Know Thyself: Part 2

Reel-to-Reel Audio TapeIn Part 1 of this series I shared with you a glimpse of what is happening in your brain when you “lose it” with your child—when you yell, shame, blame, hit, or punish. The first question to ponder in order to Know Thyself better, is “Who is driving the bus in this moment?”  Let’s continue our exploration in Part 2 by asking another question that will help you become even more aware of what’s causing you to react the way you do.

The neuroscience behind our “triggers”

We all have life experiences from our earliest childhood (some say even from pre-birth in the womb) that are stored in our implicit memory…these are memories below the radar…in our unconsciousness. Mostly, we are not aware they are there.  Among these memories are events that happened that our young underdeveloped brains didn’t have the capacity to understand.  We cried in our crib and no one came.  We touched the stereo and had our hand smacked.  We reached for our caregiver and she turned away.  As we moved out into the world, we stored even more memories:  we expressed fear and were shamed, we expressed anger and got the message that we were bad, we were told we were too talkative, or too shy, or too wiggly, or too this, or too that.

As more and more events happened, similarities and patterns started to emerge.  Our brains started to form neural networks (get “wired up”) in response to these events and internal stories started to form around these neural patterns….stories like, “I don’t matter,”  “I’m not loveable,” “I can’t trust anyone.” “I’m not _______ enough.”  (Fill in the blank with almost anything: smart, pretty, brave, etc.)  These are some of the common stories, or core beliefs, that are buried deep down in our unconsciousness with our implicit memories.

So what does that have to do with us today?  And how does it affect our relationship with our child?

When we react to our child’s behavior in a disconnecting way, such as yelling or threatening, then you can bet that we have tapped into an unconscious core belief, such as “I don’t matter.”  It’s scary to believe that you don’t matter; it makes the world become a very unsafe place.  A child defying your request becomes much more than that.  When we tap into an underlying negative core belief, we are in reaction mode and this is when we say and do things that damage our relationships with others.  We’re like a wild animal backed into a corner; and we bare our teeth because our very survival feels threatened.

Our little child within grabs the wheel because the event that is happening now has triggered an implicit memory of an event (or pattern of events) that happened when we were little.  Since our brains were “hardwired” from these early childhood experiences, the current event travels along the same neural network, makes the same synaptic connections…and produces the same effect that we had when we were little:  we fight, flight, or freeze.

Now remember, this is all below the radar; we’re not conscious that we have tapped into our own childhood experience. We think it’s about them, our children, and what they are doing now.  But if we are not responding in a calm loving way, then we need to do some digging below the surface to find out what “story” tape is playing in our head.

One general guideline is to reflect on your childhood when you were the same age as the child who has “triggered” you.  If your child is five, then she has likely triggered the five-year-old in you.  (A 15-year-old will likely trigger the 15-year-old in you).  Reflect on your life at five years old.  What happened to you if you behaved the same way your five-year-old child is behaving now?  How were you treated?  Did you feel threatened?  Shamed? Is there leftover anger from how you were treated when you behaved this way?  Would you have wished to be heard and seen and understood in a different way?  If you really want to transform yelling into loving guidance, spend some time pondering these questions.  Come back after you have calmed down and think about how you may have internalized your childhood experiences to mean that you don’t matter.  Or some other negative belief about yourself.

Once we are aware how our early experiences shape our adult reactions, we can start to ferret out those unconscious beliefs that are far below the surface and that hold so much sway over our reactions.  This next step in getting to Know Thyself is to identify the core belief, the “story” tape, that is playing in your head. And then to realize it’s just a story.  It’s not a truth.  It’s just a story you made up because your young mind was trying to make sense of your experiences.

You can actually re-wire your brain to form new circuitry which supports new healthier beliefs.  Every time you become aware of the “story” playing in your head, you can speak to the “little child within” in a loving, nurturing, mothering voice, “I know it seemed that way.  It was scary and it seemed that you didn’t matter.  You had no voice.  But I want you to know that you do matter.  You matter a great deal to me.”  As you talk to yourself in a loving, nurturing voice you are wiring up new neural networks that will allow you to choose how you wish to respond to your child.  As you talk to your inner child in a calm loving way, you will start to talk to your outer child (the one standing in front of you saying “no!” to your request) with more calm understanding. And you will have healed two very important relationships.

So now we have two questions to ponder in order to Know Thyself better.  Part 3 will address one more powerful question to ask if we are to transform our habitual reactions into loving responses.

  1. Who is driving the bus in this moment?
  2. What’s the core belief, or “story” tape that’s playing in my head?
  3. ???  Stay tuned for Part 3