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.

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.