I never underestimate the good fortune I had having two loving parents. I was especially blessed because I had a father who always saw the good in people. I never saw him demean or diminish anyone, but only saw his kindness, humor and openness. My biological father led me to Kurt Goldstein, the man I referred to as my ”Philosophical father.” Goldstein was a psychiatrist in the 1940’s who developed the only organismic theory I have come across in the West.
He believed that all living creatures have but one drive and that is the drive for mastery. His view of human beings was positive and affirming and he believed that if this drive was not fulfilled it was because it was the environment that wasn’t adequate not the individual. For him the interference was not caused by some intrinsic wrongness in the individual or because of some battle between the id, ego and superego. He believed that blocks always originated outside of the individual but could become internalized.
For me his approach resonated with my own life experience and provided a refreshing alternative to the ”pathological” model I had been taught. I knew by observing my friends and my clients that we all felt good when we were living fully expressive lives, feeling both loving and lovable. And yet, we were not consistently able to maintain these feelings. Again, assuming that we all had the best of intentions I started to observe both myself, and my clients to find out what interfered with our being the loving human beings we truly desired to be. I recognized that too often we would lose our ability to love ourselves, and others because we are easily triggered into fearfulness.
The easiest way for me to understand how this would happen was to conceive of our having two different brains. The first brain I called the child brain because it is the ”reflexive” brain that we use in early childhood before cognition develops. The next brain I called the adult brain where cognition resides and we can form reactions and emotions that reflect our resources as we mature.
As we mature and add more cognitive abilities the reflexive part of our brain is only supposed to come into play when we are actually in danger. What I observed was that the reflexive child brain is easily triggered and when it is, we often perceive the world as we did when we were young infants and children.
A good example of how the child brain reacts became obvious when the divorce rate increased. We became aware of the fact that children quite often felt that they had done something wrong and that’s why their parents were divorcing. But when psychologists studied children’s reactions to other kinds of upsetting events, they found that children quite often felt responsible for these events as well.
For example, when a young child was asked why his sister got cancer and he said ”because I pushed her in the playground.” Children are by nature egocentric and when they experience a great deal of pain or discomfort their explanations tend to reflect a ”negative egocentricity.”
Unfortunately, as a culture we don’t teach children how to move from the child brain (which is easily frightened and often egocentric), to the adult brain. As we grow up we need to be taught we are not the center of the universe and not the cause of everything that doesn’t feel good in our lives. Without this understanding we end up suffering from tremendous feelings of guilt that we may try to escape by blaming others. Whether we are plagued by feelings of guilt or we blame others for our suffering, our ability to fulfill ourselves as loving beings is blocked.
Not only are we not taught how to shift from our reflexive brain to our creative brain, but we live in a culture where our role models: parents, teachers, politicians etc., are too often responding from this reflexive child brain. No matter how well-intentioned. when they are reacting from fear they are unable to truly empower us as loving human beings. They teach us childlike notions of how to feel powerful i.e., to feel better about ourselves by judging or criticizing others or to feel strong by being angry. These behaviors ultimately can reinforce feelings of guilt or shame when we experience our limitations or inevitably make mistakes.
Recent discoveries in neuroscience support the reality that it is our nature to be loving. We now know that our brains are wired so that we can form close intimate connections to one another. Not only do we feel good in loving, empathic relationships, but neuroscientists have recently discovered that we actually have "empathy neurons” that allow us to connect to one another and actually feel what others are feeling. Scientists believe that evolving these neurons allows us to experience the profound pleasure of being intimate with one another and this same ability to feel empathy fuels our capacity to take care of one another.
Empathy allows us to identify with the excitement of an Olympian winning a gold metal and it also inspires us to perform acts of great kindness, generosity and heroism. As a species we have an enormous capacity for being resourceful problem solvers and loving human beings. Unfortunately, when this fear response is triggered we go into survival mode and too often lose our capacity for empathy.
My work and my life have been about helping people to replace fear-based reactions with more loving and compassionate responses. I’ve been privileged to see people dramatically change their brains replacing painful emotional patterns with patterns of calm, joy, love and creativity.