Delete that Self-Attack!

Self-attack will soon be out of fashion as we learn from neuroscientists how brain and body respond to our emotional habits. Once we combine the new science with what psychologists have been telling us for years about healing the wounded psyche, I predict that there will be a neuro-psychology department in institutes of higher learning that interweaves both disciplines.

The fact is, we short-circuit our own well-being each time we accuse ourselves of “there-I-go-again” (which can run the gamut from stepping in doodoo on the street, to breaking a glass through carelessness, to saying something hurtful or offensive to a friend). You’ve probably heard the expression, “what fires together wires together.” It means that every experience, every thought, every feeling, and every physical sensation, triggers thousands of neurons, which form a neural network. It leads to mental states becoming neural traits.

Here’s how our ongoing habit of criticizing ourselves can work against us. According to Wendy Suzuki, professor of neural science and psychology at NYU: “If I remember an incident in which I failed in some way and immediately add the thought that I was stupid or inadequate—in other words, attack myself at the moment I remember the incident—I’m connecting two formerly unrelated mind events and their respective neuronal activity. What’s bad about this is that I’m emphasizing or demonizing my failure out of proportion to its real effect and making that connection, that negative self-attack, part of the memory of the incident. But if I could bring a modicum of reasoning or self-forgiveness to it, acknowledging that I’m human, or forgot, or didn’t know enough, or was unprepared to make the right decision, or whatever is appropriate, over time my new thinking will affect the neural structure of my brain, synapse by synapse. This is an example of the neuroplasticity scientists speak about so much these days —your brain has been forming and changing ever since before you were born and will continue to do so until you take your last breath.”

In order to begin the neural change you seek, why not try the glass-half-full exercise? After you’ve made some accusation to yourself or someone else, try to describe it in an alternative way. For example: I’m sitting at my desk, and as I reach for the phone I spill coffee on some papers I was proofing. Damn! How stupid was that! “But wait,” my new attitude says to my old self, “thank the Lord I didn’t spill it on my tablet!” What’s good about that? It clips off the flowering of self-attack and focuses my thought in a new direction — on the work I’m doing. The basic message is, Let It Go!

It may seem like an unimportant exercise, but, as Rick Hansen explains in Buddha’s Brain: “Because of all the ways your brain changes its structure, your experience matters beyond its momentary, subjective impact. It makes enduring changes in the physical tissues of your brain, which affect your wellbeing, functioning, and relationships. Based on science, this is a fundamental reason for being kind to yourself, cultivating wholesome experiences, and taking them in.”

If you discover other similar exercises, why not share them with all of us, here!

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