How To ‘Like’ Your Children

In my clinical work people often tell me that they ‘love’ their children, but they find it hard to ‘like’ them.

While I’m not always entirely persuaded about the ‘love’ (since their behaviour often indicates deep resentment and dislike), I understand that it would be socially unacceptable to say otherwise.

Unfortunately, these parents have unintentionally ‘trained’ their children to be little ‘monsters’ and sadly the children often know deep down that they are disliked and resented.  Of course, none of this does anyone any good.

Fortunately, it is never too late to change this interaction for the better, but it does require some re-thinking and considerable self-discipline from the parents to change their behaviour.  Luckily, as soon as the parents change, the children will quickly follow.

So why does this problem arise in the first place?

One of the most common reasons this occurs is due to an excessively ‘libertarian’ approach to parenting that has dominated Western society for about the past 30 years.

These ‘libertarian’ parents provide little structure or consistent rules for their children to follow.  There are usually no negative consequences for poor behaviour, or if there are, they are inconsistently applied. 

Libertarian parents often over-praise their children for barely lifting a finger and behave like servants to their children – driving them around, picking up after them, doing their washing, cooking and cleaning – trying to win their children’s approval and be their best friends.

Rewarding children (by continuing in ‘servitude’ and expecting no reciprocity or reasonable contribution) teaches children they need do nothing to earn their parents’ approval.  In response, the children become emotionally withholding, unmotivated to learn, sulky, unfriendly, entitled and often unskilled.  More concerning, over time, these children can easily become highly-aggressive and even violent towards their parents.

Very significantly, despite their ‘entitled’ presentation, the children raised in this ‘libertarian’ approach often fail miserably in the ‘real’ world.   This is because, doing well in the outside world primarily depends upon having the motivation to learn skills, including the skill of coming forward to talk and be friendly and enthusiastic in order to establish meaningful relationships – not withholding and sulking.  Without these skills these children become confused and have many negative experiences in the world, often leaving them demoralised and ‘acting out’.

I’ve noticed in my work, that the cycle that keeps this behaviour cycle going is that libertarian parents teach themselves (by chasing) that they ‘need’ their children’s approval, and they feel ‘guilty’ and ‘bad’ when that approval is withheld – like they’re not being good parents.  To alleviate their ‘guilt’ they keep on chasing over and over and they ‘gratefully’ consume even the smallest morsel of approval, frugally dealt-out by the children who have (by now) thoroughly ‘learnt’ how to keep their parents on the back foot.   

But, despite behaving like doormats most of the time, ‘libertarian’ parents on occasion, become furious at how much running around they are doing for no appreciation or reciprocity from their children – and they often become poisonously resentful, passively aggressive or unpredictably angry or vengeful.  Note that both ‘doormat’ and ‘angry’ behaviour keeps the cycle going (because parents feel ‘guilty’ after angry outbursts making them twice as likely to chase again).

On the other hand, parents who are more ‘authoritative’ are more likely to build positive and reciprocal relationships with their children. 

These ‘authoritative’ parents tend to have transparent and consistent rules that are well thought out and clearly in the long-term interests of the children – rather than ‘guilt-driven’.  For example, they rarely allow sugar because it is not in the long-term interests of the child as it will rot their teeth or give them diabetes. 

There are clear positive and negative consequences for children either doing well or breaching. 

Negative consequences (like time-out or taking away something valued) are consistently applied BUT there is no yelling, drama or meanness involved whatsoever – the consequence is simply ‘applied’ and the children learn.   

This approach equips children with important skills like taking responsibility, or making them realise that conflict does not have to result in escalation, or understanding that they need to come forward to learn and that they must contribute to reasonable standards.  It also teaches them that their behaviour very definitely influences outcomes – which gives them a sense of agency in the wider world. 

In this environment, children learn quickly and respond well, feeling safe and secure within this clear structure.  

As a result, the relationships between parents and their children tend to be attached (but not over-involved), loving, positive, affectionate, self-contained (independent and autonomous), yet quite strict. 

These parents are clearly ‘in-charge’ and ‘unified’ – issues are sorted out and agreed upon away from the children.

While this parenting style allows some flexibility in rules (depending on context), nearly always the rules apply.

Children then know exactly how to behave to receive parental love and approval (which is very important in motivating them to come forward to contribute), and they stop whining and testing parents out at every opportunity.  These children come to love and highly respect their parents who always lead strongly by example, and these parents are able to both ‘like’ and ‘love’ their children.

Nightmares and Tears Free Us

Nightmares have received a lot of negative press over the years.

While it is not known for certain why nightmares occur, my clinical experience tells me that we almost certainly have them to try and resolve strong emotions that might be getting in our way during the daytime.

In my work, many people report nightmares.  Over the decades, I have noticed that the central, intense emotion in their dreams is almost always the same emotional ‘theme’ that is presenting as a current difficulty in their lives.  For example, it could be failure, despair, helplessness, isolation, fear, ineffectiveness or sadness.

The exception to this is when people have ‘repetitive’ dreams for years where the central, intense theme relates to their past (usually childhood trauma) not to their present circumstances.  Still, the central, intense emotion felt in the dream is exactly specific to the dominant emotion felt during the past trauma – which has clearly not yet been resolved.  Interestingly, once resolved these nightmares disappear.

So, why might this be the case?

Research tells us that all animals use an ‘habituation’ strategy to calm down, stay open to learning – and minimise ‘freezing with fear’. 

For example, we know that during ‘habituation’ our neurons ‘learn’ to recognise certain stimuli as harmless, and by the 10th repeated stimulus a bundle of axons is only 1/20th as reactive as it was to the initial stimuli.  Over time there is also a decrease in the number of synapses ‘devoted’ to the initial fearful stimuli. 

But, for habituation to occur, any stimulation must not be too noxious or extreme or we will ‘sensitise’ our brain, teaching it to maintain and even exacerbate the intensity of our emotions.

For example, if we ‘pay attention’ to frightening mentations when we are awake we ‘sensitise’ our brains and we learn, consolidate and retrieve that information much better than if we did not pay attention.  This is an essential process so that we can be responsive to threat in the real world.

So, our brains have a dilemma.  While we must hold ourselves in sustained contact with fraught emotions to resolve them through habituation, we cannot allow those emotions to be too intense, or we will ‘sensitise’ our brains and ‘learn’ them even more profoundly.  A very delicate balance.

Interestingly, our brains seem to have found a solution.  It seems to be one of ‘habituating’ intense emotion only within certain contexts: mostly (although not limited to) when we are dreaming or crying.

For example, when we sleep our motor cortex is paralysed by glycine-containing interneurons to prevent us from acting out our dreams. 

However, during our dreams (especially during REM sleep when our dreams tend to be very vivid) our amygdalae (seat of threatening mentations) is highly activated.  Meanwhile, our brainstem is busy producing and releasing GABA (our chief inhibitory neurotransmitter) to induce sedation and relaxation, while also sending signals to relax our muscles globally.

Similarly, when we cry, we activate our ‘relaxed’ parasympathetic nervous system while at the same time we release sedating endorphins and oxytocin to calm our brains while we are staying (through our crying) in sustained contact with our sadness.  This allows us to ‘habituate’ to our intense emotion and move towards resolving it.

In both cases our brains are countering the intense, frightening and stressful emotions by simultaneously releasing powerful sedative agents so that the stimuli are not too noxious or overwhelming – allowing us to successfully habituate and calm down.

In this way, it is important to realise that we never need to be afraid of nightmares or crying.  Instead we should welcome them both as methods of restoration and recalibration.  Both are likely to help us remain emotionally stable while freeing us from the imprisonment of unrelenting emotional burden.

Stop Barking, Start Biting

We often think that we need to announce our verbal opposition loudly and heatedly during conflict, to defend our territory and stop others crossing the line.

The problem with this ‘barking’ is that other people quickly learn to become immune to our ‘noise’ and it fails to achieve our desired results. 

This occurs surprisingly quickly, and it can occur in a wide range of situations – from dog-owners, to relationships, to parents. 

This means that we can find ourselves in the ludicrous position of constantly yelling (which is exhausting and repetitive), without any behaviour change at all in the dog, the partner or the children!

Another problem with the ‘barking’ approach is that we genuinely believe we are doing something to change the situation for the better.  After all, we are passionately relaying an unmistakeable message that is very loud.

However the essential problem, is that we are relaying the WRONG message. 

By remaining engaged in the dramatic performance, we have conveyed over and over through our ‘barking’ that we are willing to tolerate additional bad behaviour (often for years) since we take no real action to eliminate it. 

That is, we have failed to ‘bite’. 

In other words, we neglected to make clear and put in place the crucially important ‘negative’ consequence – the very thing that will almost inevitably change the problematic behaviour.

For example, we failed to consistently take away the dog’s food when it first became a ‘fussy’ eater, or we failed to immediately put the dog outside when it first started ‘problem’ barking. 

We failed to get absolutely serious with our partner and give them a clear early warning to either ‘calm down’ or ‘leave’ or ‘I’ll leave’ message.  Instead we ‘barked’ endlessly but still tolerated the escalation, thereby teaching our partner the incorrect lesson.    

We failed to calmly, consistently and rationally give ‘time out’ or take away a mobile phone or cancel a play-date with a friend when our children first told us to ‘shut up’ or otherwise behaved badly.

There is however an important distinction that needs to be made. I am not for a moment suggesting we stop arguing.  On the contrary, argument is wonderfully efficient at resolving conflict and should rarely be avoided. 

However, the argument process ought to involve zero ‘barking’.  Indeed, every argument and path towards resolution is best handled with precision and self-discipline.   

‘Performance’ is nearly always a time-wasting distraction.  Brawling, screaming, hysterics or dramatics are ONLY useful if we are actually under personal physical attack (and not even always then).  

On the other hand, most situations require calm, logical arguments and clear, consistent negative consequences for (even slightly) unacceptable behaviour.

Training ourselves to bite with precision and never bark will nearly always change problematic behaviour quickly and effectively. 

 

Bored? Find your inner agency

Many people think that they get bored for external reasons.  We lament that the ‘situation’ is boring or that ‘other people’ are boring.  But this can be a causation error – since very often a large part of the problem lies within. 

When we believe it is the external situation or others that are boring, this can prevent us from taking any personal responsibility. 

We look outwards instead of inwards.  We see the problem as out there with the other person which inclines us to assume that there is little we can do ourselves to mitigate the boredom.  We easily become ‘victims’ who are forced to endure ‘torture inflicted upon us’.

Yet we often feel furious.  Feeling powerless and trapped does that.  We might desperately want to tell someone that they are crushingly boring, yet we generally decide not to do this as it is not socially acceptable. 

Instead, our fury drives us underground and we adopt passively aggressive behaviours.   We might sigh, wriggle, huff and puff, look around, block, turn away our face, roll our eyes or even ‘hiss’ with barely contained aggression if we are extraordinarily bored. 

Of course, these passively aggressive behaviours are always noticed and they can badly damage future interactions and goodwill leading to lose-lose outcomes.  Also, these emotions of barely contained hostility are very unpleasant to experience. 

This leads many people to then seek alternatives.  For example, we might believe that a situation is so boring and that we are so trapped in it, that we must get drunk in order to survive it.  A huge number of people at social events adopt this strategy.

But we could do things differently.  For example, we could decide two things. 

  1. When we feel bored, we will remove anger and hostility off our repertoire. In other words, pay it zero attention and slide it out of our mental focus. 
  2. Instead of getting hostile, we can decide to attribute the cause of the boredom internally rather than externally – to see what we can do to improve the situation. We can ask ourselves ‘what can I do to make this situation more compelling and interesting?’  This immediately makes us less passive – there is something we can do apart from rolling our eyes or getting drunk.

Interestingly, most boredom occurs because we are too passive and disengaged. 

To solve this, we must ‘demonstrate’ more commitment in our behaviour.  Even if we do not initially feel inclined, we need to lean in, make more eye contact, come forward, be more friendly and facially expressive, listen actively (not passively), and really apply our brain to the other person’s issues.  

It also means asking more questions, applying our own analysis, inputting solutions, seeking clarification, being controversial, thinking outside the square and debating certain concepts so that we can influence the direction of the conversation. 

After all, anything is fascinating if we can get a good angle on it.

This works.  I can tell you that after 25+ years of listening to people talk all day long in my job I can honestly say that I have never once been bored in all that time.  Not even for a few moments. 

Of course, sometimes people start off talking superficially about issues, but as an ‘active listener’ I see it as my job and my responsibility to contribute my 50% and take the conversation somewhere interesting and meaningful. 

This approach can be used equally at work, at home or in social situations.  It can even be used in the most potentially ‘boring’ of situations like standing in queues.  If we are not angry or passive, we can instead enjoy the time reading the paper, doing a puzzle, mentally planning our lives or having active conversations with others in the queue. 

Basically, this approach encourages us to be active agents, which stops us from being passive bystanders in life and stops us barking up the wrong tree in terms of where we direct our focussed attention.

How Hyper-Masculinity Harms Men

 

While many women and men have been working together over the past decades to attain more fairness and equality between the genders, there has been a dangerous response from reactionary forces to promote a toxic form of masculinity that is severely detrimental to both men and women.

While most people are aware of the hostility this hyper-masculinity holds towards women, few people understand the terrible damage it does to men. Boys are called ‘bitches’ and told to ‘grow some balls’, ‘toughen up’, ‘don’t cry’, ‘stop being a girl’, and ‘stop being pussy-whipped’.  Men are expected to be ruthless, hard, testosterone-fuelled machines – an expectation that is both silly and unobtainable. 

My clinical work tells me that these hyper-masculine ‘fairy tales’ can be both dangerous and highly destructive to men.  In fact, they set men up to fail where no failure is required. 

This toxic masculinity encourages men to hate and despise anything that is so-called ‘feminine,’ like kindness, empathy, softness, good communication and genuine love, which are all held equally in contempt in this brutal, unforgiving world. 

Sadly, this hyper-masculinity can stop men from trying hard at school (better to be good at ‘brute’ sports) or from accessing their own empathy and vulnerability.  It can prevent men from asking for help (better to be the ‘rugged’, ‘silent’ individual), and it can stop them coming forward to talk and solve problems.  It can stop men from collaboratively working with women, who are often their greatest supporters.

But most importantly, it often stops men from being kind to themselves.  It takes their ‘soft’ feelings off limits.  Eventually, the only ‘acceptable’ emotions are hard, mean and invulnerable (as seen in most pornography). This can incline men to overuse alcohol to try and eliminate even remotely soft emotions. 

Also, over the years men often ‘forget’ how to cry and therefore lose the capacity to ‘habituate’ to their sadness.  As a result, sadness can become unbearable.  

Men can then easily find themselves ‘deflecting’ away from all their pain into enormous anger, fury and rage, since these are often the only emotions that remain accessible and acceptable.    

In these situations, men need to come forward to talk openly and comprehensively.  They need to cry. Just like anyone, they need to resolve their sadness about life’s losses and struggles – without ridiculous notions of masculinity preventing them.  In reality, men are full, living, breathing humans with sensitive, smart and complex brains, not some brutal one-dimensional brain-dead caricature of invented masculinity.

Tragically, when men fail to embrace themselves as vulnerable, whole and complex human beings and continue to adhere to one-dimensional masculine caricatures to ‘not be a wimp’ or to ‘go it alone like a man’, they can easily turn their unrelenting rage inwards onto themselves in the form of ‘hyper-masculine’ suicide.

Stop Fighting – We’re on the Same Side

 

As we come out of lockdown, many people in Australia and all over the world are fighting with each other and taking oppositional sides about whether ‘health’ or the ‘economy’ ought to be the focus moving forwards.

People are lining up on one side or the other with dichotomous mindsets.   

The trouble with this approach is that we get trapped in the fight too early, viciously externalising outwards and blaming each other. 

While healthy debate is generally helpful in most situations, it is important to think flexibly before launching into debate.  For example, a mark of flexible and mature thinking is being able to hold two apparently conflicting ideas in our minds and understand that both have equal merit in crucial ways.

After all, if we don’t look after our health, we may well get sick and die; equally if we don’t look after the economy, we may well get so poor we die.

This way we will commence our debate from the initial assumption that both aspects are equally important to the wellbeing of everyone. 

Then we can get to the real debate about the different trade-offs, pathways or solutions to achieve the best outcomes for both the economy and health.

If we are initially inflexible, then we will inevitably get side-tracked into interminable brawls (getting nowhere) rather than working cleanly on seeking constructive and effective solutions to both issues.    

Stop Sulking – It’s Now Time To Talk

When people sulk they usually feel angry, sometimes furious and they want to punish.  They think they have the power to inflict damage through silence.

But sulking actually reflects a very different reality.  People sulk when they feel powerless.  They sulk because they believe they lack the skills to talk, solve problems and influence outcomes. 

These people usually learnt as children that their words fell on deaf ears.  No matter how much they verbally protested, cried, pleaded for help, or tried to talk they were ignored, and things remained unchanged.

From that point, these people gave up on trying to come forward and talk things through reasonably and sensitively.  Sulking was adopted instead because it at least gave some expression to the ‘rage’ within and it sometimes made others ‘chase’ to see what was wrong.

Once we grow up though, and remove ourselves from our childhood environment, we encounter other people from different backgrounds who have different (and often much better) skills in communication.

Sulking is no match for more sophisticated skills.  This is because when we sulk, we cannot be our own best advocates. We simply cannot properly promote our own interests and subtle arguments as we have just effectively ‘gagged’ ourselves. 

Sulking just ‘stalls’ conflicts and results in dreadful stalemate and lose-lose outcomes. 

At the time, sulking might subjectively feel like we are winning, inflicting pain and blocking our partner.  The trouble is, if our partner has much better communication skills they will eventually run out of goodwill and leave us for someone with better skills.    

Yet, the solution is really very simple if we are willing to do it. 

Next time you disagree, instead of shutting down, come forward, stay open and friendly and try to put your best and most comprehensive verbal case forward to support your position. 

You can stay open and friendly simply because there is nothing to fear.  I’ll repeat that: THERE IS NOTHING TO FEAR.

No one can force you to do what you are not willing to do.  There is no gun to your head. You have as much right to hold your view as anyone else does.  While you may have been using a strategy from childhood, you are no longer a child.  You CAN influence outcomes, if your case is good enough. 

While you may have been sulking for some years or even decades rather than learning to come forward to talk issues through, it won’t take long at all to get good at discussion if you are willing to try. 

For example, we all have highly rational brains, so we all know immediately if an argument is sound, logical, robust or flawed.  Talk things through and decide which case has the most merit and solves the most problems for BOTH parties.  Always seek these win-win, co-operative solutions.  This way you NEVER lose. 

Also, be very willing to critique your own position.  If your case is sufficiently robust then keep it – if it is not, then happily drop it and adopt a more robust view.  Be proud of the fact that you are so open-minded, willing to reflect, change and move forward.

Always try to solve the underlying distress beneath conflicts.  To help you with this, instead of talking about how angry, frustrated or annoyed you feel, go deeper (under the anger or fury) and reveal what is upsetting you, distressing you or making you feel bereft.  Use these sorts of words. Then talk about why you feel so distressed and what you could both do that might help you to feel better.

Break Free from Loneliness

Now that we are starting to come out of COVID-19 hibernation, many people will be looking for more meaningful connections with others.

This is partly because we have been isolated for some time, but it is also because loneliness is generally a massive and ongoing problem in wealthy, first world countries around the world.  

This is probably because, in these developed countries, people generally don’t work, live and socialise within the one small community anymore.

While there are many advantages to these more ‘fluid’ arrangements (like bigger and sometimes more far-reaching ideas) there are also some significant drawbacks. 

For example, when we only see people in certain contexts, we often lack information about the ‘whole’ person which can impoverish those connections.  This can be exacerbated by online connections where there is even less information available.

This paucity of rich connections encourages a lack of empathy.  We are inclined to imagine that what we cannot ‘see’ in others is either much better or much worse than ourselves.  Either scenario makes us feel alienated from other people as ‘whole’ human beings.

So much so, that people tend to visit psychologists when they are lonely (thinking the alienation is somehow their fault) – which it is not! 

There are nonetheless lots of things that people can do for themselves when they feel lonely and alienated that are likely to help them more than clinical sessions with a psychologist. 

One of the best ways to reduce loneliness is for people to join community groups so they can create at least some relationships that are more embedded and ‘whole’ in their everyday lives.   

For example, some people find it great to start inviting several households of neighbours around 1-2 times a year for casual drinks and nibbles while catching up about local issues like bins, house prices and parking. 

This almost instantly has the effect of increasing casual street conversations thereafter and making everyone in the street feel much more connected.    

Others simply join (or form their own) local interest groups like gardening, reading, choirs, bushwalking, tennis, music, chess, film, running, dancing, cooking, orienteering, art appreciation, environmental or community service clubs.

In these types of ‘instrumental’ groups people are free to engage in the activity in a relaxed and uninhibited way as the focus of the conversation is mainly on the chosen activity.  However, over time people are inclined to get to know one another warts and all, which is excellent for more depth of connection.

Mostly, these groups also allow for both vigorous participation and more casual participation – which is good for flexibility.  People can stay embedded even when they are busy at times and need to miss some of the get-togethers.

Also, because people in these ‘instrumental’ groups are often working towards achieving common goals, they feel even more aligned and embedded with one another as they collaboratively strive towards a specific outcome. 

As a result, people can often derive more empathic, less superficial and more meaningful and directed relationships while having a great deal of fun at the same time.

Self-Doubt Can Be Excellent

Many people want to eradicate self-doubt and be perpetually confident – but this can be a serious mistake.  In fact, self-doubt can be exactly what we need to help propel us forwards in life. 

Instead of eradicating self-doubt we need to understand the difference between constructive self-doubt and global self-doubt.

Global self-doubt is where we use words that wipe us out in some sort of total or global way, like I’m ‘bad’, ‘useless’, ‘terrible’, ‘lazy’, ‘waste of space’, ‘hopeless’, ‘ugly’, ‘stupid’, ‘fat’, ‘loser’ or ‘brain-dead’. This global self-doubt is black or white and right or wrong – there is no room for subtle critique.

This global self-doubt ought to be slipped immediately out of our attentional focus and we should never pay it any attention.  Interestingly, this global self-doubt is a self-deceiving strategy and a rationale for never changing.  It actually lets us off the hook and stops us from moving forwards in life.

This is because the global nature of the words overwhelms and demotivates us: I’m so useless, hopeless, bad, stupid, fat – there’s no point in trying to improve – I might as well give up.  And people do, and they never change.

Perhaps even more importantly, the application of this global self-doubt strategy has convinced the person (and often their psychologist) that they are simply too hard on themselves, too self-critical and they need to be nicer and more kind to themselves.

But this is simply inaccurate and, moreover, it delays progress.  In fact, these people actually need to be significantly more tough on themselves, but in a different way.  They need to hold themselves properly to account and take proper responsibility for their behaviours.

This is where constructive self-doubt comes in.  Constructive self-doubt uses a technique that I call specific self-critique and it can be life-changing (for the better) when people apply it on a regular basis.

Let me explain.  After we behave poorly or make mistakes most people have some self-doubt.  This is a good thing.  As mentioned, if we respond by going into global self-doubt then we will likely feel too overwhelmed and demoralised to change and, moreover we will have told ourselves incorrectly we are just being too hard on ourselves.  So we are unlikely to change.

On the other hand, if we reflect on our self-doubt and specifically self-critique our problematic behaviour then we will find solutions and ways to move forward.  

Specific self-critique can look like this: 

‘Today I behaved badly when I became impatient with Jenny.  My behaviour was upsetting for her and that will have diminished her goodwill towards me in the future – so, not a good outcome.’ 

Notice that I am not saying that I am ‘bad’ as a total human being, but that I behaved badly in this specific situation (as we all do, quite often).  Notice that I also identified the specific behaviour that was the problem – I became ‘impatient’.  Note also that I have identified the negative consequence of my behaviour: I have upset Jenny and my behaviour will have reduced her future goodwill towards me, which (if left unrepaired) will damage our future interactions (she will be more resistant, less open, less trusting, more likely to block me).

Next, I try to work out why I might have become impatient.  Maybe I was over-tired or upset about something else or maybe I thought she didn’t like me, so I went on the offensive. 

Whatever the case, I decide to behave differently next time – and see if that makes a difference.  For example, I decide to go to bed earlier and I decide that if I accidentally become over-tired in the future that I will respond to that tiredness by making myself softer and a bit slower, rather than harden myself against it and become agitated and brittle.

Next, I determine to repair the damage I have done to Jenny.  I contact her as soon as I have worked my way through this specific self-critique.  I tell her that ‘I am so sorry – it was unfair and mean of me to become impatient today and my behaviour was hurtful and upsetting’.  Notice that I properly acknowledge the damage done to her – this is the focus. 

Then, I provide Jenny with a probable explanation for why I behaved this way (e.g. ‘it’s no excuse, but I think I was really over-tired’ – this helps her to take my error less personally).  A very simple and brief explanation is all that is required here – I don’t over-focus on this aspect or it becomes all about me.

Next, I assure Jenny ‘that I have really thought about this and I will do my very best to ensure that it never happens again in the future’.

Using this specific self-critique strategy when we have self-doubt about our behaviour makes a huge difference, especially after several years of application. 

This is because with each error we inevitably make in life we have the choice of how to respond.  We can shut down, abrogate responsibility and get poor outcomes with global self-doubt.  Or we can learn to constructively reflect, gain insight into ourselves and incrementally improve outcomes – allowing ourselves to get smarter with time. 

Your Brain, Your Content

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my work people often tell me that their anxiety or depression is genetic.  But nothing could be further from the truth. 

If you look at the image above, you will notice that there are tiny bud-like protrusions coming out of the neuron branch.  These are called dendritic spines and with improved microscope techniques we now know that they are the material representation of learning and memory in our brains.

These ‘spines’ are not present in-utero and only start to appear a few days after birth as infants first begin to learn, consolidate, retrieve and organise their brains. 

Dendritic spines are unbelievably amazing!  They occur in brain areas where learning and memory flexibility is crucial, like the neocortex, hippocampus and cerebellum.  Each neuron branch has hundreds of thousands of them.  They are extremely flexible and pliable, and they can pop-up or retract back and ‘disappear’ into the branch (dendrite) depending upon whether or not we pay attention. 

Paying attention seems to be the ‘switch’ that makes dendritic spines more likely to stay popped-up and try to make connections (synapses) with other neurons in the close vicinity.  This phase roughly represents ‘learning’. 

Paying more attention encourages dendritic spines to change from tiny, thin, weak protrusions (like hairs) into larger, more stable shapes containing more receptors (like door knobs or mushroom shapes).  These receptors are involved in long-term potentiation or LTP which is part of long term memory consolidation.  This phase roughly represents ‘consolidated’ memory.   

If we continue to pay even more attention over weeks and months then we encourage more spines to pop-up nearby as well as down-stream, leading to large populations of synapses ‘devoted’ to specific content. Each spine is an independent entity that can ‘vote’ through its input capacity to influence its neuron to ‘fire’ and thereby influence other down-stream neurons to pop-up their dendritic spines. 

When we get large populations of dendritic spines devoted to similar ‘themes’ then we are more likely to ‘retrieve’ their content and have a thought break through into consciousness and ‘pop-into’ our minds.  We are also more likely to have other related mentations (like sensations, feelings, images or memories) appear to ‘pop-into’ our minds.

The content of these mentations, will be dependent upon what we have been devoting our attention. If we pay attention to mathematics or sports physiology we will have lots of maths and sports physiology mentations pop-into our minds.  If we have been paying lots of attention to learning languages we will have lots of grammar and syntax mentations pop-into our minds. 

On the other hand, if we have been paying lots of attention to ‘learning’ anxious or depressive or addiction ruminations we will have many mentations pop-into our minds about these themes.

When we have repetitive themes pop-into our minds over time we start to perceive them as part of who we are.  I’m a ‘maths’ person, or I’m a ‘linguistics’ or ‘sports’ person, or I am an ‘anxious’ or ‘depressed’ person.  Subjectively, this feels like our ‘identity’ as though we have always been this way.

But actually, we haven’t always been anxious or depressed or good at maths – we had to ‘learn’ them all by paying them significant attention.  

By the same token, if we prefer, we can at any stage in life simply decide to stop paying attention to any ‘unwanted’ themes.  When we stop paying attention, our synapses atrophy quickly and break apart and the highly pliable dendritic spines simply retract back into their dendrites, disappearing and losing their capacity to ‘vote’ and influence. 

Without the regular practice of paying attention we quickly (within days and weeks) start to ‘forget’ our unwanted themes – and they become like distant memories! 

Instead, we can decide to pay attention to other ‘themes’ that serve us better and these will equally become part of who we are – with some practice at paying them attention.