Does My Past Matter?
Clients often come to me with a problem that they feel is holding them back in their life somehow. They wonder whether I can help them figure out what caused the problem. Meaning, “What happened in my past that’s causing me to react this way in the present?” They often add, “…and does it even matter?” I love this question.
My simplified answer is not necessarily, but it might help.
The simple answer is no- you don’t need to understand the “root cause” of your current behavior in order to change it. This is because circumstances (even those from our past) technically don’t cause our actions; our feelings do. And our feelings are created by our thoughts. So to change your current behavior, you “just” need to change your current thinking. Doing so is simple but not necessarily easy.
Not so fast!
Circumstances in our past triggered our thoughts at that time. But when we think a thought repeatedly, it becomes a belief. Beliefs can still be changed, but they may take a bit more time and effort. Simply replacing an old thought with a new one doesn’t work. The new thought has to be believable in order to generate a new feeling…which in turn, drives new behavior. (More on “bridge thoughts” in a future blog.)
Thought errors: Triggers from the past
The amygdala is an almond-shaped set of neurons which act as the “smoke detectors” of your brain. It’s constantly scanning for danger, and when it finds it, sounds the alarm. The brain is superb at keeping us alive. All energy goes to the lower primitive brain where the fight/flight/freeze response is initiated. And while the lower brain is “fully lit”, the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC: the logical/analytical center) goes offline. Unfortunately the amygdala is a bit whistle-happy and doesn’t know the difference between emotional and physical danger, which tends to pose a few problems for us.
Say I come home from work to an empty house. I turn on lights, change into comfortable clothes, and head to the living room to relax. As I turn the corner, my husband (who has been hiding quietly) jumps out and grabs my shoulders while yelling loudly. The amygdala sounds the alarm in split-millisecond timing. It happens so fast, I don’t even register my primal thought “I’m going to die!” This is what we call a thought error. I am safe and this man is no threat to me. My thought was therefore inaccurate. That trigger-happy amygdala was a bit premature. …Or was it? After all, had it been an intruder rather than my pesky spouse, this thought would’ve been appropriate, and the timing may have saved my life. (We can’t blame the amygdala for the PFC’s slowness to rejoin the party!)
“Root Causes” (The real deal?)
- So if we can’t always trust the amygdala, how do we know if the emotion we feel is legitimate?If we don’t know if it’s legit, how do we know if we want to change the emotion (by changing our thought)?First, we have to recognize the validity of two things:
The feeling is real (even if the thought is wrong). Regardless of whether the amygdala is crying wolf or not, the physiological response in the body feels like the real deal. (So if I’m triggered by a tone of voice that reminds me of a critical 1st grade teacher, I may experience a thought “I’m so stupid” and then feel shame.)
- We can change our body’s response with practice. If my husband did this nightly, I would eventually be on to him. But even if I know he’s hiding somewhere in the house, my body will probably still have that initial response. But over time, my recovery time can get faster. In other words, the amount of time it takes to move from “I’m going to die!” to “It’s just you again.” will decrease significantly. Over time, the startle response may even fade.
Why it may help to know your “root cause” Knowing and understanding the root cause (or root thought) that is leading to a behavior can help you by providing information about your thinking. Understanding the thought that caused your past behavior can help you “fact check” it, so that you can work toward new thoughts, which will in turn create new behaviors.
Many clients I work with are able to change their feelings and behavior simply by addressing their thinking. They have no idea why they do what they do, and learning why is not part of their process. Others are curious about their story and how they became who they are today. Understanding what happened in their past that caused
their current actions helps them to be able to make the changes they need today for the future they want to create. There is no “right” way to manage the mind. The key is simply that you get to the point of being able to think new things so that you get a new outcome!
As many wise people have said:
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten!”
Not sure how to apply this to your own life? Why not do a mini session with me?
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