Basics

Personal Development: Part 4

Survival

During childhood, our survival depends upon our parents. Naturally, we have almost no control over what goes on around us. To grow out of that vulnerability, the child’s brain is designed to take in everything, and then to learn to avoid conflict with our caregivers.

Obviously that’s easier if our parents are kind. That’s the first gate in life: can we trust the world? The foundation of trust is suckling at our mother’s breast, and builds when she is attentive to our needs to be clean, warm and touched. If those are unreliable, the child may find no value in other people, and even look at them as objects.

Even a loving mother has other interests and responsibilities – mostly naturally taking care of other family members and herself. When we realize that mother manages herself, we can also aspire to independence. Why not learn how to pee and poop without making a mess of ourselves? Why not learn to use silverware and drink from a cup? When those goals are encouraged and rewarded, we enjoy our autonomy (independence). When suppressed, we learn shame.

Eric and Joan Erikson organized development as eight “stages of development.” Each stage describes a change in the relationship between a person and their society. At first the society is “mother,” growing rapidly to “parents,” “family,” and “school.” Acceptance or rejection by the “society” leaves expectations that stay with us for the rest of our lives – even after the practical skills have been mastered – until we revisit the relationship.

Even when explained in a way that makes adjustment seem reasonable and necessary, change is challenging because the brain changes. A child’s brain is designed with the assumption that a parent will be available to protect us from our mistakes. It seeks as much experience as possible. That changes dramatically in adolescence when the brain changes its priorities, focusing instead on figuring out how to influence our peers. That focus comes with neural “pruning” – the loss of connections in the brain.

Thus painful rejection in our childhoods becomes “locked in” because later in life the brain takes longer to rewire those behaviors. It’s just not as flexible as it was in childhood. In fact, the pruning that takes place in adolescence may even weaken the memory link between our behavior and the events that caused us to adopt them.

From the hypnotherapist’s perspective, the complex changes in the brain are summed up in a few words. An infant is born with a united mind, and is so always in hypnosis. By adolescence, the barrier between the conscious and subconscious is firmly established. Hypnotherapy reunites the conscious and subconscious, allowing us to adjust the childhood attitudes and behaviors that no longer serve us.

For those struggling with behaviors linked to painful childhood memories, the added layers of adult behavior often favor indirect methods in hypnotherapy. Therapeutic imagery discovers resources in the subconscious landscape that empower us to make adult choices. Kappas’ Mental Bank model is a nightly personal practice that uses fantasy dollars to motivate change in the subconscious during sleep. The hypnotherapist may also recommend journaling, which has similar goals.

Some clients request age regression therapy to confront painful memories. The American Hypnosis Association counsels against such work, recommending instead that the subconscious be allowed to reveal those memories in its own timing. When revealed in dreams, hypnotic suggestions can support our ability to redefine the conflict in moral terms that allow us to claim justice from the dream antagonists. (This is often called dream therapy.)

More directly, inner child work or self-parenting brings forth the child-like personality as it currently is in the subconscious landscape. The conscious adult self offers wisdom, comfort and protection. There is no confrontation with past memories – just encouragement to share the joyful attitudes of childhood with the adult self.

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Basics

Personal Development: Part 2

Theory of Mind

The mind is born with two responses to a threat: fight and flight, marshaled by the survival instinct in the primitive part of the brain. Fight and flight are meant to be temporary. In nature, the mind-body quickly returns to rest to heal, grow, and learn.

The experiences that we survive without harm are accepted by the mind-body – it is the unknown that is uncomfortable.

The early mind has two basic emotions: euphoria and fear. These emotions cause us to see experiences as “good” or “bad.” Both reactions have survival benefit: euphoria builds social bonding while fear guides our self-preservation. The newborn learns from their parents how to balance the two. This control comes from the thinking part of our brain, which learns to intervene in the activation of the fight/flight response.

Around eight years of age, as we venture out into the world alone, unknowns threaten to overwhelm us. To control the exposure of the mind-body to new experiences, the brain develops a barrier called the critical mind. Atop the barrier is the conscious mind that uses logic, reason, and analysis to test information. Below the barrier is the subconscious mind that adapts the body to meet the demands placed upon it. While our ego (or self) lives in the conscious mind, the subconscious does seven times as much work for us. When there is a conflict between our conscious goals and subconscious motivations, the subconscious generally wins.

Naturally the subconscious places survival above everything else. Given that much of the learning we do in school doesn’t apply to our home life, it sets up powerful barriers to prevent school from changing our behavior. In fact, it ignores everything we learn during the day until we fall asleep at night. During sleep, the subconscious sorts through the new experiences and knowledge and figures out which it is willing to accept as new knowns. Note that if we don’t get enough sleep, we lose a large portion of what we learn.

If accepted, the subconscious then goes carefully about deciding whether the new knowns require behavior changes, and whether it thinks that change is safe. This occurs in dreams. At the end of the night, the subconscious takes a last, cautious step: in the “venting” dreams just before waking, it advises the conscious mind “hey, we’re going to get rid of this old behavior/attitude – is that OK?” Examples might be: “Even though Mom’s cookies were great, we’re beginning to realize that sugar does not equal love.”

If the conscious mind disagrees, the subconscious will continue to work on the problem until a solution is found. During these episodes, our venting dreams will tend to repeat each morning.

The most important consequence of this process is that the conscious mind grows up faster than the subconscious. This is evident in adolescence as we prepare to leave the family home. The subconscious can become overwhelmed with all the changes, and simply decide to stay stuck with childhood behaviors and attitudes.

While adolescence is a universal experience, the same thing can happen at any time during our lives when changes come too fast. This is why an otherwise happy person is challenged by moving, changing jobs or having a child – all things that should be seen as opportunities.

In those situations, hypnotherapy facilitates a direct dialog between the conscious and subconscious, allowing us to replace outdated behaviors and grasp opportunities.

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