We all think of ourselves as a little crazy. But the truth is, we aren’t! Our brain is guiding us to respond in ways that it actually learned (through experience!) are more likely to lead to our survival. So why are our choices sometimes so seemingly unhealthy?
The bottom-line is this: our brains are incredibly adaptive. The problem? Well, what is adaptive during childhood (when our brain is in full-on learning mode), is not necessarily adaptive later in life. This is an incredibly important issue for us all to deeply understand, so we can reflect with compassion upon how our own frustrating patterns, attitudes actually at one point helped us to survive.
Video Transcript from Your Issues Make Complete Sense
You’re not Broken, Weak or Crazy!
So our emotional issues make perfect, coherent, even rational sense given our real experience with the world around us. This issue is very close to me because often I hear people talking as if they are broken or weak or just being difficult or crazy…and that upsets me because I truly believe that our brain is doing what it is doing for good reason. Now there’s some scientific explanation for that, which we will go into. But also that just makes logical sense. Like, why would our brain be trying to mess with us? Even our behaviors that we think of as irrational or self-defeating, on some level our brain really does believe that those choices will end up best for us, or for our group. These beliefs are based on experiences from our past. What we think of as our ‘patterns’–at some point they were necessary adaptations for us or at least are built on assumptions about how the world works. While they might seem irrational are actually drawn from real experience with the world.
Your Brain is a Prediction Generating Machine
So in the last video we talked about what our emotional reactions are based on. I’ll just say the same thing again, just try to say it in a slightly different way this time. So think of it like this: if every experience you had with life, especially as you are a child, which is when you’re learning how to be alive…that all those experiences are like data points coming at you. Now, your brain is having to constantly make sense of those data points by finding some pattern. I think of it like when you see a sheet with data and you have to do statistical analysis to actually draw the pattern, to figure out the pattern from what otherwise would look like chaos.
Well, that’s actually what the brain does, through a process called statistical learning. Actually the brain is constantly doing unconscious statistical analyses to see what is associated with what. What is probabilistically likely to happen together. The reason it does that is so that it can make predictions from the input about what is about to happen, and also predictions about how to respond. So those predictions, those unconscious statistical comparisons between what’s happening now and comparing it to what we experienced in the past, and the patterns we develop to understand the world and respond to it, that’s going on all the time. It’s the base of our emotional reactions, and honestly most of our behavior.
When it Comes to Our Reactions, Past Experience is More Powerful Than the Present
So if a certain smell is associated with dad being drunk then in the future our brain will remember that such that when we smell that smell we will predict that means danger. Because statistically speaking that smell is associated with danger. Now rationally we may know that that smell does not mean that dad is in the room or present, but that’s not how the brain works. The brain just knows statistically speaking that smell is associated with danger and also statistically speaking this fear response, like running to my room to get away, is associated with more protection for myself.
So that’s constantly going on, running in the background in what we would call the unconscious. So it’s unconsciously always preparing our body and perceiving reality through the lens of how what’s happening now is likely to be understood. Essentially, what is the likeliest explanation based on my previous experiences? But to continue with this metaphor, if now as an adult you are struggling, it is not because your brain has done a bad job taking it’s experiences and all those data points and finding the patterns and making meaning, it is simply that those experiences you had, those data points are a skewed sample. That’s it!
What Was Adaptive in the Past, May Now be Maladaptive For Your Present Life
In other words, the world you started out in, which is most powerfully your family of origin. When your brain is learning these patterns and figuring out what to expect and how to respond to life, that world differs in important ways from the world at large. Or perhaps that original world, those original data points, simply differ from your life now as a single adult, or in the family that you’ve created. Or simply the reality and family that you want to create, because the truth is, most likely, the world you learned and adapted to is not the world or reality that you’re trying to create for yourself.
So that’s a big problem for the brain. The ways that you were conditioned, basically to survive your family of origin, may vastly differ from the set of imperatives of building a beautiful life. That’s really important to understand because sometimes we’re so frustrated by what we may think of as our own resistance or irrationality or our seemingly self destructive impulses. But underneath those behaviors, our deeper imperatives, that at one time were really, truly what we needed to do to survive the world.
If our Brain is so Malleable, Why is it so Hard to Change?
You may be wondering, if my brain is so great at adapting why doesn’t it just continue to adapt? Continue to learn and make new assumptions and make new behavioral patterns that actually fit what’s in front of me now? Well here’s the rub, our brain if left to it’s own devices doesn’t actively update it’s view of reality. Once the brain feels that it knows something, either through a million repetitions of experience or one big powerful experience which we would call a trauma, it doesn’t just always stay open for continued input.
Actually it would be pretty cumbersome to live in a world where we were always that open to learning. If we woke up every day in a childlike state of open mindedness and naivete of what we’re going to find and how we might try to respond, the world would just eat us alive. Imagine how totally overwhelming it would be to try and make sense of all the sensory input and decision points you would face if you couldn’t rely on some basic assumptions about reality.
So there’s good reason that our brain doesn’t always just shift with every new moment and try to learn life anew every day. It allows us to function in the world. Plus if you think about it, for most of our evolution the world we were born into was pretty much the one we were going to stay in. You know it wasn’t like today where maybe you have an abusive family but then you go off and make another healthier family. Or you move from one side of the world to the other side of the world. We would have had our little tribe of thirty people and pretty much whatever we learned in childhood was going to be adaptive during adulthood. So this personal growth mission it’s a bit of a new thing for the brain. It’s a little bit tricky for the brain to change deeply in that way. It doesn’t mean it can’t do it, there are actually very clear steps to unlock the brain to learn again, which of course we’ll be talking about in a later video.
How Could Harmful or Self-Destructive Behaviors Have Been Adaptive?
Another important point I want to make if you’re thinking: so I understand that my early learning may not be adaptive in my adult life, but it didn’t seem adaptive even in my childhood? How is it adaptive for me to check out at school, or start using drugs when I was twelve, or never assert myself with my dad, or beat up my sister? That’s a really great question! That brings us to a really important point and that is: while some of these early adaptations don’t seem good or maybe they really are not healthy or productive, they were from the perspective of the brain, the lesser of two evils.
So let’s say your brain learned: I need to rage any time somebody criticizes me. So that response, raging is going to have huge costs. Yet if you as a child were in a family system so steeped in shame where you were often attacked and criticized, your system might have learned: I need to push that back and go to rage as a way to protect itself that. Otherwise, the greater evil is that my whole sense of self being becomes crippled and my capacity to engage in this world disabled through the shame. Therefore I must rage instead. Furthermore perhaps this rage was normalized in our family but if I accept the shame and freeze up, disengage or fail to be as productive then my family will shame me even further. So in order to function and be productive, the child will reject the shame and embrace rage as a shield to protect them from this toxic environment.
Just to drive this point home a little more, let’s say that same child, when in the face of shame learned: if I let myself freeze and go to a non-functional state I also can’t protect my younger brother from dad’s aggression. So I’ve got to keep myself strong and steeled for the sake of protecting my younger brother. For me, the tragedy of this is the fact that it happens so unconsciously! These adaptations are out of awareness and all the child will experience is “hey I’m raging a lot more” or “I get in trouble a lot more” and as they grow into an adult it might be really easy for the explanation to be: “I must just be an angry person” or even worse: “a bad person” or “a person who doesn’t care about others.”
The Tragedy of Believing That We Are Defective
It’s such a tragedy because the whole reason the rage behavior got set up is because the child did care about his younger brother and was needing to protect him! Or maybe it was just to protect his own sanity or his own body, but that’s also completely valid. So this is why earlier said that it’s so upsetting when I hear people judge themselves without really exploring deeper to see what is truly driving that behavior. Asking ourselves: what experience has really taught my brain that it is imperative for me to do that thing or avoid doing this other thing?
So in my work with clients it’s just never been the case that we were exploring underneath to see what’s driving the behavior and at the bottom we just came to: “oh the deal is, you’re just a terrible person.” That’s never the explanation! Of course it isn’t, it’s never the explanation that that person is just bad, weak or stupid. There’s always a coherent, understandable set of imperatives and learnings that came in emotionally. That really can help us both understand and then therefore not judge what we think of as our “emotional issues.”
So in the next video we’ll go over this in a bit more detail, connecting it to attachment theory and giving more examples. But the final message that I’d like to give in this video is this. If you’re suffering it isn’t because anything is wrong with you or even how your brain is working. Your brain has done its job of helping you adapt. It’s just that your early childhood experiences required you to adapt in ways that have some huge costs. Now those costs, like the lack of capacity for joy, peace or closeness, those costs might have been worth it when you were younger, but there’s a chance that they are no longer worth it anymore. So allowing the brain to realize that and perhaps make some new adaptations as an adult is what healing is all about.