A Healthy Mind is Kind
June 16, 2022
What is a healthy mind?...and what are we actually doing in therapy?
These questions embody my favorite space to begin a journey with a new therapy client.
So often, I begin a therapy practice by asking a client to express a desired outcome for the session or series of sessions. What are they looking to change, improve or optimize in their current lives by coming to therapy? It seems simple enough, but the answers are always complex, surprising, or even elusive. The exploration of a marked, desired outcome is not to say the therapy process should be strictly results driven. Rather, it lends insight into what might not be working…the present areas of our lives that leave us feeling unseen, disconnected, or unfulfilled.
What are we actually doing in therapy?
We are giving these overlooked, painful or resistant spaces a seat at the table, and integrating them into the totality of our being. We are allowing them to coexist (or even exist for the first time) shoulder to shoulder with our joys, successes and better natures. We become richer for it.
Therapy is mapping a path, inch by inch, to a healthier mind. Healthy minds are paradoxes, capable of holding two truths simultaneously.
A high functioning mind affords us the freedom to respond to our physical and emotional environment without being a prisoner to impulse or reflex. We respond vs. react. The longer we can watch our own minds, the more we can sit with ourselves and explore our processing of the world. This practice fundamentally shifts our capacity for how we relate to ourselves and show up for others.
Our subconscious (or subcortical brain) is its own ecosystem. Imagine attempting to calculate the trajectory of a moving object — say a baseball — without accounting for gravity. Now, certainly pitching a baseball in outer space (an environment absent the earth’s gravitational rule) would create a different outcome than throwing the same baseball at Yankee Stadium. Environment changes the speed and trajectory of the baseball. No amount of athletic conditioning will be enough to counteract the zero gravity environment. Even the best ballplayer in the world is going to throw a slow pitch on the moon.
Similarly, the subconscious mind has its own gravitational field. When we improve the functionality of our subcortical brains, we step into a new world, just like adding gravity. We find ourselves suddenly jettisoned to a place that is more predictable, more grounded… one where our talents and abilities can appropriately manifest.
Every system in nature follows complexity theory in order to survive. Our brains are no different. This system is often referred to as F.A.C.E.S. It’s what every system in nature requires, and it's what we want for healthy minds:
When your brain is high functioning in all five of these areas, it can generally handle a good amount. In therapy sessions, we begin to map how well a brain naturally follows this patterning. Why? Because a “healthy” brain will always return to this state, but a more triggered or activated brain will be missing one or some of these qualities. The work of therapy is to build towards an effective system for the brain to access more positive integration between these modalities.
Science aside, we cannot force ourselves to “get better.” To add, there’s also nothing unnatural or wrong about becoming “triggered.” To become activated is a natural, human response to stress and the work of a healthy mind is always to merely return to a place of deeper self-compassion and equanimity in the face of environmental stressors. The younger parts of ourselves dwell deep within our subconscious mind. Our internal childs and shadow selves are hypersensitive to the threat of being “fixed” or rejected. They will always react, such is their nature. An effective way to heal these fractured parts of our psyche is through a ritualized practice of patience and acceptance of both who and how they are. What we resist, persists.
When triggered enough, the subcortical region of the brain will always win. It’s the part of our body that floods us with feelings and numbs us from pain. It can create both chaos and rigidity in our nervous system. That being said, the only way for this part to concede to our better nature is to meet it with self-observation and compassion. The observation is generally pretty easy for most of us. Compassion, less so. It arrives with time and coherence around why we are the way we are. Some people (lots of people) need a great deal of coherence around themselves before they can even consider being kind to themselves. Simply put, they need to know why their brain functions the way it does. It’s harder to have compassion for the things we don’t understand.
We understand self-compassion as an essential, practical and adaptive emotional regulation strategy. It relies upon a ritual of self-kindness. Self-kindness is the act of extending generosity of understanding towards oneself in difficult circumstances or emotions, rather than using harsh self-criticism and self-judgment. In therapy, skill building around patience, self-care and kindness supports the development of a healthy mind.
The work of becoming healthier is the work of kindness. In the next few weeks, we will begin to explore what it means to develop a practice of self-compassion. We will look at where we store feelings of self-punishment in the body… how to move beyond our automatic processes into a space of greater possibility and change….and ultimately, how to show up as our better selves, for the benefit and integration our younger selves, in any place… at any time… and especially when we feel triggered.