Sarah* is a 29-year-old public relations specialist who worried constantly about what people thought of her and frequently questioned her actions and worth. Whenever she interacted with someone, and he "paused, even for a second," she says, she would assume that she must have said something wrong or upset the other person in some way.
In those moments, Sarah would become filled with anxiety and her brain would run in endless loops, asking numerous questions, criticizing her, questioning her worth and envisioning various responses in an attempt to alleviate her discomfort. She wanted to feel better immediately and wanted to ensure she'd never feel like this again. If only she could figure out how to act differently in the future, she thought, she could prevent this anxiety from coming up again. At times, this repetitive overanalyzing led her to a short-term solution. Her anxiety would decrease, thereby reinforcing to her and her brain that all this overthinking must be working. But, it never lasted long. Soon enough, another thought or feeling would surface and the cycle of deceptive brain messages would begin anew.
Many of us have felt like Sarah at some point in our lives. Whether it's worrying about social interactions, our self-worth, our future, our families or something else, overanalyzing in these repetitive ways is exhausting and rarely leads to a productive or helpful outcome. Rather, we waste time overthinking events, ourselves, actions, people's intentions or thoughts, or repeatedly trying to plan for all potential future outcomes, even though most times none of those scenarios ever play out.
In the past few posts, I have been focusing on habits and how they become automatically wired into the brain, below our level of awareness, if we repetitively focus our attention on them. But habits aren't the whole story. Thoughts and emotions are as important, maybe even more so, since they are the stimulus for our behaviors (and those eventual engrained habits).
Granted, when our thoughts and feelings are accurately aligned with who we are and how we want to live in the world (i.e. our true self), all is fine. But what about all those times when they are not? What about when we experience negative thoughts or feelings (i.e., deceptive brain messages) that disparage us, make us question ourselves or our worth, fill us with doubt or cause us to act against our best interests? Even more to the point, what if we take those false messages at face value—as true assertions about us and who we are? What if we let them define us and dictate our actions?
Highly insidious, these erroneous messages can cause us to act in all kinds of self-destructive ways that lead us to feel regret, sadness, anxiety or despair—and to react, rather than respond constructively in ways that are beneficial to us. This is why we often tell people: Don't believe everything you think or feel!
"I Think It (or Feel It), So It Must Be True"
One of our biggest challenges—and why we keep reminding people that they are not their brain—is that we often take those initial brain-based thoughts, urges, emotional sensations, impulses and desires at face value and assume they must be true. For Sarah, this meant that there were times when she really did think she was not deserving of love, attention, affection, or kindness from other people (or compassion from herself). This happened because, at some point in the past, Sarah bought into her deceptive brain messages and fused them with her sense of self. As this occurred, she began to believe that if she felt a certain way or a negative thought entered her head, then it must be a true and accurate representation of her and who she is.
To help Sarah, we taught her about the Self-Referencing Center, a specific part of the brain that can cause us to filter incoming information as having something to do with us. You could just as easily call this potentially unhelpful part of the brain the "It's All About Me!" Center. When our thoughts about life and ourselves are generally positive and aligned with our true goals in life, it's not too much of a problem for this part of the brain to be active—it leads to empathy and allows us to understand other people.
However, for Sarah, and many people like her who deal with frequent deceptive brain messages, funneling interactions, events, and thoughts about ourselves through this center when the negative thoughts and feelings are running rampant can be quite harmful. Rather than helping us attune to others, it causes us to berate and dislike ourselves, often leading to anxiety, depression or unhealthy habits.
This is especially troublesome when an associated part of the brain, what we affectionately call the Uh Oh Center begins to sound the alarm based on how the Self-Referencing Center is filtering information. The Uh Oh Center is the part of the brain that generates the physical sensations we associate with anxiety and alerts us that something bad or dangerous might be happening.
As we explained to Sarah, in addition to warning us to real dangers, this part of the brain can be activated by perceived emotional threats as well. The Uh Oh Center responds when we are anxious, when we ignore our true feelings and needs, and interestingly, when we experience the distressing aspects of both physical and social pain. This explains why being rejected or excluded from social situations feels so terrible—the same part of the brain is activated in both situations!
In Sarah's case, whenever she perceived that someone was upset with her, her Self-Referencing Center was filtering the information as having something to do with a presumed fault of hers (fueled by her deceptive brain messages) and her Uh Oh Center would fire intensely. She would then feel incredibly anxious and want to do something to get rid of that anxiety as soon as possible. Sarah's most engrained unhelpful response was to habitually (and automatically) overanalyze what just happened so she could figure out how she should act in the future—even though there was often evidence right in front of her that her friend's reaction had nothing to do with her!
Because her Self-Referencing Center was in charge, she could not take in this other information (including alternate explanations for her friend's response) or confidently know that she had done nothing wrong. Rather, she would take the physical and emotional sensations she experienced at face value and use them as further evidence that she was a bad person who was fundamentally flawed in some way.
Challenging Thinking Errors
Sarah's inaccurate belief that something was wrong with her was rooted in a series of experiences she had as a child, where people inadvertently ignored, minimized, or dismissed her needs, interests, and emotions. This inattention to her true needs and feelings caused many deceptive brain messages to take hold in Sarah's brain and led to her developing several thinking errors, including black-and-white thinking, catastrophizing, emotional reasoning, discounting the positive, faulty comparisons, and false expectations. When we helped Sarah identify where some of her most upsetting deceptive brain messages came from and pointed out her thinking errors, things began to change.
Sarah was able to start identifying the deceptive brain messages (Step 1: Relabel) and call them what they were: "self-doubt," "spinning," "anxiety" and so on. She then could Reframe (Step 2) her experiences by identifying her thinking errors or realizing she was feeling social pain. With this knowledge and a burgeoning belief in herself as separate from the deceptive brain messages, Sarah could Refocus (Step 3) her attention on something that mattered to her, such as being fully present to talk with her friend, going for a walk or going back to her work. With time, she began to quickly see how pervasive her deceptive brain messages were and was able to Revalue them (Step 4) by realizing that this was the feeling of social pain or self-doubt, but that those inaccurate thoughts and uncomfortable feelings did not have to be taken seriously or acted upon with habitual overanalyzing that led nowhere. She was able to catch herself whenever she got lost in an overanalyzing loop and stop herself before it spun further out of control.
I will talk more about the research showing why suppressing your reactions is not the best emotion management strategy and how to identify thinking errors in another post. The point from Sarah's story is that we often assume that whatever we think or feel must be true simply because we thought or felt it. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as Sarah learned.
In many cases, we are actually looking at life through the lens of deceptive brain messages (fueled by active Self-Referencing and Uh Oh Centers) and seeing our circumstances, other people, or ourselves from a distorted and inaccurate viewpoint. It's only when we are able to identify and dismiss the faulty logic of deceptive brain messages and believe in ourselves that we begin to break free and change our behaviors so that they align with our true goals and values in life.
*Note: Sarah is a composite case study profiled in our new book, You Are Not Your Brain.