Book Review: You are Not Your Brain

George developed OCD in college. He recounts: “I started getting these weird thoughts. I remember the first one: If I did not put something a certain way, someone in my family would die.” As time went on,

he had a growing sense that the… brain messages were false and that the feared outcomes wouldn’t come true, but he couldn’t resist the impulses to check or arrange.

Steve had a reputation for being the “answer man” at his company. Over time, he came to feel that nobody ever solved anything for themselves. He lost respect for their neediness and felt overwhelmed. When he went home, his family’s demands began to seem like more neediness. One relaxing drink became two became, eventually, full-fledged alcoholism.

Yet both, according to the authors of You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life, were able to overcome these formidable challenges by applying the Four Steps contained in the book.

Brain plasticity – the ability of the brain to form new connections and create new patterns of behavior – is something of a hot subject right now, but the articles I’ve seen about it usually seem to take a cheerleading, big-picture “You can change for the better!” approach. This book delves into how the brain can be changed, and how, if you aren’t paying attention, the changes may not always be positive, before laying out four steps for consciously and positively changing the brain.

Neuroplasticity is operating all the time, which means that if you repeatedly engage in the same behaviors (even something as benign as checking your email several times a day), neuroplasticity will designate that action as the preferred one, regardless of the effect of that behavior on you or your life. In a very real way, the actions you perform now and how you focus your attention have downstream effects on how your brain is wired and how you will automatically respond to deceptive brain messages and events in the future.

In spite of the somewhat new-agey terminology the authors use (deceptive brain messages; Wise Advocate; true self), the book seems solid in its science and reasoning and it has helped me to understand several things that previously eluded me.

For instance, I had heard before that “should” and “should not” are unhealthy words to use to yourself unless you are actually discussing a moral imperative (“I should not lie” is fine; “I should do the laundry/work harder/be a better person” is not), but could not accept this. The book helped me see it more accurately. This passage is about the first few weeks post-stroke for a woman who was determined to walk again even though her doctors said she never would:

When she could not achieve what she wanted, Connie’s deceptive brain message swooped in and told her she should be able to do it – thereby implying that something was wrong with her. This caused the uncomfortable sensations of anger and frustration to rise in Connie – negative sensations that she wanted to be free from immediately. Her desire for relief was high and her expectation of achieving her goal, which had switched from completing the therapy exercise to feeling better immediately, was low. As long as she maintained the unrealistic expectation to get rid of those uncomfortable sensations and feel better, she was stuck and would feel worse. Instead, when she called the sensations what they were – anger and frustration – she was able to switch gears and focus her attention on a realistic expectation, such as completing the therapy exercise one more time for the day or switching to another exercise that was similar but easier for her to complete.

After that, I understood why I had always had two different mindsets about myself, especially professionally. On the one hand I received a great deal of praise and trust, and I knew I was good. Yet I was plagued by a constant sense of failure: I should have been able to take on another project, I should have foreseen that snag, I should have been able to convince the entire company of the importance of involving Marketing early.

Whether the Four Steps will totally eradicate that remains to be seen – full disclosure: I have not completed the program yet – but just seeing the “should’s” for what they are has brought a measure of peace.

In short, I would recommend this book for anyone who has a habit they would like to break (procrastination included!) or an unhappy thought-pattern. It can’t hurt, and putting effort into change is a good indicator that change will happen.

Advertisements

Throwback Thursday: Knowledge of Good and Evil

When I made the goal of posting once per month this year, part of the intention was to blow through some of the backlog of abandoned post ideas. Accordingly, a few months ago I read through the over 50 pieces sitting in the Blog folder. A majority were fragmentary, things I didn’t have any really developed thoughts about at the time and which, on review, I still don’t have much to say about; those were discarded. A handful were worthy of further development. And one or two were more or less completed but, for whatever reason, never quite satisfactory and never posted.

This is one of them.

It’s a bit odd to reread something I had no memory of and which is completely, absolutely out of date. Nearly 6 years after writing it, neither of the relationships written about in it still exist, or exist in the form written about. The questions asked are not ones I would ask now. Or rather – it is not the way I would ask them. And I think that is progress, which is about the only reason I’m mustering the courage to toss this out into the world at last. Continue reading “Throwback Thursday: Knowledge of Good and Evil”

Never a Good Time

The book club I’m part of has one very convenient feature: two of our members are Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library librarians. They label and check out our books for us, and when book club is over, they gather them up and return them. So last month, when it happened that neither librarian could attend, we all looked at each other blankly and asked ourselves, “How will the books get back?” Lisa volunteered to take them.

There was no particular reason that Lisa should have been the one to do it. Continue reading “Never a Good Time”

You Are = You Do = Love (or not)

In January I read an article titled “6 Harsh Truths to Make You a Better Person”. It’s written in a style that is deliberately confrontational and provocative, but that’s because it’s meant to jolt readers off their butts and get them to do something. If you can’t get past the tone to the underlying truth of the article, go sit in your room for a couple of years and then try it again when you’re ready. I’ve read it about four times since I discovered it. Continue reading “You Are = You Do = Love (or not)”

Going to Your Brother, Again

My husband and I both have a particular small failing, and not so long ago we received a complaint about it. We could see that the relationship with this person had suffered because of this failing, and we felt bad. “Why didn’t you tell us before?” we wailed.

“I did,” was the devastating response. Continue reading “Going to Your Brother, Again”

One Change at a Time? Not so Fast.

Among those in the business of telling you how to change your life, it is universally contended that the best method is to choose the most important change you can make, make it, and then move on to the next one. Continue reading “One Change at a Time? Not so Fast.”

Failing v. Falling Short

The company I worked for hired a new Executive Vice President (EVP) of Sales & Marketing and I lost the sometimes enjoyable position of being the only person in the company who knew anything about marketing, and therefore the one whose recommendations about what we should do got followed most of the time.

Within the first two weeks of his arrival he sat me down and went through the current state of our marketing. Had I done this? What about that? Had we ever considered such-and-such? None of this list, which went on for about 15 minutes, was something I hadn’t thought of, but the answer to most of these questions was “No, we haven’t gotten to that yet.” The state of our marketing sounded dreadful even to me and, to be honest, I’d thought it was dreadful the whole 16 months I “ran the department.”

I went home and cried and announced, “I failed!” Continue reading “Failing v. Falling Short”

The Possible

A couple of weeks ago I discovered Bea Johnson and her zero-waste home. Particularly compelling was the part of the video that showed how much trash her family of four had accumulated over four months – a literal handful.

6 months of trash

I didn’t know that was possible. Continue reading “The Possible”

Complaining for Peace

Here’s a thought that’s going to sound very strange: The way to have harmony with others is not to reason ourselves out of being offended.

I know, it sounds crazy, right? Somebody does something to annoy you and it’s so natural to think, “It’s not worth making a fuss about such a small thing, so I’ll be the bigger person and will just put up with it.” But you put up with it for years and suddenly when you do mention it, out it pours in a heated tone nothing like what you intended, and now it is a fuss.

It’s tempting, too, to praise ourselves for patience. “I didn’t complain for so long!” But what has that actually gained?

And how often have we refrained from saying the difficult thing to someone about their own behavior because we’re afraid of offending them? It’s right to be concerned about their feelings, of course. But is it right to be so concerned about their immediate feelings that we doom them to stay in patterns that may well hold them back in life, or lead to less happiness in the long term?

It’s never pleasant to hear criticism of my behavior, but it is a greater favor to me to force me to hear it than to say years later, “I have noticed this bad trait you have for a long time, but haven’t given you the chance to do anything about it.” Does more peace result from grudgingly putting up with, say, a harsh and condescending tone, or from helping the person see and change it?

Granted, there are some – perhaps many – people who don’t accept this reasoning and don’t allow others to offer them correction. But they’re not doing themselves any favors. Everyone has at least one failing. Right? Anybody disagree with that? I didn’t think so. Here’s another poll: anybody happy that they have flaws? Anybody not want to be the best person they can be? Yeah, there are a few, like my old boss who told me he’d “earned the right to be a jerk.” But most people want to think of themselves as good people, rational people capable of acting in their own best interests. Isn’t it in your best interests to hear and consider what others have to say about you?

And it’s true, not every criticism is accurate. But most have a grain of truth that can be used. For instance, an acquaintance recently told someone something about me which, when repeated to any number of people who actually know me, was greeted by shouts of laughter and the comment, “You are the last person who would do that.” But on reflection, I could see why someone who didn’t know me would think that, and consider whether some aspects of my behavior could be improved.

As the sage says, “If one man calls you a fool, ignore it. If a second man calls you a fool, consider it. If a third man calls you a fool, believe it.” So if you are someone who doesn’t like to listen to criticism, consider: you can ignore it! But listen, so you’ll know if you hear the same thing again.

A final thought for those special readers who really don’t have any failings: please take pity on those of us who do. Most people are afraid of offering even the gentlest criticism because of the large minority (majority?) who don’t take it well. That is the direct cause of Well-it’s-not-worth-making-a-fuss syndrome. So the next time someone approaches you with an obviously wrong criticism, please, listen calmly. Hear them out. You’re still free to disagree. But respect the courage it took to approach you – even if you wish they hadn’t. That way, those of us who actually view constructive criticism as an act of friendship can have more friends – and maybe one day we’ll be as perfect as you.

2,400

The original idea when I picked the theme for this blog was to tell stories of situations that presented a choice between the easy and the valuable, along with the decision I made, in hopes that knowing I would have to tattle on myself would keep me accountable in the moment. It’s an idea that’s much harder to carry out than anticipated, because I don’t always wish to share those stories. Sometimes they are genuinely too personal. Sometimes they involve other people, some of whom might be identifiable. But I still like the idea, and with attention – which after all was the whole point, to live attentively – I think I should be able to find one situation in the space of each week that I’d be willing to share. And it’s something I probably should do.

This is the story of the past week: I spent most of my time in a room filled with about 320 people, and as much as possible, I avoided the 300 people I didn’t know and talked only to the 20 I did. Every day I knew I should walk up to at least one new person and introduce myself, and on no day did I actually do so. It’s not to say I didn’t meet anyone new, but I think I can say that it was never through an effort on my part.

There are plenty of reasons for why that was, but the fact remains: I had 2,400 chances to succeed (300 people x 8 days) – and I didn’t take any of them. If I’d thought of it in those terms at the time, I certainly would have – it would have seemed such a small thing to do the right thing .04% of the time! Lesson: There are so many opportunities to grow, and if you’re not paying attention, it’s so easy to miss the fact that you’re missing them. Also, you can grow by making comparatively small efforts.