Are you programming your brain for unhappiness?

coding your brain
Are you programming your brain for happiness?

Computers have been used as an analogy for the human brain. We know that like computers, brains are able to be “programmed” and change based on what we learn, how we think and what we pay attention to. Are you inadvertently programming your brain in a way that leads to feeling unsatisfied?

Selling “Not Enoughness”

The common marketing ploy in most sectors – and any marketing person will tell you this – is to indicate that the product will help make you whole in some way. “You need this” is the underlying message. Even in healthcare and especially alternative healthcare we see this trend. Right now on Netflix there’s a show called (Un)Well that explores many different alternative “natural” health interventions. Most, if not all, have a huge market capitalization and are growing in popularity. They use the same tactics of “This product will help you _____”.

I also believe we do this to ourselves. We lie down every evening or wake up every morning with the thought of working out more, getting on track with work or not buying frivolous things to get back on track financially. Our very internal thinking patterns have an underlying foundation of “I’m not enough as I am”.

What “program” are we ingraining into our brains?

Take a moment to follow this metaphor on how our brains get programmed.

Imagine a field full of wild grasses and flowers. You want to cross the field but there’s no path. You make your way across even though you’ve never done it before. You look back and see some grass pushed down from your journey.

The next day, you make the same journey and it’s a little easier. You continue this behavior every day for a year. The path becomes well-worn and it’s easier each time.

Now imagine you want to change your behavior. You want to take a different path. You stand at the edge of the field and see the well-worn path that you’ve always taken. It would be much easier to take that path – you know it well. However, you bravely forge a new path. It was a bit harder but you make it across. You look back and see that the new path is hardly visible – the old behavior is still well-worn. You’ll need to forge this new path over and over again and not take the old path in order for it to fade.

Obviously the paths represent our behaviors or even our thought patterns. In the brain, our neurons fire along pathways and the more we use certain pathways, like a road, they expand to accommodate the traffic. We we don’t use them, they wither and get overgrown with brush.

A new way to think

I propose that our very foundation of thinking – trying to improve, getting the next product, signing up for the latest intervention or finding the “right” counselor to unlock something about myself – that very fundamental “chase” to improve is actually creating a program or coding our brain to think we are not enough.

I propose a new way.

Let us instead practice the opposite. Whether through meditation or simply sitting with a mantra of “I have everything I need.” or “I am enough” or “I’m completely whole in this moment”. We bravely forge a new path in the field – a path of accepting ourselves in this moment and accepting the world as it is. We thus create a sort of “heaven on earth” – if we truly begin to materialize these beliefs, this programming becomes more ingrained – we start to see that we are indeed perfectly whole and that the world is perfect as it is.

Simply imagine whatever programming you practice being more well-worn 10, 20, 50 years from now. Do you want to be old and continue to chase interventions, products and things to make you “better”? Or would you rather be content and see yourself and the world as perfectly imperfect and in divine order?

Should I record my kids’ tantrums for their counselor? Only in rare cases

Imagine you’ve been working with a counselor, like myself, and trying to reduce tantrums, acting out and other challenging behaviors. You might feel compelled to record the tantrum to show the counselor, psychiatrist or doctor. I get parents wanting to show me video evidence of what their kid did – or even using me as a threat – “I’m going to record this and show it to Mr. Jeff!”

There’s only a few good reasons to record a tantrum.

First, let’s squash the common reason parents record their kids’ tantrums. They think it’ll get their kid to straighten up, act right or somehow calm down more quickly. RARELY do I see this. In fact, the opposite tends to be more true. Kids feel shamed, are already upset and having a phone recording them makes them more upset.

There was one experiment where they tested morals using a mirror. They had a bowl of candy out for Halloween with a sign that said, “Take One”. One group had a mirror pointing towards the children while another did not. They found that when the mirror was in place, children were more likely to follow the guideline of only taking one piece of candy – presumably due to seeing themselves making the choice.

One reason you may want to record your child’s tantrum is for providing feedback. Make sure you specify that nobody else will see this and it’s only so when the child is calm, they can see what their behavior looked like. Better yet would be a mirror or something more in-the-moment. Recording with a phone is specifically for providing feedback when the child is able to hear it – and it’ll still be more likely to upset them and create a longer tantrum. Think about it? When you’re very upset, do you want someone recording you? Even if it’s “so you can watch yourself later?”

The only other scenario I can think of where recording your child during a tantrum would make sense is if you feel there’s a real medical issue occurring during the tantrum. I’m not just talking about threats to self/others – that’s very common with kids during tantrums. I mean specifically they have seizures or ticks, perhaps their eyes roll back in their heads or have other strange behaviors that might be helpful to show a pediatrician, mental health professional or psychiatrist. Taking notes would likely get the information to the professional without recording your child.

So, what to do during a tantrum?

There is no short, blog-sized bite of information to tackle this question but I’ll do my best.

  1. Parent’s need to stay calm! When parents get frustrated, overwhelmed or upset, this spirals the child even more. Sometimes yelling or making threats can get a child to calm down quickly but they do so out of fear and will not help in the long-term. If you need to take a break and it’s safe to do so, then do that! 5 deep breaths can work wonders so you can respond skillfully to your child.

  2. Connect. In that moment of a tantrum, it’s ok to connect with your child. Validate their feelings. Validation does not mean giving permission. “You’re upset that I took the ipad” is not the same as “You can have the idad back”. Naming their feelings can help them connect to their more logical brain (wizard brain) and not stay so long in their tantrum brain (lizard brain). As helpful adults that care about the child, it’s partly our job to give them the language – VALIDATE THEIR FEELINGS!

  3. Assess. Before moving on to Redirect – assess the child for their readiness to hear next steps, consequences etc. Is their breathing slowing down? Are they able to listen and hear what you’re saying? Are they acting respectfully in whatever place you’re in?

  4. Redirect. This is when you problem-solve and figure out next steps. What are we going to do about this? Are you ready to be mature in the store? How do you want to move forward?

  5. Reinforce. Make sure the child knows exactly what happened and the consequence that occurred. “You got upset that you couldn’t use the ipad in the grocery store. You weren’t acting maturely in the store so we left and had to wait in the parking lot until your body/mind calmed down. What would happen if we went back in and you did the same thing? That’s right! We would leave and sit in the car again.”

Book Review – Dave Ramsey’s “Total Money Makeover”

So, this is a very popular book. And of course, most people have heard a thing or two about Dave Ramsey. My wife heard he was very religious. Many people have heard about his radio show. I had a vague knowledge of him. It was like I’d had this idea of the typical famous self-help book dude.

My first impression was, “GET TO THE POINT!”  I wanted to skip ahead to his “baby steps” in a quick bullet-point style to see if it meshed with my experience, thoughts and values. However, it wasn’t painful per se, the stories were nice and the points clear and valid. By the time I got to the “baby steps” every thing made sense and Dave’s direct, “gazelle intensity” approach was clear and easy to understand.

Overall I’d recommend this book as part of a general financial literacy approach. Include this in your advancement of knowledge but don’t let it be the end all be all of financial knowledge. If you just need one book, stick to “Rich Dad Poor Dad”.

Keeping finances simple

It’s really easy to get complex with personal finance. With each account, loan or investment comes another thread to keep track of. Listing your accounts can feel like a daunting task – the monster under the bed that nobody wants to reveal… Except this monster may be worse than what you imagine.

Once I realized my financial life was a mess and too complicated, I vowed to keep it simple. A friend referred me to the simple card, which didn’t really work for me at first. I put some money in to test it out and nothing changed in my financial life besides adding another account! I did the opposite of my intention.

Fast forward and I set up my main income to directly deposit into my simple account. I still had Chase accounts and other various credit cards and loans but, this time I truly got to experience the simple card in a better way. The last piece was getting my wife on board.

I simply invited her to simple with an email, encouraged her to complete the basic info and set up direct deposit. It’s at this point my financial life got clean and easy. This is largely because we have independent financial lives with shared financial goals. I realize most couples combine finances in which case, simple would work out even better!

Once we were both simple card users, we used it for 0-sum budgeting. We gave every penny a job and included shared goals. Within a few months I closed my Chase accounts, paid off my truck and closed my discover card. I’m halfway to my emergency fund goal and my financial life hasn’t been clearer.

The simple life.

I now have 1 travel credit card which gets paid in full every month, my simple card, an Ally online back account and my vanguard retirement IRAs. I’m tempted to add a brokerage account for fun but I also know my goal is to keep things simple.

*Update: Simple is going out of business and I’m switching to SOFI. Social Finance is a company similar to Simple but the main factor I considered for making the switch is the “goals” or “buckets” or “vaults” – whatever they call it. The app simply allows you to budget and move your money into these “vaults” and when you spend from that card, you can simply say which vault you’re choosing to spend from. This is the main thing that helped me get on track financially. Keep track of every penny with budgeting built into your bank app.

Building Momentum

How do we change? How do we go from where we are to where we want to be? It’s the new year and many people have resolutions and goals. After hearing about a client’s history, the question becomes, what do you want to get from this? What do you want to see different in your thoughts, feelings, & relationship to others?

I mostly work with youth and families. This gives me a great opportunity to affect relational changes. Improving relationships between parents and their children, siblings, step-parents, co-parents and other family members gives me joy. But how is it done? It’s not just all about “love one another” and “can’t we all just get along”. It’s way more than that.

One of the first things I notice when working with a damaged family relationship is that we have to start with the hurt. Often, both people or the whole family is hurt. This is very true when discussing trauma, especially family trauma. If a parent was abusive, the whole family is affected. There’s usually one kid that we call the “identified patient” – which is a fancy term that just means that child is showing the most symptoms. But know that each and every family member is affected and we all deal with family trauma in different ways.

So, start with the hurt. We name the trauma and explore it’s impact. Very similar to the work I do with helping kids take responsibility with “Own & Repair” but more expanded when working with families. Exploring impact is not something we mention and then move to a “get over it” mindset. No. It’s something that needs to be seen, heard and honored. “This is how it affected me”. This could entail thoughts, feelings, body sensations, actions, trust with others etc. And because everyone is hurting, we need to slow down and take turns. This is largely where the therapist comes in. I help family members take turns hearing impact on one another and this alone can be very powerful.

This begins our journey of building momentum. It feels incredibly good to feel heard by loved ones that you’ve felt distant from for so long. And usually, we don’t think people “get” us or we think they will judge us in some way. Getting to the “feeling felt” part is the start of building relational momentum that can last and last.

Shortly afterwards opportunity presents itself in the form of a small disagreement or conflict. The opportunity is, how can I use what I’ve learned in counseling, taking time to hear one another, in order to resolve this conflict? If successful, congratulations! You’ve taken the next step and a big one at that. You’ve taken something learned in counseling and practiced it at home. Let the momentum continue! (If you “failed” that’s ok too – it just means you get to explore the sequence of interaction in your next session).

Notice how this process isn’t a huge change all at once? That’s right, we’re starting with small successes in order build momentum. This isn’t “The Biggest Loser” where they take people who are overweight and give them the biggest workout all at once which makes them vomit. Instead, this is going for a short walk and feeling good about that then increasing your distance as you get used to the new habit and behavior. Like an investing snowball you gather more and more as momentum increases.

Also notice that this is not just on the parent or just on the child. At least for older children, they can learn and use the skills as well. For younger children, it is largely the parent setting the tone and conflict resolution skills. But for parents of teens, the teen can be learning these relational skills that will not only help them with the current parent/child relationship but with future relationships with peers, teachers and even romantic relationships.

So parents, if your wanting change in your relationship with your child, start small and build. If you’re noticing only consequences, nagging, groundings and all the negative parts, maybe it’s an opportunity to find something on the other side of the coin. What can you praise? What is the child doing right?

I’ll leave you with this anecdote.

A mother and teen boy comes into counseling…well, mostly the mother because the teen refused. She shared through tears that she’s just fed up, doesn’t know what to do to get him back on track. She’s taken away his games, restricted his friends and went so far as to say he’s only got a mattress in his bedroom! My question was: What is he doing right? You can imagine she struggled with this. “He’s not doing anything right!” – Are you glad he’s alive? I asked. “Well, yeah, I’m happy he’s breathing.”

I instructed that parent to start with that. A simple praise of “Thanks for being alive”. That small start built into the momentum we’re discussing here. I imagine the child felt like he was not doing anything right  as well. This probably spurred a belief of, “I’m no good” or “I don’t deserve to be here” or something similar. A simple acknowledgment that his mother was glad he was alive created a shift that led to more shifts until eventually, their relationship was rebuilt and, because he cares about the relationship, he puts effort into his work and behavior.

Start small, praise often.


Getting away from diagnoses

I’m sure you’ve heard of the alphabet soup of mental health diagnoses. PTSD, OCD, RAD, SAD, etc. etc. And as a parent, it can be very important to know the answer to, “what’s wrong with my kid?”

Mental vs Medical model

Getting a diagnosis in mental health is a little bit different than a medical diagnosis. This is especially true for young people. In the medical field, something is usually very “wrong” with how the body is operating. A bacteria, a broken bone or an infection are all things that go “wrong” with the body that needs medical intervention to get “fixed”. In youth mental health, it’s a bit more complicated.

Often, the symptoms we see are actually attempts of the mind/body system to adapt to a situation. Kids may be acting out to get control because their environment is out of control. They may be highly anxious because they’re not feeling a sense of safety in their lives. Our mind/body system is designed to adapt to challenges – and sometimes, those attempts at adaptation are not healthy. We call this maladaptive behavior.

Parents often ask me what diagnosis their kid has and what can be done to “fix” it. Some parents get caught up in diagnosis chasing. They bounce from professional to professional, seeking different diagnoses, in the hope that once it’s “correct”, then their child can take a pill or get a specific type of therapy and be cured! Hallelujah! That’s all it took! I just needed the right professional to tell me the right diagnosis!

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Our mental health is a bit more complicated than a medical model. We are a whole system of our biology, neurology, relationships (read attachment), environment etc. All of these parts contribute to how we feel, think and behave in the world.

How I like to operate

I use diagnoses as a fuzzy “guide” for what’s going on with someone. Most insurances need a diagnosis so professionals can bill for a service and, at least within the field of mental health, it’s helpful language to use when discussing client issues. However, the use largely stops there.

I find it far more helpful to discuss systems that contribute to symptoms. What is taking place at home, with relationships, within the mind/body system that contribute to and help to maintain the maladaptive symptoms? What systems can we shift to provide the needs that the individual is attempting to seek in unhealthy ways? If we know what the purpose of the maladaptive behavior is, and can create a system that supports that purpose, the behavior changes.

To say it another way, can we create healthy emotional expression, communication, environments, relationships, exercises and routines that support positive healthy individuals? If so, the diagnosis is inconsequential.

Don’t get too stuck on diagnoses because the treatment is often the same.

Should I make my kid go to therapy?

I was recently asked by a friend of a friend if she should make her kid go to therapy. She writes,

“11-year-old son who is struggling with depression but is refusing to go to therapy. Are there things that have helped some of the boys in that age range that you have worked with other than going to therapy? As in, things you have had them do that have helped?”

I really want to examine 2 sides of the coin for this issue. There’s making the child go to therapy despite him refusing and there’s not making him go and creatively exploring other options. Let’s look at these sides a little more in-depth.

Making the child go to therapy

The idea of “making” your child go to therapy already sounds forceful and opposite of what therapy or counseling should be. However, as parents, you make your child do all kinds of stuff they don’t want to do. You make them go to school, bathe and brush their teeth. You make them go to the doctor’s and get shots or get that cavity taken care of at the dentist. Mental health professionals are just like doctors, except we work with the mind/body, not just the body. 

I can see how parents are hesitant making their child go to therapy. You don’t want them to associate therapy with “consequences” or something terrible like the dentist. If you make them go, they may see it as punishment or that the therapist is on the side of the adults. As a counselor for kids, this is what I suggest:

  1. Ask yourself if there’s a safety concern. – If this is about health, wellness and ultimately you’re concerned about the child’s development and safety? Then make them go to therapy. Just like a dentist – you may say, “I know you don’t like this but it’s my job to keep you safe and healthy.”
  2. Shop around and explain the situation to a therapist – Find someone that understands that the child is not on board with this process. Specifically, find someone that is ok with this idea and willing to “roll with resistance” when kids don’t want to be there. 
  3. Do the intake alone. – Meet with the therapist for the initial intake alone. Don’t have the child join. This is because you’ll be answering all kinds of sensitive questions and the child may link the therapist with the parent. You want to create a welcoming environment and even though the child will know you’ve already met the therapist, it will be different if they meet separately – without all the symptom-talk and history-taking. 

Alternatives to therapy

If there’s not a safety issue or you, as a parent, feel that maybe he’s/she’s struggling but not enough to need therapy, you can explore other options. In the case described, depression, we want to find opportunities for physical activity and connection.

  • Sports
  • Social Activities
  • Youth Groups
  • After-school activities
  • Theater

Getting a depressed child into these activities can greatly enhance their mood. You don’t want them to be completely booked in their schedule – you need to find balance. Be sure to allow “down time” and time for them to be alone. But with depression, we want to actively seek ways to get them out of isolation mode. Connection with others is extremely important. 

If it’s another issue like anxiety, you may want to explore options that promote calming and relaxation. Again, this can emphasize activity and social connection.

  • Hiking
  • Yoga (group classes for youth!)
  • Art Classes
  • Spending time with animals (Horses, animal shelter)
  • Music

Modeling that therapy is a good thing!

As parents, you want to deliver the message that therapy can be good, helpful and an avenue for self-care. Just like a massage or going to the gym, it may be hard but it’s for you and you’re worth it. The best way to deliver this message is to go to counseling for yourself and talk openly about it. I tell the kids that I work with that I go to counseling regularly. You don’t need to get into the details but simply say, “We all go through tough times and having someone to talk to can help.” So parents, be the model and deliver the message that therapy is a privilege and seeking a counselor is a strength, not a weakness.