By David Joel Miller.
How is your brain programmed to handle life?
Most of us like to think that we have a lot of free will, we can make choices. Psychology tells us that many of those choices we think we’re making are the result of programming, early life learning, which has created a default way in which we deal with life.
Sometimes it is helpful to think of these default operating systems as blueprints for living which we developed in childhood. Many people find that the problems they deal with in adult life are things they learned between the ages of eight and eighteen which worked back then but do not work well as adults.
These default operating systems can sometimes work well and help us get through things. Other times we find that there are flaws, fatal errors in our programming, which result in a less than ideal life. If you’re finding life isn’t going the way you thought it would, you may want to take a look at that programming and see if it doesn’t need an update.
Here are the most common brain operating system problems.
Act out, behavioral solutions.
For many people, this is the default setting. When upset or angry they act out. People who opt for the behavioral solution may become violent, throw things, yell at people or swear. In action adventure movies this is the way the hero frequently behaves.
Acting out and behavioral solutions are a typical male way of reacting. In athletic competition, young men and women are encouraged to be aggressive. Outside of athletic competition, these behaviors are unacceptable.
In school, many boys get in trouble for this and may be suspended or expelled. Later on in life using behavioral solutions to life’s problems may get you arrested, put in jail or result in prison time. Developing the skill to think it over before using a behavioral solution is an important part of the developmental process.
Stay inside your head, isolate.
A second response pattern which is often learned in childhood is to avoid problems by withdrawing and pulling inside. Historically girls tended to use this strategy. When stressed they would often sit at their desks staring at their work.
The result of using the isolating, withdrawal strategy, is to avoid confrontations. It may also result in you being considered less intelligent or incapable of doing the work.
High alert, stay in fear. Scan for the negative.
A certain amount of vigilance and anxiety can be protective. Too much anxiety becomes a problem. People who adopt a strategy of using high attention to avoid danger can become over-anxious. This can result in hypervigilance. People with hypervigilance often have an exaggerated startle response. The door slams down the hall and they jump out of their seats.
Avoidance. Use drugs, don’t trust.
Another common way of dealing with problem situations is simply to avoid interacting with the situation. Avoidance can be as simple as just don’t talk to or see someone who is upsetting. Other common avoidance techniques are using alcohol, drugs or another behavioral addiction.
Some people avoid painful situations simply by not interacting with others. They may avoid friendships or close intimate relationships. People who have been disappointed by others try to avoid additional disappointments by not putting their trust in other people.
In some family’s feelings are a banned substance. The goal of not feeling was to avoid anything that would be upsetting. In family’s like this people never talk about their pain or their hurt. While this strategy may seem like a good way to avoid unpleasant emotions, it has some long-lasting negative effects.
If you grew up in a home which never dealt with feelings, you may be totally unprepared for the feelings that you do have. People who never learned how to manage anger, pain, and sadness, are at high risk to be overwhelmed by these feelings when they do experience them.
People who have a history of not feeling are likely to also say that they have never experienced happiness. In order to experience positive emotions, you also need to be able to experience the negative ones. Consistently avoiding feelings can leave people feeling numb.
What are the rules? Tell me what to do.
When people don’t develop basic skills to make decisions, they may have a strong tendency to rely on extensive rules. These people are often attracted to dogmatic leaders. And they’re likely to be very legalistic. You can easily spot these people. They frequently can cite the exact rule that they believe applies to this situation. What they find difficult to do is to function in situations where there are unclear rules or were new rules need to be made.
Rule users are also likely to try to impose their beliefs about what things should be like on other people. They are likely to be intolerant of variation and nonconformity.
File everything for future use. Hold onto the hurts.
Another way of coping with life’s uncertainties is to never express how you feel about things. People who adopt this strategy, often do a thing called gunny sacking. When someone does something to bother or upset them they will hold onto that slight for later use. They pick these little resentments up, one at a time, holding onto them for future use. When the gunny sack gets full they unload the entire list of past resentments on the other person.
Act on those feelings, impulsivity.
Some people rather than using feelings as information feel compelled to do whatever those feelings urge them to do. They become, in effect, slaves to those feelings. Rather than taking ownership of their feelings they believe that other people make them happy, make them sad, or make them angry. Since they ascribe their feelings to another person, they also believe the other person is responsible for that feeling and for their actions.
Beat your body into submission.
Some people, when under stress, take it out on themselves. They may engage in an excess of exercise or even in physical abuse. These people are at high risk to become cutters or in other ways engage in self-injurious behavior.
Some people adopt a strategy of dealing with the risks of life but trying to avoid taking any risks. They simply never begin anything and therefore never fail at anything. The downside of this strategy is that by never starting anything they are never successful at anything.
Other people avoid the uncertainties of life by trying to never accept any feedback on their actions. Once they begin on a course of action no matter how many difficulties they may encounter they continue going forward. These are the people who find it impossible to admit they’ve made a mistake.
Not many functions. No vocabulary.
Some people’s brains are programmed for a limited number of functions. They simply haven’t developed the skills necessary to do other things. A lot of what humans do is symbolic. We use words to talk about the feelings in our lives and what we want to do. Some people lack the vocabulary to express the feelings they do have.
Executive function that decides what routine to use.
The most desirable and most effective operating system for humans is one that involves a great deal of executive function, the ability to think about, communicate about, and make decisions. People with a good executive function are able to set a new course, stick to that course and accomplish great things.
This is a brief description of possible human operating systems. Many people probably use several of these methods on a daily basis. Which of these mental operating systems have you developed? Consider increasing the number of apps your brain has available for day-to-day life.
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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books