Really Want Change?
Alter Your Thoughts And Emotional System
Hal Shorey :
Most people who reach out to me do so because they want to change something. And so, the overall focus of this blog is to give people the tools to change. I call it the "freedom" to change because most of us are constrained by the very psychological (really perceptual, memory, emotion regulation, cognitive) systems that were designed to maximize our chances for interpersonal safety. But, these defense mechanisms get so hard-wired (inflexibly programmed) into our neurological systems that they become very difficult to change and become chains that bind us.
Let's face it, change is tough. And rather than wanting to really change, per se, I think that what most people are looking for is a way to stop hurting and to lead happy productive lives. If they could do that without real change, I think they would.
But, let's say that you really do want to change. To do this, I almost always engage people in a conversation about "who are you?" In other words, if you are going to change yourself, we need to know what it is we are going to be changing.
A brain and physical body?
Your perceptions of other people and the world?
All of your attitudes and beliefs?
All of your feelings and emotions?
A spirit or a soul?
The answer to this question has important ramifications for your change process. Let's look at some of the main groups and issues that they raise. I'll then introduce a computer metaphor to tie all of this in to personal change using the attachment system and styles as an example.
I Am the Brain and Physical Body
If you are a brain and a physical body and you want to change how you feel, then you may have to change your neurochemistry, your endocrine (pituitary gland etc) function, or the physical structures in your brain.
You can do this. You can take medications (although I see a great deal of resistance to that). You can pursue other medical interventionsâ€¦. But brain surgery is usually beyond the scope of elective surgery.
You can change some of circuitry in your brain, including some of the functions in your limbic (emotional) systems, and this can help a great deal in terms of your decreasing negative social perceptions and your experience of anxiety and fearâ€¦ but the way to make these changes in circuitry is through changing the way you thinkâ€¦ which brings us to the next possibility.
I Am the Sum of my Thoughts and Emotions
If you are your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs and you change those in any significant way, then you simply will not be the you that you have always known. And this is what often blocks the change process for people. People hold onto their identities even if they know that aspects of those identities are harmful. After all, the thought process goes, If you change everything about yourself then you wont know who you areâ€¦ and people generally find this idea very disconcerting.
If you are your thoughts, then changing the way you think significantly is amenable to a (experiential/identity) death. Because of this connection with one's identity, most people struggle with letting go of the way they think even if they know it is causing them pain. This is like a software program rewriting itself to be a different software program. And even if you change the program, you still have not altered the underlying operating system (your brain and body).
I Am a Spirit or a Soul
Don't stop reading. I have many wonderful clients who are seemingly allergic to anything spiritualâ€¦ even things that aren't spiritual but are written by spiritual people ("hocus pocus" "which doctor" "religious fanatics"). And, I am not invested in convincing anyone otherwise. I have a spiritual belief system but do not ascribe to any organized religion. And if I did have a conception of God, it would be so big that it really wouldn't care if you believed in it or not anyway. So, don't worry about that. But, this does make for an interesting and relevant philosophical discussion that provides a lot of mileage when it comes to change processes.
When you say "I want to change." I am interested in who that "I" is who is making that statement. We already covered some of the implications of being a brain in a body or a set of thoughts, beliefs and attitudes. But, if the "I" is something beyond the brain or body, or thoughts et al., there is much more we can do in the way of change options. We don't particularly need to define the spiritual "I" further for this discussion. Let's just view it as something that exists (energy maybe?) before the other facets.
The Computer Metaphor
Look at the "I" as the operator of a computer system who is sitting in a remote location. Think of this as if the operator were at NASA and the computer was on a rover on a distal planet. The operator can only perceive the distal world through the data sensors attached to the computer system on the rover. Some of this data, like surface temperature, can come straight into the system and be directly interpreted. But much of the data, like atmospheric (weather) patterns, is more complex and has to be run through software programs in order for it to make sense to the operator. So, the system being studied, like weather on a distal planet, is not directly known, but, rather, inferred through a set of calculations and algorithms. By definition this introduces some error into output that the operator will see. If some of the software programs have error in their code or are calibrated incorrectly, then the operator may make even more faulty decisions based on that output. Even worse, there are failsafe's on the rover and some data triggers events automatically. If the temperature gets too hot, the rover will automatically go into shutdown mode. If a threat is detected, the rover may go into defensive mode and evade or offensive mode and deploy its weapons systems (this is a bad ass rover).
Now, let's pivot to your personality and the attachment system.
You are the operator who sits behind the computer system which is working through the rover. You are not the computer. You are not the rover. You are not the data sensors on the rover. You are not the programs that are interpreting the data. You are not the defensive systems on the rover.
In terms of personality and your attachment style, you are not your body. You are not your social perceptions. You are not your attachment style. You are not your automatic impulse to shut down and run away or verbally lash out in a negative interaction with a friend, coworker, or romantic partner. Just as with the rover, these all relate to how well the body's sensory systems are calibrated, whether there is any faulty programming in the perceptual or emotional response systems, and what automatic processes may be enacted when the system detects a threat.
Back to the Computer Metaphor.
Once the operator at NASA interprets the data from the rover and decides on a strategy to enact (like how to get up the next mountain), the related commands have to be communicated to the rover through the onboard computer. This communication system is limited by the technology of the physical hardware at the distal location. Some of the information must also be typed into the system by our operator, thereby changing the more pure intent and direction of the operator into a computer code. Again, this can result in faulty communication where the rover might not get the same message that our operator initially planned to deliver. If automatic defensive systems are triggered too readily, our operator may need to recalibrate some of the sensors. The operator may also need to rewrite some of the programs in order to provide more effective escape maneuvers ore aggressive tactics that do not destroy any new life forms that are encountered. Whereas the operator cannot change the physical rover (which has already been deployed to a distal planet), they can change how the rover interfaces with the environment and be able to continually readjust and reprogram the rover to interact with new environments, and, perhaps even new life.
Final Pivot Back to Personality and the Attachment System
Based on our metaphor, the ("I") can not change the vehicle through which it is interacting with the distal world. In other words, your physical body which includes your brain, has already been deployed on the planet earth. With some exceptions, in the year 2019, you cannot yet build a new brain or body. But, you can learn which of your sensor systems are giving you faulty data. If you have a preoccupied or fearful attachment style, your physiological threat detection sensors (in your limbic system and amygdala) may be overly sensitive and give you false danger signals or trigger an automatic fight or flight response based on inadequate or not adequately significant data. If you have a dismissing attachment style, your sensors may not be triggered easily enough and you may be missing important data. In this case you may need to rely on secondary systems to boost the incoming social signals (e.g., a friend who can give you feedback on how other people are reacting to you).
If you are the operator (the spiritual "I"?) who sits distally behind the deployed system (your body), then you can make these changes without getting mad at the system. It simply is what it is. Look at it this way...the operator at NASA is probably not going to be critical or talk trash to the rover because it gave a faulty temperature reading. And so the I that you are, does not need to get angry or critical of your body's miss-calibrated sensory systems.
You can similarly choose to slowly rewrite the ways that you think about things just like you would rewrite a software program without getting mad at the program. You simply learn to continually make adjustments to get a smoother running system. But, you don't get angry or hate the system. You nurture it and take care of it because it is the only one you have.
(Hal Shorey, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist specializing in helping people understand and change how their personalities and the ways they process emotions influence their adult relationships.