Speak with Truth, Kindness & Necessity: Our Words Literally Restructure Our Brain


Path at Park

Say what is true and kind and necessary.

The words we use change us in the moment they are spoken, and, over time, change our brain.

Positive words engage the brain region responsible for understanding the big picture, active listening, respect, problem solving and empathy. Negative words engage the fear center. After many years of working with clients in high conflict situations on how to communicate without escalating, I agree the researchers have a point.

Recently, a client called with a typical communication challenge many experience. This woman was challenged by how to decline an invite from her mother-in-law. She was stuck in how to explain her decline; how the marital difficulties were in the way of accepting the invitation. Nothing felt quite right.

‘Explaining why’ is generally not recommended. It often compels the receiver to take offense, or to defend against the ‘why’. Marital difficulties, especially involving a personality-disordered partner, often present conflicted feelings about interacting with in-laws. Many want to preserve the connection and relationship, yet face interference from their spouse, or ex-spouse.

Instead of creating explanations, I asked this woman to listen to ‘What her heart wanted to say?’ What is True? Kind? Necessary?

Freed up from old thinking patterns, she formed this response: “At another time and under other circumstances, I would love to join you, but it is not possible at this time. You are dear to me.” By setting aside her fear, and the need to explain, she could speak from the heart. The task was easy, heartfelt, kind.

There is no kind way to tell a mother-in-law her child/your spouse is narcissistic, borderline, sociopathic, or using again, and is unsafe to be around. The obstacle: “I can’t think of what to say and nothing feels right,” was replaced with feelings of ease, warmth, and “this is lovely”.

The brain forms strong neuropathways in patterns where our thoughts most often go. A useful analogy for neuropathways in the brain would be our roads, highways and super highways. Most traffic uses the biggest highways and relatively little traffic uses the dirt and grass driveway to the cabin. A person in relationship with a personality-disordered individual is very accustomed to defending themselves by explaining why. Over time and with much practice, the brain is very wired to automatically transport via this Explain Why superhighway.

Driving 500 miles on gravel back roads is more challenging than doing so on an interstate highway. We generally take the easier, and efficient, way. Human nature chooses what is familiar, even if it is not in our best interest. Superhighways have their place, as does strong brain wiring. Mastering any skill automatically wires in superhighways. Mastering the art of defensiveness and explaining why is also a superhighway. Sometimes our journey calls for a slower pace to enjoy the natural beauty along the way to the same destination. The end result is that no matter how kind your intentions, explanations come from the fear region of the brain and do you little good. The habit forms when trying to defend your self over and over. Explanations do not work with a personality-disordered partner with narcissism (NPD) or borderline (BPD). Contrary to what you intend, your explanation backfires. It gives your partner more information to use against you in the future. It tells them their tactics (blame you, derail the focus away from them) are working. If explanations were truly effective, they would have worked a long time ago.

Releasing the destructive need to explain why, the brain needs to rewire new pathways. A new traveler of the back roads may not realize such beauty exists. Once traveled, the ease and joy brings motivation to repeat the behavior. Over time, different parts of the brain engage where attitudes and beliefs are reshaped to be more positive, and life affirming. Leading with a higher vibration from the heart, repeating until it is habit, the brain re-wires to suit a more empowered, centered, and balanced better self.

The bottom line is that we want to listen carefully to what we are thinking. Some negative and self-limiting thoughts formed pathways fraught with potholes, which will throw our ‘wheels’ out of alignment.

What do the researchers say? Here is an excerpt from the research noted in Spirit Science, “Speak with Kindness: How Your Words Literally Restructure Your Brain”. The article explains the merits of positive word choice and the downfall of negative words from the perspective of brain research.

“Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University, and Mark Robert Waldman, a communications expert, collaborated on the book, “Words Can Change Your Brain.” In it, they write, “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.

When we use words filled with positivity, like “love” and “peace”, we can alter how our brain functions by increasing cognitive reasoning and strengthening areas in our frontal lobes. Using positive words more often than negative ones can kick-start the motivational centers of the brain, propelling them into action.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, when we use negative words, we are preventing certain neuro-chemicals from being produced, which contribute to stress management. Each and every one of us is initially hardwired to worry; it’s how our primal brain protects us from dangerous situations for survival.

So, when we allow negative words and concepts into our thoughts, we are increasing the activity in our brain’s fear center (the amygdala), and causing stress-producing hormones to flood our system. These hormones and neurotransmitters interrupt the logic and reasoning processes in the brain and inhibit normal functionality. Newberg and Waldman write, “Angry words send alarm messages through the brain, and they partially shut down the logic-and-reasoning centers located in the frontal lobes.” 1

1 Spirit Science. http://thespiritscience.net/2016/05/18/your-words-can-change-your-brain/


If you read to this point, bravo! You are already on a path to communication ease and freedom. You are already on a new thinking pathway. Give yourself permission to learn more effective ways to communicate, while also realistically seeing your partner for who he/she is, not who you want him/her to be. Difficult personality disorders cannot empathize. They only know how to attack and blame and derail focus away from themselves. If you are partnered in such an environment, you have rehearsed how to defend yourself. When attacked, it is natural to defend. You have wasted countless hours second-guessing yourself, doubting your decisions. There are more effective ways to navigate difficult conflicts. Your fully alive life awaits you.


Call to Action

  1. On your own, pay attention to your thoughts when you are afraid, or feeling the need to defend.
  2. I urge you to seek the help of a professional, trained specifically to understand the nuances of a relationship involving a personality-disordered partner. Those Explain and Defend superhighways are compellingly deceptive. Years of habituation can be undone in relatively short time with a guide to coach you to freedom from doubt, guilt, and second guessing your self.


© 2016 Maren Beckman & Associates. All rights reserved.

Who would we be ‘if only’?

photo1-e1352780740525Adults are hard pressed to produce as a young child creates.  Simple. Innocent. Free form. Refreshing and unencumbered by constraints.

What motivates us to give that up? To take on constraints?

What in us says, “I choose to give up my freedom of my unique expression and instead, take on the conformities of my society?” What in us tolerates self-criticism to the point it robs our own resourcefulness?

Perhaps it’s to belong, to fit in, to do it right, to stay under the radar, to not be seen, to be seen a certain way.

We all want to belong someplace, but where does belonging compromise who we are?

What would we create if we suspended awareness of that need and lost ourselves in our creative expression?

Who would we be if only?

©2012 Maren Beckman Inc. All rights reserved.

Freeze Tag

playing_tagOne of my fondest memories as a child was an evening game of Freeze Tag, played with the kids in my neighborhood. In this game, whoever was It had the task of chasing the other kids, catching them, and “freezing” them out of the rest of the game. When caught by the kid who was “IT”, the child became frozen in place. No one wanted to be caught early in the game and be “frozen” for the duration of the game. Like my frozen friends, I was impatient to get back into the action and have fun. Frozen was a painful penalty.

What was that game preparing us for as adults? Lessons I gleaned from Freeze Tag days were to 1. keep moving, 2. don’t get caught, and 3. stay in the game. Unfortunately, when faced with life challenges, big ones, we often forget lessons learned as children. It is painful to be frozen and not participate in life.

Much like that childhood game, many adults replicate the frozen state when faced with daunting decisions.

  • Work is heartless and unrewarding, but looking for something different is too much right now.
  • My parent/friend/sibling and I have not spoken in years, but picking up the phone is…sigh.
  • I really ought to change my sedentary life and get fit…I’ll start tomorrow.
  • Both my spouse and I are unhappy, and we are not doing anything to change that.

Postponing. Avoiding. Denying. Prolonged thinking without action. Each of these freeze us.

Today a “frozen someone” thawed just a bit and made a courageous call asking me for an appointment. She heard one of my presentations on divorce over two years ago. She was considering an important life decision back then and, until her call to me today, had not taken action.

She shared how much her life seems to have shrunk, how her confidence has eroded since then, causing her to avoid important decisions in all areas of her life. She reported feeling miserable, yet fearful to proceed. I commended her for making the call. We set about scheduling a first appointment. No dates seemed to work, and we were advancing further and further into the calendar future. When I offered a “how about right now?”, she panicked. Giving her tools to face her fears today was simply “too soon!”  Fortunately, she caught herself in her own game of Freeze Tag with life.

Being stuck, or frozen, gains power the longer it goes on. And it renders a person as frozen as in the childhood game, able to observe, but not participate. Stuck in a frozen place is miserable. If you’ve been there, you know.

Many drift through this stuck and frozen place for years. It is demoralizing, depleting, and depressing. After we acclimate to the stuck feelings, frozen becomes the norm. Yet, something inside each of us calls out for action, encouraging us to face whatever it is we believe will hurt us, embarrass us, or challenge us beyond our abilities. The voice comes from the depths of our core truth and is the part of us wanting to get back into the game of life.
Action Step: Honestly answer these questions and then make a commitment to action. It will not get you far if you only think it. You have to follow through. You will be glad you did! Your life awaits.

  • Where are you stuck?
  • What decision have you postponed too long?
  • What small step can you take to get back into the game of YOUR life?

©2012 Maren Beckman Inc. All rights reserved.

How to be Apart from Family at the Holidays

Someone asked me: With the holidays here, the distance between us (literally) is challenging me and my family. Do you have any resources that specifically help with maintaining relationships with family members when living out of state?

First of all, geography makes things very challenging. Nothing beats the physical presence of loved ones at the holidays. And there are ways to make the distance less “far”. Holidays seem to emphasize the distance in bold highlights. I wish I had the antidote to that pain. I do have some tried and true things to lessen the pain and create some fun in the process.

Tip 1: I highly recommend including family using the resources you already have: phone, video cam on computer, etc. For example, when my son was in military and it was holiday, we would keep his phone call going throughout the entire meal. The phone was passed person to person and back again. That way, he was with us in the best way possible with the resources we had. On holidays, his cell phone minutes would be free. The conversation was sometimes a simple reporting of goings on at the table, like “Uncle Ed put his sleeve in the gravy again.” Then my son knew what the laughter was about. He enjoyed hearing the sounds, the conversation, etc.

These days, Skype is available. Some phones have video capacity, with various Apps. Can you bring a laptop to the table and share the holiday with family elsewhere? Can they set up with their camera and computer as well?

Tip 2: Do something together even though you are miles apart. I’ll explain. Seven years ago, the thought of spending my first Christmas Day alone was overwhelmingly painful. Instead of dwelling on “alone”, I chose to do here what my sisters were doing there. After a meal, all of them were heading to a movie, an afternoon matinee. We called and together we selected the movie all of us wanted to see and the time that would best work in both locations. We went to the same movie and afterwards we called and shared what was enjoyable about it. We have shared movies many Christmases since in just this way. And it’s a whole lot of fun! I cannot imagine if I’d instead chosen to sit here in a self pity pot.

Tip 3: Invite yourself in to other friend or family gatherings and let yourself go with that new “family”. Be curious about what they do and how they gather. Imagine stories of who they are, who’s close and who’s not, etc. Let it be an adventure. It is not meant to replace family. It is something fun and new and different. Here are a couple of things I’ve done. (not that my family/kids are so far away. It’s just that they have other family obligations with their spouse’s family on Christmas Day.) For 2 consecutive years I went to my cousins for Christmas. I asked them if I could come. I know they are family, but we’d not shared a holiday since our grandmother died 30 years ago. It was wonderful to be with them. Now, it seems I am invited to come along with my son-in-law to his grandparents gathering. I am welcomed and find the time pleasurable.

Tip 4: This one is from a dear friend. She and her daughters have a weekly conference call Saturday mornings. They sometimes also have a separate conference call where they can share what is bugging them about the housekeeping that needs to be done. Then they make a commitment to get off the call, go do what they said they would do, and return to another call with their pride and accomplishment. One time they each decided that they would go for 20 minutes and quickly tidy up their places. Each knew the others were doing the same in their own homes. It makes the work less of a drudgery and serves to connect the three women. Sometimes they select a menu and every one prepares the same meal in separate homes. One of her daughters is a few blocks away. The other is quite a few states away. What works is the connection they nurture through these activities.

Though this is hard, there are things to do that lessen the pain of it all. I trust in you and your creativity. You are bright, and you are resourceful. So is each member of your family. What can you all create that will serve as the connector and memory maker while you live so far apart? Here’s the deal…I want to hear back what you guys create, okay?

I wish each of you a most wonderful Thanksgiving. – Maren

Alligators are not good listeners

MP900227673Alligators are not good listeners and have no people skills.

They lack tact, respect, and
empathy. They are not good negotiators, nor are they problem solvers.

Imagine staring into the face of this guy, primed to eat your head off as you say, “Um…dear…um…you’ve left
the toothpaste cover off …again.”

Let’s be honest. If you are as uncomfortable with conflict as most, and this is what you fear each time you bring something up, you will think twice. Maybe you decide to live with the uncapped toothpaste, and slink away. Perhaps you are so frustrated, you snarl back and come out fighting.

What does an alligator have to do with conflict? We have a primitive brain wired much like this alligator. Our brains are really comprised of several parts, the oldest being the reptilian brain. It puts us on the defensive, brings out our claws and teeth, or motivates us to run for cover, as in the fight or flight response. This is hardwired into us. When threatened, we automatically go to this state. People react to conflict as predictably as this alligator, with as many people skills as the alligator. Now you understand why so many conflicts escalate into a mess.

Our people skills depend on other parts of the brain, the limbic system and the Neocortex. The most evolved and most recent in human evelopment is the brain command center, the Neocortex.

It gives us the capacity to be respectful, to listen well to what others are saying, to be analytical as we gather information and take in all kinds of data, to process it and make intelligent, well informed choices about any activity with which we are engaged. It allows us to imagine and to create new possibilities. It creates music and art, and diplomatic agreements.

Our ability to empathize, to step into another person’s shoes, to care and have compassion, to negotiate and problem solve, all are part of the Neocortex function. Ah, the joy of having an evolved brain with these cool human attributes! Life goes along swimmingly when
the whole brain is engaged.

Fear slams the doors shut to the higher brain functions, leaving us amidst conflict and our reptilian brain, which loves to believe it is the only brain necessary! Our brain functions on flight or fight hardwired reactions whenever triggered by a perceived threat. Alligator brain shuts down higher level functioning and takes command. Unfortunately, only the critical functions, the familiar fight and flight response, remains up and unning. If we are fighting for our lives we appreciate greatly the fight/flight response. However, if we are trying to perform at work, or to agree to a negotiation, we are in a tough spot.

This comes at an extreme cost. Without the big picture, alligator brain locks into the minimal of functioning and narrows its focus. It puts us in a bad spot, as it assumes it is right, assumes it has ownership of The Truth, and
sees other party as a challenger of that truth. The Neocortex is the information gatherer that analyzes much data, synthesizes, and reaches reasonable decisions. The reptilian brain cannot gather information, yet dangerouslybelieves it owns the one and only truth; fighting anyone challenging that “truth”.

Whether we have a conflict with a trusted friend, a spouse, or are engaged in a legal conflict, we risk coming to the conflict as defensive and feisty as an alligator. And the person withwhom we are in conflict is as likely to be in the same place as us— thinking like
an alligator. Slapping tails, gnashing teeth, and frothing waters predict an ugly outcome…to divorce settlements…to peaceful resolution between friends…to agreements between co-workers.

©2011 Maren Beckman Inc. All rights reserved.