An Open Letter to Your Thinking Brain
Hey, Thinking Brain. How are things? How’s the family? How’d that tax situation work out? Oh, wait. Never mind. I forgot — I don’t fucking care. Look, I know there’s something the Feeling Brain is screwing up for you. Maybe it’s an important relationship. Maybe it’s causing you to make embarrassing phone calls at 3:00 a.m. Maybe it’s constantly medicating itself with substances it probably shouldn’t be using. I know there’s something you wish you could control about yourself but can’t. And I imagine, at times, this problem causes you to lose hope. But listen, Thinking Brain, those things you hate so much about your Feeling Brain — the cravings, the impulses, the horrible decision making? You need to find a way to empathize with them. Because that’s the only language the Feeling Brain really understands: empathy. The Feeling Brain is a sensitive creature; it’s made out of your damn feelings, after all. I wish it weren’t true. I wish you could just show it a spreadsheet to make it understand — you know, like we understand. But you can’t. Instead of bombarding the Feeling Brain with facts and reason, start by asking how it’s feeling. Say something like “Hey, Feeling Brain, how do you feel about going to the gym today?” or “How do you feel about changing careers?” or “How do you feel about selling everything and moving to Tahiti?” The Feeling Brain won’t respond with words. No, the Feeling Brain is too quick for words. Instead, it will respond with feelings. Yeah, I know that’s obvious, but sometimes you’re kind of a dumbass, Thinking Brain. The Feeling Brain might respond with a feeling of laziness or a feeling of anxiety. There might even be multiple emotions, a little bit of excitement with a pinch of anger thrown into the mix. Whatever it is, you, as the Thinking Brain (aka, the responsible one in this cranium), need to remain nonjudgmental in the face of whatever feelings arise. Feeling lazy? That’s okay; we all feel lazy sometimes. Feeling self-loathing? Perhaps that’s an invitation to take the conversation further. The gym can wait. It’s important to let the Feeling Brain air out all its icky, twisted feelings. Just get them out into the open where they can breathe, because the more they breathe, the weaker their grip is on the steering wheel of your Consciousness Car. Then, once you feel you’ve reached a point of understanding with your Feeling Brain, it’s time to appeal to it in a way it understands: through feelings. Maybe think about all the benefits of some desired new behavior. Maybe mention all the sexy, shiny, fun things at the desired destination. Maybe remind the Feeling Brain how good it feels to have exercised, how great it will feel to look good in a bathing suit this summer, how much you respect yourself when you’ve followed through on your goals, how happy you are when you live by your values, when you act as an example to the ones you love. Basically, you need to bargain with your Feeling Brain the way you’d bargain with a Moroccan rug seller: it needs to believe it’s getting a good deal, or else there’ll just be a lot of hand waving and shouting with no result. Maybe you agree to do something the Feeling Brain likes, as long as it does something it doesn’t like. Watch your favorite TV show, but only at the gym while you’re on the treadmill. Go out with friends, but only if you’ve paid your bills for the month. Start easy. Remember, the Feeling Brain is highly sensitive, and completely unreasonable. When you offer something easy with an emotional benefit (e.g., feeling good after a workout; pursuing a career that feels significant; being admired and respected by your kids), the Feeling Brain will respond with another emotion, either positive or negative. If the emotion is positive, the Feeling Brain will be willing to drive a little bit in that direction — but only a little bit! Remember: feelings never last. That’s why you start small. Just put on your gym shoes today, Feeling Brain. That’s all. Let’s just see what happens. 30 If the Feeling Brain’s response is negative, you simply acknowledge that negative emotion and offer another compromise. See how the Feeling Brain responds. Then rinse and repeat. But whatever you do, do not fight the Feeling Brain. That just makes things worse. For one, you won’t win, ever. The Feeling Brain is always driving. Second, fighting with the Feeling Brain about feeling bad will only cause the Feeling Brain to feel even worse. So, why would you do that? You were supposed to be the smart one, Thinking Brain. This dialogue with your Feeling Brain will continue back and forth like this, on and off, for days, weeks, or maybe even months. Hell, years. This dialogue between the brains takes practice. For some, the practice will be recognizing what emotion the Feeling Brain is putting out there. Some people’s Thinking Brains have ignored their Feeling Brains for so long that it takes them a while to learn how to listen again. Others will have the opposite problem: They will have to train their Thinking Brain to speak up, force it to propose an independent thought (a new direction) that’s separate from the Feeling Brain’s feelings. They will have to ask themselves, what if my Feeling Brain is wrong to feel this way? and then consider the alternatives. This will be difficult for them at first. But the more this dialogue occurs, the more the two brains will begin to listen to each other. The Feeling Brain will start giving off different emotions, and the Thinking Brain will have a better understanding of how to help the Feeling Brain navigate the road of life. This is what’s referred to in psychology as “emotional regulation,” and it’s basically learning how to put a bunch of fucking guardrails and One Way signs along your road of life to keep your Feeling Brain from careening off a cliff. 31 It’s hard work, but it’s arguably the only work. Because you don’t get to control your feelings, Thinking Brain. Self-control is an illusion. It’s an illusion that occurs when both brains are aligned and pursuing the same course of action. It’s an illusion designed to give people hope. And when the Thinking Brain isn’t aligned with the Feeling Brain, people feel powerless, and the world around them begins to feel hopeless. The only way you consistently nail that illusion is by consistently communicating and aligning the brains around the same values. It’s a skill, much the same as playing water polo or juggling knives is a skill. It takes work. And there will be failures along the way. You might slice your arm open and bleed everywhere. But that’s just the cost of admission. But here’s what you do have, Thinking Brain. You may not have self-control, but you do have meaning control. This is your superpower. This is your gift. You get to control the meaning of your impulses and feelings. You get to decipher them however you see fit. You get to draw the map. And this is incredibly powerful, because it’s the meaning that we ascribe to our feelings that can often alter how the Feeling Brain reacts to them. And this is how you produce hope. This is how you produce a sense that the future can be fruitful and pleasant: by interpreting the shit the Feeling Brain slings at you in a profound and useful way. Instead of justifying and enslaving yourself to the impulses, challenge them and analyze them. Change their character and their shape. This is basically what good therapy is, of course. Self-acceptance and emotional intelligence and all that. Actually, this whole “teach your Thinking Brain to decipher and cooperate with your Feeling Brain instead of judging him and thinking he’s an evil piece of shit” is the basis for CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) and a lot of other fun acronyms that clinical psychologists invented to make our lives better. Our crises of hope often start with a basic sense that we do not have control over ourselves or our destiny. We feel victims to the world around us or, worse, to our own minds. We fight our Feeling Brain, trying to beat it into submission. Or we do the opposite and follow it mindlessly. We ridicule ourselves and hide from the world because of the Classic Assumption. And in many ways, the affluence and connectivity of the modern world only make the pain of the illusion of self-control that much worse. But this is your mission, Thinking Brain, should you choose to accept it: Engage the Feeling Brain on its own terms. Create an environment that can bring about the Feeling Brain’s best impulses and intuition, rather than its worst. Accept and work with, rather than against, whatever the Feeling Brain spews at you. Everything else (all the judgments and assumptions and selfaggrandizement) is an illusion. It was always an illusion. You don’t have control, Thinking Brain. You never did, and you never will. Yet, you needn’t lose hope. Antonio Damasio ended up writing a celebrated book called Descartes’ Error about his experiences with “Elliot,” and much of his other research. In it, he argues that the same way the Thinking Brain produces a logical, factual form of knowledge, the Feeling Brain develops its own type of value-laden knowledge. The Thinking Brain makes associations among facts, data, and observations. Similarly, the Feeling Brain makes value judgments based on those same facts, data, and observations. The Feeling Brain decides what is good and what is bad; what is desirable and what is undesirable; and most important, what we deserve and what we don’t deserve. The Thinking Brain is objective and factual. The Feeling Brain is subjective and relative. And no matter what we do, we can never translate one form of knowledge into the other. This is the real problem of hope. It’s rare that we don’t understand intellectually how to cut back on carbs, or wake up earlier, or stop smoking. It’s that somewhere inside our Feeling Brain, we have decided that we don’t deserve to do those things, that we are unworthy of doing them. And that’s why we feel so bad about them. This feeling of unworthiness is usually the result of some bad shit happening to us at some point. We suffer through some terrible stuff, and our Feeling Brain decides that we deserved those bad experiences. Therefore, it sets out, despite the Thinking Brain’s better knowledge, to repeat and reexperience that suffering. This is the fundamental problem of self-control. This is the fundamental problem of hope — not an uneducated Thinking Brain, but an uneducated Feeling Brain, a Feeling Brain that has adopted and accepted poor value judgments about itself and the world. And this is the real work of anything that even resembles psychological healing: getting our values straight with ourselves so that we can get our values straight with the world.