In today’s fourth instalment on neuroplasticity, we are looking at yet another method of improving our brains’ capacity to develop; that of self care. (Remember that neuroplasticity means the capacity of the brain to make new pathways as it needs to do so; or put in another way, it is the brain’s way to calibrating itself to meet the needs of its owner).
To illustrate how we tend to poorly take care of ourselves emotionally, let me ask you whether you did do the daily gratitude exercises I suggested at the end of the last month’s chapter.
If the answer is “yes”, let’s do a happy dance together and celebrate! You have started rewiring your brain for automatic gratitude.
If the answer is “no”, something may be happening in your brain right this instant. You may be experiencing a negative feeling about yourself (hopefully only very mildly). Examples of such feelings are guilt that you did not get around to doing that, or frustration that you were unable to keep it up, or embarrassment that I reminded you of yet another something at which you did not succeed.
Though we may not think of them as such a great deal, these negative feelings are not putting our brains in a healthy place, as they lead to us experiencing stress. Stress ultimately leads to ongoing increased secretion of the chronic stress hormone cortisol. Among the many bad effects of a chronic increase in cortisol is that is strips away the synapses (connections) between our brain cells, and kills brain cells, especially in the hippocampus—the area associated with our memory and spatial awareness.
From this, it is evident that we need to make sure that we have feelings that are healthy to our brain, such as the gratitude we already discussed, or being self content, or being kind to ourselves. Yet, as I said there are very few individuals who are masters at emotional self care. We are all deeply entrenched in the habit of being self critical, and most of us have been for all of our lives.
Let me show this to you by way of a single small example. (Remember, there are many, many of these we experience every day, and we have experienced these for many, many years). Say your boss gives you a piece of feedback about a recent project you had completed:
“Pieter, the ideas in this project are sparkling, fresh and well put together. It is clear that you had put a lot of thought and effort into it. I am happy that you are part of my staff, as you bring many good things into the workplace. However, you may want to pay attention to finishing your tasks under the deadlines. Failing to do so, puts quite a strain on the other staff members”
What part of this feedback are you likely to remember? If you tend to only remember the critical part, as most of us would, what feelings are you likely to feel when you think back a week later about the feedback, the boss and even the workplace? And if you feel those negative feelings, how likely is it that negative behaviour will follow?
The habit of emotional self care revolves around rewiring our brain paths to accentuate the good, the joyous, and the new.
When we get an opinion such as in the example above, we need to entrain ourselves to see this as great and positive. How to do this can be very difficult. (If it was easy, we need not to have talked about this at all!) I use a mental technique I call “externalization of empathy”. It works like this. Having received the feedback myself, I would imagine what I would do if my daughter (or my wife, or my best friend) came to me and told me that about her receiving the above comments, and not feeling great about it. Then, I would imagine what I would tell her.
I would remind her about how positive the message had been overall; how her boss trusts her enough to be honest with her, and enough to think that she can handle the small piece of criticism; and finally, how it does illustrate a problem that has nothing to do with my daughter’s character, but with something that gives her trouble anyway, that of less-than-ideal time management.
Once I have imagined that, and reminded myself that I would mean what I said to her, I take the advice for myself. Following that, I feel good about my project and myself, I feel happy that I have such a good relationship with my boss, and I feel excited about what new thing I can try to improve how I manage my time.
Every day, try to be your own best friend whose opinion and judgement you trust, and whose guidance leads to being kind, fair and compassionate to yourself. If we do, we create new pathways of behaviour farther and farther away from the harsh and negative ways of feeling, thinking and behaving of our past.