Hey! Hey!! Welcome back, Amazing!
We feel so glad that you’re here. And so excited to bring you Phase 3 of the Better at Boundaries Master Course!
Thanks -- from us, from your loved ones, and from your future self -- for showing up this week. You just keep doing it!! Your determination is really the thing that will make all the difference for you and your relationships. And your willingness to consistently get yourself here is such a powerful indicator of that determination.
So -- while we hope that you are being handsomely rewarded by the concepts and strategies (and templates!) that you’re gathering here and more so when you learn and employ them fully -- we also hope that you will celebrate yourself for your commitment and hard work. At the very least, doing so will help you be in the optimal brain state for absorbing and integrating the course material, and will make it easier for you to get here next time.
Alright! On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), how would you rate your current level of coziness? Need to do or get anything to turn up that coziness dial? Are you remembering to breathe fully and easily?
Ok then… Let’s do this!
This week we’re going deep into the When of boundaries. You may recall, and/or can scroll down to the Mini-Course review at the bottom of this page if you want a reminder, that the central theme of our approach to the optimal timing for claiming a boundary is when we are all in an intellectual brain state. So, now, we’d like to spend a bit more time on brain states, and how to use your empathy to relate with them.
We briefly introduced the concept of 3 primary processing networks in the brain, as follows:
The intellectual/executive network
Manages all the elements of cognition -- perceiving, thinking, learning (including passive learning and perceiving through mirror neurons), self-awareness, interoception, planning, remembering, problem-solving, choosing, strategizing
Manages impulses -- mental and physical (including affect)
Manages cognitive empathy (perspective-taking), compassion, altruistic actions
If wired appropriately, can modulate emotional overwhelm, and survival reactivity
The social/emotional network
Manages the neurochemistry of emotion, initiating particular emotional responses
Manages affective empathy (feeling with another), triggering both empathetic sensations (“sympathy pain”) and emotions (emotional coherence)
Manages cingulate cortex entrainment (emotional coherence)
Manages stress response system
If wired appropriately, can manage connectivity, mutual identification with others, and intuition
The instinctual/survival network
Manages autonomic functions of the nervous system and body
Manages overactive stress responses, and protects brain from emotional shut-down of brain processing (trauma)
Manages instinctual reactivity and survival responses
If wired appropriately, can manage “gut reactions” of approach or avoid
While (due to its role in keeping us safe and alive) it is possible for the survival brain in certain instances to “eavesdrop” on or even “co-opt” the executive brain, say, in holding us in a state of hypervigilance, or influencing our thoughts with greater negativity bias (the tendency to see the danger or trouble in things) -- by and large, we can only inhabit a single brain network at a time. In fact, attempting to address one part of the brain (e.g. the executive network) while the person is processing in another part of the brain (e.g. the emotional network) can be extremely irritating to the network currently running things. You’ve seen this as you try to “fix the issue” when your partner or child or friend is feeling upset, and the emotion just gets bigger, and the “fix” is eschewed as though it were the worst possible suggestion of all time.
We refer to situations like this as “talking to the wrong part of the brain”. And the encouragement we generally offer here is, “Talk to the part of the brain that’s driving”. You’ll get much further, much faster, and with much more connection along the way!
In application, talking to the part of the brain that’s driving means being flexible about how we interact with our self and others. It also means (regularly, perhaps frequently) switching gears midstream in order to interact with our self and others where we are neurally at present. We’ll outline more options in the template for this week, but basically -- we want to communicate ideas and thoughts with the intellectual brain, emotion and connection with the social brain, and safety and security with the instinctual brain. The number one tool we have to assess, relate to, and influence the brain state of our self and others is our empathy -- that ability to both feel with (affective empathy) and understand the perspective (cognitive empathy) of self and other.
One reason that empathy is so powerful with regard to brain state is because of the mammalian proclivity for “emotional coherence”, sometimes misnomered as “emotional contagion”. This simply refers to the tendency of an individual to resonate with and begin to assimilate another’s emotional state based solely on witnessing and/or interacting the other. The clearest example of emotional coherence has been noted in FMRI brain scan studies on mothers and their children. When the child feels upset, the primary portion of their emotional network -- the cingulate cortex -- lights up like a fireworks display. Upon witnessing their child’s distress (whether seeing and/or just hearing it) the mother’s cingulate cortex lights up on the scanner -- just like her child’s, mirroring it in surprising detail. Other examples include compulsively laughing when you see or hear someone else laughing; crying during a movie scene in which a character is crying; feeling stressed out when your partner can’t find the car keys and might be late to work; and finding your face moving to (subtly or obviously) mimic the face of someone you’re watching.
A portion of emotional coherence has to do with “cingulate cortex entrainment” (you may have noticed it listed under the social/emotional network) which, while much stronger in parent-child relationships and even more so in mother-child relationships (as described in the brain scan example above), also affects other forms of relationships, and increasingly as they become more intimate. When someone with whom we identify feels emotion, we are triggered to feel it, too.
Another element of emotional coherence is derived from the “mirror neuron system”. This is a set of neurons in the brain that fire, both, whenever we do certain motor activities, and whenever we witness someone else doing those same activities. So when we see or hear someone eating a sandwich (even just reading about it, now, your mirror neurons are starting to activate), our brains run a tiny simulation of the neural process of lifting the sandwich, moving it to the mouth, opening the mouth, positioning the sandwich, biting it, chewing it, swallowing, etc.. The same is true of smiling. When we see someone smile, our mirror neurons for smiling mimic the action. Our brain then feels what it might be like to make the mouth turn up at the corners, and then evaluates the meaning of the felt sensation of smiling. We thus “understand” by way of mirror neuron simulation and affective empathy that the smiling person is feeling happy.
Emotional coherence means that we are intuitively and neuronally experiencing each other’s feeling states. This is important for our current discussion in two ways: 1) we are regularly influencing and being influenced by how others around us feel, and 2) assessing how we feel in response to someone else can be a window into their emotional state. Emotional state is related to and can inform us about brain state.
Below is a chart we created to illustrate the relationship between emotion and brain state.
At the top of the chart you can see a green section, listing emotions like joy, optimism, contentment. This section correlates roughly with an executive brain state. With few exceptions, people experiencing these emotions can still function intellectually.
The yellow section, listing feelings such as frustration, disappointment, and doubt, indicates emotion that starts to shut down executive capabilities. There is some chance that people experiencing these emotions still have access to the intellectual network, but it grows increasingly unlikely the further down the spectrum they slip. They need emotional support.
The red section, containing such emotional hits as anger, guilt, and powerlessness, illustrates the transition from primarily processing in the emotional brain to primarily processing in the survival brain. Anger, revenge, and rage tend to correlate to a fight survival strategy. Jealousy, guilt, and unworthiness tend to correlate to flight. Fear, grief, and despair correlate to freeze. Powerlessness can correlate to both freeze and appease. People feeling these emotions may be in too primal a place to receive immediate support.
Using an awareness of this chart, and our affective and cognitive empathy, to assess the emotional and neural states of our self or another can tell us what part of the brain is currently driving, and how we might best respond. In the template for Phase 3, Empathizing with Self and Others, we’ll walk you through that assessment as well as various addresses and responses appropriate for each brain state.
Before you we jump into the template, though, we wanted to encourage you with a few edicts and/or reminders.
Don’t take feelings personally. We tend to think that they come out because of things that happened, but more often than not humans blame readily available things/interactions/episodes for already present feelings. We can empathize with the emotion even if we disagree with the story about it.
Give up the idea of fixing upset feelings. We don’t have to solve the problem, have all the answers, or be any certain way for emotion to move. We just have to make room for the emotion to come out and wait.
Don’t confuse empathizing with the feelings and condoning unwanted actions. We can have a clear boundary around and/or be plainly against certain actions and behavior, while still understanding and expressing empathy for the painful emotion fueling the behavior.
Ok! Ready for the template? You got this!!
The Better at Boundaries Minicourse, Phase Three, that precedes this course, is available below for review!