Throughout our developmental stages, from babies to full-fledged adults, we make meaning of our experiences with the brain and psyche we have at the time. The parts of our brain which allow us to challenge the meaning we make of our experiences and of ourselves are located in the prefrontal cortex. They come online later in our development. Yet, the parts of our brains that store our experiences of powerlessness are in the sub-cortical brain, way below our conscious mind. The fact that our prefrontal cortices are bigger than our other mammalian cousins is what differentiates us from them. It is what makes us human, capable of thinking through our thoughts. Our challenge as we grow up and develop into full-fledged adults is that our prefrontal cortices have not matured into their full potential until our mid-twenties. Yes, we humans take a very long time to achieve our full potential, if ever!
Continued from the Newsletter…
The younger we are, the more vulnerable we are in the world and the more dependent we are on the adults in our lives. The younger we are when experiences of powerlessness come our way ––meaning experiences that are beyond our developmental stage and/or beyond our ability to have agency over them and control their outcome–– the more likely we are to draw conclusions that we are at fault; that we are the problem. In such instances we will, most often unconsciously, internalize messages that we are not good, talented, skilled, capable, smart, strong, likable or lovable enough to feel safe, be cared for, be loved; and to achieve our desired goals. Such experiences of helplessness overwhelm our nervous system and leave an imprint in our mind that we are intrinsically flawed.
Many people were lucky enough to have nurturing and supporting adult figures capable of helping them process and reframe these deeply vulnerable experiences in a more empowering and realistic manner. Unfortunately, many people were not so lucky. Such people were left with disempowering schemas (mental representations of the self) that were self-referentially inaccurate: I’m not… enough. I’m not worth… I’m less then… I’m guilty of… I’m shameful of…. I’m broken. When these schemas are not challenged, they remain as valid during our adult lives as they were when they were first made in our young psyches, even twenty, forty or seventy years later.
One would think that the solution is to think positively then, right? While helpful, positive thinking which doesn’t access and process our negative schemas is most often not enough. Others telling us to “think positive” is translated by the emotional mind as “I’m positive that this won’t work, that I am not… enough. That I am flawed”.
In order to overcome and update our negative schemas into more accurate beliefs, it serves us well to identify and challenge them. To make these unconscious thoughts more conscious. It behooves us to strategically rethink our thoughts, to catch our cognitive distortions in action. For example, when we hear ourselves think or say: “I’m not good, smart, lovable, capable,… enough”, these thoughts are often the expression of our negative schemas. Strategic thinking invites us to ask questions such as:
- Is this true?
- Is it absolutely true?
- Was it ever true?
- If so, is it still true today, in this very moment?
- Is there a truer thought I can embrace?
- When did I learn to think like that?
- Who told me that I was not… enough, that I was flawed, broken?
- Do I really trust these people to mirror me in my best/most accurate light?
Because such questions engage our pre-frontal cortex, they help us disengage and dis-identify with our thought processes and challenge them face-on. Our ability to have meta cognitions—our ability to look and question our thoughts without believing them at face-value—is our human gift. While we are the slowest of all mammals to fully develop, we are the only mammals who can have meta-cognitions. When given the opportunity, our human brains and psyches can reassess our current reality and sense of self, and chose a different perspective and outcome. Even if, as mentioned above, catching our negative schemas as they show up in our lives is often not enough to eradicate them, it still empowers us to begin identifying their validity, their source and not take-on old emotionally charged narratives our limbic system serves us daily.
If positive thinking and being aware of our meta-cognitions is not enough, what is the solution to get to the root of our negative schemas? Neuroscience tells us that our negative schemas are rooted in our right limbic system which our positive thinking and more comprehensive narrative can’t easily access. This explains why narrative therapies, only, have their limits. While narrative therapies help us better understand our neurosis, sadly, too often we remain smarter neurotics.
If we are to truly free ourselves from our negative schemas, we must be able to access, process, integrate and/or release the emotions that were felt during these disempowering moments. Fortunately, somatic therapies such as The Trauma Resiliency Model, Brainspotting and EMDR access the brain stem and limbic system. The same areas of the brain where the body remembers our experiences of powerlessness. The same areas of the brain that are not affected and transformed by “positive thinking” alone. Such modalities help us access these often unconscious and fragmented memories that lead to our negative schemas in the first place. As is the case when we cut our skin and our body knows how to heal, the same applies when it comes to healing the roots of our negative schemas which stemmed from experiences of powerlessness. Overtime, and sometimes quite rapidly, these powerful brain-based therapies help us to truly free ourselves from our experiences of powerlessness. They organically help change our narrative from “I’m not enough… I’m flawed… I’m broken…” into “once upon a time I use to think/feel/believe that I was not… from deeply within myself, I know better now!” May we all be freed from our negative schemas, which hold us back so that we can all thrive!
Nathan Bergeron, LMFT, L.Ac. ©