Listening to our inner self is unique to the individual but, answer this if you can, what voice do you hear most often, that positive, compassionate and nurturing one (when we are our own best friend) or that negative, pessimistic and corrosive one (the bully that resides in all of us)?
This conflict with our inner self, referred to sometimes as the struggle between our ‘angels and demons’, ‘the worse and best version of ourselves’ or the ‘light and dark’ so propagated by popular culture, illustrates that this is an age-old conundrum. So, what if you could amplify the positive and quieten the negative? How would your life be different? Please be assured, with professional help, that managing that inner self is in your gift, enabling you to think, feel and behave more positively.
The 7.5 billion people currently residing on planet earth have a genetically coded commonality; our ability to survive. Our linage has ensured our survival. As human beings we inhabit every corner of our planet and it is our ability to survive that has ensured the proliferation of the species. We are ‘hard wired’ to manage threats to our survival. If we feel under threat, we are predisposed to hit the threat, run away from the threat or hide from the threat.
So where to begin? Let’s get our head round how the mind works. First things first, it is has long been hypothesised that there are some 100 billion neurons but, on closer inspection, it is more like 86 billion neurons in the human brain. These neurons create neural pathways that enable thoughts, feelings and behaviours in human beings. Those 86 billion neurons are fuelled and enabled by chemical and electrical activity in the mind resulting in the human brain being able to process information in as little as 13 milliseconds!
These numbers are huge, unrelatable to our everyday interactions but consider this; the observable universe is considered to be 93 billion light years in diameter. Now I know a light year and a neuron are at the extremes of scale, but still, makes you think don’t it?
With these astronomical numbers influencing how we think, feel and behave a little extra knowledge concerning how the mind works can go a long way to helping you manage you own thoughts feelings and behaviours more positively. This month we will consider how best to think, feel and behave as a construct of our inner self, those thoughts we all carry, sometimes positive, sometimes negative.
Has anyone seen the fridge magnet that reads ‘Morgan Freeman narrates my life’? I ask as it can help to visualise a narrator for our inner self and as Mr Freeman has such a warm, velvety depth to his vocal tone, cadence and language pattern, resulting in a metaphorical hug from our inner self, it’s a good place to start.
In neurological terms think of ‘Mr Freeman’ as our anterior cingulate. The anterior cingulate is an area of the brain that allows us to process those feelings of frustration, fear or sadness more positively, enabling ourselves to focus on what we can do and so be less obsessed about the things that we cannot. To put it another way, proactively act now as opposed to catastrophise future actions. Ask yourself:
‘What can you do, so what must you accept?’
Professor John Ratey in his book ‘A users guide to the brain’ submits a metaphor for the human mind that refers to the anterior cingulate as the ‘Personal Assistant (PA)’ to the ‘Boss’. Boss, in this metaphor, is the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that allows us to make a proper assessment, calmly and rationally, so as to identify the right solution for us and those we care most about. Like any good PA, the PA in this metaphor, keeps the ‘day to day drama’ off the Boss’s desk allowing them to plan effectively for the future; calmly rationally and positively as the PA triages any perceived threats and objectively decides whether this warrants the Boss’s attention and or consideration. By doing this the anterior cingulate gives us the ability to think more clearly and not be overwhelmed by negative feelings.
The anterior cingulate has the ability to do the metaphorical role of the PA. MRI’s testify to this fact. The anterior cingulate in a more mindful, present person is noticeably larger than that of a stressed individual. By being more present, noticing, savouring and valuing the things you are and can do, will build capacity in the anterior cingulate. Think of the anterior cingulate as a ‘muscle’, the more you ‘work it out’, the stronger (larger) it becomes.
Our current lived experience is undoubtedly challenging, resulting in us often feeling disconnected, overwhelmed and exhausted. It is this feeling that an effective anterior cingulate has the ability to defuse us from and so sooth our inner self. It may feel like the ‘world is coming about at the seams’ however on closer inspection (engaging the anterior cingulate) you can notice, savour and value that, at this very moment, you are warm, dry, fed and safe, those you care for most are the same and, if you choose to look really hard, there is a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, change is constant, so know that things will, over time, get better.
This is how we can choose to listen to our inner self and resolve to act and interact more positively. It requires work, there are no quick fixes. Just as anyone wishing to improve their strength and conditioning accepts that the first small step is to lace up those trainers and start exercising, knowing it will get easier and an investment in physical health will result in a better quality of life. It is the same for our thoughts, feelings and behaviours and so nurture our mental health.
Now we can continue to say, ‘it’s not that simple, it can’t, can it?’ or we can accept that what we have done to this point is no longer working for us and therefore embrace change, change the way we think, feel and behave. With help, we can resolve to develop our anterior cingulate, build its capacity and, know that in time, this will allow us to feel that negative emotion without it defining who we are.
Our true inner self is happy, motivated and confidently able to overcome whatever obstacle appears in our path. By embracing change, seeing it as an opportunity to develop, rather than a threat to our survival, we can break free and be that best version of ourselves.
As stated, we all are hard wired to survive but the other thing we all share is our desire to move forward, cross the river, climb the mountain and sail the seas. Without that determination to overcome and nurture our inner self, the human race would not have advanced beyond the cave.
If we elect to stay in our ‘proverbial cave’ too frightened to venture out, change what we are doing, we condemn ourselves to a paralysing struggle with our inner self, frustrated, scared and sad.
Make 2021 the year you stand up for you, stop simply surviving, advance e beyond your own cave and start thriving!
Brett Rennolds is a qualified psychotherapist DSFH, HPD, MNCH NCH Supervisor and registered with the Complimentary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). Brett specialises in a solution-focused approach, complimented by the principles of CBT, ACT, mental health first aid and hypnotherapy. He continues to provide therapy online, via an encrypted platform. For more information please visit his website.