Transforming Adversity into Learning and Growth
I’ll be offering the Wished For Outcome exercise below, that rewires previously traumatizing memories in the brain, during the online webinar Catalyzing Brain Change: Transforming Adversity into Learning and Growth, sponsored by NScience in London, UK, September 19, 2019. (The webinar will be available for viewing for 30 days after the live broadcast.)
What’s important to me about exercises like Wished For Outcome is that we begin to learn that indeed, brain change is possible; we CAN transform adversity into learning and growth. We can change our relationship to previously traumatizing events, we can change our relationship to ourselves for having experienced those events in the first place. We can choose to become more resilient, and we learn that we CAN.
Creating a Wished-For Outcome
Sometimes you need to sit with your feelings and offer yourself compassion for feeling them. You can also use reconditioning to rewire challenging feelings that you still carry from difficult experiences in the past. This exercise is a powerful tool for reconditioning any feelings of regret, guilt or shame about past events, any less-than-intelligent reactions or less-than-resilient coping. This exercise does not change what happened, but it does change your relationship to what happened. It doesn’t rewrite history, but it does rewire the brain.
Start with one small memory, so that your brain has a chance to succeed at reconditioning it and you develop a sense of competence in using this tool.
1. Find a place and time where you can sit uninterrupted for ten to fifteen minutes. Come into a sense of presence, knowing that you are in your body, in this moment, in this place. Let yourself feel energy and strength in your body, without any sense of strain.
2. Close your eyes and take three deep, relaxing breaths. Place your hand on your heart for a few moments to evoke a sense of safety, anchoring yourself in your emotional equilibrium and well-being. Bring a sense of openness, kindness, and curiosity to your experience.
3. When you are ready, bring to mind one small memory of a moment when an interaction between you and another person went awry and you wound up feeling shame, guilt, or regret about yourself or your behaviors. Stay anchored in your own mindful self-compassion — your awareness and your acceptance of yourself — as you evoke this memory.
4. Start recalling all the details of this interaction: where you were, who you were with, what you said, what they said. Take your time remembering, until the feeling from that event is fully evoked. This recollection activates all the neural circuitry involved in recording the original experience.
5. See if you can locate that visceral, felt sense of the experience somewhere in your body now. Try to locate it clearly enough to feel it so that you can work with it but not so strongly that you get overwhelmed by it now.
6. Notice any negative thoughts you may have about yourself now because of what you experienced then. Make the evocation of this negative experience as vivid as you can: behaviors, words, feelings, body sensations, thoughts. You’re “lighting up” the entire memory so it can be rewired.
7. Set the negative memory aside for the moment. Now you’ll begin to create the positive resource that you will juxtapose with this negative memory to do the rewiring.
8. Begin by imagining a different, more satisfactory ending to the negative scenario, even if this wished-for ending could never have happened in real life. Remember, whatever you can imagine is real to your brain. You’ll be using this imaginary outcome to rewire the brain.
9. Imagine something different you might have said during the scenario. Imagine something different the other person might have said. Again, it doesn’t matter if this conversation could never have happened in real life. Let your brain do its own imagining and its own rewiring.
10. Imagine something different you might have done. Imagine the other person doing something differently, even if that never could have happened in real life. You can even imagine someone who wasn’t there at the time coming in and doing something helpful. Let your imagination create a more satisfying resolution of the entire event.
11. Bring this scenario to its new, wished-for conclusion. And now, notice how you feel as you imagine this ending. Notice what emotions you feel; notice where you feel those emotions in your body. Notice the visceral, felt sense of this new ending. Notice any new, more positive thoughts you have about yourself. Let these feelings, bodily sensations, and thoughts about yourself now be as vivid in your imagination as possible in order to strengthen this new experience of yourself.
12. Now begin toggling back and forth between the feelings of this new outcome and the feelings of the original event or the feelings of remembering that event now.
13. Gently recall the original, negative feelings. Touch them lightly. Then let those feelings go, and
return to feeling strongly the new, more positive feelings of the wished-for ending. Rest in the new positive for a moment. Then recall the negative feelings again, just lightly; notice any shift in those feelings. Let them go again, and return to the newer, more positive feelings. Recall the negative feelings again one more time, then let them go. Rest completely in the new feelings of the new ending.
14. Take a moment to reflect on your experience of the entire exercise, noticing shifts in your view and experience of yourself now.
With frequent practice of this exercise, you will notice that the original, negative feelings about yourself are less intense, and the new, positive feelings about yourself feel more real. Repeat the exercise as many times as you need to.
This is not about being disloyal to who you were at the time of the event or dismissing what you felt at the time. It’s about rewiring your feelings about yourself for having had those feelings, being able to feel differently about yourself now about what happened then.
You can use this exercise again and again with memories of the same interaction or other interactions with this same person, or similar interactions with other people. You don’t have to rewire all 4,957 interactions that have ever gone awry in your life. Eventually your brain learns to generalize the processing of similar difficult emotions. You can use tools like this to work intelligently with any overwhelming emotion. You are learning that you can cope resiliently with all the emotional ups and downs of your life.