Mark thought the first date on Thursday went well. He and the woman seemed to click, there was chemistry, and afterwards he was excited. After mentioning his upcoming job interview during the date, she said to be sure to let her know how it went. So he did, texting her the next day, but heard nothing back. He sent an email, then a phone message, nothing. He feels dumped, duped, and depressed. Most of all he starts to obsess that he will never ever find a girlfriend, that he’ll be sitting in a bare room by himself with a naked lightbulb dangling above his head.
This seems to be a relationship problem, or rather lack of a relationship, and it is. But it’s also something else: This is where Mark’s head easily ahd automatically goes – towards never meeting someone, always being lonely – whenever he’s down or anxious. For others their heads steer them towards eating disorders, porn, or other addictions, or an angry fixation on how their boss, mother, spouse, is always critical, never supportive. This is problems as garbage cans.
It’s also the well-known Hebbian Law – neurons that fire together wire together. The brain early on lays down neurological tracks that link particular emotions with particular content or situations: Anxiety and food, boredom and porn, sex and powerlessness, depression and feeling like a loser or envisioning a lonely future. We can imagine this as several electrical wires literally wrapped together in a bundle – the firing on one – the anxiety, the rejection, the sex – triggers the others.
This firing together is what makes changing these tight knots of emotions and behaviors difficult. You need to separate out the various wires the way an electrician might – pulling them apart and either permanently tying them off and disconnecting the ones you don't want to keep, while reconnecting those you do to another linkage. If you can do this you begin to rewire your brain and lay down new tracks to begin to replace the old ones.
Sounds good, but how do you do this? Here are some guidelines:
Be aware of the connections. Awareness is always the starting point for change. For Mark it is his well-known bundle of rejection, self criticism, and belief in a dismal future. For others it is aspects of sex with fear, shame, and pleasure, or boredom with anxiety and binge eating. Notice the particular combination of behavioral or emotional triggers, and subsequent behaviors, emotions, and thoughts. See if you can recognize how the different emotional and behavioral wires come together.
Begin to untangle the wires. Sex and pleasure is good; the shame is not. Rejection or inconsideration may be expected, but disasterizing about the future and trashing you self image is not. Boredom is part of life; sinking into addictive behaviors is not. That said, being aware of these negative connections, pushing back, and consciously over-riding those thoughts through active positive self-talk, will begin to set new connections. Mark realizing that he behaved honestly and well on the date and that what happened after says more about the other person than about him and his future is an important step towards uncoupling, as well as a healthy dose of reality.
Reconnect what is good to new contacts. Mark needs to think about what was good about the date and think of ways to build on them -- it may be appreciating his openness -- or realize what was not and learn his lesson -- lowering his expectations a bit, or being more selective on who he asks out. If unhealthy addictive behaviors are paired with boredom, untangle and experiment with re-pairing boredom with more positive antidotes like exercise or simply planning ahead for potentially known down-times. If some parts of sex are associated with feeling of being cared for or appreciated, try thinking of other sources for acquiring these feeling apart from sex to untangle them with the overall bundle.
Will the new rewiring replace the old and feel the same? Absolutely not, at least not at first. The connections are new, the current, so to speak, is weaker. But with a willingness to experiment and patience to allow the rewiring to happen, things may change.