I know the exact moment I decided to become a therapist. I was eleven years old. For a long time, my life had felt fraught with anxiety, a temper, and an expectation of impending doom. There had been days when I refused to go to school. I wanted to stay home to protect my mom, because there wasn’t much trouble when I was there. I had been taken to see Dr. Moe, the guidance counselor, a lot. Those meetings were excruciating. Defiantly, I refused to speak, and I managed to survive elementary school in stoic silence. Because I had a hard time focusing, I was kept back in math.
In the middle of the sixth grade, my parents had split up and my dad finally left town. I was promoted to a high-level math class, which was no small achievement and reflected how much better I was feeling about life. It was the tentative budding of self-confidence. On the first day of my new class, Mrs. Dulfer was handing out papers with a scowl on her face. As she walked along the rows of desks, I realized she was handing out a test and I started panicking. Timidly, I raised my hand.
Mrs. Dulfer glared at me, “What is it that you need?”
“Um, do I have to take this test? I haven’t been in this class before,” I whispered.
Then she said, “What did you say, dearie? I can’t hear you.”
I raised my hand even higher, courageously squeaking out, “I don’t know what’s on this test. Do I have to take it today?” Once again, she implored me to repeat myself. I did. Then Mrs. Dulfer waddled over to me, grabbed the top of my hair, and pulled me straight up. Stretched to my tippy toes, I watched her mouth hiss at me:
“Don’t you ever raise your voice to me again.”
Dangling by the hair, as much as my scalp burned, the red-hot shame I felt in front of the class was infinitely worse. She let go and, as soon as I found my footing, I ran out of the room and down the hallway for refuge with Dr. Moe. His office door was open, so I rushed in and collapsed on the chair in front of him. He asked, “What’s the matter?”
With tears streaming down my cheeks, rubbing my scalp, and nearly hyperventilating, I sputtered out more words than I had ever spoken to him at once. I told Dr. Moe what happened.
There was a long, considered pause. Then Dr. Moe looked at me and said, “Tara, are you sure you didn’t raise your voice?”
WHAT? My heart stopped. Could it be that Dr. Moe wasn’t on my side after all? I realized, then and there, that every adult had failed me in some way. I felt profoundly misunderstood. I glared at Dr. Moe and I thought to myself, I am going to help kids like me and actually listen to them. I am going to do a better job than you!
Cultivating Mindful Compassion
Failures of empathy occur frequently. Most of the time they are unintentional or accidental—little slights or simple misunderstandings. Other times they can be more severe: outright discrimination or blatant mistreatment. That moment with Dr. Moe is etched into my memory, especially because of the mixed emotions and the flurry of thoughts that crashed together within me. “Our emotions are the sources of our most meaningful experiences in life, but they can also lie at the root of our deepest problems,” write psychologist Paul Gilbert and former monk Choden. In sixth grade, what I didn’t realize was that I had tapped a compassionate motive, a desire to alleviate suffering paired with an inkling that I could do something about it.
A Clash of Minds
Mindful compassion “is about recognizing the benefits for deliberately harnessing our caring motives as a way to organize our mind,” write Gilbert and Choden. That’s why understanding how your emotional brain works is essential. When you get angry or upset at someone or something, or beat yourself up with self-doubt, you may actually be of two minds and not even know it. An internal conflict may arise. Is there something wrong with me or with this situation? Am I open to a new adventure or do I play it safe? Am I being selfish or nurturing of myself? Do I accept or reject his or her affection? Am I being kind or cruel if I stick to my boundaries? These kinds of mental conflicts can help you understand why you get caught up in unkind mindsets, manners, or misdeeds.
Paul Gilbert attributes the paradoxes you can experience in your own mind to the encounter of what he calls the “old brain/mind” and the “new brain/mind.” Your “old brain/mind”—which we’ve been exploring in the limbic system—is the “base model” of human emotional regulation and hasn’t changed much over millennia. Its job is to serve your basic survival instincts as soon as possible and to seek out pleasure and comfort. It is speedy and reactive. Gilbert describes the three main systems operating within it:
• A threat and self-protection system that senses threats quickly and activates the fight-flight-freeze-faint response in your limbic system. This is like your home surveillance system.
• An incentive and resource-seeking system that propels you to seek pleasure, consume, play, and mate. It’s like an Energizer bunny scurrying about, looking for fun.
• A soothing and contentment system that seeks balance, rest, and connection, and is strongly linked to affection, bonding, caregiving, kindness, and compassion. This is the care and connect system described earlier, and it is a bit slower to come on line, but when it does, it gives you a sense of overall well-being—like a baby’s snuggly or a rocking chair.
Your “new brain/mind” developed later in human evolution. It’s really smart. The newer model is more complex and allows you to work things through, compare, contemplate, mull things over, create, innovate, imagine, seek knowledge, strive for goals, and develop an identity. This allows for quick learning, exchanging information from among groups, and passing on these adaptive genes to future generations. Importantly, this sophisticated upgrade allows you to be aware that you exist and have a sense of self. Thanks to your “new brain/mind,” you can be aware of your awareness, unlike any other animal, and observe your own mind. This is, of course, both a blessing and a curse.
When your “new brain/mind” is pulled by the fears and passions of the “old brain/ mind,” you can get stuck in unkind behaviors. This is the unfortunate bug in the system, so to speak. Psychologist Rick Hanson calls this a negativity bias, a quirky inclination to scan for danger, to interpret things in unhelpful or harmful ways, and to remember unpleasant events. This leads to habits like rumination, engaging in negative social comparison, doing harmful things, and fixating on unhelpful or undesirable thoughts, worries, memories, and situations. As Hanson likes to say, your brain is more likely to stick to negative events like Velcro, while it lets positive events slide off like Teflon. A root of most human misfortunes and calamities can be linked to the primitive drives to survive and seek pleasure over pain as well as to the fear-based, emotional reactions that get provoked when faced with threats.
It’s not that the base-model brain is bad and the new version is good. You need them both for your mind to interpret the world. But there are competing needs and desires at play. In modern life, these can manifest as:
• An internal conflict: “I want to feel close to you, but I’m afraid you’ll abandon me, so I’m breaking up with you.”
• An inner critic who wreaks havoc on your self-esteem: “I’m not good enough, so I won’t bother applying for the job.”
• Engaging in unhealthy habits: “I know I need to watch my blood sugar, but just one cookie won’t hurt.”
• Choosing harmful behaviors to cope with fear, anxiety, or shame: “I’ll have another drink, since no one will notice if I’m home late.”
When you understand how your brain’s old and new models can work together or in opposition, you realize that you have more control over your experience than you previously thought. You can be intentional about life. What’s more, our human capacities to read each other and be curious about the experiences of others mean you can be intentionally compassionate. In the words of Gilbert and Choden, “We have the ability to empathize and imagine what it’s like to be another person; so the smart human qualities of our minds—and they are special—can be put at the service of either harming other people or helping them.” Of course, this also applies to how we treat ourselves.
KINDNESS IN PRACTICE: Bringing Clarity to a Headspin
You can easily get caught in a headspin, a never-ending loop of negativity, because the competing needs of your older and newer brain models can really trip things up in your mind. For now, begin to notice how this works in your experience. Reflect on how your mind can at times be your greatest advocate and at others be your worst enemy. You can’t help but react in one way or another to your inner and outer worlds. Without judgment or scrutiny, journal responses to the following questions:
When do you feel critical of yourself? Of others?
Sample responses: When I can’t accomplish my to-do list. When I struggle to pay the bills. When my son does something before thinking of the consequences for the family. When I watch the news.
When do you feel kind toward yourself? Toward others?
Sample responses: When I am knitting a sweater for someone. When I remember how much work it took to get where I am in life. When my kids do something nice for a neighbor. When I read about something good a nonprofit organization is doing.
Six years after my fateful math class, Dr. Moe was transferred to the high school guidance office. He wrote me a college recommendation letter. I was shocked when I read it. He said he was impressed by what a hardworking and kind person I was, and that after knowing me for many years, he was confident I could overcome whatever obstacles came my way. He said I would succeed at whatever I put my mind and effort into doing. Surely, he could have said that about anyone. But he was right about me. Because the same mind that experienced red-hot shame, the devastation of being misunderstood, and fury that another person had failed me, turned toward helping others. It inspired me to become a compassionate therapist—and nothing got in my way.
In the same way, you can notice the negativity bias in you and resist it. You can direct that energy into a new resolve: to be kinder than those who hurt you, to support those who are struggling as you once did, and to give others the things you once desired. Because while your mind may feel messy, conflicted, uncertain, and full of paradoxical urges, you can simply be still, observe, and then choose a kinder response.
REFLECTION: When I notice paradoxes of mind and heart, I am more intentional about how I respond. I choose to cultivate positive and compassionate experiences.
Reprinted with permission: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Copyright © 2018 Tara Cousineau