Rewiring the Brain to Shed Old Identities
" Development involves giving up a smaller story in order to wake up to a larger story." - Jean Houston
A few years ago my client Karen shared with me a distressing insight about one of her conditioned patterns of relationship, or rather, lack of one. On a rare sunny afternoon over the weekend, she had been reading a book in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. She noticed a young woman pushing a young girl on the swings. The two of them were laughing and talking and seemed to be having quite a fun time together. Karen assumed they were a nanny and her charge and went back to reading her book.
After fifteen minutes or so, Karen overheard the young girl say, “Mommy, Mommy! Let’s go see the puppy!” As the woman and girl skipped away to meet the Dalmatian puppy and its owner, my client saw — with some horror — a huge hole in her understanding of play in relationships. It had never occurred to her that this woman and young girl were mother and daughter. Nothing in her life experience had told her that this kind of playful interaction could happen between a mother and daughter.” Her own experience of being her mother’s daughter, or even being with mothers of her childhood friends, while adequate in many other ways, hadn’t included much light-hearted play or fun.
Karen’s distress was acute. She wanted to have her own family someday. But her realization that she was missing this template or internal working model of relationship of a healthy parent-child relationship was jarring. What kind of mother would she be if she hadn’t grasped that playing with her own child could be fun?
We had to bring a lot of mindfulness and empathy to this dilemma. Karen had to anchor her investigation of what was missing in her experience, and thus in her conditioned view of herself, in the mindful empathy of her wiser self. Her longing to have children was sincere and her dedication to her own growth was fierce. She had to find many ways to create new experiences of herself with children that would supply those missing experiences of play and fun between an adult and a child. She had to choose to repair her conditioned messages about motherhood with the new views and perspectives she would gain from those experiences. Her wise self would have to hold both her wholesome yearning to be a loving mother and the deep grief over he missed experiences and conditioning about motherhood and play.
We began to look for ways that Karen could spend time with young children and with adults who knew how to play with them. These included hanging out on play dates with married friends and their own young children; volunteering at a local pre-school one afternoon a week; and helping to coach a girl’s soccer team. As she engaged in these new experiences, she worked on always allowing the new views of herself that they brought to counter the old views, and always holding the process in the compassionate reflection of her Wiser self. It took about a year and a half for Karen to completely re-condition her sense of self in relationship to young girls and to form the sense that she herself could become a playful, loving mother.
She told me at the end of that phase of our work together, “I didn’t even know this piece of the puzzle was missing until that day in the park. But, somehow, I knew I could recover it. I mean, I could learn to be playful and enjoy being playful, by doing it over and over and over. I guess somehow it’s sunk in and now…well, now I know I can be playful myself and stay open to being playful with a little child. I’m not afraid anymore that I won’t know how to do this with my own kids. It’s a miracle.”
Exercise: Re-Wiring the Brain to Shed Old Identities.
1. Focus your attention on being present in this moment.
2. Call to mind your wiser self: the wise, resourceful, capable embodiment of your truest self. Anchor your awareness there. Evoke this experience of comfortably inhabiting your wiser self at every level of neural encoding: a visual image, positive states of ease, trust, well-being that your wiser self embodies; the sensations and movements of your body that help ground the sense of wiser self; the name you use for your wiser self; the thoughts that arise about yourself as your wiser self. You’re lighting up the integrated networks of your wiser self as a resource.
2. Identify a negative perspective you have of yourself that you identify with as “you” and that you would like to change or re-wire. (Positive, wholesome beliefs, of course, we strengthen as resources.) Recall a specific experience that embodies this perspective. After you identify the belief or identity you will be working with, park that identity in the background of your awareness.
4. From the perspective of the wiser self, imagine yourself in a new identity, embodying the desirable new views and beliefs. Begin to imagine the thoughts you would think and the actions you would take from this new identity. Imagine the emotions you would feel; let yourself feel them now in your body. You’re lighting up the neural networks of the new identity you will embody.
5. Parking both the wiser self and the new identity on the periphery of your awareness, take a moment to evoke the felt sense of the old identity you have chosen to re-wire. Light up as many of the neural networks as you can by remembering the thoughts, the feelings, the states of being of this old identity.
6. Evoking the mindful empathy of the wiser self, bring both the old remembered identity and the newly imagined identity into your awareness simultaneously.
7. Either steadily hold both the old and new views of self in your mindful and empathic awareness at the same time, or mindfully toggle alternate between the two many times. Whenever you need to, you can take a moment to refresh the wiser self. Refresh the sense of the new identity too, as many times as you need. When it seems as if the sense of the new identity is consistently stronger than the old, let go of the old identity and rest your awareness solely in the new identity, held in the larger awareness of the wiser self.
8. After a few moments of anchoring your awareness only in the new identity, re-evoke the old identity again and notice whether the network lights up as strongly as before.
Sometimes we can notice a significant difference, sometimes only a slight one. With enough practice and repetition, the old identify will fade. Experiencing that we can re-wire an old identity, even once, empowers us to practice this re-conditioning again and again.
The Neuroscience of Reconditioning Old Identities
When we deeply believe any idea about ourselves, we can become so closely identified with that belief that we don’t even see it as a construct: we see it as an integral part of our nature, not a choice or pattern that was learned and can be unlearned. Sometimes a pattern is established so early that it gets encoded only in implicit memory; we don’t even know we believe it. That view of our self has become invisible to us.
When we create new experiences that evoke a new perspective of ourselves and then pair that new view of ourselves with an old one, as Karen did, and as we continue to create new experiences that evoke and reinforce the new view, the neural encoding of both the old view and the new view repeatedly falls apart and reconsolidates. Over time, the new view completely re-wires the old. Eventually we may even have trouble remembering the old view of ourselves, or remembering the power that identity once had in determining our behavior.
The practice of separating from old identities, dismantling the neural encoding that underlies them, is crucial for creating more flexibility in our responses. We can identify so strongly with old, less resilient coping strategies that relinquishing them feels like losing our self. We need to re-condition or re-wire the old so that we can shift to a more empowered, more resilient sense of self. That shift generates the neural flexibility we need to create more options of response.
The psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget distinguished between assimilation — adding new experiences to an old construct of ourselves without disturbing the construct and accommodation – rewiring the circuitry so that we dismantle the original construct. What we’re attempting here is accommodation through reconditioning. This process is not always comfortable; we often don’t bother to try it until some pain or anguish compels us to. Rachel Naomi Remen testifies to this truth:
Crisis, suffering, loss, the unexpected encounter with the unknown — all of this has the potential to initiate a shift in perspective. A way of seeing the familiar with new eyes, a way of seeing the self in a completely new way. The experience that I have in watching people with cancer is that the more overwhelmed someone is at the beginning, the more profound the transformation that they undergo. There’s a moment when the individual steps away from the former life and the former identity and is completely out of control and completely surrenders, and then is reborn with a larger, expanded identity.
The more practiced and competent we become at using our tools and resources to transform our sense of our self through re-conditioning, the more courageously we can tolerate the “growing pains” of this process of brain change and re-wiring for resilience.
Adapted from Chapter 17, Shifting Gears: Modifying Our Patterns of Response in Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being by Linda Graham, MFT. (New World Library, April 2013)