Being human, finding a new freedom
Human relationships are a powerful and potent force in human growth and development. As we’ve seen in the first part of this article, love, nurturance and developmental support fosters healthy or optimal childhood and adolescent development; in contrast, harmful parenting can set us up with significant problems in living. In this concluding part, we’ll explore how we can overcome some of the developmental harms that are embodied in our neural circuitry and free ourselves from the impact of interpersonal harm.
The very real promise of plasticity
Although harmful interpersonal and social experiences can cause genuine harm and limit the horizons of our everyday experience, the human brain has incredible recuperative qualities. Even in adulthood, our brains are to some extent malleable and plastic and, while harmful experiences may have impaired optimal brain-development (and thus limited how we are able to live our lives), neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to grow and adapt and change – means that new positive and healthy experiences can actually repair and rewire the brain, and thus enhance everyday life.
Although we can just leave things to chance, hoping our brains will somehow rewire themselves while everything spontaneously falls into place (and there’s no doubt that this can and does happen), there’s overwhelming evidence that we can actively, consciously and deliberately reconstruct our own brains – and thus our own lives.
It’s not too far a stretch to say we can all be brain scientists now.
So, how can we expand the horizons of our everyday lives and live more fully, with greater freedom and vitality – despite the challenges that may have been thrown in our paths?
The reality of neuroplasticity offers us the greatest hope – and provides the greatest evidence – that people can and indeed do change, even after experiencing extreme harm. Although there are of course limits, I want to suggest three things we can do to harness the therapeutic potential of neuroplasticity and bring about a transformational renewal of self.
Harnessing the power of transformation
1. Mindfulness meditation
You’ve most likely heard of mindfulness meditation, a contemplative practice that allows us to actively and deliberately rewire our brain circuitry. This can rebalance the brain and bring greater clarity, psychological flexibility, emotional balance, and awareness – what neuroscientist Dan Siegel calls mindsight1. Although nobody would claim mindfulness is a panacea, it has been shown to significantly alleviate depression and anxiety, while enhancing everyday life and fostering greater freedom at the level of lived-experience.
Just as harmful relationships can impair our everyday lives, healthy and supportive relationships can offer an arena for healing and reintegrating the neurological foundation of our everyday lives. Healthy relationships can help us adapt our concepts of what other people are like and create new ways of connecting with other people. Evidence indicates this is precisely how counselling and psychotherapy work, because it’s an encounter with another person that allows us to grow and develop in a safe and supportive space, free from judgment, criticism or fear.
Lastly, I want to suggest that learning can also tap into the therapeutic potential of neuroplasticity. We all rely upon beliefs, ideas and concepts to help us navigate our way around the world. Some we inherit from our families, some from the wider world; some will be helpful or benign, but others may no longer be relevant or useful and, in some instances, can be significantly life-limiting. Learning can help us explore and reconstruct how we view the world, enabling us to integrate new perspectives into our individual worldviews, hang on to the elements that are useful, modify the parts that are a little worn or outdated, and let go of anything that’s coming between us and a richer and more rewarding life. As well as helping us on an individual level, it can also help us look at other people with more understanding and recognise that ‘bad behaviour’ might be a sign that someone’s actually having a really tough time.
4. Practices of Transformative Self-Renewal
Some things transform us, like having a child or experiencing a devastating loss. But some things are transformative – and it’s an important distinction. Transformative experiences are those where I change as a result of engaging or participating in something. And as a result, my sense of self is renewed – hence, practices of transformative self-renewal! Say I’m anxious and I can’t bear to open my front door, let alone venture out into the world. When I decide that enough’s enough and I want to get out in the world, I have to choose to open the door – then walk through it. But every time I do, it’ll likely get easier and easier. There might be a few trips and tangles along the way but, if I stick with it, I’ll eventually lose the fear as my anxiety melts in the face of reality. And in doing so, I’ve changed as a result of the transformative experience I’ve participated in. In this case, choosing to open the door and venture out into the world – which might seem like the most normal, everyday thing to a lot of us – becomes a practice of transformative self-renewal.
The keys to freedom
Understanding human growth and development can offer us the keys to freedom, and I think this can happen in two different ways. First, if we experience anxiety, depression, or any other mental health problems, it’s all too easy to blame ourselves for being weak, broken, or somehow responsible for a perceived failing; recognising that mental health problems don’t occur in isolation but unfold in a social context of interpersonal relationships means that we can let go of this burden of self-blame. Secondly, recognising the therapeutic potential offered by neuroplasticity – the motor of human growth and development – offers real hope for transformational change. The fact we can harness the power of neuroplasticity ourselves, to reinvent, rejuvenate and renew our sense of self, means that we have the means to overcome mental health problems and experience genuine, self-determined transformation. Human beings are incredible and the power for change is in our hands. The key, of course, is to learn how to use it.
1 Daniel J. Siegel (2010), Mindsight: the New Science of Personal Transformation. Bantam Books: New York. While a powerful vehicle for repair and recuperation, neuroplasticity doesn’t have limitless potential.