In his famous collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855, Walt Whitman includes a poem that eventually came to be called, “Song of Myself”. The poem includes the following lines: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” This was not the poem of someone with a personality disorder. It is rather a fair description of us all. Our physical sensations, emotional energies, and cognitive / creative thoughts generate different messages, priorities, and paths of development. By learning to enjoy our contradictions, rather than to bemoan them, we can stress proof our self-talk once and for all. Sound intriguing? Read on to make it so for you.
Over the course of the past two months I have attended two workshops, one sponsored by professional coaches and the other by Nonviolent Communication trainers, that have both worked with similar approaches to handling self-talk. I thought I would share them with you today as part of our series on stress-proofing your life.
Stress-proofing your self-talk is, in some respects, a continuation of last week’s Provision on stress proofing your mindset. There we reviewed the etiology, morphology, and functionality of the human brain. People did not come by our big brains in one fell swoop. We developed them slowly, across millions of years, as one species gave way to another which gave way to another and so on down the line.
Given that the human brain represents the current end point of many variations, our brains include all that has gone before. It can be viewed as having three brains in one The Reptilian Complex is the most primitive brain, controlling muscles, balance, and autonomic functions. It never sleeps and never learns. The Limbic System is the middle brain, controlling emotions and instincts. It helps determine valence (whether an emotion has a positive or negative charge) and salience (what gets our attention).
The Cerebral Cortex is the most advanced brain, controlling cognitive and creative functions. In human beings, the Cerebral Cortex represents two-thirds of the total brain mass. It solves problems and imagines possibilities in a spiral dynamic of ever-increasing complexity and congruence. Without our Cerebral Cortexes, there would be no society as we know it today.
For all its importance to human civilization, however, the Cerebral Cortex does not run the whole show. The Reptilian Complex and the Limbic System also have their say. When an intense emotion overpowers us, for example, such as grief, anger, or fear, we know the Limbic System is in charge. Current research suggests that the Cerebral Cortex physically lifts off and separates from the Limbic System in the wake of such emotions. The cognitive and the creative are no match for the affective and the instinctive.
That accounts for the age-old problem of people “doing what they don’t want to do, and not doing what they do want to do”. There’s no reason to despair about that, as though there was something wrong with us. That’s how we’re made! We have three brains, each of which connect directly to the body and control behavior on the basis of different stimuli and priorities. One brain wants nothing but survival, another wants nothing but to avoid pain and repeat pleasure, while the third wants nothing but the best it can imagine and design in life and work.
Talk about competing interests! It’s a wonder we have as much integration as we have. These three brains are in constant interaction, at times in conflict, but often in harmony. The better theCerebral Cortex does its job of solving problems and delivering hospitable environments, for instance, the less we will trigger full-blown Reptilian and Limbic reactions. And that’s a good thing, because full-blown Reptilian and Limbic reactions are hard to handle in the moment and hard to reconcile after the fact.
The workshops I attended in the past two months have both referenced the tripartite nature of the human brain as one source of what is commonly referred to as self-talk. Not all self-talk is the left side of the Cerebral Cortex talking to the right side, and vice versa. If that was all we had to deal with, the conversation would be pretty straight forward. We would use our cognitive and creative functions to meet our needs and wants without interference from other voices.
But that’s not the way it is, is it? Who among us has never had butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms, weak knees, wet eyes, tight shoulders, or a racing heartbeat? Who among us has never had crazy dreams, second thoughts, uneasy hunches, nervous energy, or troubled memories? Such dynamics are universal parts of the human experience, yet we often beat ourselves up over having such reactions. Our Cerebral Cortex gets stressed out by what the Reptilian Complex andLimbic System are doing and vice-versa.
Enter my two workshops. Instead of regretting that we have Reptilian Complexes and Limbic Systems, and instead of trying to stuff them into a Cerebral Cortex box, both of my workshops suggested ways of dialoguing with our various parts in order to relieve the pressure and learn from them on the way to self-understanding and transformation.
In Missouri I spent a day with American Zen Master Dennis Genpo Merzel, Roshi. He has developed a process for discovering, experiencing, and appreciating life that he calls “Big Mind Big Heart“. He also notes that this process is a good way of working out the kinks, the stuck places, and the unhealthy patterns that keep people down.
So how does it work? Big Mind Big Heart integrates traditional Zen Buddhist meditation with modern western psychotherapy techniques, such as Stone’s “voice dialogue” and Satir’s “parts party“. By framing different aspects of ourselves in Zen Buddhist terms, Genpo Roshi assists people to separate their identities from and begin to dialogue with the different voices that surface from different parts of our brains.
It’s liberating to realize that we are not our Reptilian, Limbic, and Cerebral parts. We are not even the sum of our parts. We are the occasion for a conversation between these different parts, and the more we listen, the more we learn. Genpo Roshi will pick a part, such as The Seeking Mind, and he will ask to talk to that part in a meditative and psychodramatic way. As the dialogue proceeds and people lose their attachment to that part, they move from ego to integration, from stress to synergy.
In Minneapolis I spent a week with Nonviolent Communication trainers on the living energy of needs. Here, too, there was an effort to separate our sense of self from our self-talk. The trainers suggested that there was no way to appreciate the living energy of needs if we could not get beyond our self-critical voices regarding how our Reptilian, Limbic, and Cerebral parts were interacting.
How do we do that? They advised a subtle but simple shift. Whenever we talk to ourselves, especially whenever we engage in blaming self-criticism, reframe it as a message we are telling ourselves. Examples: whenever we say to ourselves, “I’m so stupid; I should know better than that.” Reframe that as, “I am telling myself that I’m so stupid and that I should know better than that.” Or, again, whenever we say to ourselves, “Stop being so nervous; I’ve done this a thousand times before.” Reframe that as, “I am telling myself that I should stop being so nervous because I’ve done this a thousand times before.”
Can you feel the difference? In the first instance, we are wholly identified with the statements. Weare stupid. We are nervous. In the second instance, we have taken one step back. We recognize that we are not our negative self-talk. We observe that some part of ourselves is generating messages. In this way, by becoming a mindful observer of how our three brains are interacting, we can move from being stressed about to being fascinated by the messages. What are they trying to say? How are they serving us? What do they tell us about who we are and what is going on? Enquiring minds want to know.
Last week in Provisions I mentioned that at the Minneapolis workshop I was also introduced to a process called Focusing. This process similarly seeks to listen to and learn from what different parts of the body, mind, and spirit are trying to say. It is a gentle process for discerning what the body is trying to say. Focusing suggests a different way of reframing those many internal messages. Instead of saying, “I am telling myself that…” reframe those messages by noting, “I am hearing myself say that….”
Although both approaches have their merits, I like the Focusing reframe even better when it comes to stress proofing our self-talk. It holds more wisdom and curiosity for me. To say, “I am telling myself that…” makes it clear that we can choose to tell ourselves different things as well. To say, “I am hearing myself say that…” makes it clear that we can choose to listen to what our different brains may be saying. And Focusing suggests that we listen with deep appreciation. It wants us to have a relationship with our feelings rather than to simply be in our feelings.
Again, can you feel the difference? To be in our feelings is to be wholly identified with one voice. If that voice says we are stupid, then that’s all there is to say. We are stupid. If that voice says we are sad, then that’s all there is to say. We are sad. When we become wholly identified with any one voice, then our self-talk becomes extremely limited and stressful. We lose a sense of perspective and ease regarding all that is going on inside us.
To have a relationship with our feelings is to become a participant-observer in our own minds and bodies. What physical sensations do we notice (Reptilian level)? What emotional energies do we notice (Limbic level)? What cognitive / creative thoughts do we notice (Cortex level)? All three levels send us messages all the time. At times, the messages conflict. At other times, the message converge. Either way, having a relationship with our sensations, feelings, and thoughts turns them into an enjoyable “parts party”. We can dialogue with them, learn from them, and not take any one of them too seriously.
In her excellent book, The Power of Focusing, Ann Cornell suggests that we can learn to develop this kind of relationship to ourselves welcoming whatever comes, holding the space, hearing the essence, and staying in present time. To be welcoming means that we are interested in everything we become aware of, regardless of how ugly or beautiful, repulsive or attractive it might be. To hold the space means that we bring our awareness to what is going on inside us and hold it there. Hearing the essence means listening for what is longing to be heard. Staying in present time means not being distracted by thoughts about the past and/or future.
Those are excellent recommendations for those who want to stress proof their self-talk. Different people struggle with this in different ways and to different degrees, from not at all to all the time, from mild to intense. Regardless of whether or not self talk is a stress for you, the methods recommended here are excellent pathways for personal and professional development. The more you know about your many voices, and the more respect you afford them, the more you will grow into a deep awareness of all life has to offer.
Coaching Inquiries: What sensations, feelings, and thoughts are alive in you right now? How can you grow more attentive to your internal dynamics and messages? How can you learn to enjoy and benefit from the conversation rather than to find it stressful and debilitating? Which of the methods reviewed in this Provision pique your interest? Why not click on one of the links right now?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..
What an excellent Provision on how to Stress Proof Your Mindset. It’s packed with informative information as well as realistic and helpful practices for reducing stress. Touch• and kudos to you!! I think this is a truly helpful missive here. Thank you.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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