How the Brain “Unlearns” Patterns that De-Rail Resilience
As we’re learning how the brain learns, we also want to learn how to use the brain’s neuroplasticity to un-learn patterns of response that derail our resilience or no longer serve us so well.
This post offers tools to unlearn some of the most common thought patterns that block clear thinking and genuine response flexibility (being able to learn new patterns). Sometimes these patterns trigger further thoughts, evaluations, judgments, condemnations that block your resilience. Sometime they just plain drive you crazy.
Here’s a lists of common thought patterns that filter our very human experience:
1. Assumptions: We learn from past experience, and based on past experience we sometimes think we know more than we know and filter our perceptions of reality through those assumptions rather than seeing clearly what is actually true or needed now.
2. Projections: Based on what we have learned is true for ourselves, we assume that that is true for the next person over there as well, and project what we assume onto them, usually without their knowledge or permission, tromping on theory of mind in the process.
3. Objectification: We lose the sense of ourselves or another person as the subject of experience, “I” and “You,” and as the active agent of changing experience. Instead we see ourselves and others as an object, a thing, an “It” at the effect of other people, powerless to change experience (or our responses to it).
4. Mind reading: Presuming we know what the other person is thinking, feeling or needing without empathically checking with them to make sure. Or presuming the other person already knows what we are thinking or needing without bothering to tell them directly. (If you loved me, you would know.”)
5. Discounting the positive: Not registering positive traits in ourselves or in others, smallifying ourselves, devaluing others, deflecting or neglecting appreciation in either direction.
6. Overgeneralizing: Exaggerating attributes of an experience: “always” or “never”, perceiving things as global and pervasive, applying to everything and everybody, taking things personally, applying everything to “me” whether that’s true or relevant, seeing things as permanent and never changing. (This overgeneralizing is known as the 3 P’s: pervasive, personal, permanent.)
7. Catastrophizing: Quickly assuming the worst – a sneeze means a cold means missing work for three weeks means losing the job means losing the home; coming to a conclusion of disaster in less than three seconds.
8. Black and white thinking: A rigidity in thinking known as neural cement. No shades of gray, few possibilities, no possibilities of compromise; a serious derailing of response flexibility.
9. Inability to disconfirm: No new information can budge a thought that’s gotten stuck; a complete derailing of response flexibility.
1. Review the list above. Identify any of these patterns you recognize as operational in you or in people you know. No shame or blame, simply acknowledging what is.
2. Pick one pattern relevant to you, not necessarily the most difficult for you; identifying a pattern you’re willing to investigate, work with, and un-learn.
3. Track the occurrence, and the non-occurrence of this pattern in your thinking for a week. Notice when this pattern is operating in your thinking; notice when it’s not.
I’ll illustrate this unlearning by working with three of the most common of these patterns:
a. Discounting the positive
4. Practice looking for – so you will notice when you are thinking in the style of that process:
a. Discounting the positive – Wait a minute. Did I just miss a positive moment here? Did I not take in something that could have been a compliment? Was I so focused on nearly tripping over the tricycle in the driveway that I missed my daughter running to give me a hug?
b. Overgeneralizing – I just heard myself say “never” for the third time in five minutes. Or I notice I’m taking things personally, feeling singled out, losing the big picture.
c. Catastrophizing – I can’t remember what I walked into the kitchen for, that’s the third “senior moment” this morning, I wonder if I’m getting Alzheimer’s already?
5. Identify an antidote to this pattern of thinking. Note: you can identify and practice these antidotes way ahead of time, too – you prewire your brain to make it easier to rewire.
a. Discounting the positive – Let me notice five positives in this moment right now: 1) I’m alive in my body. Whatever I’m dealing with, I get to deal; 2) I can take in the love of my family and their good intentions toward me right now; 3) I can stop and notice the sun/clouds, the trees/birdsong/ 4) I can remember – oh yeah, Shirly said I looked good in this shirt and I didn’t even register that; 5) actually I was enjoying my own good thoughts just earlier this morning.
b. Overgeneralizing – let me check the 3 P’s right now. Did I see things as
1) pervasive – Yup, I went global, not everybody in the world is rude just because that customer rep was.
2) personal – And he may not have been rude to just me this morning.
3) permanent – Well, that call is over, the problem got solved. I’ll probably get a different rep the next time I call.
c. Catastrophizing – Whoa! Back up! let me focus on what’s actually happening in this moment. I forgot what I walked into the kitchen for because I was thinking about something else. When I walked back into the kitchen again, I remembered. And I’m making the life style choices that will help me prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s (which you will learn in Chapter 8). I can relax and trust I’m okay.
6. Practice saying the antidotes to yourself many times a day, until they become fairly automatic; you don’t have to “think” to say them.
7. Then, every time you notice yourself thinking the old thought pattern, say the antidote to yourself right away several times. Repeat this juxtaposition as many times as you need to, to let the old pattern begin to fade away
8. Notice and claim for yourself any unlearning or fading away of the old thought pattern. Granted, this is somewhat Olympic level brain training here. Give yourself plenty of time and self-encouragement to practice these tools. Start little, practice often to give your brain a chance to succeed at this unlearning. Even knowing this tool is available to you and that it works is a great boost to your resilience.