How to be kinder in a cruel world
Lessons from a writer
🧠 The brain
First, let’s talk about the brain.
Now more than ever, the world can be cruel and stressful. We carry this stress with us into our own relationships. Whether we handle our stress by fighting or by avoiding fights, one thing is for sure: The brain in involved.
We share about 98% of our brains with apes. Yes, you read that right!
Humans share 98% of DNA with chimpanzees. The 2% difference resides in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is the thinking, planning, and information gathering and problem-solving part of the brain.
But we share with other species the older, more primitive part of the brain. The limbic system is the seat of fear, responses to stress, survival strategies, emotion formation and processing and, memory.
We toggle between the operation or one part of the brain or the other. The PFC is not always operational, not always in control, not always online. The limbic system reacts as a reflex, floods your body with adrenaline and comes online especially when we feel threatened or are psychologically in pain.
We can call the PFC the higher brain and the limbic system the lower brain.
I’m sure you want to know: What does this have to do with my relationship?
When we feel rejected, blamed, criticized or humiliated, there is a region of the brain that lights up as when we step on glass, which means that physical pain affects us as much as words do. And when we feel threatened or in pain, we react with a -generally ineffective- survival strategy. So, when you
you respond by either trying to dominate or disengage, you are probably trying to protect yourself from pain. That is your survival strategy, and you are generally not even conscious of it.
The problem is, what helps you to get relief -shut down, or attack-, provokes pain in your partner. And yet, you both keep repeating the cycle even though it’s ineffective.
🤔 Why do we keep repeating what doesn’t work?
That’s an interesting question. And here again, the brain is at play.
There is tension between the lower brain and the higher brain. And they don’t communicate well with each other. As I mentioned, the lower brain is the seat of emotion formation and emotion processing, memory, survival. It’s always scanning for danger. It acts as a reflex, it’s immune to logic, it works by associations, not words. It takes much less than a second for it to make an association with a painful experience that’s stored there, and it sets off the fight, flight or freeze response when it’s activated by threats. It’s not very smart, it doesn’t differentiate between a bear in the woods and a spouse’s aggressive tone of voice. It works faster than the higher brain; it highjacks it; and takes it out of operation. It doesn’t make good decisions.
But things get even more complicated. The higher brain does have the capacity to regulate our lower brain. When that happens, we can think, plan, solve problems. But, the higher brain functions either on the basis of habits to conserve energy, or on the basis of choice, which requires intentionality.
So, while the higher brain does gives us the power of choice, most of us live on automatic daily habits. The stronger and older the habit, the stronger the neuronal circuit that sustains it. So, habits and emotions run the show in our lives. Not the thinking, rational, problem -solving, thoughtful part.
Anything happening to you today that reminds you even unconsciously of something stored in your limbic system puts you on high alert, ready to react or over react. We have so much history stored in our limbic system, that we will get triggered no matter what because we are so interdependent with our partner. And, remember, the lower brain acts faster than the higher brain. This is also why arguments escalate so fast: “Wow, what just happened here?” “How did we get from x to z in 10 seconds?”.
In one of P.’s earliest memories, he is sitting under the dining room table in his house, covering his ears to shut out the parents fighting in the bedroom. As an adult, when his wife raises his voice at him or the children, he reacts by withdrawing, and her main complaint is: “he doesn’t hear me”. Even though his higher brain “knows” that it’s not the same, his lower brain reacts as it were the same kind of danger, because of the emotional memories stored.
When C’s husband used to drink, he was verbally abusive to her. Nowadays, if he has a disappointed look in his face, she reacts to him in the same way as when he was drinking, even though he hasn’t been verbally abusive for over 20 years.
If we want to become more effective, how do we try something different?
Doing something different is difficult because:
- We don’t have the habit and it takes effort to create a new habit
- Our higher brains are not always in control
- We don’t think we have a choice, we think instead: “this is the way I am”.
- We don’t always know why we got triggered
The PFC gives us the power of choice. But it’s not easy. It’s easier to repeat the unconscious, automatic ineffective behaviors -attack or withdrawal-rather than using the effective ones.
Another way of explaining the tension between the higher brain and the lower brain is to say that it is the tension between reflexes and intentionality. A tension between laziness and effort; automaticity and consciousness.
🎲 The Blame Game
When you fall in love, the region in the brain that lights up is the same as when someone is on cocaine, as demonstrated in Functional MRIs.
As time goes by, we lose the new love feeling and move from passionate love to companionate love. Relationships always deteriorate over time, even when there’s not a whole lot of damage, in part because the habits of mind take over, and we become lazy, less kind, and more prone to habitual responses.
In unhappy couples, each feels like a victim and blames the other. And each member of the couple feels justified. The power struggles make it hard for you to see the “dance” that you have both created in the tension between connection and disconnection.
What is your step in the dance? How do you contribute to the circular interactional patterns you have both created?
The PFC, the higher brain, is the last one to develop. We only learn kindness, restraint, compassion, empathy and consciousness in the process of our development as human beings and it’s the only thing that distinguishes from other beings. If things go well, we learn to tame our tantrums, deal with frustrations when we don’t get our way, and to handle crisis.
But, when things don’t go well in our relationship, we regress, we get triggered and our lower brain takes charge, all of it in a split second.
We can find our way back, but how?
Do we really have a choice?
Thinking Like a Writer
The way we react to our partners may be a sign that we feel unloved, unseen, unheard. We worry that we don’t matter, that our partners don’t have our back. And oftentimes, when we feel that way, we either attack or shut down and withdraw. Either one of those reactions is not effective because it leads to disconnection, which is the opposite of what we want.
There are many ways to regain some control over our lower brain.
Meditation. Mindfulness based stress reduction. Individual therapy. Couples therapy. Good books, and good movies. Interviewing happy couples. Making cognitive shifts. Learning to express the emotions verbally.
A good course of individual or couples therapy could help make connections between the old patterns of reactivity and the current triggers that feed the interactional patterns and activate the lower brain.
I would encourage you to choose at least one path.
One way is to think like a writer.
Think of your first thoughts and feelings that come to your mind as the first draft needing revisions. The first draft is like a punch in the stomach. It’s like the reflex that gets activated.
But you can slow down for the pre-frontal cortex to come back online. If you cultivate a revision practice, as writers do, you would think of your initial reaction as the draft of a paper. And, you would never think of delivering your first draft to your teacher. Why would you do that with your partner? When you revise, you make space for alternative thoughts and feelings.
Make a one-second pause between the thought and the action.
Think like a writer and ask your-self:
- Who do I want to be in this moment?
- What kind of partner do I want to be in this relationship?
And the most important question:
- How do I want my partner to feel when I am done?
When you revise the draft, keeping in mind the impact it has on your partner, your draft will become clearer, smarter, better, kinder.
We can love with the brain in mind and put the higher brain in charge more often with intentionality.
- Neuroscience and Accessing the Emotional Brain. Lesson 8. Couples Institute training. Peter Pearson and Ellyn Bader.
- Loving with the brain in mind. Mona Fishbane
- George Saunders interviewed by Ezran Klein. The Ezra Klein show. Podcast released February 19, 2021.