We hear this myth all the time — “people don’t change” or “you can’t make someone change” but quite honestly, this could not be further from the truth. None of us are the same person we were last week, last month or last year. All this phenomenal change is happening with very little awareness on our part. Our brain and its remarkable process of neuroplasticity are literally changing us every single day.
Neuro means brain; Plasticity refers to the fact that the brain is always transforming itself. When you meet someone new, or learn a new fact, your brain changes its structure and function. The environment can change our brains even if we are not aware of it. Some events change the way brain cells communicate with one another, by strengthening or weakening this communication. Other events will change how the brain interprets things. All these changes end up modifying our behaviors. — excerpted from Frontiers’ article, “Neuroplasticity: The Brain Changes Over Time” 1/12/2020
Now we can see that in reality we are actually changing at all times. It is hard-wired into us and proof positive that we not only CAN change, we have been doing it all along.
What is most intriguing is that we can become an integral and proactive part of this process. Rather than resisting change, we can embrace and even empower this human superpower.
Let me reframe this in a way that will shift your perspective about “growth mindset”.
What if we thought about our ever-evolving life changes as our CV: Curriculum Vitae (which ironically is Latin for “course of life”).
What would we put on our personal life resume that is directly correlated to the changes we’ve experienced – both unconsciously through neuroplasticity and very consciously through the effort we put in to effect change?
As you are reflecting on this, ponder why we always ask older people “What would you tell your 20 year old self?”
How often do we mutter to ourselves “if I knew then what I know now?” as we reflect back on our life history and realize that we could have made much better decisions and seized opportunities we let slip through our fingers?
Let’s put that on our life resume — the things we learned later in life that often came from repeated trial and error. A little hindsight with a healthy dash of knowledge is how we acquire wisdom.
So many of our life experiences have helped us develop a whole host of skills sets we often take for granted. From parenting to career changes, to marriages and health issues, the loss of loved ones — each and every one probably revealed something we did not previously know about ourselves.
For some time now, I have been thinking that one of the best entry points for self discovery and personal growth is through understanding how our brains operate. If we learned this, we could become proactive in setting ourselves up for better life skills and fewer problems.
It is incredibly hard to “do the work” of meaningful change when we have 40, 50, or 60+ years in which we have fossilized bad habits, dysfunctional behavioral patterns, and unhealed emotional wounds.
We could be doing all the “work” in real time, when it has the biggest impact and the greatest opportunity to transform us in healthy ways. By being proactive in the “change” process, we could actually be preventing getting “stuck” in outgrown or dysfunctional responses to life. We would simply be more prepared and skillful at navigating life. We would be in a continual state of building inner resources to support ourselves in evolving positive ways.
Neuroscience is revealing to us that we can do much better at “resourcing” ourselves with good coping skills, healthy emotional responses and emotional regulation as well as the resilience, resourcefulness and capacity we get from lessons we glean from our learned experiences. Without these inner resources, we can struggle to integrate our thoughts, emotions and body when faced with challenging circumstances or trauma.
Integration is the core foundational block for us to be able to deal with our experiences in healthy ways — and for us to learn from those experiences and build a strong neural network to tap into for future reference. We need to integrate our thoughts, our emotions and our bodies if we want to be better “resourced” for handling life’s difficulties.
If we think of our behavioral patterns as “memorizations”, we can get a clear picture of how we learned as kids to respond to anger, blame, hurt or fear. Often it was not only our own emotions we grappled with, but those of our caregivers. So we “memorized” what would bring us safety, relief, a return to connection. Our little developing brains did not yet have all the executive function to reason. In fact, our brains and bodies were flooded with cortisol and adrenaline — urging us to take quick action and seeking safety ASAP. We “memorized” what the fastest track would be to return us and our caregivers back to baseline.
We really don’t learn much from memorization. It’s just a steady “rinse, repeat” pattern of responding to similar situations. A better pathway to healthy co-regulation and growing core inner resources is to really engage with our own emotions, be informed about what they are telling us, calming ourselves so we can reconnect with our executive functions and then make rational, healthy choices about how to respond. Sounds simple enough, right?
Well, it can be — but not without an understanding of what is happening simultaneously in our bodies, with our thoughts and emotions. When we are young, it would be the equivalent of trying to recite the alphabet backwards while the grade school band was all warming up! Too much distraction, too much noise — just too much.
If we have a clearer understanding of how a child’s brain develops, then we can reset our expectations about what they are actually able to process when emotions and experiences get big and bumpy. We can “meet them where they are” and save us all a lot of angst. We shouldn’t want our kids to “memorize” how to navigate life; we want to teach them how to be captains of their ship, with a breadth of knowledge, skills and resources so they can face opportunities and obstacles in healthy, dynamic ways.
As neuroscience, psychology and psychiatry all intersected to address our growing mental health crises, many phenomenal discoveries have been made. Dr. Dan Siegel recently remarked that he would have never thought 15 years ago that we would have such concrete evidence of how our brains and bodies are functioning (or not functioning). It is revelational and game-changing for every one of us.
Breakththroughs lead us right back to the root problem — and that is where real change occurs. We can proactively and meaningfully begin to implement bold new ways to teach ourselves – and especially our children – how to process emotions as they are occurring; how to get back to baseline when our emotions hijack our ability to reason and think clearly; how we co-regulate each other (the hot tip here is that we can de-escalate a situation as fast as we can escalate an already emotionally charged situation); and how to learn from our experiences in ways that “resource” us for the future.
Imagine if we re-framed our attitudes about personal growth and the need to change in a whole new way. If we truly understood how our brains, bodies, thoughts and emotions all were working to support us in such astounding positive ways, we would be approaching how we parent, how we engage in life and how we support each other in transformational and empowering new ways.
Food for thought: Can you imagine learning to drive a car without understanding how all those moving parts actually synch up and work together? Did you learn how to take care of a car when you learned to drive (about oil and gas and windshield washer fluid, about engine warning lights?). Can you imagine teaching your child to drive if you didn’t know how to drive or maintain a car? Could it be that we actually understand more about the complexities of how our cars operate and even more about awareness and skills needed to navigate traffic than we do how our very own brains, bodies, thoughts and emotions are all working to support us?
I recently listened to a thought-provoking podcast with Adam Grant and Carla Harris about becoming great mentors and sponsors. During the conversation, Carla pointed out that so many folks returned to the workplace after coming through the challenges of a global pandemic with many new skills, strengths and inner resources. She was so insightful when she noted that we should always be on the lookout for ways that we are growing through our challenging experiences. She also noted that we all have changed as a direct result of that collective experience. There are opportunities we never saw before that are now being revealed to us.
Change is a good thing….and it is the only thing that is constant. We actually can change!
Dr. Dan Siegel is one of all-time favorite resources for learning how a child’s brain develops, how our parent/child attachment styles impact our adult relationships and how we can transform all the chaos is our bodies and brains to an integrated, more healthy approach to life’s challenges. Any YouTube video featuring Dr. Siegel is sure to enlighten and inform.
Dr. Andrew Huberman is my “go to” resource for all things neuroscience. He offers deep dives into so many diverse topics in this ever evolving field of research on his Huberman Lab podcasts. For smaller doses of his worthy insights, check him out on YouTube where he offers bite-sized segments from his in-depth podcasts.
This episode is definitely worthwhile for parents especially — but as always, we have to put our oxygen mask on first…so learning this information for ourselves and then applying it to our parenting skills is invaluable.
Check it out: The Science of Emotions and Relationships:
When I suggest a groundbreaking parenting book, I love the added benefit that comes with it — the opportunity for us adults to revisit our childhoods through the lens of more knowledge that comes from both the book and our own lived experiences. This is hindsight infused with real life experiences and new, improved skills and learnings. My deep dive into personal growth brought me to parenting time and again.