How well do you think you know yourself? What motivates you? What scares you? What inspires you? On the one hand, we believe we know ourselves quite well. But there’s another part of our brain that we may not be as familiar with, though it plays an important part in our lives and our decision making. (You thought all your decision making was conscious and rational? Science clearly disputes that.)
We have different types of memories. Memories for facts, for experiences we’ve had, for skills and how to do things. We also have emotionally loaded memories, and these are stored in a different area of our brain and function in a different way. Part of our brain, the oldest part, is always focused on self-protection and survival. It’s always on the lookout for anything that might harm us. It learns from painful experiences and tries to avoid anything similar in the future. In so doing, it makes assumptions and generalities. It creates rules or beliefs, which psychologists refer to as schemas. These schemas guide us in our expectations of ourselves, others, and of the world around us. More often than not, we aren’t even really aware of them, yet they have tremendous influence over our decisions and how we see the world. Examples might be, “as long as I get everything right, I’ll be loved”, or “people I care about will leave me, so don’t get too close”, or “I can always count on family, or “I can’t count on anyone but myself”, or, “I always have to make the other person happy in order to be loved”. The list is long, and depends on your experiences growing up and later in life.
If someone is displeased or upset with you in the present, it can resemble and therefore trigger the old feeling that you are about to be attacked or abandoned again, like in the past. The emotional brain confuses the past and present; it doesn’t distinguish well between them, so the situation that reminds you of what happened before triggers all the intensity and the feeling of needing to escape or protect yourself. If this situation seems like the old one where you were hurt, it expects you to be hurt again now, and will take evasive action to protect you. Have you ever felt like your reaction to a challenging situation was pretty knee-jerk? Automatically you got defensive, went on the attack, or tried to escape?
Because we anticipate similar experiences, our expectations can create self-fulfilling situations which occur again and again, further reinforcing our beliefs about what to expect from relationships or the world. Do you ever hear yourself saying inside your head, “See, I knew that would happen, or people will always let you down, leave you, cheat you, etc.”?
One of the exciting things about some of the therapy modalities that have been developed in recent years is that they are able to access these underlying emotional beliefs by essentially reactivating them, and making them accessible to change. Research as well as clinical practice is showing this is one of the reasons for the effectiveness of certain types of therapies that are more experiential than cognitive based. These include Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples, EMDR for trauma, and a handful of other therapy modalities. It’s hard to rationally talk someone out of anxiety, depression, or self-protective defensiveness in relationships. In order to have a lasting impact, it’s necessary to work with the pre-cortical (lower, older) part of the brain, which doesn’t respond much to logic. We now know how to do this, which is leading to better and more satisfying results in therapy.
Being able to have new experiences as an adult, and update one’s programming in a way that makes more sense and breaks those old cycles and patterns of self defeating thoughts, emotions and behavior is truly transformative. It’s an exciting time to be a psychologist. We’re learning so much about how the brain/mind works, and as a result, we have better ways of helping people live more self-aware and satisfying lives.
To your health and happiness.
Dr. Catherine Aisner is a Psychologist in South Lake Tahoe, helping individuals and couples improve the quality of their lives. She is a Certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist. She can be reached at 530-416-6696 or at www.TahoeMarriage Counseling.com.