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
- On your own, pay attention to your thoughts when you are afraid, or feeling the need to defend.
- 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.