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.

“How do we communicate better?”

The most common request I hear as a relationship coach is

“How do I/we communicate better?”

and the single most expressed complaint is the lack of good communication. Requests to improve communication move me to curiosity.

Questions I ask couples include:

  • What are you saying, and how are you saying it, when you best communicate? Is it physical expression? Are you stellar at storytelling and communicating stories of your friends’ experiences, or your children’s? Do you sometimes know what your partner is thinking without having spoken a word? Do you excel at seeing your partner’s heart through their eyes? How do you best communicate?
  • What situations, or topics, are difficult to talk about?
  • When do you notice trouble communicating? Is it all the time? Sometimes? When? 
  • How does your partner answer these questions? Where are your perspectives aligned?

Everyone is challenged to be their best communicator when overly stressed, under tight deadlines, fatigued, hungry, exhausted, or ill. Cut yourself some slack if you occasionally bomb the talk under these circumstances. If you consistently seem to fall short of your objectives in communication, realize that unless you have a natural ability to communicate well (in which case you probably are not reading this article), or you seriously studied speech, writing, communication, debate, etc, you picked up what you know of communication from your home and social environment. Give yourself, and others, permission to be beginner communication students.

Talking is easy. Saying what you want to say so that you get the results you want to get is more complex than simply talking.  One couple, Mary and Joe, come to me with a request, to learn how to communicate better. As they sit in my office, Joe is looking down at the floor, obviously distressed, while Mary shares a painful event from earlier in her day at work. Each is caught up in their own story and not connecting with the other. I wonder how often their communication looks like this? To feel heard and acknowledged, Mary needs her partner, Joe, to make eye contact and move his body closer to hers. These she needs to feel heard and valued in this moment. All of this IS communication, though it is not so much about the words spoken as the unspoken actions. It is critical that partners be aware of the physicality of each person. Highly important elements of communication include eye contact, moving closer to partner, touching (holding a hand, or putting an arm around the partner’s shoulder, etc.), and turning towards a partner. Mary’s caught up in her own hurt and the emotional challenge to share and risk her vulnerability. Joe may be listening, or may be off in his own world. In either case, Joe misses a key opportunity to validate Mary’s hurt by making eye contact with her.  If he is having his own challenge listening or supporting, Joe has a responsibility to voice what’s going on for him. In the absence of his sharing, Mary makes something up, probably something negative, and the couple misses a point of connection. Communication takes a hit. Their relationship is dinged.

Everyone needs “Three A’s”: Acceptance, Appreciation, and Acknowledgment, from partners, family, parents, employer, friends; basically from everyone who counts in a person’s life. It is most important for couples to exchange these three A’s regularly and consistently. When communicating, we seek acceptance, acknowledgment and appreciation. Mary had a troubling work experience and needed her partner, Joe, to look at her as acknowledgment of her hurt, and accept her by physically turning toward her, demonstrating his care for her well being. Failing to communicate Acceptance, Appreciation and Acknowledgment is still a communication.

When we validate, we demonstrate our support, acceptance, or recognition of our partner. Such recognition is like depositing "emotional currency” into a relationship bank account. Oh, you didn’t know your relationship had such an account? I invite you to think of your relationship in banking analogies, as an account ready for deposits and withdrawals. Your actions and words fall into one of the two activities. I challenge you to think in these terms, pausing before you respond to your partner. How about setting a goal of building a robust relationship account? Whatever we do in relationship falls into one of two categories: deposit or withdrawal. Listening, really listening, by making eye contact and being curious about what is going on for your partner, are wonderful ways to contribute emotional currency deposits.

 

Questions for reflection and personal/relational growth:

  • What can you do or say to communicate your acknowledgment of your partner?
  • How do you demonstrate your appreciation? If you say you appreciate, how genuine and heartfelt are your words? What could boost them up a level?
  • How does your partner acknowledge you? Is it enough? Is it genuine?  Is there a withholding? 
  • Are you and your partner different in your communication styles, yet able to be balanced in your differences? 
  • Where and how do you communicate well? Pause and reflect on this. Write down everything about your communication that you do well. Once you have captured this, go to part two: how can you take what you do well and apply it to other situations? 

© 2015 Maren Beckman

 

Road Ends in Water

Einstein’s words: “You cannot solve a problem at the level in which it was created” have never been truer than in those painfully dead end and stuck places we find ourselves.

Road Ends in Water images

Take for example, a person needing to share a vulnerability with their partner in order to get a need met. The stuck place of the relationship has a pre-set choreography that might go something like this: if either partner dares to risk being and speaking up with vulnerability, the partner chooses to get defensive, assuming the share is really an attack, thus putting the partner on the defensive. The choreography plays out where both partners blame other and defend self. This is followed by a well rehearsed need for both to retreat while off looking for inner validation. The original need is still unresolved and now has added stress from the blame and attack which ensued as one expressed a need. The ongoing choreography for this couple has each person returning to the relationship with unresolved issues and resentment, plus some painful wounds in need of healing. No place for safe expression, needs go unexpressed, or shared in toxic ways. The couple remains at a dead end, because the level at which the problems are created are unable to find resolution.

Another couple is afraid to share, with an unspoken agreement to keep sensitive topics submerged. Both walk on eggshells around these censored topics, unless and until they start drinking. Then all pent up and unexpressed things are unleashed in a blast of ugly attacks at the character of the partner. Until they find courage without a bottle, they are trapped in the level at which the problem exists. Original problems are heaped with added pain and hurtful attacks, undermining trust and safety. What they know to do, they continue to do and nothing improves between them. They are in despair and stuck; not wanting to end the relationship yet helpless to find resolution.

A third example illustrating this is the couple where one holds the role of silence, and walks on eggshells because they believe if they open up, their partner will retaliate in anger and aggressive words. To avoid the anger, they hold back, and build a silent arsenal of resentment. Guaranteed that until a new level of problem solving is implemented, this couple will find no satisfactory resolution.

It’s doubtful that people start out seeking a relationship, guaranteed to bring them to a stuck and miserable place every time certain topics or situations or behaviors show up. Yet many of us end up there.  Afraid to look for new ways towards resolution, people settle into a despair, stuck in the level of the problem. Fear of change, fear of stepping out of familiar, or fear itself keep us at the level at which the problem exists. We get stuck in familiar patterns, and find an odd comfort in the pain of familiar.
If the road we drive ends at a river we need to cross, we’d better find a bridge or learn to swim. Our car cannot ferry us across the water.
What river needs crossing in your life?
Where do you settle?  
How much frustration is stacked up at your dead end?
What would you do if not afraid?
By the way, among the many benefits of coaching is the ability to shake things up in a good way, and generate perspectives and options. If you're ready for movement and positive change, let's chat.

Courage is willingness to act despite fear

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”   –Mark Twain

We suffer no shortage of fear. Whether feeling anxious, worried, overly concerned, panicked, impatient, frustrated or angry, beneath every one of those emotions is a fear.  When we do find peace from the fears, our external world is only to happy to remind us of all there is to be afraid of…media’s latest terrorist conspiracy to explain the missing plane, negative forecasts of economic experts, security reminders at airport terminals, and so on.

Courage

Relationships are no stranger to fear. It lurks inside each partner. Fear has many faces in relationship. Fear sounds like:

  • Will she stay if I tell her…? I cannot tell the truth about … or he/she will fall out of love with me and end the relationship.
  • If I speak up about his anger I will pay.
  • Will my kids be okay? I don’t trust my parenting skills.
  • This relationship isn’t meeting my needs but I am afraid to leave. What if I cannot make it on my own?
  • I am afraid to be alone.
  • I am afraid to trust again.
  • I am afraid to date…to ask…to commit…
  • I’m damaged goods.
  • I’m not good with relationships.
  • I am unworthy of you.
  • What if I quit my job and go back to school?
  • I cannot quit my job and be without insurance.
  • What if I want to practice a different faith than my family?
  • I’m successful, but if my co-workers only knew that I’m a fraud… What if he/she finds out that I am a fraud?
  •  I am afraid we are a broken couple.
  • I know I make excuses for her/his behaviors, but…

Fear is so pervasive in our lives, that it would take a book, or two, to sort it all out. Suffice it to say that we all have fear. Those best armed to conquer personal fears are those willing to admit to having fear.  The paradox is that many of us fear admitting to owning fear! Yet, this is a crucial first step in knocking fear down and moving ahead with living fully.

Inertia fuels the fear, so it makes sense that a natural antidote is action. It’s easy to say ‘take action’ and hard to put body and mind into actual action. Fears often overlay those actions. It's quite a roadblock.

Enter courage!  It’s been said that courage does not come before action, it follows action. The first action is admitting to having fear.

Firefighters charging into a burning building suspend debilitating fears such that they can do their jobs. We call them courageous.

A quarreling lover softens and attempts a repair, unsure of the outcome. The attempt is courageous, regardless of outcome.

A couple brings home their first newborn. They realize the parenting books didn’t address the fear of being in charge of this tiny and fragile life, yet they launch into feeding, holding, bathing, tending and loving this precious life. Courageous!

A mother reads aloud to her children, much like every other night, from memory, only this night she stops the mental streaming of worry to look into her children’s eyes as the story is told. She finds the courage to connect in that gaze.

Courage comes from the smallest of actions. The worried mother reading to her children made a profound shift as she focused more on her children in that moment, and less on her worries. It was a small action to look into their eyes, with an enormous payoff.

The quarreling lover takes a risk by softening, and allowing a curiosity to hear the partner out. The partner senses the softening of the space and risks listening. Both overcome fears in that significant exchange.

It’s a courageous individual or couple who admit to a painful stuck spot they don’t know how to get out of, and ask a professional for guidance, Making the call and following through on the advice, is both action and signs of courage.

Time for action. Grab a tea and 5 silent moments and steal away to your own company. What are you afraid of? Be honest. Breathe. Own it. Breathe again. Notice that you’re still alive and the fear did not kill you. Breathe. Well done!

Courage brings possibilities to fill the lack created by fear. It's time to live.

©Maren Beckman Inc. 2014

 

The Path of Anger

A couple divorcing is a couple experiencing anger. Generally, the role it plays is not positive. It’s worth a closer look because few will escape this feeling and many are at the mercy of the unexamined presence of anger. It takes significant tolls and leads to unnecessary suffering. The costs of anger range from the personal and emotional, to the work place in diminished job performance, and to the legal arena, where it is single handedly responsible for unnecessarily driving up legal costs.

Faces of Anger

The forms anger might take ranges from rage and violence, to mild resentment, and includes revenge, outrage, fury, jealousy, impatience, frustration, meanness, sarcasm, aggression, revulsion, agitation, smoldering, sullenness, pouting, and stubbornness.

Anger covers for fear of loss, for fear of emotions, response to betrayal, suppression of feelings, right/wrongness, belief in entitlement and more.

 Upside of Anger 

Anger, when used positively, enables a person drowning in sadness to light an internal fire and take action, thus drying up their watery sadness. Anger rallies to action the apathetic person who has reached the end of the rope of denial, or tolerance, of a difficult and unhealthy relationship. Used positively, anger fires up the ambitions for betterment. It can inspire us to improve communication skills, to renewed life goals, and to 20/20 clarity on a life of lived values. Anger can inspire us to be better and be more alive.

 Downside of Anger

Anger has many sources, often connected with fears. We are reluctant to admit to being afraid. Whether or not we admit to fear, if fear drives your anger, then fear drives your life. Who or what is driving your life?

Over the years, countless fears have paraded through the lives of divorcing individuals, ranging from fear of what others will say, fear of judgment at being a divorced and single mother, fear of judgment by society and the ongoing stigma of divorce, the fears stemming from a trounced on pride, betrayal and the fear of loss of ability to read people, to trust people, fear of lost confidence, fear of years of life wasted, fear of nothing to show for years of self-sacrifice, and the list goes on.

To complicate matters, often we force ourselves out of binding agreements by making someone wrong. Divorcing couples often succumb to right and wrong perspectives to extract themselves from unsatisfactory relationships. If the other person is to blame, we are sanctioned by the church and God to break unbreakable vows, to hold our heads high in superiority, to gain the attention of sympathizers, to gain family, friend, and community approval, and to have a substantial following on “our side.”  While this shortcuts some of the painful emotional terrain, and “lets us off the hook”, it also complicates the process of letting go of fear and anger. It even cements in those negative emotions so they become chronic manifestations, disrupting peace of mind, healthy new relationships, and robust physical health. They have an undercurrent of hostility, negativism, and chronic resentments, and prevent full experience of joy, peace and happiness.

 “The price we pay for chronic anger and resentment is sickness and premature death. Anger is binding, not freeing. Is this worth the small satisfaction of being right?” -Dr. David Hawkins

Anger robs us of clear thinking and efficient problem solving. While hostility and intimidation may quickly get the issue off the table, or stalemate the process, it does nothing to satisfy the issue in the best possible manner for both sides. And it shuts down the whole brain thinking for both parties in the negotiation. Only the reptilian brain is engaged during anger. Few good results can be expected from divorce negotiations when either party is caught up in anger.

Post divorce anger costs emotionally as well. Take chronic resentments, for example, where emotional baggage is brought to the next relationship. Chronic resentments take many forms, including lack of trust, distorted clarity in assessing a potential partner, hesitant commitment, mild paranoia towards new partners, poor health and dissatisfaction with life. The many forms chronic resentment can take would fill a book and are beyond the scope of this article.

Relinquishing Anger

We cannot look to media, or to the masses, for support on relinquishing anger. Media churns out right and wrong judgments on a daily basis, often within every story. We are habituated to thinking in right and wrong concepts from our earliest academic experiences to the boardroom and to the newsroom. Countries are wrong, politicians are wrong, and anyone who disagrees with our opinions is wrong. Anger! Fear!

To release the grip of anger is an inside job. What is required of us is dogged determination to observe and dissipate each negative emotion or thought. With each observable, we notice the emotion and the feeling it creates in our bodies, and allow it to run its course. It’s as simple and as difficult as that. Simply allow the feeling to spend itself. It will pass just as the ocean tides go out, just as the sun rises and sets.

 Benefits of Relinquishing Anger

Relinquishing anger brings many benefits. It opens us to greater compassion, to an appreciation for the gifts in our lives, to gratitude, to well being, to reduced stress, to improved health, and to an overall life satisfaction. Knowledge is the first step in releasing the grip on your life. Taking positive action is the next.  Your happiness and joy await.