While most people know that body language makes up a large part of communication, very few people realise how much we transparently ‘leak’ it to everyone around.
This is something that I noticed early in my career, when I realised that reading peoples’ behaviour was so much more accurate and informative than assuming their words were all-important. In fact, if we observe most people closely, our behaviours are constantly revealing our internal mental state.
Take a look at the tee-shirt message above. While it is quite funny at a superficial level, the message actually tells us a huge amount about the ‘person’ who would do the ‘behaviour’ of wearing that tee-shirt.
For instance, the tee-shirt conveys a warning to ‘back off’ to the reader – so we know the ‘wearer’ is not friendly since no one wants to be the recipient of sarcasm. We also know the wearer is trying to project an invulnerable, aloof, no-nonsense, slightly intellectually superior image to the world.
But the next thought progression is: why do they need to declare this message?
The reader then picks up the less obvious but still ‘readable’ message which is that underneath this ‘invulnerable armour’ the tee-shirt wearer is frightened, brittle, defensive and deep-down holds assumptions and beliefs that they are ‘inferior’.
Probably not the message the tee-shirt wearer actually intended to project.
This unintended ‘readability’ is particularly the case with people who are aggressive or passively aggressive.
This happens because when we are building our brains during childhood, we pay attention to our environment and learn. If we learn that our environment is frightening or threatening, we build many synapses ‘devoted’ to fear and threat.
The more synapses we have devoted to these themes, the more likely they are to ‘vote’ and influence dendrites to ‘fire’ and activate huge downstream networks of neurons similarly ‘devoted’ to fear and threat.
Higher levels of neural activation mean that those ‘devoted’ networks fire more powerfully, increasing ‘salience’ or intensity. The more salience, the more likelihood that the content will be ‘retrieved’ and break through into our conscious awareness – thereby over time, becoming a larger and larger part of our conscious experience.
As the numbers of synapses devoted to fear and threat increase, the more likely we are to form negative rather than positive ‘assumptions’ about the world, other people and ourselves. We come to see the glass as half-full and the world as scary and threatening.
That is, we might see the world as dangerous, other people as hostile and ourselves as powerless victims – simply because we experienced this negative content as we learned and ‘built’ our brains in childhood.
Once we have formed these negative assumptions, then we will likely see the world, others and ourselves through this negative prism going forward in life, as these assumptions are the ‘foundational’ networks to which we later ‘add’ information.
This means that once we are adults, even if events are not objectively threatening, we still perceive them as being threatening.
By this time, we have usually learnt and practised many behaviours (of which we are mostly unaware) to deal with the ‘perceived’ overwhelming and ‘ever-present’ fear and threat.
For example, in our fear and panic, we build lots of behaviours to warn off others and drive them away so they cannot ‘harm’ us. We escalate quickly, over-react, get ‘prickly’ and become defensive. We immediately stop smiling and stop being friendly (if we ever started). We perhaps ‘huff and puff’ or glare or flick our heads away in disgust.
We close down our faces (to avoid giving information to the enemy), become sarcastic, say mean things or sulk and refuse to speak. We see others as hostile and uncooperative, leading us to ungraciously fail to notice when others try hard to help us. We get rude, abrupt and develop a hostile tone of voice that can be detected from 500 metres.
Yet we constantly feel scared and frightened and perceive ourselves as being the victim. Even when we become ferocious, we see ourselves as the injured party. This is how childhood victims can inadvertently become adult bullies.
Not only this, but our warning off behaviours are highly effective and others are certainly driven away from us – although they may not make this obvious. This means we often get ‘blocked’ in life and struggle to advance particularly within career contexts, since we lose the capacity to ‘bring others with us’ or create synergistic solutions that propel us forwards.
If we want to change and ‘over-turn’ our negative assumptions, we need to consistently ‘behave’ as if we hold positive assumptions.
We must go into situations friendly and without hostility. We must smile much more and assume others like us and are cooperative and kind (at least, until proven otherwise).
We must decide to stop panicking and being over-reactive and be gracious when others help us. We must stop being ‘prickly’ or sulky or sarcastic and we must stop paying any attention whatsoever to the mentations (sensations, feelings, thoughts, images or memories) that are associated with these passive-aggressive or overtly aggressive behaviours.
With consistent and determined practice in being friendly, non-defensive and cooperative, we can quickly atrophy our dendritic spines and networks devoted to negative content and negative assumptions. Instead we can increase the numbers of synapses and neural networks devoted to positive content and over-turn our self-sabotaging dominant brain pattern for the remainder of our lives.