Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.in her books The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works & The Upside of Stress describes the Neuroscience of Change as “two different selves inside of us playing it out in the brain.” What she means is that we have the opportunity to work with different aspects of our brains when we are facing changes or big emotional situations in our lives. If we know how our brain operates and what to look for, and we practice some skills to work with these two aspects, we can powerfully take charge of changes in our lives and expand ourselves rather than feel diminished or stuck and in pieces or parts of ourselves.
LIZARD BRAIN VS MODERN BRAIN
Let’s look more closely at how this Neuroscience of Change plays out in the nervous system. When we are activated by an emotional feeling brought on by change it usually is fear-inducing. It usually comes from the limbic system (lizard brain) and activates the sympathetic nervous system which in turn takes you on a joy ride through fight/flight/freeze. This is what we call a trauma response. When you hit freeze you are stuck in the parasympathetic nervous system and there you stay. In order to change this reaction, we have to get in touch with what Kelly calls our “wiser self” which comes from the prefrontal cortex region of the brain. This part of the brain balances and calms us and helps us get in touch with our heart and our greater sense of ourselves that we can’t feel when we are in the lizard brain part. This part of our brains knows how to make choices that are consistent with our goals, our core values, our greater self, because you have spent your entire life up to this point using this part of your brain to create that Wiser Self. Kelly calls this “wiser self” your Willpower. I call it your Higher Self.
FINDING YOUR HIGHER SELF THROUGH ACTIVATING THE HEART/LOVE CENTERS
I’ve been helping women find their “Higher Selves” for many years in a transpersonal process of self-discovery and trauma resolution called IFS or Internal Family Systems Therapy. Developed by a family therapist, Richard Schwartz, Ph.D over 30 years ago, this mind-body process teaches you how to do exactly what Kelly McGonigal has explained and the tools are so powerful.
First we have to learn how to be in this Higher Self. We have to use body/mind tools that get us into feeling this greater sense of ourselves. The first tool is practicing mindfulness which helps us pay attention inward and outward. You can also do this through prayer or other spiritual practices that bring us in touch with a spirit or power greater than ourselves but one that we can also experience in our bodies. Through noticing ourselves more deeply, we can feel our capacity as human beings, we can feel confident in our potential and we can feel that growth is possible from the inside out. Using the body here to ground us in sensation and breath helps us feel this greater self in our bodies. Yoga is a practice that totally creates this connection. A great book that talks about all the spiritual approaches to help you find your Higher Self is: How God Changes Your Brain – Andrew Newberg, MD and Mark Robert Waldman. Marianne Williamson just says to say to yourself, “May I be the embodiment of love in this room right now.”
USING THE TOOLS OF CURIOSITY AND COMPASSION
Then we develop the tools of curiosity and compassion. Curiosity simply wants to discover what is true. Curiosity helps us separate from our fear and our parts that are activated and hurting. By cultivating curiosity, we are looking for a deeper meaning or value in our struggles and learning to tolerate discomfort by allowing whatever is there to be there. Compassion is opening our hearts to love and bringing in kindness to ourselves as we struggle. By treating ourselves in a loving and kind way, we bring ourselves out of fight/flight and into the parasympathetic nervous system response where we are calm and ready for anything.
LETTING THE DIFFERENT PARTS PLAY OUT IN THE BRAIN BODY IS “SELF-LEADERSHIP”
So let’s talk about how you move yourself from fight/flight/freeze responses to this Higher Self.
It’s easy to intellectually get this process of moving from our younger triggered parts that take us over in the lizard brain response. But how do we feel each one? What is it like to feel the expansiveness of our Higher/Wiser Self? So now let’s experience it. Say you get triggered in this way: You are coming out of a divorce and you are feeling alone and lost. You meet a very attractive man who is interested in you. He offers to take you out and you hit it off. You are having a cocktail and dancing and you realize that this man is moving in a bit and you are noticing how great it would be to just go for it….to get that part of you met that is so alone and lost right now. To give her some comfort in this man’s affections….This is your younger maybe impulsive needy part that wants it now….Lizard brain is activated in this response as you are feeling activated by this part’s desire.
So, suddenly you take a deep breath and realize there are some other voices coming up in you that are saying, “Is this really what I want right now?” “I don’t really know this person very well.” You pause and use some mindfulness and maybe some kindness towards yourself. You begin to feel a little more grounded in your breath and feel more authentic and real. This means your prefrontal cortex is being activated as you feel your Higher Self checking in. This interplay between activated parts and our Higher Self is the dance of “competing selves” as Kelly calls it. Kelly calls this awareness “authentic alignment”. IFS calls it “Self-Leadership” or listening to your parts from this higher self place and giving them the attention and love they need to settle so you can decide what is right for all of you right now. The key is connecting with the greater part of you (Higher Self) so that you can really choose what matters most to you not your hottest desire of the moment. Having experienced “Self-Leadership” through one situation of “competing selves” allows you to be able to work to find it over and over and that creates healthier transitions and more resilience.
I think you might be really getting more connected to your Wiser/Higher Self by now. What do you notice the most about yourself when you are in this place of bigness? Take a few more moments to write down what you are noticing so that you can keep inviting love and curiosity in when you get triggered by challenges or changes.
Learning to notice what is happening in your brain body and slowing things down can help you navigate anything in your life! When you use these tools you are developing emotional resilience and a deep connection with yourself that gives you confidence and willpower.
I offer individual coaching programs and classes and workshops where you can learn these tools for working with change. Check out my website here: https://women-in-transformation.com/
This summer you can have the added opportunity of working in nature at my
Courageous Transitions Retreat. Sign up before May 30th for Early Bird Rates.