Retrospective Kindness – Good Medicine for the Brain and for the Self
Most of us want to be kind, to ourselves and others, most of the time. Most of us try to be kind, much of the time.
And then there are the many, many times when we “wake up” hours or days or years later. “I could’ve…!” “I should’ve…!” But the person we now want to be kind to is miles or years away. Possibility gone forever.
The good news of neuroplasticity: that moment isn’t gone forever in the brain. Because what the brain can imagine or visualize is real to the brain, we can re-create the scenario in our mind’s eye, and re-wire the brain’s circuity holding the memory of that event (or didn’t-happen event).
When we recall something that happened (or didn’t happen) into conscious awareness, we are activating or “lighting up” the neural circuity that constellates that memory. It is open to revision. (The brain revises our memories on its own over time all the time anyway.) The technical name in neuroscience for this revision process is memory deconsolidation-reconsolidation.
When we “light up” a memory in our conscious awareness, we create the opportunity to rewire it, at least revise our sense of our self in relationship to it. If we’re recalling a moment when we could have been kind and just weren’t, we can now imagine being kind in that moment, create a new version of the event in our imagination, and resource ourselves with an updated view of ourselves as the kind person we want to be and know ourselves to be.
1. Recall a moment when you could have said or done something kind to another person. Simple example:
Someone paid you a compliment about the good job you did on a project or how well you dealt with your child’s tantrum, and you were so focused on the task at hand that the compliment barely registered. You didn’t say thank you in return. A few hours alter you realized there was an opportunity to be kind in that moment and you missed it. There could be many missed moments like this that you remember later that day, or later that week, or even years afterwards.
2. As you recall the moment now, activate a bodily felt sense of wanting to be kind now, wanting to reciprocate the kindness offered. You may feel more warmth, more relaxation, more ease in your body, an openness to engagement, an urge to do that event over and be generous and kind.
3. Imagine a new ending unfolding to the opportunity missed. It didn’t happen this way, but it could have. You paused, took a deep breath, let the kindness of the other person register in your awareness. Imagine how you might smile, what you might say, how the other person might respond, how you would feel receiving their response.
4. Savor the feeling of the new ending. Remember, this new ending is real to your brain. Let the flavor of it register in your body, in your awareness now.
5. Imagining this new possibility/reality of kindness can revise or update your sense of self. You are/intend to be a kind person, and imagining yourself to be so reinforces that sense of yourself that you are, now and for the future.
6. Repeat this practice with as many scenarios as you wish to recall and revise. Over time, what gets revised is your view of yourself, claiming your capacities and intentions to be kind, even when the opportunities are missed. This revised view of yourself becomes the neural foundation for remembering to and showing kindness at the next opportunity.
P.S. This active imagination revisioning can rewire even negative moments when not only an opportunity to be kind was missed, but the interaction between you and another went awry and you felt badly about yourself. Those negative messages about who you are can be rewired as well. [See the Wished For Outcome exercise in Transforming Adversity into Learning and Growth.]