Build A Smart Not Domestic Brain

In my clinical work I often see women who are incredibly bored and angry about their domestic lives.  They cook, clean, wash, ferry the kids, plan and organise all aspects of the home.

Meanwhile, these women say that their male partners ‘get it easy’ off at work all day barely having to ever consider any domestic challenges.

One very stressed 26-year-old woman even said that she makes her partner ring her 20 minutes before he will arrive home so she can have dinner on the table, exactly on time for him. 

Needless to say, he earns nearly all of the money and she handles the domestics. 

Fair split?  Not even close.

In Smart Therapy, I often point to the neurological evidence that whatever we pay attention to becomes a larger and larger part of our brain, because as soon as we pay attention, we are biologically ‘directing’ our brains to learn, consolidate and retrieve targeted information. In other words, WE ARE WHAT WE PAY ATTENTION TO.

This means that every day, he is off paying attention to interesting work challenges, solving problems, creating new brain synapses specifically devoted to all that novel material.  He is literally filling his brain with new skills and solutions, forming useful career networks that will expand his future options and meanwhile he is fast-tracking and growing his income potential. 

On the other hand, she is training her brain in repetitive domestic drudgery.  While many household jobs are menial (like cleaning the toilet, doing the washing, talking to a 2-year-old or doing the shopping) they still (unfortunately!) require paying attention.  So, billions of synapses become devoted to often trivial, boring tasks that no one in any social network ever wants to hear or talk about. 

Basically, time spent on domestics is time not spent on more creative pursuits like career, financial literacy, or attainment of meaningful life goals. 

In short, a domestic focus generally does not build powerful networks, increase income potential or build interesting new life skills.  Most particularly, it DIMINISHES income potential and thereby, the ability to be an independent, free and self-directed individual rather than a servant.

The saddest thing is that I often see older women in my clinical work who have invested all their energy, time and suffering into domestic duties over a lifetime, only to find that he leaves her anyway (with his increased career options) when he meets someone with a more curious and interesting brain.

It goes without saying that the obvious way around this dilemma is for women to take their own careers and aspirations much more seriously and equally to men.  Women must not give up on themselves and stay at home the moment domestic ‘bliss’ presents itself via husband or children. 

It is only when women invest equally to men in paid work, that the domestic drudgery can be split exactly 50:50 creating no bias (advantage or disadvantage) in brain attentional focus between men and women. 

Once women have their own genuine financial equality, they will then have the leverage (so badly needed!) to ensure this fair and equitable 50:50 domestic split.  

Reduce bullying by raising a capable child

Children are great learners and what they learn has a profound effect upon their trajectory in later life.  Doing jobs around the house helps make children both capable in their own personal activities of daily living, while also teaching them the importance of cooperation and contributing to the overall running of the household.

For example, by standing on a chair, children can learn how to wash dishes, make their own breakfast, cook simple meals and wash their own laundry and do their own ironing.  Without the chair, they can feed pets, navigate digital devices, mop floors, clean cars, mow lawns, fix basic IT problems, do gardening and vacuum the house – all by about the age of 6-8 years.

If children cannot do these tasks by this age they may be at a disadvantage amongst their peers and more prone to getting bullied.  As a clinical psychologist with 25+ years’ experience I see huge discrepancies in children’s levels of capability.

Children without these types of skills at young ages tend to struggle more with self-esteem, physical coordination, taking initiative, social interaction and mental organisation and discipline and they are more frequently bullied. 

On the other hand, children who are highly capable at young ages get into a socially reinforced cycle of good outcomes. 

They learn to lead the way and teach other children how to develop these skills, earning them respect and better self-esteem while providing them with important practice at leadership, clear communication, planning, physical coordination and mental precision and coherence.

Flat-lining Emotions

Frequently when people have come from traumatic backgrounds, they have quite sensibly trained their brains to be hyper-alert to threat.

The problem is that when these people become adults, the threats that they faced in childhood are no longer present, and yet their over-sensitised brains are still ‘reading’ threat everywhere. 

This results in lots of unnecessary stress, hyped-up emotion and exhaustion.

I’ve noticed in my over 25 years of clinical work at the Smart Therapy Centre that people in this situation simply think it is ‘normal’ to be so labile in their emotional responses.  And it is true that this heightened emotion often produces very charismatic, motivated and genuinely passionate individuals.

But it can also be a burden that constantly ‘alarms’ and activates problematic emotions like fear, anger, self-doubt or hostility.  These emotions can get in the way and stop people progressing well in their lives. 

What I have often found to be very useful for these people is to get them to simply STOP expressing and paying attention at all to any extreme emotions for a few months.  In other words, try to flat-line their emotions.

To do this, people first notice when they are starting to get intense and then do a long exhalation with their breath and simply relax their bodies physically, meanwhile refusing to focus mentally on the emotional drama. 

Instead, they re-focus their attention onto an unemotional task or activity at hand.  They certainly do not ‘act out’ the emotion, say by screaming or telling someone about it.  

This works very well, actually adding to these peoples’ already charismatic character as it introduces another interesting layer of complexity to their personality – where they always know how to be intense at the right time, but also how to be disciplined enough to control their responses when excessive emotion will just get in the way.

It’s not you, it’s the sugar!

So often people come to the Smart Therapy Centre saying they cannot stop ‘comfort’ eating and they need to see a psychologist to help them work out why they overeat.  They often think there is something mentally wrong with them compared with other people.

But, in my more than 30 years of clinical experience, I would say that it is usually just that they are having too much sugar!

Therefore, the first question I ask these people is what quantities they eat of sugar and other complex carbohydrates like white rice, bread or pasta (that get broken down quickly into sugar giving them a high GI or Glycaemic index).

In our western society, the answer is usually far too much!  Even with children.  Complex carbs (even fibrous, wholemeal ones with a low GI that are slower to break down to sugar) ought not exceed 15-20% of a meal.  Most of any meal should be vegetables.

Having been a registered nurse before becoming a clinical psychologist, I know that when we eat sugary foods or foods that break down fast into sugar, our bodies are forced to release large amounts of insulin from the pancreas to cope with the onslaught.   

The pancreas pumps out large amounts of insulin because our blood pH MUST remain quite neutral (even slightly alkaline) or we die, and sugar is highly acidic.  Releasing large amounts of insulin helps to transport the sugar inside the cells and gets it out of the bloodstream quickly before it does too much damage.

This sudden burst of insulin means our blood sugar levels fall sharply from their ‘spiked high’ (immediately after food intake) as the excessive sugar is pushed rapidly into the cells.  (This toxic acid is often stored then in our ever-expanding fat cells where it perhaps does the least damage.)

Now, with suddenly low blood sugar, we become ravenously hungry for even more food despite having barely finished eating the last lot!

This quickly becomes a vicious cycle of overeating sugar, followed by ‘extreme’ hunger, then followed by more overeating of sugar (to try and get blood sugar up), followed by more ‘extreme’ hunger (as the insulin pushes the sugar out into the cells), and so on – maybe for decades or until our digestive organs tire and fail. 

People often feel completely out of control.  Here they are, stuffing masses of food into themselves only to feel like they are desperately starving soon afterwards.  To make matters worse, while their insulin levels surge, they biochemically cannot access their stored fat to burn it and so the fat continues to increase over time.  

But, like I said, this is NOT usually a psychological problem at all.

It is a physical addiction to sugar.  Remember that rats will choose sugar over heroin in experiments.  So, sugar is very appealing!  Keep in mind too, that alcohol is full of sugar and therefore highly attractive also! 

It is important for people, especially in our ‘over-sugared’ society, to stop focussing on their weight and instead focus on WHAT they are eating:  TOO MUCH ACID (sugar, alcohol and high GI foods). 

Overall, people need to try and ‘flatline’ their insulin levels by choosing more alkaline and low GI foods.  This opens the fat stores for burning and stops people becoming excessively hungry, allowing them to finally break-out of this vicious cycle of compulsive overeating.  

 

Raise a smart child not a boy or girl

So often in my 25 years of work at the Smart Therapy Centre I have heard parents tell me slightly different versions of the same story about their children.  It goes like this: our girl and boy children were different from the start – she liked dressing up, drawing and reading whereas he just wanted to be outside playing rough and tumble with a ball – yet we raised them ‘exactly the same’.

Despite what people ‘believe’ they do, we know from decades of research that people do not raise their girls and boys the same.  Far from it.  Here are a few examples out of the many hundreds of differences. 

From day one people handle boy babies much more roughly than girls, they encourage toddler girls to be appearance focussed, quiet, contained and helpful to others and toddler boys to be scruffy, noisy, uncontained and please themselves.

Boys are encouraged to be physical and play vigorous sport whereas girls are encouraged to be emotionally responsive (especially to others) and sport is almost always undervalued.  Boys are given more freedom to act out and girls are more restricted and tightly controlled.

In fact, far from being ‘neutral’ on gender, people are so eager to know how to ‘think’ about and ‘treat’ a newborn that they ask its sex before even checking about the welfare of the mother or child following delivery. 

Strangely, if these behavioural gender differences were actually ‘in-born’ we would not need to know the sex – as any ‘intrinsic’ differences would reveal themselves automatically without the need for any social intervention.

It is the very fact that these behavioural differences are not intrinsic that we are hell-bent (yet largely unaware) of our ‘socialising’ practices that are ‘absorbed’ by children in the same way language is ‘absorbed’ and we do not have to teach our children explicitly how to talk. 

Yet our complex society now more than ever, demands greater gender  flexibility, where we all have skills and character traits that cross the dichotomous male/female divide. 

People do best in modern society when they are not restricted and forced to conform into narrow and prescribed female and male roles.  These very limited gender behaviours lack subtlety and breadth and do not result in adaptive, smart people.

In fact, so many social problems could be helped and possibly rectified by changing our child-rearing practices. I often notice in my clinical work that people really struggle with life when they are either too ‘masculinized’ or too ‘feminized’. 

For example, when people are too ‘masculinized’ they often want to blow things up, drink excessively, resolve differences with physical violence or need to put on women’s clothes in order to be able to cry.  On the other hand, if they are too ‘feminized’ they are inclined to collapse into anxiety, become full of self-doubt, lack any serious career and lack the mental toughness to push through hard situations.

Yet, despite the gravity of these problems, we still do not even have a gender-neutral pronoun for person (such as per) rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’ and we continue to say things like ‘chairman’ even though it requires more effort than simply saying ‘chair’.

If we are serious about improving many ongoing societal problems (like violence against women) then we need to raise children differently, so they have ‘androgynous’ brains, where they are encouraged to adopt the wonderful and highly functional attributes of both genders within the same brain and discouraged from adopting the less functional aspects. 

Our society desperately needs children (and later adults) who are emotionally responsive, socially intelligent, aware of others, cooperative, have an inner-world and can self-reflect and self-critique, yet at the same time are independent, mentally tough, career-minded, self-respectful, can shoulder responsibility, are not appearance focussed and are physically capable.  That is, a smart, all-rounder type of person. 

The Importance of Raising Strong Girls

In my clinical psychology work at the Smart Therapy Centre over the past 25 years I have found that girls fare much better in so many ways if they continue to play vigorous sport and are discouraged from quitting (typically) at puberty.

Sport allows girls to feel capable, coordinated and strong in their bodies and teaches them the importance of motivation and perseverance.  It teaches them to push through tough times and to get up and keep going even if it hurts.

I’m not just talking here about the gains in physical attributes but also the psychological attributes like mental toughness, individuation, cooperation and resilience.  Research shows that girls who play sport have higher self-esteem, do better academically, are less likely to respond to peer pressure to take drugs and have higher confidence in their abilities than girls who do not play regular sport.

Of course, men have known this for generations and sport has been a training ground and metaphor for going out into the real world where resilience and toughness are often required and where ‘collapse’ is simply not an option. 

It is so wonderful to finally see girls and women learning these skills that will empower them like nothing else and help them pave the way towards true gender equality.  

Unhappiness is a learning opportunity

Cartoon 1871 ridiculing Charles Darwin

Most people who seek therapy are unhappy in one way or another. As they say to me, ‘I just want to be happy’.

In turn, many therapists adopt the view that everyone is entitled to be happy and take steps to remove unhappy feelings. Doctors do this through the prescription of drugs, which flatten affect. Psychologists prop up clients’ self-esteem, reassuring them that they are okay.

I don’t agree with this approach. I see unhappiness as a fantastic learning opportunity. In propping up the self-esteem of their clients, therapists can inadvertently rob them of an opportunity to reflect upon their lives, recalibrate their habits, learn new skills and change their way of being in the world.

After all, there may be very good reasons that clients are unhappy. Perhaps they have poor skills in forming relationships. Perhaps they cannot hold down a job. Perhaps they do not know how to assert themselves in social situations. Perhaps their aggression drives away the very people that they love.

When people tell me that they are unhappy, I try and figure out the underlying cause of their unhappiness. There are many possible reasons: poor social skills learned in childhood, insufficient marketable skills, bad diet and unhealthy habits, and so on. It sounds basic, but we only have one brain, and we often do not recognise our skill deficits because they occurred at a time when our choices and opportunities were very different.

When people tell me that they are unhappy, I also think of Charles Darwin. Darwin was deeply unhappy. He suffered terrible anxiety, three of his children died in childhood and he was vilified and ridiculed for his radical theories of human evolution. Yet he is nowadays revered for his profound contribution to human knowledge.

Perhaps aiming to be happy is aiming too low. Whatever the case, it is not an end in itself. It is better to think about how we can take care of ourselves, form good relationships and make a worthy social contribution, and let happiness look after itself.

From Trauma to Triumph

If we experience trauma as children, our brains quite sensibly build themselves ‘fit for purpose’.  This means our limbic system (which sounds the alarm and keeps us hyper-vigilant) becomes the ‘go to’ part of the brain in everyday life. 

Later on, this causes an over-response to mundane everyday events and extreme agitation or panic ‘freezing’ in slightly more challenging events.  Once we establish this brain pattern, it keeps us over-reacting and paying undue attention to our emotional state.

When young brains are not exposed to trauma they increasingly ‘go to’ their frontal brain focussing on planning, rationality, reasoning and abstraction.  There is very little emotional focus or hyper-vigilance.  The frontal brain areas dominate the limbic system.

In my clinical work at the Smart Therapy Centre for the past 25 years I have focussed on helping traumatised people take their attentional focus almost completely away from their feelings and emotions (which if focussed upon, keep re-traumatising them). 

Instead I encourage people to shift their attention squarely onto constructive (frontal brain) activities that increase their skill level and help move them away from their internal ‘fraught’ focus. 

Basically, I want traumatised people to get off the merry-go-round of emoting at all things great and small.  They must stop bothering to even notice how they ‘feel’ and stop talking about their intense emotions to themselves and other people and instead get on with taking frontal brain action in life on their own behalf.

Do it while you can

A common problem that I have seen over and over in my clinical work for the past 25 years is people missing vital windows of opportunity.

Basically, people over-estimate how much time they have to do things and then suddenly rush for the deadline only to find it is too late and then they are full of regret.

This happens across all aspects of life but particularly with relationships, career, addiction and having children.  For example, a drug addict can still look cute at 25 or even into their early 30s but by 50 they just look sad.

Typically, people think they have all the time in the world to form a relationship or to take the next step in their career or to quit smoking or over-eating or to have children. 

While it is true that some individuals do manage to defy the odds, one thing that I have learned in my job is that most people do not, and there are reasonably strict deadlines on these opportunities if you don’t want to endure the consequences.

Roughly speaking it seems that the 20s is the time to form a long-lasting relationship if possible because after another decade the pool will have shrunk and there will be fewer people who are competent at relationships from which to choose.  Your relationship needs to be built solidly and cooperatively as a team so it can act as a platform from which you can both launch yourselves.

Then 30s seems to be the decade to largely sort yourself and your partner out on a personal level.  Now you have more wisdom and more frontal lobe on board you can focus on fixing up relics of poor past socialisation and gaining important skills you may have missed.   So here, problems that are getting in your way like addiction or anger or sulking can be solved and you can build new skills like assertion and better communication skills to improve your outcomes. 

Career is also getting built during the 30s and long-term plans are being laid down for future career pathways.  During this time, people will be considering whether or not to have children because fertility decreases markedly after about 33 years of age.

During the 40s career is being hugely consolidated, and depth of knowledge is growing.  If you are planning on going out into your own business now is the time to do so while energy and motivation levels are extremely high combined with enormous knowledge in your area.

(Incidentally, people who go on to make mammoth amounts of money in their careers are usually well orientated towards their careers by 20 years of age or earlier and have often been out on their own in business for many years by this time.)

The 50s onwards is the time for keeping on building career momentum and exploiting huge amounts of experience that often result in being able to make excellent judgement calls and decisions – which is ultimately what every CEO in the country is being paid to make.

The 50s is generally NOT the time to re-enact adolescence, act out, make a fool of yourself and divorce.  It is the time to have the wisdom to solve difficult problems together, accept and take responsibility for your life choices and rely on each other as age-related health problems start to emerge.  It is the time to be wise enough to realise that increasing alcohol does not take away the existential pain of aging in the long-term.

Beyond the 60s (if you have not hit the bottle) is the age of true smarts, dignity and self-respect.  Hopefully career continues well on into the 70s and beyond, albeit at a slower pace.  Similarly, your relationship is continuing to deepen, and you feel completely at one with your life partner having ironed out most of the differences over the preceding years. 

These things help because the decades beyond 70 are frequently times of immense struggle with learning to gracefully accept the inevitable aging process and our very real and often painful physical limitations – while still trying to maintain dignity, societal engagement, vitality and optimism about our lives and the future.

You can lead a horse to water …

The famous saying you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink is very apt when trying to help other people (and especially life-partners) change problematic behaviour.

From my decades of work at the Smart Therapy Centre, I am very aware that change requires a willingness to take action on our own behalf.  It requires internal motivation and it cannot be imposed.  If you try to force others you will meet massive resistance and stubbornness.

On the other hand, assertive coaxing, kindness and persuasion work wonders.  That is, if they are done correctly.

Coaxing like ‘you can easily do this – it is mainly about making the decision to change’ is only valid if your view is respected and if the encouragement is not overstated.  If it is overstated and said too often it diminishes the motivation of the other person to change, who no longer needs to step forward and take responsibility because you are doing all the work for them. 

Basically, there needs to be a respectful acknowledgment that while you are happy to coax and help – in the end, they will do it, or they won’t, and THEY will live with the consequences of their own choices.  So, coax, but be willing to withhold when necessary.

Kindness is also metered out similarly with real-life consequences.  Kindness is given through genuine care and empathy for the other person’s plight and it helps people to change because they feel safe and cared for enough to take the risks involved. 

They understand that you have patience and time for them to change, but they also understand that the timeline is not infinite.  There are limits, and you expect some progress soon if your kindness is to continue.

It goes without saying that if your kindness is met with hostility, meanness or lack of goodwill then there are consequences. 

You might make comments like ‘you can push me away if you like, but you would be alienating your very best advocate and friend – I am the person who MOST loves you in the world and I am able to help you solve this ongoing problem – but if you choose to be rude then I can be equally rude back and I can withdraw my support – basically it is YOUR choice’.  

With the comment above, notice how you have not immediately withdrawn love or kindness – in fact, you have re-stated your love and advocacy despite their poor behaviour.  BTW, you can only do this, if you keep your own emotions out of it.  Re-stating your love and advocacy tells the other person what they stand to lose if they continue behaving badly. 

Also, notice how the responsibility is put back on the other person to make their choice about how they intend to behave going forward.  This makes them ‘own’ the new behaviour if they decide to change (even if, at first, only temporarily). 

Also, notice that the primary ‘persuasive’ aspect of the above comment is that it is argued specifically from the perspective of how making the change will benefit the other person i.e. If you stop pushing me away and being rude, I can help you solve this difficult problem.

Going forward, nearly every persuasive argument needs to be delivered from this perspective.  All the real-life consequences should be talked through, showing how the problem behaviour is getting in THEIR way time and time again – how it is stopping THEM from getting what they want in life.  

In this process, every lie they are telling themselves to maintain the poor behaviour needs to be rigorously exposed.  For example, ‘I like to have a drink’ rather than ‘I am dependent on alcohol’. Any such exposure though, should always be done with kindness and again from the perspective that it serves THEM to know what is blocking them from taking the necessary steps to change.

Your job is to act like a guide.  Encouraging them out of their personal prison.  Being kind when they are going well and telling them clearly when and how they have messed-up.   

Of course, it is always clear to you both that you are ONLY on their side while they are behaving well towards you – otherwise they will be on their own.  This ‘tough love’ approach helps and motivates people to make the choice to change.