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. =)
That is fantastic. What is truly great about what you’re doing is that you have recognized a way to cope with your strong emotions by using your will-power. So many people these days feel as though they cannot cope without medication. I think it is far easier to prescribe medication for emotional distress issues than it is to actually push someone to make a change in their behaviors, and so mental health and emotional issues are over-medicated.
One thing that I would argue against, though, is that there are cases where we are not in control over our brains as it pertains to chemical imbalances and brain malfunctions. People with schizophrenia cannot make their brains stop hearing the voices, or stop seeing things that aren’t really there. Even the most strong-willed, self-aware schizophrenic cannot stop the symptoms, but they can manage their responses without medications.
But that’s only for those whose symptoms are in the mild to moderate range. Those with severe psychosis cannot function without medication, because their brains malfunction so profoundly when unmedicated. Perhaps the authors of Super Brain are only speaking to audiences who do not suffer from mental illness?
But for those who do not struggle from severe chemical imbalances and mental health problems, yes, I would agree that we have much more control over ourselves than many people would like to admit.
Those who say “well this is how I am, and there’s nothing that I can do about it,” fall into two categories. Either they do not realize that they CAN in fact control themselves (either through ignorance or a sense of hopelessness) or they simply do not want to control themselves because changing behavioral patterns would be too difficult. It’s sad on both accounts. The former are sad because they can’t seem to find people that understand them, so they feel isolated. The latter are okay with being isolated, because they only associate themselves with people who will put up with their destructive behavior.
In either scenario, the individual is missing out on a lot of life simply because they think their emotions dictate their very existence.
Very interesting concept. I will try to do the “I feel,” thing as well. As pragmatic as I can be, you know that I am no exception to falling victim to overwhelming emotion (typically in the form of indignation, frustration, and anger).
Hello darling! Thanks for reading, as always. =) I am curious to know how it would affect the kids if you were to say “I feel” versus “I am”. They are young enough that perhaps you can teach them to identify emotions as emotions, rather than identify emotions as identity. Also, although children are smart, they function well when adults are clear. I feel angry is a temporary emotion, where as a child may interpret I am angry as part of your identity as a father. Now, that being said, I don’t have kids (yet!!) so what the hell do I know. But, I want to try this method when I have children. I want to avoid being associated with certain feelings. Although I can feel anxiety, I do not want anyone to know me as an anxious person, rather know me as the things that truly make my identity. For example, I have a temper, but I am not apt to fly off the handle any time I get angry.
I didn’t think of that. Goes to show my lack of merit as father of the year, haha. This may be especially beneficial to Mara, as she has been extremely sensitive lately. If I even look at her crossly, she starts to tear up. I don’t really know why she does this, because she knows the crying never gets her whatever it is she wants.
She’s just a little 5-year-old ball of emotions. I will give it a try, but considering she is 5, her brain may not be developed enough to make the distinction between “I feel” and “I am.” But like you said, it could be beneficial to instill this in the both of them now so when their brains DO develop to the point of self-actualization, they will already have those tools in place.
You’ll make a great mom some day =)
I can tell you why she does this. It is because you are her daddy, and little girls and their daddies have a bond miles deep. At the very core of her, she will always want to feel loved and accepted and nurtured by you. Even at the age of 24, when I have even the hint of an idea that my dad is angry with me, it makes me cry.
To a little girl, the daddy is the protector and the ultimate of everything. To her, you will always be the smartest person she knows, and the handsomest person she knows, and the best person she knows. Knowing you as well as I do, I can foresee your relationship with Mara. You will be her best friend. The person she trusts more than anyone, and the person she always runs to when she has a problem. You can encourage this relationship you have, and help it grow, by always listening to how she feels, and being the shoulder to cry on (rather than the fix-it guy). I think most men like to fix things, and most women like to talk about how they feel. The best fathers listen to their daughters and validate their feelings. As you know, women don’t want a solution sometimes. They just want a person to talk to. This causes some tension in romantic relationships, but that mentality applies to all relationships between men and women, whether it be a friendship, a couple, or the bond between a father and daughter.
Although I am not advising against using a heavy hand, because little girls should not be taught to be fragile (they can be strong!), girls need mountains of reassurance, positive attention, and support. Maybe with John you can be rough, and he will be okay with a hug and a kiss, but Mara will probably need ten times the amount of hugs and kisses to feel that way.
Valuable insight, as I am a man and I grew up with all brothers. It’s more than that, though. She’s crying a lot when she doesn’t get her way. It is probably just a phase (I hope).
On your note about men and the whole “fix-it,” thing: isn’t that the approach that you are beginning to adopt? I get the sense that at some point you recognized that it was no longer enough for you to simply just talk about your anxiety and the strong emotions you feel, but that you would rather try to get a handle on them and work out your emotional struggles.
Don’t get me wrong, I know the difference in perspectives. Women do typically hate it when a man tries to tell them how to get over whatever it is they’re feeling. “I don’t want your advice, I just want to tell you what I feel,” is usually how it goes.
Men generally don’t do this. Or if they are talking to another male friend for the sake of venting, they’re still open to suggestions (for the most part). The reason for this is that when we have a problem, we would love to simply not have the problem anymore. So we are going to do whatever we can to resolve the problem and move on with life. Because honestly, who wants to be miserable all of the time?
And this is what perplexes men when a woman comes to vent to him. She has a problem, and she’s miserable. She goes on and on about how much it sucks. So we’re sitting there thinking “well all she has to do is this and, voila!, she doesn’t have to be so miserable anymore. So why the hell doesn’t she just fix the problem and move on to being content again?” It’s not that we just like solving problems. It’s not that we’re saying you can’t solve your problems on your own.
We just see that you’re suffering, and because we care about you, we want your suffering to end. So we start offering solutions to help you end the suffering so that you can go back to being okay with life.
I am the type of person who feels like he has a very realistic grasp on how to cope with life’s various difficulties, so it is very hard for me to NOT offer advice when people come to me with their problems. As good a listener as you may have found me to be, it took considerable effort for me to hold back whenever you would vent to me, because I knew that you weren’t necessarily looking for answers. And often, I would still tell you what I thought you should do, but I would always take care to phrase it “well this is what I have done.”
It allowed me to tell you what I thought you should do, but it presented the information in a way that demonstrated that I was attempting to relate to you. That may sound deceptive, but I like to think of that tactic as just serving multiple functions. People like it when they feel like they can relate with someone, and that information allowed me to satisfy my need to “fix it.”
Jackie… I can barely muster bursts of that sort of empathy, let alone sustain it. When day in and day out my job is to “fix problems” with cars, computers, whatever… it just becomes second nature when someone talks to me about a problem they are having, I automatically assume they want me to fix it.
It is quite maddening.