Our Misleading Brains

It has taken me a LONG time for me to realize something.  And by a long time, I mean 30-some years. I’ve had to persistently remind myself of this during times of frustration, depression and loss of hope and whenever I do, it never lets me down.  I feel a sense of relief and recognition that not everything that happens to me is my fault and (in my view, most importantly) my past does not define my future. 

So here’s what I’ve realized: 

  1. My brain is sometimes not my best friend. 
  2. My brain often lies to me.
  3. My brain works the same as everyone else’s. 

What do I mean by this? Let me give you an example. I experienced a lot of trauma during my middle school and high school years.  And there were people in my life who said very unkind things to and about me that I took to be true about myself.  So when the time came for me to actually try and direct my own path in life (college, work, living independently for the first time, etc.), I felt as though I could do nothing BUT wrong. And whenever I did actually make some mistakes (some big, most small), they were beyond emotionally traumatizing.  Every mistake I made felt like a validation of what my brain told me: I was nothing. 

And because I didn’t attend to these wounds, because I sincerely believe that an individualistic society often thrives on beating people down as opposed to bringing them up, and because the more I felt these tough emotions the more I believed them…the worse I felt. And it eventually put me in crisis time and time again in my late 20’s and into my 30’s. 

I don’t bring this up to lay blame for every mistake I’ve made nor emotion I’ve felt to an 8-year period in my life.  HOWEVER, what is true of my brain is true of everyone else’s.  The more repetition of something that occurs, whether that is a thought, a trauma, or a self-validation of both, the more your brain will adapt to it as ONLY IT KNOWS HOW TO. If pain is normalized and substantiated, your brain will think that this is what is to be expected. It’s a kind of self-preserving trap. 

When I worked in a crisis facility, giving care to those going through severe mental health challenges, I would lead the occasional group.  My most popular point of discussion was an example of brain functionality that involved a simple piece of paper. I would say:

“Your brain is like a piece of paper.  Fold the paper in half, then half again, then half again. Now unfold it. What do you notice? – the lines from the folds. Our brain is very malleable. When we engage in repetitive thoughts or actions, no matter the context, our brain forms “paths” or “grooves” like the lines in your piece of paper. When the paths are then formed, the next time we make any kind of decision, we will more often than not revert to what we know.  We will travel the same path or groove again and again because our brain tells us to do this.  This also explains that when we try to do something different and go “off the path”, our brain struggles to comprehend why.  This is now uncharted territory and you are engaged in a “fight” of sorts with your brain. It will direct you to revert to what you know, remind you that it’s “easier” to do so (even if it is a harmful thought or activity) and tempt you back into what is familiar.  

So how do we correct the paths? We can’t. We can only form new paths and grooves in our brain by doing the alternative again and again until that forms a new “crease” in our brain.  A new alternative now becomes the norm!   Now, this is WAAAAY easier said than done. But if you ever find yourself caught in a repetitive thought or action that isn’t in your best interest, I encourage you to remind yourself that it isn’t your fault.  Your brain is telling you what to do. 

I will often hear the argument that “Everyone has a choice to be happy.”  To an extent, that is true.  While the choice is certainly laid at our feet, the context makes it difficult to entertain. Our brains do not often take hope in the unknown.  

If you are finding it difficult to make healthy choices, please seek help.  There is hope in recovery and no one is ever alone.  The ability to make new choices and find a new “normal” is there; we just have to find and work on creating the path to doing so.  This lesson took me years to fully grasp and I’ve applied it to most everything in my life.  It has ultimately lessened the burden on my shoulders and helped me realize what is and what is not in my control, and also what I can take responsibility for as opposed to what I have to forgive.  To be able to do that is a gift I hope everyone can accept for themselves. 

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