our attention to our devices that we are also giving away time that could be better spent on things that really matter to us. f we could put our phones away for even 30 minutes a day, we could read 10 pages in a book, we could try a new recipe, we could chat with another person, we could take a walk and be awed by nature. Just for fun, challenge yourself to come up with a wish list of 3 thirty minute fun things to do in the coming week; then put your phone away for 30 minutes for 3 of the 7 days in that week….and do those fun things!

Maybe you can make your own chart or graph about how you are feeling about your time management, your attention and your happiness at the end of that one week challenge.

BUILDING BETTER CONNECTIONS:

It’s very evident that while social media was once touted as a great way for us to be connected to each other….it actually has had the opposite effect. We are heads down, eyes diverted and fully engaged with a device and all its mesmerizing content….and all the while our most incredible life is unfolding without us being aware.

When we shift our eyes from the screen to those people we are hanging out with all day long, something magical happens. Our amazing brains help us take in so much more than just the words they might be saying. We see facial expressions, body language, we make eye contact and we co-regulate each other with our emotions and energy. As Brene Brown would say — we feel seen, heard and valued. And all that happens by averting our eyes from the phone to the face.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT:

Dr. Amishi Jha tells us to “pay attention to where we are turning our attention”. All we need to do to cultivate greater awareness is to check in with ourselves in an honest way about where we might be leaking out our time and attention. Just commandeering a few short chunks of time each day for some dedicated “present moment” experiences will no doubt produce some pretty remarkable results for your overall quality of life. Are you willing to give it a try?

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

Follow Dr. Andrew Huberman on YouTube and Instagram for short clips on his insights and teachings about neuroscience, our bodies and brains. Check out the full length Huberman Lab podcasts and his website if you want to do the deep dive into his teachings.

https://hubermanlab.com/focus-toolkit-tools-to-improve-your-focus-and-concentration/

Read this amazing book by Dr. Amishi Jha to learn from her own experiences, real life stories from her research about the incredible importance of our focus and attention for our quality of life and some of our most demanding decisions we make under tough circumstances. This book also offers a guide to a simple 12 minute daily meditation practice that will help you train your brain for better attention and focusing skills.

Read this article from the Wall Street Journal to gain some fresh insight on how our phones are impacting our kids, their educations and their interactions with teachers, friends, coaches and mentors.

THIS SCHOOL TOOK AWAY SMARTPHONES. THE KIDS DON’T MIND: https://apple.news/AgX2ev7f7SKCNtVqY0aLmyA

Turning Roadblocks to Building Blocks

I am discovering that young children are sponges for learning about their emotions. But what has really intrigued me is their innate fascination and curiosity about what they are learning for themselves about their own emotions. How fortunate am I to be able to witness the positive impacts that a whole new approach to emotions can have on young people?

There is so much research readily available today regarding the role our emotions play in informing us about what is important, how they help inform our decision making and how unprocessed emotions can linger within us for decades. Those unprocessed emotions become the roadblocks in our natural human maturation.

As we move from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, we drag along the unprocessed emotions. What we are learning from neuroscience is that these old unresolved emotions become the cork board in our brains where we pin similar emotional experiences unfolding in our current life — adding to our collection of misunderstood, misused invaluable information.

In my generation, we were taught that many of our emotions were not acceptable. It was common practice for emotions to get labeled in ways that actually shaped a child’s perception of who they were: too sensitive, too bossy, too much, uncontrollable, unreasonable, a sissy, a bully. Those labels got internalized by children and they learned to navigate life so as to avoid them. We learned to be people pleasers, conflict avoiders, tough guys, submissive or aggressive. We learned to read a room, become hyper vigilant and protect ourselves by armoring up.

Oh my goodness we got emotions all wrong!

Emotions are simply our own personal navigational system, rich with invaluable information about how we can be our best and most genuine selves. Denying those emotions is what causes roadblocks to navigating life with good relational skills.

By flipping the old school approach to emotions on its head, we have the opportunity to teach young children their own brain/body connection. There is just one key component to this — we, the adults, have to unlearn what we were taught and relearn this new approach ourselves.

I get inspired by the magic transformation of turning our old emotional roadblocks to strong, guiding foundational life skills as I watch this great experiment get traction in real time with my young grandchildren.

Kids are sponges for learning. They have “beginner’s mind”, a term often associated with personal growth and meditation. Their natural curiosity is the gateway for teaching emotional intelligence.

Emotions are invited to have a seat at the table in our family. Emotions inform us about what the motivation is for the behavior that bubbles out. Sometimes it is crocodile tears streaming down soft cheeks, sometimes it is a toy being flung across the room; or it can be a heated exchange between siblings who were just two minutes ago playing happily with each other; it might be an utter refusal to get dressed and out the door for something fun. All those reactions are just responses to an emotion that was felt in the body and registered in a developing brain.

We can visibly see the release of tension when we help a child name their emotions. Labeling emotions is a powerful tool in adult personal growth and to teach this to kids while they are malleable, is a big game changer. Notice we have shifted from labeling an emotion as a character flaw such as bad, unacceptable, or overly sensitive to simply labeling THE emotion. Full stop. Label the emotion, not the child.

The mutual focus shifts from the reaction/behavior to core motivation for both adult and child. This is a great starting point for better understanding and problem solving. A child who can name their emotions is often keenly aware of what’s driving that emotion.

Helping children to understand that emotions are a helpful internal indicator for their needs, that emotions ebb and flow, and that they actually have some agency around their choices informed by those emotions are some of the best life skills we can ever impart to our kids.

The truth is that as adults we have the harder task of having to learn this emotional agility and awareness after a boatload of years of doing it all wrong. Our own behavioral patterns in response to our emotions are deeply engrained. Part of the personal growth practice is to “catch ourselves” BEFORE we hit repeat on an old pattern and choose differently how to respond vs. react.

The more conscious we become of our own patterns and relationship with our emotional landscape, the more opportunities we have to practice what we preach!

We want our kids to see that emotions are just a normal, natural part of being a human being. The more comfortable we all are with naming emotions, being able to recognize how they show up in us (regardless of our age….either 2 or 42), the more empathy we actually feel for each other. Small children can totally relate to mom or dad when they honestly announce they are frustrated, angry, disappointed. These tiny humans intuitively know what those emotions feel like for themselves. There is a much higher probability that the conversation will shift to “how can I help?”

A family that is skilled at emotional intelligence and navigation is cultivating a healthy relationship with emotions, empathy and connection. Children who have confidence in their own personality and nature will flourish. Children who possess a strong working knowledge of their own emotions will better understand other’s emotions. Disagreements and conflicts will be rooted in what the emotions are telling them is important to them. This will enable kids to identify their needs and articulate them clearly. These invaluable life skills become the guard rails that kids need to make good choices about friendships, interactions with others, habits and their own goals in life.

As I reflect on things I am learning through my own personal growth work over these past 7+ years, I am so grateful and so motivated to empower younger generations with the knowledge and insights I wish I had been aware of at their tender ages. How my generation was taught to deal with emotions created huge roadblocks to reaching our full potential, for knowing who we really are and what matters most to us, and left us ill-equipped to effectively navigate life and relationships in a healthy, evolving way.

Now we know better — Now we know that emotions are building blocks for the solid foundation of a rich, high quality life of authenticity, belonging and connection. Some of my most rewarding conversations these days are with a 5 and 7 year old. Never in a million years did I anticipate having such delightful, exploratory conversations about emotions of all things with young children.

This is how we learn and grow together…..

Adults discovering the flaws in how we were raised and what we observed, doing their inner work and then in turn, reaching back and lending a helping hand to those who come behind us. Witnessing the transformation that comes from better relationship skills is the greatest reward.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

These are three of my favorite books and favorite resources — Dr. Dan Siegel who teaches us so much about what the developing brains of our young children really need from us in order to feel safe and flourish; Dr. John Gottman and his wife, Dr. Julie Gottman, who are renowned for their couples therapy and relationship teachings as well as childhood development and teaching emotional intelligence and fluidity; and yung puelbo who has recently published his third book about his own personal growth journey (he’s a favorite because he is in his mid-30’s and a remarkable example of a young person taking a deep dive into his own self discovery, limiting beliefs and roadblocks and then openly sharing all that he’s learning with others in a relatable, realistic way.

The Being Well Podcast series has an extensive list of episodes to support personal growth and positive mental health. You can find Being Well on YouTube and on Apple & Spotify. I encourage you to check out their library of topics and choose those that appeal to you and whatever you might be exploring for your own personal growth, self-discovery and parenting needs.

Check out the September 19th episode entitled Discovering Your Wants and Needs: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/being-well-with-dr-rick-and-forrest-hanson/id1120885936?i=1000579912109

Nuggets of Wisdom – How Self Compassion Transforms Us

I’m excited to share these nuggets of wisdom gleaned from Kristin Neff’s insightful book, Fierce Self Compassion. With all the breakthroughs that have been occurring in neuroscience and psychology in recent years, it is equally important to embrace what we are learning about the dynamic benefits of healthy self-care. Kristin Neff is an associate professor educational psychology at the University of Texas, Austin. She is a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research with more than 20 years of research, including empirical studies and training programs that are taught worldwide. Kristin explains what is happening in our bodies and our brains when we are navigating life without taking care of ourselves. She weaves this knowledge into relatable stories that are familiar to most of us. When we learn how to cultivate more self compassion into our daily lives, we reduce stress and anxiety. We free ourselves from cycles of exhaustion, pent up anger and frustration, and unhealthy releases that often cause us to merely hit “rinse and repeat.”

We got a lot of things wrong in prior generations about emotions, gender stereotypes, parenting, relationships and vulnerability. As a result, we are now living with consequences that are having negative impacts on our daily lives.

These nuggets of wisdom about fierce self compassion will transform how we treat ourselves — and others — by shattering some of those old concepts and reframing self-care as a path to being our whole, genuine selves in a much healthier way. Let’s start with this big myth — meeting our own needs is selfish……

Many of us go through life putting our needs last while we attend to others. We may even believe that this proof positive of the sacrifices we are willing to make for those we love.

Yet we cannot keep pouring water from a dry well. Eventually we are going to be depleted. The warning signs show up as resentment, lack of patience, physical and mental exhaustion and envy. Kristin Neff says these are key indicators that we are “out of balance”.

Sure, we can push through and “do” for others while those warning signs are flashing, but it won’t be rewarding or pleasant for anyone. Kristin Neff reminds us that we when attend to our own needs, we are able to be more engaged isn positive, energetic ways with others. The reason is that we co-regulate each other. We feel each other’s energy.

Many of us believe we are selfish if we take time to attend to our own needs or ask for help when we needed, but that’s not true. It’s an important step toward healthy life balance. When we meet our own needs, we feel more energy, more grace and more resiliency for life and those we love. Put your own oxygen mask on first.

For the record, we need to role model these new behaviors and attitudes for our children. When our children see that we too have needs, they develop better awareness of their own needs. This balance we attend to in our personal lives becomes their benchmark for their own needs and balance.

For anyone who has ever tried to motivate themselves to do better or achieve a stretch goal by letting their inner critic be the coach, this will be an eye-opening revelation. Our inner critic is well intentioned….BUT misguided. Our inner critic uses shame, bullying and harsh tones to effect change. Not only does it not work, it activates our sympathetic nervous system which infuses us with increased cortisol and inflammation. We will feel this in our bodies. We grow sluggish, suffer increased aches and pains, have a hard time recovering from injury or illness. The continual activation of our sympathetic nervous system will also shut down our minds. It’s harder to think clearly, remember things accurately and perform routine tasks with ease. Brene Brown calls this a state of “overwhelm”. John and Julie Gottman warn that this heightened state can lead to stonewalling in our relationships,

The antidote for this automated, mostly unconscious, response is to silence our inner critic and turn toward nurturing self compassion — the kind of comfort we would offer our best friend or our child. When we stop berating ourselves and adopt a “tend and befriend” approach, we organically activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes our heart rate variability, and reduces tension. The parasympathetic nervous system is our internal care system. We connect with this “tend and befriend” hardwiring automatically for others — especially our children, spouses and best friends. We fail to access it for ourselves.

As Maya Angelou has taught, “When we know better, we do better.” Now we know. We know that banishing the inner critic and leaning into “tend and befriend” will actually get us back on a healthy track faster, and with better results. The parasympathetic nervous system is our “care system”. It releases oxytocin (the love hormone) and endorphins (the natural “feel good” opiates). Both increase our sense of safety, security and well-being. We can naturally ground ourselves in our core values and how we would really like to be responding to current situations when we are infused with the love hormone and feel good endorphins. It prevents us from being reactive and acting way out of character.

Let’s be honest, when we lash out because we listened to our inner critic, we then feel even worse, and our inner critic gets louder. We even believe all that negative nonsense because we lost control. It is an endless loop that spirals us down and makes us feel defeated. Toss out your lifetime pass for that roller coaster. Fire the inner critic and hire your cheerleader and life coach– the one that is wearing a t-shirt that says “tend and befriend YOU.”

Being caught in a ruminating cycle is so painful — and exhausting. The harder we try to jump off that merry go round, the more dizzying it becomes. To make matters worse, we chide ourselves for wasting time, not being able to stay present in our current moment, and obsessing about something we cannot change. What’s done is done. And yet…..it is so unsettling…..we just can’t let it go.

In her book, Fierce Self Compassion, Kristin Neff helps us better understand the root cause of rumination — the inability to express our anger.

For generations, many of us were raised to believe that anger was a bad emotion and needed to be suppressed. We really got this wrong. Emotions are not good or bad, right or wrong. They are guideposts and guardrails for what matters most to us. Anger is simply a warning signal. It’s telling us with a sense of urgency that something is wrong. In prior generations, children were told to bottle up that anger, even punished for expressing it. A small child’s anger is simply an indicator that they are not feeling safe, secure, protected.

For the record, we also need to understand that it takes twenty years or so for our brains to develop and mature. We do not have access to the executive functions of our prefrontal cortex (especially when we are kids). It would be equivalent of asking a 5 year old to drive a car — they are not yet capable of processing all that is needed to accomplish this safely and productively. As Dr. Gabor Mate says, “we should not expect our little people to have to manage themselves when it is the adults that are out of control.”

Is it any wonder that we are not very skilled at handling anger? We got so many mixed messages about anger in childhood and we carry that confusion into adulthood. We are challenged to handle our own anger –AND to be on the receiving end of another’s anger. We can get much better at both.

Suppressed anger and dismissed anger has to go somewhere — and all too often we stuff it internally hoping to hide it from both ourselves and others. Anger that is not processed is going to grow, marinate and percolate. Eventually it may surface like a volcano spewing hot lava — often over some small incident totally irrelevant to the initial warning we felt.

Other times, suppressed anger causes us to ruminate. While we know what it feels like, we may not know why we are so prone to it. Kristin Neff offers this revealing explanation: “Rumination is a basic safety behavior – a form of resistance to what’s happening rooted in the desire to make our pain go away. Rumination represents a freeze response to danger.’

Unfortunately rumination as a basic safety behavior does not produce the desired results. It simply keeps us trapped in our pain instead. We just keep reviewing the past over and over, deepening our hurt and confusion. The increased cortisol and inflammation caused by constant sympathetic nervous system activation wreaks havoc on our ability to regulate stress and anxieties. In fact, rumination can contribute to depression.

Breaking a rumination cycle requires self-awareness. We have to “catch” ourselves when we realize we are caught in a negative thought process that loops endlessly without conclusion. Taking a pause and shifting our mind’s focus to the present moment, or to something pleasant is a deliberate and meaningful first step in rewiring our brain.

All the work that we do to cultivate more self compassion is really helping us “upgrade” our brains from the unconscious, child-like, default settings to the more self-aware, mature, responsive functions. We move from the “reptilian” brain to the “mammalian” care system. This is an exciting part of our human evolution that we are just coming to know more about thanks to neuroscience.

We’ve all heard about our reptilian brains — the quickest and most easily triggered reflective reaction to danger — the place where our automated choices are fight, flight, freeze or fawn. The reptilian reflective responses activated our sympathetic nerve system and feeds our bodies more of the chemicals that negatively impact our ability to stay cool, calm and collected. Our hearts race, our muscles tighten, we lose control. We know this reptilian state all too well.

We’ve heard less about proactively shifting from our reptilian brains to our mammalian care system. As Kristin Neff explains “this is the evolutionary advantage of mammals over reptiles. Mammalian young are born very immature and have a longer developmental period to adapt to their environment. Human beings take the longest to mature – 25 to 30 years for the prefrontal cortex to develop due to our remarkable neuronal plasticity. To keep vulnerable youngsters safe during this long developmental period, the “tend and befriend” response evolved which prompts parents and offspring to stay close and find safety through social bonding. When the care system is activated, oxytocin and endorphins are released, which increases feelings of security.

I am a firm believer that knowledge is our best portal for meaningful change. Now that we are learning about our human evolution process, especially with our brains and bodies, we are gaining a deeper understanding of how we can shift from an outdated autopilot operating system to a more advanced, meaningful and rewarding dynamic operating system. Cultivating self-compassion is the gateway for this transformational change.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

I’m so delighted to share some very timely resources with you that can deepen your self compassion practices. Kristin Neff’s latest book, Fierce Self Compassion is a resource and reference guide that you will want to keep in your home. You’ll refer to it often for yourself, for your spouse and kids, for friends and family members.

Brene Brown’s book, Atlas of the Heart, is another great reference book for our homes. She expands our emotional granularity with her education around 87 emotions and experiences that we all share.

And last, but not least….these 3 episodes of the Being Well podcast…are great, relatable conversations around rumination and meeting our own needs.

DISCOVERING YOUR WANTS
AND NEEDS
September 19, 2022 Episode
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=weJ817JGD9I
HOW TO EFFECTIVELY COMMUNICATE WHAT YOU WANT
September 26, 2022 Episode
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qq305-codfo

The Missing Piece of the Personal Growth Puzzle

There are more than a few entry points for personal growth and just as many reasons why we get motivated to make some changes. Often the motivation comes from a painful experience or major adversity. But what if we could take an entirely different approach to personal growth? What if we reframed it as a part of the natural maturing process as we move through life?

Many of us begin our personal growth journey exploring the self-help section of the bookstore or library, discovering a podcast, participating in a support group, or seeking professional counseling. There is a tendency to keep our efforts under wraps even when we learn that many people struggle with the same issues we do.

In many instances, our personal growth work is cobbled together in a haphazard way. We migrate to teachings or tools that resonate with us. We are drawn to those whose stories are relatable and we strive to overcome our adversities just as they did. Our progress is often slow and some days it is hard to tell if we are actually making headway.

We hear that personal growth work is hard. It is.

We hear that personal growth work is worth it. It is.

Perhaps what has been missing in the personal growth field is a piece of the puzzle that would shift both the process and our motivation in a transformational way. The fundamental missing piece is neuroscience — discovering how our brains are working from childhood into adulthood.

Understanding the role our brains are playing as we navigate adulthood can become the catalyst for proactive personal growth work, enriching our wellbeing and improving the quality of our relationships. It would no longer be necessary to hide the fact that we need a little help to support our natural evolution. In fact, if we reframed personal growth as a foundational building block like exercise and nutrition, we would have a brand-new approachable and desirable entry point for investing in ourselves.

Think about this: Our brain is one of the most phenomenal devices we possess. Yet we know very little about all its capabilities and even less about how to care for and support its optimization. We take it for granted – yet it faithfully serves us through every single experience we have every day for our entire lifetime.

What if we changed our perspective about caring for and utilizing our brain’s full potential? What if we recognized the value of “upgrading” our internal operating systems as we go through life, building on what we have learned from our past experiences and proactively engaging in creating new neural pathways to meet our ever-changing goals.

Let’s see how that might be an optimum pathway for personal growth work by taking a closer look at a subject often discussed when we embark on self-help: how our childhood behavioral patterns and attachment styles often do not serve us well in adulthood.

In a February 2022 episode of the Huberman Lab Podcast, neurobiologist Andrew Huberman explained in great detail how our childhood attachment styles influence our adult attachment styles.

“How we attached, or did not attach, to our primary caregivers in our childhood has much to do with how we attach or fail to attach to romantic partners as adults because the same neural circuits (the neurons and their connections in the brain and body) that underlie attachment between infant and caregiver, between toddler and parent or other caregiver entering adolescence and in our teenager years are repurposed for adult romantic attachments. I know that might be a little eery to think about but indeed that is true.” Andrew Huberman, The Huberman Lab Podcast (2/14/2022)

Dr. Huberman’s insights here are astounding. Our brains “repurpose” attachment styles we developed as kids to help us create our attachment styles with our life partners. It doesn’t take a big stretch of one’s imagination to see how our repurposed adult attachment styles would also impact our friendships, relationships with co-workers and parenting.

The fortunate thing is that regardless of our childhood attachment styles and experiences, the neural circuits for desire, love and attachment are quite plastic — they are amenable to change in response to both what we think and what we feel, as well as what we do. However, all three aspects being discussed today desire, love and attachment — are also strongly biologically driven. (hormones, neurochemicals like dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin) and neural circuits (brain areas and areas of the body that interact with the brain). Andrew Huberman, The Huberman Lab Podcast (2/14/2022)

Dr. Huberman then delivers the “good news” about this phenomenon of “repurposing”. The neuroplasticity of our incredible brains opens up the vast potential to support this “repurposing” in a healthy, proactive, beneficial way. We can engage in this process in a very meaningful – and game-changing way.

We would be able to circumvent some of those awkward, cumbersome forays into adult relationships because we would have greater awareness and access to better tools. Regardless of the stability or chaotic nature of our childhoods, we need to be involved in this repurposing process. It is where we tap into our true nature and free ourselves from old narratives and limiting beliefs.

Imagine entering adulthood without constrictive adaptive childhood behavioral patterns. We all have them, regardless of our childhood experiences (even really good childhoods). Adaptive childhood behavioral patterns are how we made sense of our world as kids. Baked into those behavioral patterns are the armor we used to feel safe, the behaviors we relied on to get attention and feel loved, valued. These childhood behavioral patterns are inextricably linked to our childhood attachment styles.

I’ve written several posts on parenting and on the benefits of breaking generational chains of dysfunctional family patterns. Even when we are well intentioned about wanting to “do better” as parents for our own children, it is only natural that unconscious, residual adaptive patterns will seep into our own parenting. Our default childhood brain and body settings will make our best efforts more challenging than need be.

Dr. Dan Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, is a renowned resource for parents who desire to create and maintain secure attachments with their children. He emphasizes how important it is for parents to identify their own childhood attachment style first and foremost. He encourages parents to do their own healing and personal growth work as a fundamental part of parenting their own children with healthy, secure attachment styles.

Neuroscience has been exploding with game-changing breakthroughs for mental health, for personal growth, for the brain challenges that come with aging such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Brain imaging is helping all of us see more clearly all the changes that our brains are subjected to — and are capable of. We have both an invested interest and a dynamic opportunity to actively participate in helping our brains stay healthy, stay upgraded and function with greater ease.

Maybe personal growth will become the new brain health. The more we know, the more we can participate in our healthy growth and evolution.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

Dr. Dan Siegel YouTube Discussion:

The 4 S’s of Attachment-Based Parenting

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zV2nLEeh0c&t=2780s

The Science of Love, Desire and Attachment
February 14, 2022
https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/huberman-lab/id1545953110

The Mental Health Benefits of a Good Night’s Sleep

The past several years have really brought to light the importance of integrating positive mental health practices into our daily lives. Just as we pay attention to our diet and nutrition, to our daily activity levels and exercise, and to annual physical health exams, we need to do the same for our overall mental well being.

The field of personal growth and “self-help” has exploded with resources and tools that we can incorporate into our daily routines to better support our mental health. Breakthroughs in neuroscience, neurobiology, and psychology in recent years are providing research, data and protocols that will have profound impacts on treatment plans for mental health, addiction, chronic health issues and brain related diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Just as we can take proactive steps to minimize our risk of heart disease, high cholesterol and diabetes, we can also use proactive daily practices to improve our overall mental health and wellbeing.

What has been so fascinating to me is the intersection of neuroscience, psychology and general medicine focused on the body. It was the pandemic that really brought to light how our physical health and our mental health are inextricably linked.

It seems rather obvious that healthy people most likely have stronger immune systems and lower risk factors — but all too often our sole focus was on the physical body. Weight, nutrition and exercise got the majority of our attention. We missed the boat on connecting the dots to how our brains and our mental health were impacting our physical health and overall quality of life.

Midway through the pandemic, I was happily surprised to see that my family doctor’s practice was now including mental health questions on their intake forms. Clearly the awareness that many folks were struggling with higher anxiety and stress was getting some attention. Yet, we often fall too easily into the “quick fix” approach. Did you know that anxiety and depression medications are often doled out to patients with only a 6 minute doctor visit?

We can do better…..and we should. We need to become our own advocates for our mental health and well being just as we are for our physical health. This is precisely where the breakthroughs in neuroscience and neurobiology are intersecting with our physical health. We are learning so much about how our brains operate, how we can take better care of our brains and how we can tap into the little known circuitry to supercharge our brain’s functions. Most of these transformational benefits come from simple changes in our lifestyle — not prescriptions.

First and foremost is consistent, high quality sleep. This is the foundation for a healthy, highly functioning brain.

Think about how religiously you charge your devices and install the upgrades. This is what sleep does for our brains.

Sleep is essential for optimizing brain functions, building strong immune systems, maximizing our daytime functioning, hormone regulation — and it is the starting point for improved mental health. There are zero to low-cost strategies that we can put into practice to dramatically improve the quality and duration of our sleep.

Andrew Huberman, Ph.D, Stamford University, is an excellent resource for a deeper dive into the many benefits of sleep — and daily strategies that will enhance consistent, high quality sleep. Simple things like getting 30-60 minutes of natural sunlight every morning, avoiding caffeine for 8-10 hours before bedtime, waking up at the same time each day and going to bed when you first start feeling sleepy at night, limiting daytime naps to 90 minutes, or best yet, don’t nap at all. Did you know that drinking alcohol messes up your sleep as do most sleep medications. Here’s a surprise – melatonin is not good for us to be taking! (Check out the link below in Recommended Resources to learn more at the Huberman Lab Podcast)

Without good sleep, we are asking our brains to process a lot of information, emotions, experiences and environments without the viable resources needed to do so effectively. No wonder it is so hard to learn new things, break old habits, maintain emotional stability and navigate the complexity of our relationships.

Yet I have never had an annual checkup where the doctor asked me about my sleep. Have you?

If sleep medications can mess up our quality sleep, we should be looking for the root cause of our sleep disturbances. Perhaps something as simple as a better bedtime routine could be the long-term, healthier solution. (Please note that Dr. Huberman advises consulting with your doctor before stopping or changing any sleep medications you are currently taking).

At the same time, it is part of self-advocacy to know what might be contributing to poor sleep quality. Some of it we can control and some of it may be due to grief, anxiety, depression or environment. Taking stock of all the factors that may be inhibiting a good night’s sleep should be part of the conversation with our medical providers.

It is incredibly hard to function at our best when we are exhausted. We know this from personal experience: jet lag from traveling, pulling a few all nighters with a new baby or a work deadline, being in a different time zone. Yet we often fail to realize that during our normal daily — and nightly — routines, we have a lot of room for improvement to take care of our brains, our physical and mental health and our immune system.

Personal growth work supports our mental health as well. The more self-awareness we cultivate, the easier it becomes to acknowledge and addresses the changes we want to make. One of the problems with changing long-standing habits and behavioral patterns is the synapses in our brains that often operate on auto pilot. If we are sleep deprived, it is so much harder to cultivate self-awareness and disrupt an old pattern. We will be much more successful with personal growth work when we are on our A game, and our brains are well rested and restored.

It is the neuroplasticity of our brains that helps us evolve. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to modify, change and adapt both structure and function throughout life and in response to experience. Dr. Rick Hanson shares that “neurons that fire together, wire together”. Sleep reenergizes our body’s cells, clears toxins and waste from the brain and supports learning and memory.

The best advice we might be getting right now from neuroscience research is “to sleep on it.”

Think about it — we have the most incredible processing device on the planet in our head. We really don’t know all there is to know about the brain ….but we are learning more every day. Most importantly, we are discovering how to proactively care for our brains. The first giant step in assuring our integrated good health and well being is to sleep well.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

HUBERMAN LAB RESOURCES NEWSLETTER: Toolkit for Sleep

https://hubermanlab.com/toolkit-for-sleep/

Andrew Huberman YouTube Conversation with Lewis Howes: Do This Everyday to Master Your Sleep & Be More Focused

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWwhqaAMkfk

An Evolving Story…

Getting started on personal development often begins with identifying behavioral patterns that aren’t serving us very well in adulthood. While this is a giant step in the right direction, there is another major aspect that is truly transformational.

That meaningful component is a deeper dive into the limiting beliefs and false narratives that are baked into those childhood behavioral patterns. These old stories and limited beliefs hold us back; they prevent us from exploring our full potential and building a deep reservoir of inner strengths.

So while we can change our outgrown behavioral patterns and begin to show up more maturely, if we don’t spend some time untangling ourselves from the beliefs and narratives we heard and absorbed in childhood, we might stunt our personal growth.

There’s no doubt that this is hard work and requires challenging ourselves in order to unlearn and relearn. It is one thing to be fully committed to new habits and big goals, but if we don’t release those limiting beliefs that reinforce self-doubt, there’s a strong likelihood we will self-sabotage our best laid plans. Unfortunately, this is often occurring unconsciously.

As we cultivate more self-awareness for our outgrown behavioral patterns, we can also become more attuned to negative self-talk and the excuses we give ourselves for not pursuing our dreams.

Our limiting beliefs and childhood narratives are often very nuanced and will require some careful “teasing out” of the threads that weave our stories. It is not only the behavior patterns and messaging we struggled with in childhood, it is all the complexities of our family dynamics that played a role as well.

As a child, we were the ones adapting all the time — to our parents, to their actions and responses to life, to all the life events that were occurring. We did not have the brain capacity to reason or rationalize. We did not have the authority to make decisions and make plans that accommodated our unique needs. We had a lot of emotions swirling through us but many went unspoken, unprocessed and misunderstood. So we tried to make sense of all those moving parts by telling ourselves a story. It is our childhood story that shapes us as we move into adulthood.

Often that childhood story serves as a nautical chart for us as we navigate the changing seas of life. While we cannot wait to row our own boat with full independence as we enter adulthood, we are unconsciously aware that our minds are full of obstacles — remnants of childhood that clutter our path. These are limiting beliefs and false narratives about who we really are.

Many of us carry these limiting beliefs far in to adulthood. It might be a scarcity mindset around money if we grew up poor or had parents who gambled or drank away money needed for rent and groceries. We might have body image issues believing we are too thin or too fat, uncoordinated or a weakling. We may believe we aren’t good at sports, or math, or that we just aren’t smart or talented enough to pursue our heart’s dreams. We may think that we have limited future career opportunities due to a lack of higher education. Messaging we get in our formative years can stick with us for a long time and limit us in many ways.

This is why it is so important to include self-reflection on our limiting beliefs and stories of who we thought we were, or were supposed to be, when we were kids as a key component of personal growth.

The above quote from Adam Grant is from his book “Think Again”. It really resonates when applied to childhood stories and the beliefs we were raised on. We cling hard to the stories written in childhood about who we are but the truth is that we were often judged, experienced and molded by others, mostly adults. Parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches — they all see different things in us. Many times they are simply reflecting back what they see in themselves. This is precisely why it is so important to really get to know ourselves as we go through adulthood. We now have agency and autonomy to pick and choose what is right for us, to develop those strengths and skills we are drawn to, to keep learning and growing forward.

I love having conversations with friends who share their stories of realizing that they were still clinging to outdated, outgrown limiting beliefs. Even when their current lived experiences and how they were actually conducting their lives was proof positive that those old beliefs were wrong, there was a little nagging voice inside keeping that old narrative running in the background.

Once they owned the fact that the old beliefs and limitations were a drag on their forward progress, they let go. They embraced their newfound freedom and acknowledged that all along they had been “learning their way out” of those old limitations.

This is the simple, marvelous truth. We are always learning — sometimes by accident, sometimes incidentally, and many times by choice and intentionality.

Learning is the catalyst for freeing ourselves from limiting beliefs and the stories we tell ourselves when we are in struggle– especially those stories we co-author with our inner critic. We can step back and get a fresh, updated perspective — then ask ourselves if what we are believing is true. We do not need to stay forever tethered to an old narrative about who we are. We are evolving through our lived experiences every single day.

When you find yourself in a state of confusion — smile! It means that the information stored in your brain from childhood is colliding with the knowledge, information and experiences you’ve accumulated since then! It’s a big opportunity to shift away from an unconscious reaction to a more nuanced, mature, informed response.

“After all, the purpose of learning isn’t to affirm our beliefs, it’s to evolve our beliefs.” — Adam Grant in his book Think Again

Again Adam Grant offers an invaluable piece of wisdom that can be applied to our personal growth journey. The purpose of cultivating self-awareness and spending time in discovery through self-reflection is to help us clean up the clutter from childhood. We can create a much better nautical map for navigating the vast seas of life by removing impediments like limiting beliefs and old outgrown stories about who we truly are.

When we begin to adopt a regular practice of perspective-taking, we super boost our natural curiosity. This is one child-like quality we should tap into! We also open up and are receptive to take in new information, ideas and stories from others. The natural desire to resist taking in anything that conflicts with our rigid beliefs or scares us loosens its grip. We begin to find ourselves more pliable and flexible with paradox, with opinions different than our own because lived experiences are also different. All of this culminates in a grounded confidence that allows us to be truly authentic with an ability to listen to understand without all those old limiting beliefs and stories getting in the way. That is where personal growth thrives.

I’m sharing this little footnote to this post because it’s become so clear to me that regardless of your age, this inner work of self-reflection around limiting beliefs is incredibly necessary and game-changing. Because we got a lot of things wrong in prior generations about how to deal with emotions, myths about vulnerability being weakness, shoving our family skeletons into closets, and double standards — even younger generations (20’s, 30’s and 40’s) need to do this work. You’ll see what I mean if you listen to the podcast episodes I’m including in recommended resources with this post. Doing this kind of inner growth work is what contributes to breaking dysfunction cycles of poor life skills for future generations.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:


This episode covers a lot of ground when it comes to untangling ourselves from limiting beliefs. Julie Solomon shares how $30,000 in credit card debt became her impetus for honesty and growth.
https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/typology/id1254061093?i=1000576481143
Connecting With Your Best Parts. This conversation between Dr. Rick Hanson and his son Forrest is so relatable…and is a springboard for your own work on rediscovering the good in YOU! https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/being-well-with-dr-rick-hanson/id1120885936?i=1000567818618

4 Steps to Release “Limiting Beliefs” Learned from Childhood: Psychology Today:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/focus-forgiveness/201311/4-steps-release-limiting-beliefs-learned-childhood

Nuggets of Wisdom – Seeds of Growth

In this edition of my Nuggets of Wisdom, I am sharing some insights from conversations with my friends who are also committed to their personal growth and what they have been witnessing from their positive changes.

When we cultivate self-awareness, we do become more cognizant of the behaviors we have had that really held us back from being our “authentic” selves. We often said “yes” when we really wanted to say “no.”

Awareness and authenticity go hand in hand when stepping back and assessing why we do that. Sometimes it is just because we think it will “keep the peace”. Sometimes we believe that having the same old disagreement will just end up with the same old result. Sometimes we are putting our needs and even our values to the side because we think it will make someone else happy.

The truth of the matter is that we often get a gut feeling or a nudge of intuition that our values and our actions are out of alignment….and that can lead to resentment, stuffing our emotions and our needs and participating half-heartedly in whatever we have agreed to do. We simply do not feel comfortable in our own skin.

My friends and I have noticed that when we take that first uncomfortable step towards real authenticity and actually say no, or set a boundary, that we feel lighter, more empowered and confident. And that initial discomfort fades fast. In fact, often the other person doesn’t even really care that we didn’t go along blindly, or they discover something new about us that supports a better relationship.

This may be my favorite wisdom and insight. My friends have been sharing stories about some of the richer, deeper conversations they have been having with family members during these past few months of family reunions, summer vacations, and backyard barbecues. There is no doubt that people “feel” the energy and openness around someone who has really done a lot of inner work. There is a sense that it is safe to really open up. These heart to heart conversations have answered a lot of questions about family history, revealed hidden strengths, and unburdened others of heavy baggage they’d been carrying around for decades. Pema Chodrun has long taught that when we do our personal growth work, we make it easier for others to do theirs. My friends are now enjoying the benefits of these deeper connections with family members — something they had longed for and worked hard to achieve. The pivotal difference was going inward first, doing their own personal growth work, and then letting their positive changes draw others in.

One of the most effective tools for personal growth work is “reframing”.

Taking a fresh perspective to adversity can shift our unconscious brains from a negativity bias and help us engage in something much more positive to handle challenges and difficulties.

This reframing of being “planted in possibility” encourages us to lean on our inner strengths like courage, resiliency and resourcefulness.

We do possess some rich compost to support our efforts. Think about times in the past when you have successfully overcome an adversity. Draw on that experience. Recognize how much you have grown and discovered since then and tap into the greater resources you have developed. Use regret as a tool to help you recognize what you value most. Check in with yourself to see if you might have a pattern that isn’t serving you well when trouble shows up. Seek help and guidance from those you admire who have overcome similar adversities.

We seem to have this myth that soft skills are not very powerful or effective. That could not be farther from the truth. Perhaps the real truth is that it takes courage, confidence and commitment to actually employ soft skills. It is not easy to admit we were wrong or that we need to apologize. And yet personal accountability builds trust, respect and better connections with others. Owning our mistakes is a powerful soft skill. Personal accountability for how we conduct ourselves and the standards we hold ourselves to reveals our integrity and core values. By the way, did you know that others will often not hold us accountable because of the discomfort that they feel? If we know we have screwed up, it’s such a gift to others to admit and make amends. Now that’s a soft skill that packs a meaningful punch.

Another soft skill that requires awareness and a lot of practice is non-judgment. We can be all too quick to judge someone else, using our own experiences and standards as a filter. All too often, we are sadly mistaken about another’s situation, their choices and their emotional landscape. Catching ourselves being judgmental is the first step. The next is to lean into empathy. What if we were judged inaccurately by another? How would that feel? That little pause and frame of reference can shift us to becoming more compassionate, curious and non-judgmental.

If someone is courageous enough to tell us their story, can we listen to better understand them and their experience? This soft skill requires us to refrain from formulating our response while listening, from rushing in to give advice or fix. We are listening to understand. Seem simple enough, but it does not come naturally to most of us.

These simple (but challenging) soft skills are game changers. Imagine your closest relationship and how things might transform if you took personal accountability seriously, shifted from being judgmental and even critical to being open-minded and curious, and if you became a really good listener?

I hope you have found these nuggets of wisdom to be helpful and motivational. Just one more observation to share: It’s becoming very evident that people are really searching for more face to face interaction and better connections with each other. My friends and I have noticed this in our neighborhoods and communities. When we take a better version of ourselves out into the world, we become part of the “relational scaffolding” that Dr. Bruce Perry believes is transformational for humankind.

Everybody has something they are dealing with each and every day. Strive to help others by being kind, sharing a smile, holding a door, offering a compliment. It really does make a difference.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

Check out my last two blog posts on Deliberate Growth to learn how you can “upgrade your brain” to fastback your personal growth work:

Deliberate Growth

https://inspirednewhorizons.com/2022/07/24/deliberate-growth/

How to Achieve Deliberate Growth

https://inspirednewhorizons.com/2022/07/26/how-to-achieve-deliberate-growth/

How to Achieve Deliberate Growth

Our brain’s default setting of a turbo-charged negativity bias may be the very reason that we have so many difficulties — of our own making — as we move through our adult lives. The reality is that we can be receiving a lot of support, encouragement and even love, but be totally blind to it. We can be stuck in the negativity bias and all the good that is pouring over us every single day, simply runs off.

This sounds really hard to believe doesn’t it? Yet we have examples of this truth all around us. Others can take a look at our lives and see the obvious positivities even while we focus solely on dumping out one complaint after another. People hop from one relationship to the other only to discover the same old problems crop up in that new partnership. It’s not the problems we face, it’s the patterns we keep using to deal with them.

And many of our unconscious behavioral patterns are deeply rooted in the brain’s negativity bias. As I shared in my previous post, Deliberate Growth, the negativity bias serves us well in childhood but it does need to be updated as we grow up. Just like outgrown shoes and childlike responses to our emotions, we need to free ourselves from the unconscious default setting of the negativity bias to extract all the goodness from our ongoing lived adult experiences.

During the recent Being Well podcast episode entitled “Making Learning Stick”, Forrest Hanson pointed out that research confirms when most of us are asked about our daily experiences, our tendency is to report on mostly good stuff. And yet, very little lasting microdoses of these good things in our life actually penetrate our brains. The old negativity bias is a stealth collector of the bad stuff — and it blocks the brain from “taking in the good”. Next thing we know, there is a large pile of sticky, murky, opaque negativity getting in the way of activating the positive benefits of all the goodness that unfolds naturally in our lives everyday.

Consider this keen observation that Dr. Hanson shared:

“People are having many experiences in which others are friendly, supportive, appreciative, warm — and still….deep down inside, they feel lonely and uncared for.” — Dr. Rick Hanson

I believe many of us can relate to Dr. Hanson’s insights from both sides of the equation. We may be the ones in our friendships and relationships that are providing support, caring, understanding and encouragement — and yet we sadly watch our loved ones sink deeper into despair. On the flip side, we may be so overcome with our feelings of shame or unworthiness, that we too are unable to actually see and feel the gifts of empathy, love and support being offered to us.

We have to be in “receiving mode” to be aware of these positive experiences happening in our lives. Yet if our brains are unconsciously blocking entry, it’s because the negativity bias and our recorded past experiences have teamed up — and we simply cannot take it in. We are not in “receiving mode”.

This is where the enneagram can be such an effective tool. We can begin to recognize our standard behavioral patterns, and learn “why” we leaned so hard on them in childhood. This awareness of our behavioral patterns becomes the entry point for change. Recognizing adaptive childhood patterns and trading them in for more mature ways of showing up in life begins to disrupt the negativity bias and open the pathway to take in good experiences.

In his therapeutic work on adaptive childhood behavioral patterns, author and psychotherapist Terry Real offers this whimsical yet poignant image:

You don’t want those adaptive childhood patterns driving the bus. Put your arms around them, love them up — and then announce: take your sticky hands off the steering wheel!”

So, let’s circle back. The factory default setting in our brains is a turbo-charged negativity bias. Without upgrades and resets, we take these default settings into our adult world. Over time, the negativity bias of our brains becomes a very strong and powerful muscle. It blocks what we want most — better experiences, more good than bad, progress on our goals, meaningful relationships.

As Forrest Hanson pointed out, it is a long, well established engrained pattern.

And if changing this was easy, we’d all be psychological superstars. But we didn’t even know that, let alone know how to change it. And this is precisely why these new research findings on positive neuroplasticity are so relevant.

Dr. Rick Hanson and his son Forrest made clear that incidental learning is pretty limited. Any brain upgrades and glitch fixes that we want to install and activate are going to require proactive and deliberate practice.

Two things really stood out to me as Rick revealed just how challenging this pivot can be. One is that what we really need to do is change a long-entrenched habit. And that habit has been mostly an unconscious one for most of our lives. Even a seasoned mindfulness practitioner and neuroscientist like Dr. Hanson finds himself often falling back into his age-old pattern in spite of the fact that he is both aware and committed to change. The truth is that habits are hard to break. This is where we can integrate the teachings of James Clear in his book Atomic Habits into our awareness of the negavity bias and strive for small, consistent improvements in pushing it aside to let the good things seep in.

The second thing that really surprised me is that most of the hard work we are doing in the self-help industry and on our personal growth journeys are in fact incidental learning. We may intuitively, and perhaps even accidentally, be able to achieve some elements of lasting change through mindfulness, meditation and learning from podcasts and books — yet it is mostly through increased self-awareness and incidental learning.

This incidental learning often can support us in developing better “states” of being. But the wow factor is that deliberate growth will transform our “states” to “traits”.

This is the dynamic aspect of this new research. We can upgrade our brains through positive neuroplasticity to receive and incorporate more positive experiences and responses and be continually learning from this process as we move through life. And we can develop lifelong traits of inner strengths that will serve us, and our relationships, in meaningful, rewarding ways.

Since there is a world of difference between having a beneficial positive experience AND learning from it, Dr. Rick Hanson developed a method using the acronym HEAL to help us. This HEAL method is a framework for mental learning factors that focus on how we “engage” with our experiences. It is this “engagement” process that makes learning stick.

With incidental learning, we are more passively using tools like growth mindset, openness to new experiences and motivation.

With the HEAL method, we proactively and deliberately engage four steps in two phases:

Phase 1 – Activation Stage:

H – HAVE a beneficial, positive experience. Notice it — being present in the moment and aware that you are having a positive experience. Or, deliberately creating one — like calling up a feel of gratitude or compassion, motivation or commitment

Phase 2 – Installation Stage: (These learning factors MUST underpin any lasting change in neural structure.)

E – ENRICH: Extend the duration, increase the intensity, turn up the volume in your mind, bring all your senses to bear such feeling it in the body, focus on what is novel or fresh about it and recognize its personal relevance to you. For example, feeling included and cared about, valued and accepted)

A – ABSORB: Plausibly sensitize the brain. Fertilize the soil to be receptive to the big enriched seeds that are landing on it. You are deliberately intending to personalize the experience, imagining or sensing what you are about to receiving and making room for it. Focus on what is rewarding, meaningful and enjoyable about it. This increases release of dopamine and epinephrine in your brain which creates lasting neural change.

L – LINK: Link the experience. A common practice in psychotherapy and even every day life, is linking to the positive. We are aware of both positive and negative throughout out day, and we are intentionally making the “positives” bigger. With this practice, you can gradually soothe, ease and even replace the negativity material.

There will no doubt be more studies conducted and more applications for this game-changing new method in the self-help industry, in couples counseling, in parenting practices and in mental health treatments.

This new research takes positivity and optimism to a whole new level. Rather than fighting our turbo-charged negativity bias, and donning armor to protect us from our vulnerabilities, we can learn — and teach — how to grow inner resources of courage, resilience and patience, all while harvesting more of the good experiences and feelings that flow into us every single day.

For those who often push away what they want the most, this just might be the solution they’ve been seeking.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

Deliberate Growth

We have positive experiences every day that present us with opportunities to learn something new. Yet all too often, we miss those golden opportunities for a variety of reasons. The brain’s natural negativity bias is one key reason.

Another is the fact that often we are just not paying attention. We do spend a fair amount of our time each day operating on auto pilot, navigating through life with habits and patterns we haven’t proactively updated for years.

Think about this: We update our phones to fix glitches and install upgrades. In fact, we are eager and excited about upgrades for our devices.

We can do the same thing for the most amazing experience processors we possess — our brains! We can actually “upgrade” our personal operating system by cultivating awareness and proactively rewiring our brain to “take in the good”. Maybe we just need to reframe brain health as our personal “upgrade”.

Every time you take in the good, you build a little bit of neural structure. Doing this a few times a day — for months, and even years — will gradually change your brain, and how you feel and act — in far reaching ways. –– Dr. Rick Hanson, Author of Resilient, NeuroDharma and Hardwiring Happiness.

Game-changing breakthroughs are occurring in the fields of neuroscience, neurobiology, psychology and mental health that we can tap into from the comfort of our own homes to give our brains — and our lives — a major operational upgrade!

In his recently published study in the Journal of Positive Physchology, entitled “Learning to Learn from Positive Experiences“, Dr. Rick Hanson reveals the profound revelations of our capacity for “deliberate growth”.

The focus of this study was how to make learning “stick”; how to build those internal resources that we need when facing life’s challenges. Those inner strengths are things like courage, resilience, patience, confidence, compassion, and emotional know how.

There has never been a study done quite like this. Previously, the little research that did exist had been primarily focused on external factors like settings, environments, behavioral patterns; or broad, global attitudes such as having a “growth mindset” or being open to our own experiences. Even cultivating “awareness” about our emotional triggers and childhood behavioral patterns was only the first step in moving towards healing and personal growth. Being aware is key — but how do we make lasting changes in the ways we show up in the world?

As Dr. Rick Hanson points out, “what makes the most difference is where the neurological rubber meets the road in how we directly engage our experiences of what we are trying to grow.”

Positive neuroplasticity!

This is groundbreaking and game-changing research that will become a foundational component of mental health, personal growth, brain health and overall wellbeing.

By being proactively engaged in our positive experiences as they are occurring, we can disrupt the brain’s natural negativity bias and build stronger neural pathways for our inner strengths. We become more skillful at “taking in the good” and we strengthen core resources for handling adversity.

Dr. Hanson explains that if we are trying to grow inner strengths like happiness, patience, or self-worth, it starts by actually experiencing it. So often, when we are having a positive experience, it can wash right through our minds like water through a sieve. A momentary experience of pure joy or feeling patient fades away quickly. It doesn’t stick.

In his earlier teachings, Dr. Hanson would encourage us to become aware of those good feelings associated with a positive experience and hold on to them for 15-30 seconds. While that was helpful for us to begin recognizing how many good experiences we were having during a day, it was one half of the equation — it was “activation”. This new research reveals the second — and most impactful –step in the learning process. It is “installation.”

Activation and installation are the keys steps for our brain upgrades. Makes sense doesn’t it? We can get messages on our phones about a new upgrade, but until we actually “install” it, we don’t get the benefits of that upgrade. Same simple concept applies to our brains — it takes both activation and installation.

By using the methods from Dr. Hanson’s study, we can deliberately and directly increase our positive neuroplasticity which causes the actual experience to lodge inside of us. The experience sticks. It’s like planting a seed of the resource we wish to increase.

The more we deliberately and directly engage with our positive experiences, the more we are attending to the growth of those inner strengths every day.

These are such extraordinary findings because we now have several key factors to add to the field of positive psychology which Dr. Martin Seligman introduced over 20 years ago. It was long held that a person’s character was pretty much set by around the age of 20 but we’ve learned that this is not at all the case. People change all throughout their lives and have the ability to grow and expand their inner resources as they evolve. As Dr. Hanson’s study confirms, we do have the capacity for deliberate growth.

Not only can we acquire resources like resilience, patience, courage, self worth and emotional know how, we can supercharge the acquisition of these inner strengths by moving them from “states to traits”. Dr. Hanson points out that we have to move from “states to traits” for any kind of lasting learning.

In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear encourages us to cast a vote for the person we wish to become. He often suggests we have a strong image in our minds of a real life person who embodies the values and characteristics that we wish to grow. This concept of “casting a vote” is that every small and simple action that reinforces those good habits, done consistently over time, helps us “install” new, improved habits. Eventually, we do actually become a better version of ourselves and it appears to be fluid, organic.

It is this very same principle that Dr. Hanson’s research proves for our capacity to grow core inner strengths. Over time, with consistent, engaged daily practice, we move from someone who can tap into reservoirs of calmness or resiliency, to a person who actually is calm and/or resilient. We move more fluidly and organically through life with those core inner strengths as our compass and ballast.

Very simply put learning is conscious. Dr. Hanson emphasizes that we must help our positive experiences change the brain. No brain change, no learning.

Here is the stunning truth: We have the most amazing computer installed in us from birth — it is our brain. Yet we operate unconsciously about all the features and capabilities of this most incredible, malleable, multi-functional technology. Few of us ever read an operator’s manual for our brain. That’s a core reason why we have trouble parenting — we don’t understand how a child’s brain develops. As our bodies grow and our lived experiences shape us, we keep operating on auto pilot with a brain that would love an upgrade.

Let’s not forget that the factory default for our brains is a turbo-charged negativity bias. Basically when we are young, that factory setting helps us to stay alert for what we need to survive — food, safety, nurturing. And we are completely vulnerable, dependent on others to ensure those basic needs are met. But as we grow, learn and become autonomous, we gain agency for ourselves. However, if we don’t upgrade our brain, that default setting of the negativity bias will not serve us well. Quite candidly, that is where most of us are operating from unconsciously throughout our adult lives.

Dr. Hanson was not shy about pointing this out as he discussed his research findings on the July 11th Being Well podcast. Imagine just how dispiriting it is for counselors and therapists to hear that the turbocharged negativity bias of our brains is one of the toughest roadblocks for our quality of life, for healing from trauma, for personal growth and building core inner strengths.

And yet — it is also the most profound pivot for all of us. Positive Neuroplasticity! We can embrace our capacity to deliberately upgrade and grow a bumper crop of inner strengths.

Dr. Rick Hanson partnered with the Greater Good Science Center in Berkley, CA, along with other esteemed peers to do this research study. His excitement for this new discovery is contagious and encouraging. Dr. Hanson has spent his life dedicated to melding neuroscience and psychology to help us live happier, healthier lives in alignment with our potential and our values. This transformational discovery about how we can deliberately “active and install” a positive upgrade in our most amazing brains is going to have a huge impact on mental health treatments and services.

In a few days, I will share another blog post that details the steps in the HEAL method that Dr. Hanson teaches for us to activate and install our brain upgrades. It is my hope that you will find this new neuroscience breakthrough as dynamic as I do — and that you will take the time to listen to the lively discussion about it in the Being Well episode I’ve linked below.

Who’s ready for a transformational positivity upgrade?

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

JOURNAL OF POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY – RESEARCH WHITE PAPER BY DR. RICK HANSON: LEARNING TO LEARN FROM POSITIVE EXPERIENCES”

https://www.rickhanson.net/learning-to-learn-from-positive-experiences/