It's beginning to feel a lot like Spring here in Texas so I thought we might spend some time this week thinking about a different kind of "Spring Cleaning." Today's image will take us into a better understanding of habits, patterns, and how the brain works.
For our purposes today, we'll think of the brain as a physiological and emotional closet. Beginning from the moment someone is born, the brain starts storing the information, memories, tips, tricks, and shortcuts it needs to help along the way. For an infant, this is going to include things like: who my mom is, crying is the way to get fed, crying is the way to get changed, and crying is the way to get mom to come to me (are you sensing a pattern?). The infant brain is hardwired to get its needs met through two primary means -- being cute and crying. As that infant gets older, language starts to come into play. Instead of only having crying as a means of communication, toddlers and small children develop the use of words to express themselves which also comes with an increase in the complexity of understanding of the world and an increase in the complexity of needs they have. At each stage of development and learning there is more and more complexity to the types of information and skills that are housed in the brain's closet.
Let's take a side step quickly to talk about one very important factor. The brain -- a lovely and very complex organ that does almost everything for sustaining our life -- is incredibly lazy. Now, maybe "lazy" isn't a fair assessment but it does place a high premium on short cuts. Since the brain is responsible for so much in a given day, it looks for the quickest, most efficient, and most reliable way of accomplishing a task. Remember learning how to tie your shoes? Developing the muscle memory to tie a knot, form one loop, wrap the other lace around, pull it through, and pull tight into a bow takes some time. As an adult, I can now do that in the dark, half asleep, and without thinking as I get up to go for an early morning run. In fact, in order to write those steps, I actually had to tie my shoe a couple of times to remember how I do it. That task has become so routine and habitual that I have lost connection to the necessary steps. Transferring a complex task from short term memory to implicit memory opens up a lot of mental capacity for doing other things. If in any given day, I don't have to actively remember how to tie my shoes, take a shower, make my coffee, or drive my car, then I arrive at work with more mental storage to get through the day. We need these short cuts in order to function effectively. However, because these short cuts are so helpful, the brain sometimes over does it or turns non-desirable activities into the same implicitly stored, muscle memory type habits. The other factor to keep in mind with how the brain stores information and makes short cuts is that it also tries to do everything it can to keep its human from experiencing pain. So any task, activity, habit, belief, etc. that reduces physical or emotional pain is going to be quickly remembered, stored, and vehemently protected. For example, I had a long day and was stressed, so I came home, opened the fridge, pulled out a beer, popped the cap off, and took a sip all before I had given it much thought. If I do this every day, it becomes a habit and I'm well on my way to forming of psychological dependence on alcohol for stress relief.
So back to the closet. If we think of our brain storing all of these shortcuts over the years in one place, things will quickly get pretty cramped in there. Fortunately, the brain is able and willing to replace one way of doing something with another if it can find a suitable alternative that provides about the same or better outcome. This cleaning of the closet continues to occur throughout our lives. The onesies hung in the closet that prioritize crying as a means of getting fed are taken off the hangers and replaced with the verbal prompts and cues that are more effective. In a perfect world and system, we would easily and naturally get rid of the old, outdated, unflattering items in our closet every so often and replace them with new, more functional, and more appropriate alternatives and things would be neat, orderly, and organized.
Now, let's get realistic. I would wager a guess that everyone reading this post can think of at least one item in their closet that is more than 10 years old that somehow continues to avoid being thrown out or donated because "how will I remember that basketball camp I went to in 2005 if I get rid of this shirt?" It may have stains, multiple holes, and be reminiscent of a time in my life when I had a very different hair style and world view, but every time I look at it when I'm cleaning out my closet, I just can't get rid of it. The same thing happens with our thoughts, belief patterns, and habits. If you learned as a teenager that trusting people led to you getting emotionally injured, then an automatic assumption that all people will hurt you and shouldn't be trusted forms into a habit and hangs around like an old t-shirt. It becomes part of the landscape of your closet without further question. Maybe most days, you choose to use and wear your updated clothes but when you have a long day, don't feel confident, and are highly emotional, you might just come home and put on that sweatshirt from high school that is faded, stretched out, and barely qualifies as a sweatshirt anymore but it's comfortable and familiar.
People coming into therapy often have very full and outdated closets. Taking the time to systematically go through your whole closet and identify what stuff has been hanging around longer than is helpful takes patience and compassion. Again, the brain is discouraging you from getting rid of something that has worked for you in the past -- even a little bit. One of the initial goals of therapy is to take a full inventory of what habitual patterns and beliefs are continuing to occupy space in someone's life past the point of being effective and productive. There will be some tough conversations about whether or not these patterns actually serve you or whether they are just well-known and comfortable. It is not realistic that we just do a total overhaul and throw away everything we own and start over. Small changes include being observant of the frequency and intention with which we use certain beliefs or actions, attempting to reduce how often we lean on those beliefs or actions, and eventually preparing to replace them for something more fitting.
One final thought. This process is natural, human, and unavoidable. One of the most challenging aspects of this particular process is finding compassion for the fact that at one point in your life, that puff paint and sequined Santa sweatshirt was in style and you liked wearing it. The patterns and habits we develop through our lives did once serve a real and necessary purpose. When you were a child, you didn't know any other way to get your needs met than to cry. That does not make you stupid, incompetent, or broken. You used what you knew and it worked to some extent so you kept using it. That's how the brain works.
Fortunately, due to neuroplasticity, our brains are able to continue to change and grow throughout our lives and old patterns can be replaced by new ones with time, practice, and support. Letting go of the old and familiar -- albeit sometimes dysfunctional -- is scary but can give way to newer, healthier, and more sustainable patterns. The process of change and growth is constant throughout our lives. You won't be wearing the same stuff when you're 50 as you wore in your 20's -- and that's okay. Being able to develop compassion for the version of yourself that needed that pattern at one point while also pursuing an updated option is a skill that gets fostered through the therapy process. Ongoing change is able to be better maintained once there has been experience and practice doing it with support because -- as always -- everything is easier when we're not doing it alone.