The face mask

 

Although the face is not usually peeled back completely during autopsy, in accessing the brain, the pathologist will often peel back some of the face and expose the fat, muscle, blood vessels and tendons below the skin. 

This is frequently enough to make medical students go weak at the knees.  The sudden de-humanising reality – that immediately below the exterior we are all essentially meat – is a shock for most people.

The human face is, of course, an amazing feat of evolution.  It provides us with the capacity for essential interactions with our environment so that we can breathe, eat, drink, see, smell, taste and output sound.

It is also crucially important for giving rich, detailed, vital and emotionally satisfying information during our verbal communication with others.

It helps us with issues of ‘meaning’ like awareness of our own mortality, such that when we feel sad or despairing, another person’s empathetic and kind facial expressions help us feel less alone in the vast universe.

Every day ‘the face’ deceives and ‘tricks’ us all into social cohesion and makes us believe we are more than animals.  That we are significant and better than meat.  Every day this motivates us to love and connect with others and to try harder to make the world a better place.

But without the face our social connection is easily lost.

With COVID mask-wearing, most people start to feel alienated, flat, withdrawn and miserably alone – without the daily warmth of facial interaction with others.  

Still other people, instead of ‘feeling’ their true sadness about the pandemic deflect their unresolved sorrow into anger, and with the anonymity provided by the face mask, they act out more than usual.

Only yesterday, I was in a quite ‘posh’ supermarket when civility disintegrated instantly and two women almost came to blows over a complete misunderstanding. 

One of the women was closer to me than the other woman, and the closer woman said to the woman further away, ‘please go ahead – I think you were before me in the queue’. 

The woman further away could not hear well and she could not read the other woman’s facial expression of likely congeniality (since we were all ‘masked up’). 

As a result, she assumed the closer woman was jumping in ahead of her in the queue.  A total misreading of the situation. 

Within seconds she fired up, becoming highly abusive – glaring, chest puffing and calling her a ‘f… idiot’ amongst many other extreme and misogynist terms. 

It was so tense, there could easily have been a physical fight – until she angrily stormed off, believing she was both the victim and the champion of civil behaviour in queues.  

Yet, wearing masks is obviously crucially important at the moment until we get COVID under control – so we need to stay the course.  But we should also be aware of how much our ‘humanity’ can be impoverished by losing ready access to the face. 

In the meantime, let’s stop being angry, curb the conspiracy theories, slow down, be patient, accept these temporary limitations, be kind and take extra care not to misinterpret each other. 

If nothing else, by its temporary absence, these times will teach us about the real comfort, reassurance and humanity that is exuded between us all from the evolutionary ‘trick’ that is the magnificently expressive human face.    

Distress Intolerance

Probably the most significant problem I encounter in my work is the resistance many people show towards taking responsibility for their contribution when things fail to work out well – such as when friendships, work or intimate relationships break down.   

In these circumstances, many people want to mentally turn away, blame others, create exhausting lists of extenuating circumstances, go fiercely on the attack, argue semantics, or just refuse point blank to listen.

As you can imagine, there is huge effort involved in this ‘blocking’ behaviour.  So, why do we do it?

Overwhelmingly, what I have found to be the case in my clinical work is that it goes back to how people have built their brains in childhood.

Some people were lucky enough to have been raised in relative security where their caregivers were reliable, kind and competent and not too much went wrong. 

On the other hand, many people have come from more ‘difficult’ backgrounds where they have endured more trauma from stressful life events and, if they had less competent caregivers then they probably were given less help finding effective solutions to those stressful events. 

While trauma is not all bad and it can sometimes motivate us strongly and teach us skills, it can also often frighten or even terrorise us. 

Unfortunately, while this childhood trauma unfolds, developmentally, we have not yet built our full brain.  In particular, the areas of our brain that allow for more nuanced, sophisticated and disciplined responses, like the frontal and prefrontal cortex, are far from being able to exert their full influence during childhood and even adolescence.

However, because trauma requires a response in the moment – we are forced to implement less sophisticated mental strategies than we would otherwise apply once we had our full brain.  

One of these less sophisticated strategies is to ‘block’ and mentally turn away from anything that feels too distressing. 

This is known as ‘distress intolerance’ and it occurs because most people who have come from ‘difficult’ backgrounds have learned that they cannot cope with distress and they cannot bear to let themselves experience it.  This particularly goes for self-reflection. 

Once these traumatised people become adults, their ‘retained’ childhood fear is that if they allow themselves to acknowledge their contribution to poor outcomes (like a failed relationship), then their distress will pull them down into an emotional abyss from which they are terrified they may never be able to escape.

While this may have been the case when they were children, as adults they continue to apply this blocking strategy habitually, despite the fact that they have now built their full brain and can therefore easily cope with even very pronounced distress.

Worse still, the continued application of this blocking strategy becomes severely self-sabotaging over time.  There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, mental blocking closes us off from external influence since we are too scared to allow ourselves to properly absorb and reflect upon ‘challenging’ information.  We may become furious and full of rage at the mere mention of our contribution. 

On the other hand, we may appear to calmly agree (to shorten the interaction) but internally pull away and strenuously resist ‘hearing’ the information.  Without even a moment’s reflection, we reject out of hand.  We want to shut the conversation down quickly and stop any ‘threatening’ information from infiltrating us. 

As a result, we storm off, go feral, yell, act indignant, appear to agree, sulk or become stubborn.  Through this behaviour, we have just ‘blocked’ and driven away the very person who could most help us progress, gain insight and learn in this moment.  

Of course, even though the ‘challenging’ information may end up being incorrect, or only partially correct (or fully correct) – its ‘truth’ quotient is almost irrelevant – the crucial factor is that it prompts us to reflect and question our own behaviour and mental assumptions – enabling us to learn from it irrespective of its ‘truthfulness’.

As humans, we are in deep trouble if we shut down our ability to learn.  Failure to be open to influence prevents us from extending our intelligence, particularly our emotional and social intelligence and we can easily stagnate and remain locked in the prison of our past. 

Also, we are placed at a huge disadvantage compared to other people who keep their ‘borders’ softer, more permeable, open to influence and who remain able to incorporate new and often challenging information – thus keeping them moving forwards in life. 

The second reason the ‘blocking’ strategy is self-sabotaging follows from the first:  If we fail to learn and progress and continue to use unsophisticated childhood strategies, then we will inevitably ‘spin the wheels’.

Spinning the wheels means we repeat the same unsuccessful patterns of behaviour over and over again, making the same errors, but never learning from them.  This is one of the most common reasons people present for therapy – since when we get ‘stuck’ and cannot move forwards we become disheartened, frightened and full of anxieties.    

Yet, we are so often spinning the wheels precisely because we are not allowing ourselves to take the risk of owning up, taking responsibility, acknowledging our role and facing our own distress. 

It is important to remember that we all behave badly quite often.  So what.  Much more important is the fact that we can all cope with the distress of admitting it. 

In fact, once we finally allow ourselves to admit our errors, it is a massive relief because once we know how and why we have contributed – then, and only then – can we use our outstanding human ability at problem solving to work out exactly how we will behave differently next time and get a much better outcome.  This stops us getting ‘stuck’ in life.

The third self-sabotaging outcome arises when we keep on (for years or decades) steadfastly refusing to acknowledge and take proper responsibility for our usually 50% contribution to poor outcomes.  On and on we go, continuing to resist self-reflection and failing to admit our errors despite them staring us in the face and despite the fact that we find ourselves to be the common denominator in endlessly repeated, useless behavioural patterns. For the ‘luxury’ of doing this perpetual ‘blocking’ behaviour we will usually pay a massive price:  we will remain perpetual victims.   

Victims (by definition) are not active participants in determining their own lives.  They are people driven by and reacting to the agenda of others, rather than determining their own agenda.  They are people who (in continuing to avoid the imagined abyss of their own distress) remain trapped in the abyss of their ineffective childhood strategies.  

They continue to rage internally, hit out, complain, blame, vent, gang-up, sulk, feel entitled, bully, whinge or stubbornly block the influence of others.  All completely unnecessary behaviours.   Especially when you consider that all that was required was to simply self-reflect and then say ‘Yeah, I think you’re right – I did behave badly.  I’ll try to make sure I do it differently next time’.  Such an easier and far more effective way of behaving.  

 

Resilience

In our society we think there is something seriously wrong when people are sad and they cry. 

Even at the brief mention of an issue that might create sadness during the TV news, viewers are provided with the phone number of a depression helpline to receive mental health support.  In line with this, people often rush to the GP to receive anti-depressant medication to ‘remove’ their sadness. 

The trouble with this approach is that it teaches people that if they are sad, then there must be something wrong with them and they require professional help.  It also teaches people that they cannot stand on their own two feet and be resilient.

While there is nothing wrong with reaching out for help per se, it is also important for us to experience sadness and learn how to resolve it for ourselves.

In my 25+ years of clinical work having seen thousands of people, I can tell you that mental health problems are far more common when people ‘deflect’ (usually into anger) which prevents them from feeling their own sadness.  These are the people who are much less likely to be resilient – not the reverse. 

Take for example, the prevalence of men committing suicide compared with women.  Men complete suicide twice as often as women and older men complete suicide up to four times as often as women. 

This is a disastrous societal failing, largely brought about because we have taught our men not to cry and denied them the basic human right to be sad and emotionally insightful about their sadness. 

Unable to be vulnerable, many men then dangerously lash out, ‘deflecting’ their unexamined and unexpressed sadness into anger, hostility, misogyny, sex-dependency and alcohol. 

Some women also ‘deflect’ into anger, but it is especially common among men, because they are consistently socialised not to cry and express vulnerability.

When men ‘deflect’ their sadness into anger it takes their attentional focus outwards onto an external target, preventing them from reflecting inwards and gaining important insights, such as their own contribution to the situation. 

These men are also inclined to mistakenly regard women (or other men who display more vulnerable behaviour) as ‘weak’ and somehow inferior.

I say ‘mistakenly’ because, these invulnerable men are usually highly dependent upon women for their emotional sustenance, and they find it almost impossible to regulate their own emotional state and stand on their own feet without it. 

When these men cannot leverage women to provide this nurturance (maybe because the woman is leaving the relationship), and he lacks the skills to provide it for himself, then it can create the blinding rage that is so often the impetus for male suicide, domestic violence, homicide or femicide.  

As a society, if we are to effectively combat this dire situation, we need to urgently change our socialisation of children and our social expectations. 

In my view, that solution does not lie with making it even less acceptable to be sad or by implying that people lack the resilience to stand on their own feet.

Instead, we need to actively encourage boys and men to cry and be appropriately sad.  We also need to ensure they learn to cooperate more with others and therefore develop and express more empathy, softness and vulnerability – which facilitates others to respond in kind.  But men cannot learn these important emotions unless they are permitted to feel them towards themselves without being labelled ‘weak’.

Equally importantly, we must teach our young boys and our men how to be emotionally independent, emotionally insightful and verbally literate.  Much of this is learnt from being allowed to be legitimately sad and then talking and examining why our sadness happened (so insight can be gained), and then learning about which nuanced actions we can take to self-regulate. 

There is nothing weak about this.  On the contrary, emotional independence is a huge part of resilience. 

In terms of our early socialisation practices, we need to stop emphasising physical strength and hyper-masculinity in our boys (since physical strength is largely irrelevant in human history because humans have dominated the planet so comprehensively via our mental capacity not our physical capacity).  

Instead, it would be far more useful to encourage boys to become emotionally independent, so they no longer need to rely on women to nurture, sustain and regulate them.  This way men can build solid and permanent resilience where they stand squarely on their own feet while being less fraught by normal yet unexamined sadness. 

COVID19 – Grief & Adaptation

Since the recent lockdown and the mandatory wearing of masks in Melbourne, almost every night I dream nightmares.  They have the same theme – that there is nothing I can do to save myself or others.  The world is chaotic, out of control, dark, dangerous, post-apocalyptic and full of trepidation.  Law, order and civil society have broken down completely.

In my dreams I am usually running to find the people I love and with whom I need to cooperate in such an unpredictable world, but I can never find them.  As I call for them, my voice disappears into a vacuum.  I am searching for them relentlessly, but I never get any closer to finding them.  

Everything I try to do towards this end comes undone, fails, backfires.  I suddenly find myself trying to walk thigh deep through mud, or there is so much mess and destruction around me that I cannot find my way out, or there are suddenly huge amounts of smoke and barely any oxygen making me struggle to breathe despite needing to hurry. 

In these dreams I have no control or competency to get even the smallest task done.  Everything familiar no longer works how it used to.  Doors won’t open, bikes won’t roll, cars won’t start.  I find that I am all alone in a completely unfamiliar world.  Then I wake up. 

Upon awakening, I ask myself what is happening and why am I suddenly having these nightmares?  What purpose might they be serving? 

As surprising as it might sound, my brain has (almost unbeknown to me) detected the Stressful Life Event that is COVID19 – as it goes on all around me. 

In fact, my pre-conscious brain knows exactly what I have lost (even if I have not yet fully grasped the possible implications consciously).  My life as it was is perhaps dead.  The future is new, unchartered territory where old rules no longer apply. 

Yet, strangely I am the last one to know about my loss.  In fact, my conscious brain is resisting the knowledge of the dramatic change in the world.  I want to turn back the clock and look away from the instability that is so self-evident in the daily world news. 

I want to keep hoping that everything will return to pre-COVID days.  I certainly don’t want to know that there is instability and chaos in the USA or that China is pressing for opportunities to dangerously expand. 

Surprisingly though, my pre-conscious brain is fully aware of this calamity, and it is actually trying to help me adapt to the new COVID19 world through my nightmares. 

It is trying to get me to ‘habituate’ and ‘calm down’ by holding me in sustained contact with these frightening emotions during sleep (while releasing calming GABA neurotransmitter), so that, having been pre-exposed, I can better deal with any despair, loneliness, unfamiliar territory, and possible death or destruction that might arise during the daytime from this situation. 

My brain is trying to help me to ‘grieve’ via this habituation so that I can move on and adapt.  The faster the better.  It is habituating me to stand on my own feet, live without love (if necessary) and keep going no matter how hard.  This is why my dreams have me endlessly struggling through deep mud or mess, never finding the people I love but nevertheless keeping on trying relentlessly to move onwards.  The smoke and not being able to breathe probably represents the virus itself, and the mandatory wearing of face masks and the breathing difficulty they present daily for all of us.    

While this whole scenario might sound somewhat dramatic, it is worth remembering that in the West, people born post WW2 have generally had a highly stable period of time that has possibly ‘taught’ us to make what is known as the ‘black swan’ error. 

This is where we assume there are no black swans and then out of the blue we see one and it has major repercussions for our entire theoretical framework (or the way we see the world). 

In the case of post WW2, many of us have comfortably assumed life was stable and predictable (and maybe it will be again) – but the reality is that COVID19 has introduced a highly unpredictable variable at the same time as having many unpredictable, authoritarian and dangerous world leaders.

Another way that nightmares serve us well is to remind us to never become complacent and allow things to happen to us.  They alert us early to pay attention, notice the shifting landscape and take appropriate proactive action.  

Remember that events in history can change and regress fast.  Earlier generations had all sorts of traumatic events to deal with like political repression, no suffrage or free speech, extreme economic hardship, starvation and ghastly wars.   

In these difficult times, we need to notice our nightmares, not be scared of them.  We all need to grieve (for our losses) and adapt fast and then stay highly tuned to ensuring civil, fair and democratic society is able to thrive no matter what the challenges.

 

Self-Deceit

We all tell lies and we tell them often. 

Mostly we believe we lie to others.  We justify this by saying we are protecting them – after all we cannot go about the place telling people they have bad breath or are brainless twerps or conflict would skyrocket, and society would break down.

It is true that lying does smooth social interaction and it reduces the likelihood of people being unduly embarrassed or ashamed in the moment.

But often the most harmful lying is done to ourselves, with the purpose of shielding us from self-truths that would otherwise leverage us to change how we behave.  These little ‘myths’ often allow us to keep behaving badly.

For example, during my teenage years and early adulthood I used to tell myself (and others) the lie that I could not control my anger.  This lie expanded to other myths that I was an ‘inherently angry person’ who would ‘not be responsible’ for exploding (if provoked) since my lack of control sent me from ‘zero to ten in less than a second’.  Physiologically I could actually feel the anger rise in me in a split second.  Many people who have anger problems tell themselves these exact same myths (including perpetrators of domestic violence).    

Interestingly though, I never had any difficulty whatsoever controlling my anger in hierarchical situations like when I was in the presence of authority figures or at work – where impulsive outbursts would have been punishable, socially unacceptable or grounds for dismissal.  Yet in my private life these outbursts continued into my 20’s.

That is, until I was firmly told that if I ever ‘lost it’ again, then that would be the end of the relationship.  Full stop.  Message received loud and clear. 

Suddenly, within seconds, I realised that of course I could control my temper if I had to – which meant that if I could control it when I had to, then I could control it in any or every circumstance.  In fact, the self-lie that ‘I had no control over my anger’ had been keeping me in a state of mythical yet unrelenting lack of control.

I reflected further.  What was my reason for being so aggressive towards others?  Almost immediately I knew that I had just been giving myself an excuse to try and intimidate and bully others into giving me what I wanted by coercing them – a not-so-veiled threat that if they provoked me (by not giving me what I wanted), I’d ignite in a frightening way. 

This realisation was a huge shock because up until then I had believed myself to be the ‘victim’ of provocation.  I always identified with the underdog in every situation, never with the ‘perpetrator’ – yet suddenly I realised I had become the perpetrator.  

This led me to reflect further.  Why did I need to intimidate others?  My answer was because I did not believe that I could influence outcomes with other people unless I played dirty.  I had no belief in goodwill, fairness or kindness in the world.   

I kept probing.  Why had I been so angry all my life – what purpose had it served?  I realised that getting angry (no matter how terrified I was underneath) kept me feeling strong and stopped me from feeling powerless (as I had often felt as a child). 

Anger also had another function.  It made me feel invulnerable and stopped me from crying and being too sad to function.  Then I realised that my anger had been a strategy adopted as a teenager to try and gain some control in an out-of-control and sad world.

This led me to wonder about whether anger was now an obsolete strategy that was doing me more harm than good.  Clearly, it was distressing others and driving them away.  They were too scared to properly share themselves with me – warts and all.  This made me lonely. 

It was also stopping me from being authentic – always putting on self-protective armour and concealing the vulnerable parts of myself.  Other people saw me as strong, never needing kindness or nurturance.  It stopped others from wanting to help me or cooperate with me.  I was always having to go it alone – tough it out.  It was exhausting!    

Maybe most importantly, I realised back then that my self-lies were actually stopping me from realising my own strength.  Every time I became angry I was inadvertently reinforcing the myth that either I had to lose control (like I was a victim to my anger) or that without the ‘armour’ of anger I would somehow collapse – like I would not have the resilience and fortitude to bear my own crying, human suffering and sadness.    

Suddenly, I knew that my anger was holding me back and keeping me trapped in my past.  I needed to take off that armour and make myself vulnerable.  At first it felt like being naked in the world, soft and exposed.  But soon, it felt natural and easy and I wondered how I managed unassisted to maintain the rage for so long.

Interestingly, moving through this thought sequence thirty years ago and trying to understand my motivations and then deciding that I would never again accept my anger (since it was damaging me and keeping me trapped) – took it away, evaporating it into thin air almost immediately.  By the time a few months had passed I found it hard to believe that I had ever been angry or seen myself as an angry person.

This is the importance of breaking down self-deceit.

I guess this is why I have lots of sympathy for the ‘forced insight’ approach where we are deliberately not protected from confronting information that can help us change, no matter how upsetting. 

This message though should be provided with kindness and with the other person’s interests at heart.  For me, being told a simple truth in a calm, kind but unflinching manner –  ‘this will be over if you ever lose it again’ – prompted me to radically examine and then shatter some of my self-lies, giving me the most wonderful opportunity to re-build myself from the foundations upwards. 

This is why we should never miss the opportunity to examine an apparently entrenched self-lie!

Be true to Yourself

 

Amelia Earhart gave women wings.  In 1921 she had her own plane called ‘the canary’ and broke many flying records including being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic as well as breaking speed records, high-altitude and long-distance records.  She lectured, published a book and became president of the 99s (a women’s aviation club). 

When she married George Putnam, she described their marriage as a ‘partnership with dual control’.  She famously said before attempting to be the first woman to circumnavigate the globe (and dying in the process): ‘I am quite aware of the hazards.  I want to do it because I want to do it.  Women must try to do things as men have tried.  When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others’.

Amelia Earhart did not achieve these heights by doing the usual things women are expected to do in our society (even today).  She wasn’t trying to please others, look beautiful, be agreeable or have children to find meaning.  She achieved her flying goals for herself.  Her life was her own and she insisted on the freedom to live it according to her own rules and standards.

In my work, I find that many people (especially women) spend their lives imprisoned by societal expectations of how women ‘ought’ to behave.  Women find themselves trying to please others, seeking approval and constantly subordinating their own needs.  For most women, there is barely any time devoted to visualising their own ‘big picture’ future. 

Particularly, when I ask older women nearing the end of their lives what they would do differently if they had their time over again – they often say they would live life for themselves and not for others.    

It does seem that life goes by in the blink of an eye.  Each decade faster than the previous decade, or so it feels subjectively.

It is easy to think there is plenty of time.  Easy to become distracted by pressure to conform and behave in accordance with societal expectations. 

For women, breaking free of these expectations will involve dismantling the ‘learned’ female over-focus on pleasing others in order to earn their approval.    

It also means stopping paying so much attention to our appearance: too fat, too thin, big breasts, small breasts, big eyes, small eyes, flat bum, big bum, bad nose, good nose, high shoes, low shoes, fat hips, thin hips, good legs, bad legs, old face, young face, made-up face, plain face, face-lift, face-sag, low-cut, high-cut, high-waisted, low-waisted, too tall, too short, sexy, ugly, slutty, decent.    

Sadly, still today looking ‘beautiful’ seems to be the biggest compliment women can receive.  Whole lives can be passed by on this banal focus. 

In response, some women periodically try to change the definition of ‘beautiful’.  They claim, that ‘it’s your choice if you want to have facial surgery, breast enlargement or liposuction or wear lipstick or stilettos’ or they insist that ‘fat women or black women can be beautiful too!’ 

The trouble is that while ‘beauty’ remains a sought-after commodity, women remain passive, non-agentic objects to be gazed upon and evaluated on their exquisite or flawed surface value.     

Maybe a better solution might be for us women to reject the concept of beauty altogether.  Stop giving a toss about what we look like.  Refuse to emphasise anything about our looks (ugly or otherwise) and stop crippling ourselves in stiletto heels (like self-imposed foot binding) and start taking our own lives much more seriously.  In other words, aim higher.   

We could stop relying on our looks to get ahead and to out-compete other women for the scraps, and instead cooperate with other women (like men do) and rely on our wits, skills and perseverance.  Using our looks keeps us believing we could not have earned our achievements fair and square and opens us up to the likelihood of more sexual exploitation.    

In history, there are often only brief opportunities to effect change.  Things can rapidly move forward or regress over-night (note the post COVID-19 world and being suddenly back to the Great Depression). 

Women need to start making and writing history right now in equal footing with men while we have this brief window of opportunity.  If we women are too busy ‘preening’ ourselves how can we ever expect our lives to be serious and not frivolous and second-rate?   

We need to get real, stop chasing social approval and be true to ourselves.  Who are we? What do we stand for?  Then waste no time in changing our behaviour and being that person in every situation – irrespective of social pressure to do otherwise.

Stop Leaking

 

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.

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.