Archive for July 29, 2010

Is "The Critic" Running Your Life?

The Critic is that inner voice or feeling that tells you you’re no good, just lazy or somehow defective. Everybody has one and every psychological system recognizes it. Focusing calls this destructive super ego talk The Critic.

Where does it come from? In childhood, we internalized the way we perceived the voices of our authority figures, usually our parents and teachers. Now these voices are no longer outside. They’re in our heads.

Does it have any value? Probably your Critic just wants you to be a successful human being. But it goes about it the wrong way – like those parents you hear screaming at their little kid to shape up. Their intention is all right. The way they go about it is damaging.

The Critic has no value. It’s not your conscience. It’s not what keeps you on the straight and narrow. (It may take a while to convince yourself of this.)

How should I deal with it? Don’t engage with it. You’re sure to lose! Here are the steps.

1) Recognize it. We become so accustomed to this disparaging voice that we don’t even notice it. How to recognize the Critic? It speaks in a shrill, harsh tone. You’ve been feeling fine and suddenly you feel lousy. (Your conscience speaks in a still, small voice. It might give the same underlying message, but your conscience speaks softly and puts it in a way that won’t undermine you.)

2) Tell it in no uncertain terms to get lost. Treat it the same way you would (hopefully) deal with a person in real life who was following you around, making you feel terrible about yourself.

3) Practice this until you can be the winner in the fight for your peace of mind. Remember that the Critic’s mission is to keep you from being all that you really are.

You’ll never be rid of it entirely, but it’s your job to cut it down to size.

How to take control of your mind

Have you ever paid attention to all the chatter that goes on in your head? Do you believe that valuable thoughts and ideas fill your mental space all day long?

Care to find out what’s really happening in your mind all day long? Chances are you spend a lot of energy mumbling to yourself and agitating over what’s already happened or might happen in the future.

Here’s an exercise designed to help you get to know your mind. I learned it from my spiritual teacher, Swami Sivananda Radha when I told her I considered my thoughts too important to set aside so that I could keep repeating my mantra all day. She challenged me to get to know my mind on a more personal basis. Maybe it wasn’t as productive as I thought, she said. Here’s the exercise she gave me:

1) Sit in a comfortable place where you will not be disturbed. Have paper and pen nearby, but not on your lap.
2) With eyes closed or open, observe your train of thought for ten minutes. Just let your mind go wherever it wants.
3) At the end of the ten minutes, write down all the thoughts you’ve had.

What are your conclusions? Are you really thinking profound thoughts? Or are you just producing boring and repetitive ruminations that raise your blood pressure and make you anxious? Is there anything of value going on in your idling mind? Would you be willing to exchange it for peace and quiet?

Try the exercise and let me know what you discover. Please leave a comment in the space below.

You can change your brain!

I’m fascinated by John Ratey’s book, A User’s Guide to the Brain. Ratey tells us that it’s up to us to make the most of the brains we’re born with. Our genes and our brain do not predetermine our fate unless we allow this. We may be predisposed to anger, overeating or abuse of alcohol, but each time we overcome our particular weakness, we help change the brain. The brain has amazing plasticity, not only when we’re children but throughout our lives!

By viewing the brain as a muscle that can be weakened or strengthened, we can exercise our ability to determine who we become. Indeed, once we understand how the brain develops, we can train our brains for health, vibrancy, and longevity. Barring a physical illness, there’s no reason why we can’t stay actively engaged into our nineties (p. 17.)

In other words, use it or lose it.

All our brains have the same general features that make us human. But each of us develops an “exclusive brain suited to our particular needs” (p. 31.) This exclusive brain has been developed in response to our environment and our experiences.

In the case of early trauma, the brain develops to survive a hostile environment. This ability to adapt allowed the human species to survive warzones and extreme hunger. “The brain is a dynamic, highly sensitive system that may adapt, for better or worse, to almost any element of its environment” (p.6.)

So, what do you and I do if our brains have been shaped by early abuse? First of all, we need to be grateful for our brain’s ability to adapt and allow us to survive. Then it’s up to us to train our brains, as Ratey says, for health, vibrancy and longevity.

When I come to think of it, my own efforts at re-training my brain to feel safe and loved have centered on being physically fit, surrounding myself with caring, decent people and increasing my self esteem by being successful in my work.

Do you have some ways you realize you have changed your brain? What has worked for you to lessen the effects of early childhood trauma?

I’d like to hear from you. Please leave a comment.

Studying the family tree

We can all benefit from studying our family trees. Once we have an accurate picture of where we come from, much of our life struggles make sense. Too often we are told only of the characters who reflect well on the family. Erasing the troubled and the weak only confuses us. If we don’t have the truth, we cannot come to a conclusion that makes sense of our lives.

In a recent Globe and Mail, Sarah Hampson interviews James FitzGerald the author of a new memoir. She describes him as belonging to high-WASP culture. In What Disturbs our Blood: A Son’s Quest to Redeem the Past, the author explores the psychology of his father and grandfather who both committed suicide at the height of their careers as successful medical pioneers. “In my family if you become successful you end up crazy or dead,” says the author.

The shameful secret of the suicides was something no one in the family would discuss. Fitzgerald had to work hard to get the story. He describes himself as a “traitor to his class” setting about to reveal the inner working of high-WASP culture.

“Learning the truth made him feel as though he wasn’t crazy himself. He could finally come to terms with the complexity of his childhood,” says Hampson.

“His two sibling have been supportive of the work. The telling of the story has helped them too,” says Hampson. (The Globe and Mail, Monday July 5, 2010.)

Does that sound familiar? Only when we understand our own family history and what we experienced in childhood can we be compassionate with our bewildering and embarrassing failures in life.

The truth sets us free.

What do you think? Is it always best to know the truth about our families? Or is it sometimes better not to dig up skeletons in the closet?

Leave your comment in the space below.

The Amygdala: your brain’s watchdog

I’m sure you’ve had the experience of stepping off the curb and almost being run over by a truck. But you weren’t! Before you knew it, you’d jumped back on the sidewalk. You were probably amazed that you reacted so fast.

You can thank your brain’s survival system, the fight or flight response. You didn’t have time to register that there was a truck threatening your life. There was no time for thinking. Your limbic system’s amygdala saved your life.

If you’re a trauma survivor, there may be times your amydgala embarrasses you – like when you are startled by someone coming up behind you, causing you to nearly jump out of your skin. When you were a child your amygdala fired and fired, with good reason. It’s as if the amygdala got worn out when you lived with intolerable and inescapable fear as a child.

In your present life, situations that remind the amygdala of the terrifying past–smells, sounds, visual flashes, anything that the brain’s watchdog perceives as threatening your safety–set off the alarm system in your brain.

Your amygdala doesn’t distinguish between your present safety as an adult and your vulnerable life as the child you once were. Trauma therapy and relaxation may lessen its vigilance, but since it’s neurological, you just have to learn to live with it.

It’s worth establishing a friendly relationship with the amygdala. After all, when you were suffering and frightened, it was working very hard to help you survive. Developing a hostile relationship with it will only make things worse.