Emotional healing and growth require adherence to certain neurological and biological principles. Ignoring or violating any one of them inhibits healing and growth. This post will describe the major neurological principles that inform scientifically based therapy and useful self-help books.
1. Mental focus amplifies and magnifies.
Whatever we focus on becomes important. Viable self-help keeps the focus on what you want to achieve, how you want to think, what you want to do, and how you want to be in life. It shows how to improve your situations (or if you can’t improve them, how to improve the way you experience of them). It shows how to appreciate more, connect to others, and protect and nurture what is most important to you. It shows how to build more meaning and purpose in your life.
Bad self-help focuses on (amplifies and magnifies) how bad you feel or how badly you’ve been treated or on the psychological diagnoses and profiling of those who people who have treated you badly.
2. The neural connections forged by repeated focus grow physically larger and stronger and are prone to automatic activation.
Highly reinforced neural connections are experienced as habits. Your brain loves habits because they conserve energy. The difference between an habitual behavior and one intentionally decided is hundreds of millions of neurons.
The brain stores numerous assumptions about its environment, based on experience, which it uses to make behavior choices. If there is no apparent environmental exception to the string of assumptions underlying a given behavioral impulse, it’s enacted automatically, without conscious thought, emotion, or perception. You can walk across your living room and sit down without thinking or feeling anything about it. You don’t have to look for the chair, because your brain assumes where it is. (You can’t do that in a hotel room, which is why travel is exhausting. In an unfamiliar environment, your brain must formulate new strings of assumptions for routine behaviors.) In familiar environments, most of what we do is on automatic pilot, consuming far less energy resources than consciously decided behavior choices.
Anything you do repeatedly, you’ll eventually do on automatic pilot. Popular self-help advice, such as regular sessions of journaling and “sorting through feelings,” may give momentary relief but will reinforce the tendency to focus on pain and mistreatment or analysis of those who have hurt and disappointed you, rather than healing, improving, and growth. Attempts at journaling and sorting through feelings must go beyond mere validation to focus on repair, improvement, and growth.
3. We change the brain through change in focus and repetition.
Much has been written about neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change. The better self-help authors have replaced (or at least supplemented) insight about past experience and present patterns of behavior with practice of desired ways of thinking and behaving. Optimal change occurs with respect to a hierarchy:
- Repeatedly thinking about the desired change
- Imagining in detail how you will overcome any barriers to the desired change
- Practicing the specific behaviors likely to lead to the desired change.
Think often about healing and growth (rather than pain, damage, and mistreatment). Think of how you will overcome any barriers to healing and growth. Imagine often what you might do differently, if you had achieved the desired change, and then do those behaviors repeatedly over time.
How We Get Stuck
The brain has to do three operations when it experiences something bad:
- Generate a signal/alarm
- Interpret the signal/alarm and make a quick assessment – how bad it is, how much damage has occurred, how much of a threat remains
- Neutralize any threat and repair any damage.
The alarm signal comes from the more primitive, limbic area of the brain and is triggered by external change (in perceptual field) or internal change - thought, image, memory, association. The second operation is in the more sophisticated prefrontal cortex, where the signal is interpreted and the bad thing assessed. The third and most important operation, also in the prefrontal cortex, can be classified as improve.
Good self-help tells you to acknowledge the alarm signal but don’t confuse it with reality (the alarm is not the fire), because alarm systems are apt to give false negatives. It helps you assess the threat and damage realistically, and focus on improving.
Bad self-help keeps you stuck in a feedback loop of the first two operations:
“I feel bad (confused, depressed, anxious, grieving). Of course I feel that way – I have every right to feel that way - with all the bad things that have happened to me, not to mention my abusive, selfish, crazy, immoral partners and family members.”
Readers feel validated through this process but only for a short time. As their focus on damage cuts them off from the solution and growth-oriented parts of the brain, feelings of powerlessness inevitably return: “I feel bad and there’s nothing I can do about it (except get resentful and angry.)”
In place of healing and improvement, they seek validation. (It’s easy to become addicted to self-help that emphasizes validation rather than empowerment.) They may read little besides self-help for years on end. Instead of an indication that self-help is not helping, the compulsion to read more and more makes them feel that they just haven’t journaled enough or sorted through their feelings enough, when the real problem is that they don’t move to the third mental operation of improving, repairing, and finding solutions. Improving, repairing, and finding solutions to their suffering almost feels like they would be dishonoring or invalidating it.
Good self-help validates first, of course, but puts most of its emphasis on empowerment, which instills the sense that you have the ability within you to improve your experience and make your life better.
The next post will discuss biological and psychological principles, which, when observed, lead to emotional healing and growth.