Have you ever been driving somewhere familiar and realized that once you arrived, you had spaced out part of the trip? As if your mind knew where it was going, and you didn’t have to pay attention.
Or, if you’re like me, you start out going somewhere and your brain has another idea of where you’re supposed to end up and you miss your turn, as if it had a better idea. I call it my alter ego; my teens call it getting old.
Either way, our brains create neural pathways that keep us from having to think about how to do things- like each time you eat you don’t have to think about how to swallow.
In addition to the neural pathways that keep us from having to relearn everything we do, our bodies also hold onto the emotional states created by our experiences. It’s fun to remember the experiences that yielded a positive emotional state. Think your first kiss, a sunset over the ocean, your favorite ice cream.
On the other hand, it’s less than thrilling to continually have flashbacks of experiences that evoke fear or disappointment. Like the time you nearly fell off a ladder, lost your first pet, were locked into a closet by your older brother, or lost half your savings when the market crashed.
You remember those palatably, don’t you? You can almost taste the emotion?
How You Store A Memory Affects Your Happiness
Stop for a minute and think about what you’ve experienced in the last hour. What images, sensations, thoughts and emotions cascaded through your brain without your awareness? How conscious are you of the mega-memories that have just streamed through your brain? Your perceptions of those memories also affect how you react to the world.
Most of us are nearly unconscious when it comes to realizing how swiftly our synapse-dendrite race track keeps us stuck thinking about life in a particular way. Had a bad experience with Chinese food once? Nope, not eating that again. Been burned by relationships at work? You’re likely to stay away from the social life in the lunch room.
The brain is hardwired to reproduce common neural connections, or what “fires together, wires together”. It’s why it’s so hard to change your thought patterns or habits- your brain impulses literally don’t want to jump the tracks.
Riso & Hudson note in the Wisdom of the Enneagram that
when “our mind is full of opinions and old thoughts it has no internal space for a fresh impression of the real world around us. We learn nothing new.”
All too often, especially in mid-life, we’ve made up our minds about so many things that there is little room to negotiate the trajectory of our ending. And that’s too bad if your beginning-middle-end story isn’t exactly what you’d hoped for.
When you think about your life as a “fixed story”, you are more likely to suffer from the events of your past, rather than recognize some unexpected, and beneficial, outcome.
Pema Chodron, notable Buddhist author and teacher, tells us in “Comfortable with Uncertainty” that:
“…we habitually string our thoughts together into a story that tricks us into believing that our identity, our happiness, our pain, and our problems are all solid and separate entities. “
So the fixed nature of your perceptions lead you to think your ending is written in stone.
Rewiring Your Story Groove
However, you can “undo” the neural ruts in your brain the same way you created them- by learning to associate different meaning to events of your life. If you deliberately create an alternate meaning for events of your past that may have had some “negative” emotion associated with it, you can actually rewire your brain to form a different groove. A bad taste becomes something to savor.
Neuroscientist Eric Thompson describes how the thalamus mediates your sense of what is and isn’t real, and can transmit different sensations or emotions when you reprogram your brain. That’s all good, but how about if what’s really bugging you is stuff that happened long time ago and you just can’t get past it?
If the stress of a particular memory always seems to haunt you, you can undo the memory by “living it backwards” as Martha Beck encourages. Try the following exercise to create a different groove for your past memory.
- Name 3 of the BEST THINGS in your life and write them down.
- Choose the ONE that is your ultimate BEST. Call that your FAVORITE THING. Circle it.
- Think about how that FAVORITE THING came to be. Recall a positive turn of events that enabled you to have that FAVORITE THING in your life. For instance, if you have a loving partner, recall how you initially met. Maybe you were introduced by a friend, or found each other in a concert crowd. If your FAVORITE THING was a vacation to that island paradise you’vd dreamed about, maybe you received a hefty bonus that allowed you to take the trip. Think of the event that was unusually unique and positive for you.
- Now name that positive turn of events the PROXIMAL HAPPY EVENT that led to the FAVORITE THING.
- Next, think of another positive event that led to your PROXIMAL HAPPY EVENT. Let’s say your FAVORITE THING is your closest companion and dog named Waldo, and the PROXIMAL HAPPY EVENT was a friend who moved to the city and couldn’t take a dog so gave it to you. Perhaps the next closest Happy Event is that you bought a house with a big backyard and a pet door that allowed you to take the dog. So that Happy Event is your NEXT CLOSEST HAPPY EVENT. You get the idea- we’re working your life story backwards here.
- What is the Next Happy Event in this chain? Maybe you had just found a great job that pays enough to buy that house with the yard and pet door that enabled you to accept Waldo from your friend.
It sounds like you’re on a roll with all these happy events leading up to the dog. However, some of the events leading up to your happiest life moments won’t be labeled as happy. Usually there’s a step in there that you might even call bad luck, injustice, mistreatment, abuse or neglect. We all have it, some part of our story that felt disappointing and keeps us stuck.
- Name a “bad luck event” that eventually led to your FAVORITE THING. You may have several other Happy Events in there, but more likely than not you’ve also got a less than stellar event that put you on this path. Perhaps you were fired from your job. Or you lost your lease. Sometimes there’s several events that you’d label as bad or sad that happen all at once. Maybe you ended up moving because your girlfriend dumped you. Seriously, sometimes they cluster.
- Think about how you usually think about that Bad Luck Event? What emotions do you typically associate with getting fired from your job, losing your home, or your mate leaving you? It’s probably an emotion that leaves you feeling pretty morose, right?
- Now, tell the story differently. Instead of saying “that awful year when a bad thing plus another bad thing led to a good thing….”, tell the story about:
“I was meant to have this dog Waldo. I can’t imagine my life without him. Therefore, those bad things that happened led to the good things, and led to my life with Waldo.”
- Now seriously, tell that story again, and again, until you really get that that is how life works. One event at a time, neither good nor bad, just is.
It’s useful to recognize your “story” as something you create, and ultimately surrender to the inevitable ebb and flow of life.
And then, you can retell the stories so that they all have happy endings.
Or, as Pema Chodron notes,
“…in fact, like thoughts, all these constructs are constantly changing. Each situation, each thought, each word, each feeling, is just a passing memory.”
And that, friends, is how Stella got her groove back.
If you’re looking to create a new groove to get unstuck from emotional pain of your past, contact me for a Free Discovery Consult. We can recreate the story to that got you here, and help you find your Favorite Things.
Holly Woods, Ph.D. uses Integral Coaching and Somatic Experiencing to help adults who are weighed down by stress or trauma, and who want to be free of the overwhelm so they can find a life full of joy and purpose. Sign up on the Right or Click Here to receive a Free Report and to receive my weekly newsletter. Please forward to a friend if you liked this post!
Great article, Holly! I love what you are bringing through for the world! Thank you!!!