It amazes me that despite the complexities of the English language, most people use it in a very specific way. We do not take advantage of the many words we can use to describe things, which I suppose isn’t that big a deal. In the past few weeks I have been trying something new, per the instructions of a book I am reading: Super Brain.
I’ve mentioned this post a few times before, and I will mention it again. My boyfriend suggested that I read it, because it is a real eye-opener in terms of how the brain and mind work together, and how powerful the mind can be. This book is written by two brilliant men, and it’s an easy read. It’s not the least bit dry, but it is packed with information that will make your head – and your mind – spin. I find that I can only work through twenty pages at a time, because it gives me so much to consider. Although this book can be extraordinarily helpful, it is not what I would call a “self-help” book.
Anyway, to the point. One of the things that Super Brain talks about is neural pathways. Every time you do something, you create a pathway in your brain. Think of it like a walk in the woods. At first, there is nothing there, just a lot of trees and overgrown shrubbery. You have to work your way through, maybe taking a machete with you along the way to make a path. Still, after only one walk, there is little evidence that you were there. By contrast, walking the same path over and over and over again will result in a worn-down strip on the ground and the vegetation makes way for the constant walking. This is evident when you walk in the woods… you can see the paths that others have taken so many times.
In your brain, neural pathways are electrical signals that are sent from one place to another. Every time you do the same thing over and over again, the neural pathways get stronger and stronger, just like in the woods. This is where our personalities come from, how we react to things, what we think, how we feel, etc.
The mind, however, is in control of the things our brain does. We are not at the mercy of our brains – the brain is a functional organ that we are in charge of. Sure, there are many automatic processes that go on without even thinking about it – homeostasis at work – but the majority of brain function we can control. We, as a culture, or perhaps a species, do not look at it this way. Our lives would be greatly improved if we recognized that our minds control our brains.
Although I am only a third of the way through the book, I want to address something specific that has really helped me. I have used this method in my life for the past few weeks and it is already making a difference in how I feel. Feel being the key word – I want to talk about emotions.
As a culture, we are used to saying the following things: I am happy, I am sad, I am angry, I am frustrated, I am scared, I am excited. These all tumble out of our mouths as a part of our speech. Back to my original thought – the English language is so complex, and yet we bypass more important words and get right to the point – when someone asks you how you are, you immediately respond with “I am”.
The problem with this mentality is that there is something very powerful going on in the background when we say the words “I am”. We are immediately identifying with whatever comes next – we are inadvertently defining ourselves. This is fine if we are to say: I am Caucasian or I am a female. I am those things. It is unlikely that my race or sexual orientation will change. But, to say I am sad, that is another kind of labeling that is inaccurate.
When it comes to feelings, we know that we feel the following emotions: sadness, anger, anxiety, depression, happiness, frustrations, fear, and excitement. When someone asks us how we are, we know what we feel, but we say “I am” instead of “I feel”. This is just a shortcut, and in our language the other person understands what we mean, but our brain responds differently. On the inside, a neural pathway is being created that identifies with something as if that is what we are as opposed to what we feel.
In Super Brain, the authors talk about how just saying the words aloud “I am” versus “I feel” affect us. It then becomes part of who we are, rather than a temporary emotion. Their advice is to use “I feel” in place of “I am” so that the brain does not create a sense of permanency with the emotion. This piqued my interest, so I figured I would give it a shot. I took the advice of the book, and for the past few weeks I have been striving to say “I feel” in relation to emotion. It is not easy – I am conditioned to speak in a certain way and I’ve been speaking that way for so long that it’s a hard habit to change. That neural pathway is very strong.
But, I did notice something. Perhaps not the first few times – the first few times I felt silly because people just don’t talk that way – but after a while this is what happened:
I would feel an emotion. I would say, out loud, how I felt. I feel angry. I feel sad. I feel frustrated. I feel anxious. I feel happy. I feel excited. I feel nervous. Immediately after those words were in the air, I recognized that the feeling is a feeling. This greatly reduced the power of the emotion. I felt a sense of detachment towards it. This has been true especially with negative emotions. Perhaps that it because they are more powerful, or perhaps it is because to me they are more powerful. As a general rule, my feelings and emotions are like a runaway train inside my head and heart and I have a hard time feeling in control. In this way, by saying that they are feelings in three short words, I take back control over them.
Now, when I am angry, all I have to do is say “I feel angry” and the feeling lessens immediately. To say I am angry is to also say I am anger, and that is how the brain interprets what the mind says. I am not anger, anger is an emotion, not a state of being, and whereas before I would feel angry for a long time or not know what to do, now I simply state that it is a feeling and it has less power inside my head.
I don’t believe that this is just a “me” issue, I think that all people can benefit from saying how they feel as opposed to what they are. I am sure you don’t mean to say: I am anger, I am frustration, I am sadness, I am depression, I am happiness, I am anxiety, or I am excitement. You mean to say how you feel, and I can infer that in our speech. Unfortunately, your brain is not that smart. Your brain does not possess intuition, creativity, emotion, and inspiration. Those things come from your mind. Your brain is merely an organ that performs all kinds of functions, and you can control it through thought. Saying things aloud, and exhibiting certain kinds of behavior, train your brain to respond in a certain way. Parts of your brain will (metaphorically) atrophy if they are not used. The parts that you use the most will be the strongest, just like with muscles. It is a muscle, and a tool, and you will benefit from taking advantage of this amazing tool you have.
The best thing about “I feel” versus “I am” is that once you use your mind to take control of how your brain functions in this way, you become self-aware about other things. Things that previously seemed out of your control – because you are just “wired that way” – now seem in control.
A quick (ha-ha) story – last week I was in the attic moving some boxes around. I was anxious because I don’t like the attic. It’s a cramped space, and I am claustrophobic. The ceiling is low and has intimidating roof nails poking out of it. If I stood up quickly, one of these nails would impale my head and I would certainly die. There is a giant hole in the floor where I just entered, that I could potentially fall through to my death. There are parts of the attic floor that are only insulation (instead of plywood) and there is no support, and if I fell into one of those I would fall through the ceiling, to my certain death. I was navigating the attic, in a crouched position in the dim light, becoming more and more agitated about my circumstances.
(Bonus points if you noticed, in this story, the presence of “I am” versus “I feel”)
Suddenly, I remembered Super Brain and the I feel versus I am. I said out loud, to myself, the following: I feel anxious right now. I am worried because of the hole in the floor, and the nails above my head, and the insulation with nothing to protect me from falling through the ceiling of the next room. But, I am not a stupid person. I am not going to stand suddenly and impale my head on a nail, I am not going to fall through the hole in the floor where I just came up, and I am not going to fall through the ceiling. I am being cautious and I am paying attention, and I am not going to die. I am not going to get hurt. I am okay.
Immediately, the anxiety started to ebb away. It was resistant at first, because I am challenging a neural pathway that is strong and thriving – and that I created. But, repeating this mantra created a new neural pathway – one that did not have to feel anxiety because I became self-aware. Once I became self-aware, I could complete my task without my emotions turning into a runaway train because I called them out for what they were – simply feelings that I could control.
I could give you a dozen stories about how this method has helped me. I am sure that most people are self-aware, and they already know how to understand where emotions come from, but I encourage you to take this additional step by saying how you feel rather than what you are. I think you will be surprised at how much better you feel after you call them feelings rather than stating your identity – because that is what your brain thinks you are doing even if you don’t mean to. With the brain, you have to be specific, and it will respond in kind.
In other words, you can do it if you put your mind to it. =)