What are the factors that contribute to the stories—or mental constructs—that the brain spins together throughout one’s life? We know, intuitively, that they exist, operating outside of our conscious awareness and influencing our day-to-day decisions.
When clarity is scarce, and uncertainty looms large, we insert expectation in a bid to move out of that uncomfortable space. The brain is a prediction machine, after all. From sensory data flowing in through the senses, the brain attempts to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. This is how we explain why things happen and connect the dots of our world.
The meaning we assign to all the sundry things that fill our lives become beliefs. Once beliefs are formed, the brain begins to seek out confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs. This adds an emotional boost of confidence, thereby reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive feedback loop of belief confirmation. Our brains will literally utilize every tool in the shed to reinforce those beliefs as truths and ensure that we’re always right.
In the end, all of us are trying to make sense of what is… really, a subjective reality.
Nature has gifted us with a double-edged sword that cuts for and against. On one edge, our brains are the most complex and sophisticated information-processing machines in the universe, capable of understanding not only the universe itself but of understanding the process of understanding. On the other edge, by the very same process of forming beliefs, we are also more capable than any other species of self-deception and illusion.
There is extensive research to support that early attachment experiences have a profound effect, not only on our beliefs but on psychological development and symptom production, as well. A fragile sense of self and a dysfunctional relationship with food/body image come to mind when I consider the struggles my clients face. However, it would be misguided to presuppose that attachment issues underlie all symptoms.
Certainly, a stable early environment is paramount, but focusing so much attention on attachment issues can make compelling social and racial issues disappear. It can deny the full familial and social reality of our lives, as well as obscure our understanding of the context in which we grew up. When I speak of these social experiences that shape our emotional apparatus, I’m talking bullying, racist or ethnic oppression, betrayal by friends or colleagues, layoff and unemployment, living in a war zone, or having—and then losing—popularity or fame.
The picture expands further if we look closely at existential experiences, which in many (but not all) cases are meaningfully distinct from both social and attachment experiences. An illness or injury causing disability, a change from affluence to poverty, accidentally causing a death, living through ordeals due to natural disasters, a dream that escaped us: These are all existential experiences that can give rise to non-conscious, problematic emotional schemas, even to those with the most secure of attachment styles.
It appears, then, that attachment history is but one of several different major influences that complexly form an individual’s emotional style. Like different rivers converging to one delta to enter the ocean, all of the domains of learning described above converge to the same locus of influence, namely, the contents of the individual’s emotional implicit memory.
Attachment, social, and existential experiences (and others such as artistic, athletic, and spiritual experiences) create emotional learning consisting of implicit schemas and adaptations, and it is through these persisting schemas that those experiences have their ongoing, personality- and life-shaping effects. William Faulkner captured the essence of this in writing, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The emotional and behavioral styles we exhibit that are often described as “dysregulated” and “maladaptive,” may seem to be when viewed in relation to conventional (culture-specific) norms. However, when viewed in the context of the life experiences and emotional learnings that generate them, their adaptive and coherent nature is apparent.
Rather than being out of control—as “dysregulated” and other such pathologizing terms suggest—these emotional and behavioral styles are fully under the regulatory authority of the person’s implicit knowledge, which “know” to manifest these styles just as they are, with one clear goal: To avoid suffering. That is, after all, the purpose of emotions. It is not just storage of an experience’s dry specifics, but an inscription—indelible in the memory circuits of the brain—of whether to approach or avoid this behavior in the future.
Friends, this is so clutch to understanding why we often feel like we are out of alignment. We must be curious enough to dig deeper, for there is much more to it than meets the eye.
We, humans, are coherent, adaptive beings—our coherence extends far beyond our perpetual striving for well-knit conscious narratives. Buried beneath rationality and logic exists an abyss: A mysterious world of unconscious emotions and beliefs.
Still, we expect that guidance should come to us at a time that suits us. At the right place. In the right way. And indeed, at the right time. We expect our purpose to reveal itself to us magnificently and in a glaringly obvious fashion. We lace goals and opportunities with such words as: “I’ll follow my dreams when [insert major resistance/ distraction/ excuse here]” or “I’ll start loving my body when I lose [insert number of pounds lost here].”
There is never a right time when all of your ducks line up in a row. Is there something about your current belief system that is consistently causing a mismatch between your expectations and your outcome? How might you refine them so that there are fewer prediction errors?
This understanding is the foundation of all of my programs and challenges us to move beyond the conventional view of symptoms as maladaptive or irrational pathologies. The goal is to honor the coherent knowingness—the tacit knowledge that there are mechanisms in place to ensure our survival, whether the threat is real or perceived. We must brave the wilderness of our emotions to arrive at the origin of the symptom, and not merely suppress or malign the indication that something is wrong.
It needs your undivided attention. Go there, in that space. Enter it of your own volition, for in that state of knowingness, there is transcendence.
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