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You Are Not Your Brain

Using the Four Steps to overcome negative thoughts and unhealthy actions.

When I talk to people about a central idea in our book—that you are not your brain—they tend to respond in one of two ways. The first is with some version of, "Of course I am not my brain! That's obvious." The other response often is one of confusion, something along the lines of, "Well, if I am not these thoughts, impulses, urges, and actions, who am I? Doesn't my brain define me?"

Interestingly, these responses mirror the current debate raging in the neuroscience community on this very topic. Some scientists believe that there is nothing but the brain—that it controls what we think, who we are, our values and actions. To them, the mind simply does not exist. Rather, it is the brain that changes itself, not us or what we do. The other camp, which my mentor and co-author Jeffrey Schwartz and I are part of, believe that the mind is intimately connected with, and can exert some pretty powerful effects on, the brain. In short, we believe that people are so much more than what their brain is trying to tell them they are and that the brain often gets in the way of our true, long-term goals and values in life (i.e., our true self).

While passionate academic disagreement can be quite interesting, and even entertaining at times, it doesn't help us much in our everyday lives. So, do we have the power to influence our brains or not? Obviously, Schwartz and I believe that we do have the ability to harness the power of focused attention to change our brain in ways that are healthy and beneficial to us. Even more to the point, many of the thoughts, impulses, urges, and sensations we experience do not reflect who we are or the life we want to live. These false missives are not true representations of us, but rather are inaccurate, and highly deceptive, brain messages.

Recognizing this fact, you likely will rapidly begin to see all the places where your brain is less than helpful—where it is working against you and your true goals and values in life. When you think about the brain and how it is structured, it makes sense. The brain's chief job is to keep you alive, so it tends to operate in a survival-of-the-fittest mode. While that's certainly imperative when dealing with life-threatening situations, that approach does not help us much in society or in our relationships. Rather, it often gets us into trouble and causes us to act in ways we later regret. In short, the brain likely has run your life in a less than optimal way and caused you to experience one or more of the following at some point in your life: anxiety, self-doubt, perfectionism, behaving in ways or engaging in habits that are not good for you (e.g., over-texting, over-analyzing, stress eating, drinking too much and so on), ignoring your true self, and/or wholeheartedly believing the stream of negative thoughts coursing through your head.

Accepting that your brain often does not make your long-term goals a priority, the solution becomes clear: you need to learn how to activate your mind so that it can help sculpt your brain to work for, rather than against, you. One great way to learn how to do this is with the Four Steps.

What are the Four Steps?

Originally developed by Schwartz to help people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the Four Steps is a powerful, yet easy-to-follow method that teaches you how to enhance your awareness and focus your attention in the ways you want to, while simultaneously changing your brain in positive and healthy ways.

Together, Schwartz and I have spent the last few years revising and enhancing the Four Steps to ensure that they apply to all kinds of deceptive brain messages and situations in life, not just OCD. Here is a synopsis of each of the steps:

  • Step 1: Relabel. Identify the deceptive brain messages (i.e., the unhelpful thoughts, urges, desires and impulses) and the uncomfortable sensations; call them what they really are.
  • Step 2: Reframe. Change your perception of the importance of the deceptive brain messages; say why these thoughts, urges, and impulses keep bother you (it's not me, it's just the brain!).
  • Step 3: Refocus. Direct your attention toward an activity or mental process that is wholesome and productive—even while the false and deceptive urges, thoughts, impulses, and sensations are still present and bothering you.
  • Step 4: Revalue. Clearly see the thoughts, urges, and impulses for what they are: sensations caused by deceptive brain messages that are not true and that have little to no value.

How could you use the Four Steps if you check your email every 5 minutes when you are at home on the weekend (and it is not necessary to check at all)?

  • Step 1: Relabel. Say what is happening, "Oh, I am having the urge to check email again."
  • Step 2: Reframe. Remind yourself why this is bothering you. Say, "I am having the urge to check email again because it gives me a rush when there's something in the feels good. Checking my messages also decreases my anxiety that I might be missing out on something." Remind yourself that you are not your brain and you do not have to respond to every impulse your brain generates.
  • Step 3: Refocus. Go for a walk, call a friend, play a game. Do something that will interest you and is fun. It's the weekend after all!
  • Step 4: Revalue. Recognize that this urge to check email is nothing more than the feeling of a deceptive brain message. It is not something that needs to be taken seriously or paid attention to. In fact, giving into this urge just makes the underlying brain circuitry stronger. The more you check, the more frequent and intense the urges will become. So, dismiss this deceptive brain message and go do something healthy and productive instead.

The key to the Four Steps is practice. You literally need to keep using the Four Steps over and over. By becoming more aware of what is happening and learning how to Refocus your attention in healthier and productive ways whenever a deceptive brain message strikes, you teach your brain new, beneficial responses. With time, you will learn how to place your attention where you want it to go, not where your brain is beckoning you to follow.

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