This is the fourth post in a series based on a relationship enrichment seminar I conducted in September 2016, called Everything Matters. I am hoping to offer this seminar again soon in an online format. If you are interested in participating in this seminar or would like more info, please visit EverythingMattersSeminar.com and sign up. The seminar is open to all individuals and couples. Thanks!!
For the past couple of posts, we’ve been talking about some really fascinating concepts. First, our brains are amazing. There are parts that are fully functional when we are infants and other parts that come online as we grow and mature. From the time we are born, we begin categorizing and storing information about the world around us that, ultimately, our limbic system will use to keep us safe.
This idea that we are storing away memories and associations from the moment we are born has some important implications. In our last post, we talked about how important our relationships with our caregivers are. When we are born, we are completely and utterly dependent on our mother or father or whomever might be taking care of us. Even though we might not realize, the level of safety that we experience during those times can have impacts on how we see the world and our relationships moving forward.
I can’t stress enough how much easier it is to understand our romantic relationships when we have a good understanding of ourselves. Knowing ourselves is a step that we all too often skip. And what we have learned so far is critical. When we understand that the emotions our partner may be experiencing are not necessarily choices – that they’re not the other person’s fault but a natural result of processes in their brain and body – it may be possible to approach them with a little more grace. Maybe even curiosity. Maybe even compassion.
Of course, life is about more than what happens when we are infants and it’s exactly that idea that we will tackle today.
Your experiences change you.
On the first pass, that statement – that your experiences change you – may seem to go without saying. It’s a given. You can probably think of some of those milestones right now. Maybe it was graduation day. For some people, it may have been the loss of a loved one. Marriage, the birth of children, retirement: all of these are great examples of milestone moments. These are the kind of moments we point to when we say that something happened and now we are different.
But here’s the thing. It’s not just the big moments that change you. On some small, unnoticeable level, each and every experience has an impact on who you are. Every choice. Every thought. Experiences matter because they have a way of registering in the very structure of our brain. When circuits fire, they strengthen their connections. When they don’t fire, connections start to weaken. New experiences forge new circuits. Every day. Every moment.
Your thoughts, your emotions, your personality: all are these are stored as patterns of connections between cells. These patterns are changing. Every. Single. Day.
If it’s true that this is happening – that your brain is constantly changing and morphing – then it’s also true that the way that you respond to experiences changes as well. You probably notice that you don’t react the same way to certain things that you used to. Maybe you used to hate eating tomatoes but now you love them. Maybe the idea of hearing a Kenny G ballad used to give you chills but now it just makes you angry.
Assimilation versus Accommodation
If there is anything that our brains are really efficient at, it’s categorizing and comparing. This is where our limbic system shines, remember. We are alive today because part of our brain recognized that those spots on that creature moving through the jungle looks an awful lot like that leopard that was lurking around the campsite last week.
We have a couple of terms for this process that we use a lot in the psychology world. The first is assimilation and it refers to the idea that information that we are receiving fits into one of our previously created categories and can be pretty easily filed away without too much extra work. The second idea is accommodation and it refers to what happens when we have an experience that really doesn’t line up into any of our categories. When that happens, we have to create a new category – we have to accommodate the new information.
Sometimes, when we have a new experience and accommodation occurs, we can start to question how we have filed a lot of the other things away. Sometimes, how we see the world can start to change. Sometimes, everything we thought we knew has to be dumped on the floor and reorganized based on your new categories.
A lot of people in the faith community report exactly this sort of experience. The story often goes that a person may have been raised in a particular faith and learned to see the world through a lens similar to that of their parents and their other community members. The experiences that they would have would be assimilated into their already existing categories. They wouldn’t have many experiences that would challenge those categories and force them to create new ones.
But as that person starts to get older – maybe they move away from home – and they begin to have much different experiences, they learn that there are many things that don’t fit into their established categories. If those categories are too limiting for all of the new information, that person might have a crisis of faith where suddenly nothing makes sense. It’s as though all of these categories are boxes and suddenly they are turned upside down and all of the contents spill on the floor. Maybe those categories are not longer needed. The person might feel alone or abandoned or angry. Either way, they set about the work of reorganizing everything and, often, they emerge from this time of confusion seeing the world with a completely new perspective.
Accommodation is not always an easy process.
There are some easy ways to start to surface what your categories might contain. Maybe the easiest is a little word association.
What sort of ideas surface for you when you read the word puppies? Maybe you think cute or cuddly. Or maybe you think chewing things and lots of trouble. How about when you read the words bad drivers? You may associate that with young people, or speeding tickets, or road rage.
As helpful as these processes have been in keeping us alive, it’s important for us to acknowledge that, left unchecked, they can be isolating too. It’s also a good idea for us to recognize that the way we see the world is often influenced by our society and the culture we live in. History, too, continues forward with us and has a significant impact. What sort of associations surface for you when you read the words African American? Republicans? Democrats? LGBTQ? These are not just ideas that we have formed from our own personal experience, but from the weight of the experiences of millions of others.
We can’t just allow our assimilation and accommodation processes to go on without tuning into them to check in. The results can be devastating on a grand scale.
And they can be devastating to a relationship as well.
When we do not do the work of reflecting on the processes that are at work in our minds and how our experiences have shaped us, we set ourselves up for relational pain. We must find time to turn our attention inward and to get to know ourselves more deeply. We must start to understand our triggers and to practice some sort of self-compassion around these. None of us have chosen our triggers. Choice may have played a role, but their development cannot be reduced to simple cause and effect. Experiences over time move us in the direction of being susceptible to certain triggers and only experiences, over time, can help to tame them.
Our experiences form us. Like a fingerprint, each individual’s experiences are completely unique, making each of us the beautifully complex people that we are. And we bring these experiences forward through time. Wherever you are and whatever you find yourself doing, all of history has culminated in that present moment.
When you and your partner are having a heated conversation, you are not doing so in isolation. Each reaction, each frustration, each tear comes from a line of experiences that predate even your own life. There are voices from all of history that are all present in the room.
And, remember: for every voice that you bring, your partner brings just as many.
It’s only when you do the work of looking inward that you begin to master the skills of deciphering them.
Thankfully, your experiences do not dictate who you will become. They have formed you up to this very point in time but there are choices that we make moving forward will literally change the patterns in your brain and will impact who you are tomorrow. When you choose to see yourself as deeply complex and worthy of compassion, with a set of experiences that have formed you in every which way, you are far more likely to understand that your partner is in the same situation. Your partner, too, is deeply complex and worthy of compassion. Your partner has experiences that can only begin to be understood when we approach with a sense of curiosity and not accusation or dismissiveness.
Every time you partner makes a bid for your affection and you respond, there are circuits in each of your brains that fire, patterns that are either strengthened or weakened. If you have learned that when you cry out there is no one there to listen and, yet, your partner hears your cry and responds with love, how do you accommodate this new experience? Perhaps you start to create a new category. Perhaps you start to understand that you are worthy of love and affection.
Perhaps you can start to see the world just a little bit differently.
A Quick Review
This has been part 004 of our series. So far, we’ve focused on helping you understand that you are a beautifully complex individual, biological in your foundation, and formed by relationships and experiences.
Your Biology Matters. Understanding the way that your brain is crafted and how it operates, hopefully, gives you a little insight into some of the ways that you may react and respond. When your limbic system senses danger, whether physical, emotional, or otherwise, it activates your fight or flight response and essentially renders much of your rationality inoperable. This impacts your relationships because sometimes we want to use rationality at times when it simply won’t work.
Your Relationships Matter. This is most evident when you are very, very young. The way that you are cared for as an infant – at your most vulnerable – can set up templates for how you see the world later. If your experience has been that the world is a safe place that has people that care about you and are responsive to your needs, then it’s likely that you’ll see new people in that same light. If you have reason to be suspicious or fearful of others, that tendency may stick with you in order to keep you safe.
And, your Experiences Matter. Every experience has an impact, however small, on who you are and how you see the world. Experiences is the kind of thing that can literally change your brain. They’re powerful and at any given moment you carry each experience forward. Every interaction is colored by the experiences of generations.
With these three areas, you can start to get a deep understanding of yourself. You can see yourself through more curious, compassionate eyes. Your life might even start to make more sense than it ever has before. Maybe you find a therapist to help you understand and process some of the more difficult material. You feel like you’re finally starting to make some headway.
And then, you meet someone!!!