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Episode 169: It's The Thought That Counts

I've been thinking about this topic for a long time and I've been a bit wary of talking about it because what I mean by "it's the thought that counts" is that it's our own thinking that counts towards whether an experience is a good one a bad one or simply just is. And with some really quite extreme situations too. But I don't want it to come across as if it's our own fault if we feel bad because something happened to us. It belittles someones experiences to say "Oh you're traumatised are you? Try thinking differently about it!" Because that's not quite how the brain works.
But, by understanding a little bit about how the brain works it might help us to find some hope that we're not going to be stuck in our grief or our past forever. But as well as the big things even the small things in life can steer us in either good or bad direction. And there might be many meanings to the things we come across in life. If your friend doesn't reply to a text message it could be one of many things.

  • They're busy
  • They forgot
  • They hate you
  • You've upset them
  • They're dead in a ditch
  • You forgot to tap SEND

It's the meaning behind it that creates the emotional response. And if we can find a healthier meaning then we can create a healthier response.
When I was about 18 I used to present radio programmes to my local hospital, and often the next presenter would come in about 10 minutes before then end of your show and have a bit of a chat on air. Once as I signed off before the news I said something like "So after the 8 o'clock news the dulcet tones of our Sarah will be here to lull you into the night hours, so it's goodbye from me." Sarah took offence at this because she assumed dulcet was another word for dull. So what I actually said was irrelevant because the meaning behind it was different for her. She had her own perspective that reality had to fit around.
And this happens everywhere, if your boss shouts at you, is it because you're bad at your job or they're bad at their job. Is it because their daughter is off sick from school with something potentially life threatening. Is it because they had a massive argument that morning before they left the house, often it depends on how YOU see it. If you think your boss is rude then that's the reason. If you think you're not good at your job then that's the reason. And we need to challenge things sometimes or try and find a better perspective on what life throws at us, because its the thought that counts, and in the most unlikeliest of places.

There's a tribe of people in Papa New Guinea called the Sambia people and what happens to the boys in the tribe in preparation to becoming men is, from our perspective, abuse. Violent and sexual child abuse.
But for generations the Sambia people have believed that boys are born intersex, that being nurtured and given milk by their mother keeps them female and once that stops they can then become male but not until they've taken part in a week long ritual.
For a 10 year old boy to become a man firstly he needs to bleed. His nose is punched and sharp sticks are forced up his nostrils to ensure he has a severe enough nose bleed. And then there's a week long ritual of oral sex. The boy has to ingest as much semen as he can throughout the week in order to be able to produce his own and then become a man. And this happens time after time for probably 3 years until they start puberty themselves. But the men involved don't see it as abusive, it's just a rite of passage.
And although the boys can often be upset it doesn't leave any permanent psychological damage! This is what fascinates me. The experience is clearly dreadful but what is it about their experience that prevents them from having attachment issues or PTSD? Can we learn from that? Because clearly its not necessarily what happens to us that causes personality disorders or PTSD it's how we think about it at the time, and that's the problem. Because we can't change the past, we can't change our experiences, our memories. Or can we? Could we trick our brain into thinking something different has happened to us even though we know full well what the truth is?
Actually yes we can. That's what false memories are, and given the right circumstances false memories can be quite easy to create because we can't trust our memories.
There have been many experiments over the years that show this and I love them. It just goes to show how suggestible we are. Some of them so simple. Ask people to watch a video of a car accident and you can easily change their memory about how fast the cars were going with just one word.
By changing one word in the question "How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?" to How fast were the cars going when they smashed each other?" The average speed of the cars goes up in peoples memories. Also 1 week later if people are asked “Did you see any broken glass? Yes or no?" Those whose memories had been manipulated to think of the cars as travelling faster were twice as likely to say "Yes" even though there was no broken glass in the footage at all.

Knowing that our brain is this flexible (or stupid) can be very hopeful, because it shows us that we're not stuck. It shows us that we're capable of change, no matter how bad our experiences and memories might be. If you feel you need to change then see a professional to help you through it. The UKCP and BACP have a huge register of psychotherapists and counsellors that can help you, myself included, and many of us work online through video chat software so if there's a therapist you really like you might not have to travel either.
You deserve it.
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