Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Right Brain/Left Brain The Flip Side of The Same Coin

Right Brain/Left Brain and The Flip Side of the Same Coin 
Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC

"Discover the person you were meant to be". You may have seen this tagline on our stationary or newsletters. In the last newsletter I ended my article by saying "In order to recover our "selves", we need to reclaim our right to be who we were meant to be." What do I mean "meant to be"?

Many of my clients, if not all, come to me saying they don't like who they are. They don't believe themselves to be likeable and have spent many years trying to be someone else; trying to not be themselves. Bonnie* remembers being told by her mother, "Why can't you be more like your sister, Bev? She's so quiet, (smart, good, neat, fill in the blank)." Bonnie on the other hand was physically active, talkative, funny and outspoken. As a child she started to believe that being active, talkative, funny and (especially) outspoken were "bad" and that there was something wrong with her. As she describes it she felt, "defective, not good enough". In order to get her mother's approval she had to stop being herself. She had to quiet the voice of her "Self" inside her. She did this by starving herself, by starving her "Self".

I want to tell you about two books I have read. This may seem like I am going off on one of my tangents, but I promise that it is relevant and I will come back to Bonnie's story later. My two children have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). They can both be very distractible, inattentive and in their own worlds. Helping them finish their homework can be excruciatingly difficult. Sometimes I would feel like I was going to lose my mind! Then I read Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World. As I read this book, I not only recognized my children, but myself and most of my clients as well.

You see, according to the author, the world is mostly left-brained: logical, analytical, orderly, sequential. Left-brained individuals "like making and following rules. They have a greater tendency to accept and appreciate what they hear and read rather than questioning and thinking independently. They like the familiar and the predictable; they often feel uncomfortable with new ideas, challenges, and surprises. They shine in jobs that involve a lot of routine and are at their worst when a crisis erupts that calls for creative problem solving." (Interpret that as: black and white thinking patterns, difficulty with transitions and change, rigidity: always solve problems in same way, never try anything different. These are hallmark characteristics of families of people with eating disorders!)
Right-brained individuals on the other hand are visual, holistic, whole-to-part learners; they excel at multi-tasking. They are intuitive, empathic and sensitive, both physically and emotionally. "They see a minimal need for rules, are impulsive, question authority, and embrace new challenges and ideas. They are highly competitive and perfectionistic."1 (Does that sound like Bonnie? Does that sound like you?)

As I said earlier, this describes most of my clients. Because they are intuitive, empathic and sensitive to other's feelings and moods, as children they learned how to "read" other people. But because they were children, they were not able to distinguish an opinion from a fact. Many of them came from left-brained families who did not like things or people that were "different". Define different? To a left-brained individual, different is anything that is unfamiliar or qualities that they cannot personally understand. Remember, left-brained individuals are uncomfortable with new ideas and challenges. Intuition, sensitivity, impulsivity, etc. are qualities that were often devalued, overtly or covertly. "Don't be so sensitive!" Does that sound familiar? After hearing these things over and over, many of these negative opinions are internalized into a definition of who they "think they should be".
(Because empathy and sensitivity are right brain qualities, left-brainers are unable to be sensitive to the impact of their words on the right-brainer. The frustration is that there is no appropriate "come back" to a left-brainer. "You're too insensitive" doesn't have the same "sting" to it. It is in my own humble "right-brained" opinion that the world needs more sensitive people. It would be hard to start a war if you were sensitive to the fact that each soldier has a family who loves him/her. It would be hard to hate another person if you could empathize with them. So when someone says to me, "You're too sensitive." I say, "Thank you.")

Now I don't mean I want you to blame your parents for your problems. This isn't about blame, this is about accepting responsibility for what is yours, and letting go of what is not. Not all parents are insensitive to their children, or deliberately put them down. Over the years I really have come to believe that most of my client's come from homes where their parents are doing the best they can. As my own mother said "Babies don't come with instruction manuals." But, there is quite a range of what constitutes "the best" these parents are capable of: from truly loving and well meaning, to inwardly empty and hurting, to intentionally sick and sadistic. As one client once aptly put it, "If they ain't got it, they can't give it." But I think it's helpful to realize where some of this devaluing came from even if the source didn't mean to make you feel devalued. If we can understand it, sometimes it's easier to change something.

So now that you are thinking, "Oh, I'm right-brained that's why I felt different", I'll tell you about another book that was very helpful, Teenagers With ADD, a Parent's Guide. Authors Jeffrey Freed and Laurie Parsons help parents of ADD children to see attributes of ADD in a positive light. For example, my children are highly distractible. Our family joke is that they can be distracted by air! If I view distractibility as negative, I might yell at them and make them feel bad about themselves. But if I look at it as a sign of their immense curiosity about how things work and the relationship of things in the world around them, I treat it positive. When they are distracted I remind them of their curious natures and help them to keep their curiosity in check until it is more appropriate to do so. They actually come away from this feeling better about themselves ("I'm curious!") but also in their ability to turn on and off certain behaviors ("I can focus now and not lose my momentum."). 

There is a flip side to every coin. Every quality or characteristic you have, even ones that others in your family didn't like, even one's that you don't like, can be seen as positive. Let's look at Bonnie again. It was easy for her to view being active as a good thing: being athletic is already a plus in our society. She started viewing her sense of humor as an advantage. The ability to put others at ease, to break through tension by saying something funny can be a real asset. Humor is also a way to view life less seriously.

Bonnie had trouble finding anything positive in being outspoken. (It is often the outspoken member of the family that clashes the most with the critical parent, because she may speak about those things that the family ignores, hoping it will go away. "Don't rock the boat!" is a common family motto.) When we started to discuss people throughout history who were outspoken, for example Rosa Parks, she began to see that outspoken people have a strong sense of justice and can make changes in the world by saying "I don't like this. I think this is wrong." I asked her to think of what would happen if there were no outspoken people in the world. When she could link her outspoken nature with her power to make changes then she could appreciate this quality too.
Getting back to what I said in the beginning of this article, the person you were meant to be was born whole, lovable and likeable, perfect just as she was. When we can shed others' opinions about these qualities, then we can decide for ourselves that we are "good enough".

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