What did we learn from the marshmallow experiment?
• There is an opposite and complementary correlation between our hot (limbic) and our cool (pre-frontal cortex) systems. When our cool system is in charge, we have a greater ability to postpone immediate gratification and pleasure, and to foresee how our present decisions will affect us in the short and long term. We are better equipped to see how our “little” indulgences, wants and needs can add-on and derail us from the goals we set for ourselves. When our hot system is in charge, we are not so good at it, if at all!
• If we have self-control early in life, we are better present to the tasks at hand and can find creative ways to manage the frustrations we face. If we didn’t have self control early in life, we can be taught, practice and reinforce our “grit and patience muscles”.
• Learning to track our arousal system and regulate it when it becomes “hot” is a must, especially in periods of stress. Otherwise, our hot system will take over… and in many cases, get hotter, rendering our ability for self-control less than optimal, if at all.
• “The If <—> Then implementation plan” helps us reframe our immediate cravings and challenging situations. It helps us think through possible ways to overcome what could, otherwise, negatively affect the outcome we want for ourselves.
• Using “The If <——> Then Implementation Plan” also allows us to create new habits, and/or break old ones. This approach, over time, reinforces our choice making “muscle” so that we are, more and more, consistent with our values, our short and long-term goals. And over time, our new habits create who we become.
• “Self Distancing”, is the ability to…
Continued from Newsletter…
• “Self-distancing” is the ability to witness and appropriately redirect the part of us who wants what s/he wants when s/he wants it. Self-distancing allows us to see our cravings and behaviors from an imaginary third; a kind, supportive and loving person who can act as an empathetic, yet firm parent towards ourselves. This means not indulging the behavior and, all the while, allowing the emotional brain to have its say, and experience. Regulation is not always an easy task!
In order to become our future self, we need to know and be clear about our short and long term goals. Through our cool brain system, we know that very few goals that are of great value to us will not be manifested overnight. When we know that our hot brain system doesn’t care about our long term goals, then we know how to better identify the internal dialogue it uses to dismiss the importance of our goals and sabotage us from achieving them. Again, for most of us doing so will require patience and grit. Lots of it!
As Leyla Bravo Willey states at the end of this clip, whatever our personal “Marshmallow Tests” are, there are a lot of techniques to help us overcome giving up on our goals. How will we arm ourselves so that we are able to resist when resistance feels like a Herculean feat?
In her Tedx talk, Miss Bravo Willey speaks of one such strategy, positive peer pressure. She refers to the people who are encouraging and supporting us to remain focused on our goals as Our Trust Circles. “Our Trust Circles” help us reflect on our potential obstacles and conflicts, our possible choices, assess the consequences, implement optimal action plans and reassess their efficiency after they have been implemented. Our trust circle can be made of a few trusted advisors who keep us honest and accountable, or a 12-step group and/or sponsor, a Master Mind group, our partner or even journaling. What they all have in common is that they help us engage with our cool system and cool down our hot system.
In CNN’s version of documenting the Marshmallow Experiment, Anderson Cooper reports these four other techniques some of the kids who were filmed during the marshmallow test naturally implemented. Their ingenuity allowed them to resist the seductive temptation of eating the marshmallow in front of them, and get the second marshmallow!
1) Face in the opposite direction to avoid looking at what is tempting us.
2) Put some distance between the object of desire and ourselves.
3) Walk or literally dance away from the delicious treat, which threatens to take away the greater pleasure which is on its way.
4) Distract yourself by singing, being silly, recounting a story that has nothing to do with the stress you are under.
These resourceful kids offer us empowering and creative ways to keep us on track! All of their tricks make use of their own imagination and agency. They instinctively know when too much is too much, and they act on it. I want to suggest, as these awesome kids show us and as Dr. Leila does with her students, that our imagination and humor might very well be among our best allies.
What will you do differently to help you overcome what holds you back from achieving your goals and thriving?
Lastly, if after having given it our best attempt we can’t overcome the impulses of our hot brains, it might be wise to accept that unconscious forces take over and hijack our best and honest efforts. Truth be told, many of us have had to face such a reality. Accepting our genuine limitations and our need for professional help might very well be the best first step to take so that we can eventually reach our long term goals and actualize our potential!
C. Nathan Bergeron, LMFT, L.Ac. ©