running clawfoot tub with light

I have spent much time thinking about the difficulties involved in the journey from head to heart.

So much of therapy – most therapy – is built around deconstructing thinking that no longer serves us. I know this because I have been in therapy for almost two decades, and can therefore challenge almost any negative thought that I have with the “correct” thought; the one that would serve me better, if only it came to me naturally, or if I could internalize it. And yet this oh-so-familiar practice, which is also repeated in self-help books and personal development writing, seldom speaks of bringing such beliefs down from the intellectual mind to the depths of our (often) dark hearts. To know that I am a valuable human being, for example, is far easier to hold in my head than to internalize.

I doubt that I am the only one who feels this way. I’ve spoken to others who feel guilty because they continue to believe the “wrong” things. I know that I am not the only one who cannot hold a compliment and bring it to the marrow of my bones. Yes, I can talk about my accomplishments, and I can even tell you about good works and kind things said, but to find the path that allows me to believe in these things in the way that I believe in the existence of gravity is a journey that I am still traveling.

And this is why an article sent to me by a dear friend today, published in The Atlantic, spoke to me so clearly. As someone with a background in cognitive neuroscience, who once worked in an fMRI lab, and who can still remember which view of the brain is the axial view, How to Build a Happier Brain did something for me that few others have: it provided me with something more than the doctrine of Positive Thinking.

“Taking in the good” is a central theme of Dr. Rick Hanson’s book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. I haven’t read the book yet, but I fully intend to. Here are some quotes from The Atlantic’s piece that particularly struck me (bolds mine):

  • “…Repeated patterns of mental activity build neural structure. This process occurs through a lot of different mechanisms, including sensitizing existing synapses and building new synapses, as well as bringing more blood to busy regions. The problem is that the brain is very good at building brain structure from negative experiences. We learn immediately from pain—you know, ‘once burned, twice shy.’ Unfortunately, the brain is relatively poor at turning positive experiences into emotional learning neural structure.”
  • “…Positive thinking by definition is conceptual and generally verbal. And most conceptual or verbal material doesn’t have a lot of impact on how we actually feel or function over the course of the day. I know a lot of people who have this kind of positive, look on the bright side yappity yap, but deep down they’re very frightened, angry, sad, disappointed, hurt, or lonely. It hasn’t sunk in.”
  • “For me, one of the takeaways from [research about the Stone Age brain, held in context with modern life] is to repeatedly internalize the sense of having our three core needs met: safety, satisfaction, and connection. By repeatedly internalizing that self-sense, we essentially grow the neural substrates of experiencing that those needs are met, even as we deal with challenges, so that we become increasingly able to manage threats or losses or rejections without tipping into the red zone.”

Does this issue speak to you, too? How have you dealt with it? Is there anything that you’ve found to be helpful in bringing, as I’ve described it, positive thoughts from head to heart?