Naming, blaming, and the uncluttered subconscious

We are heading into our second week discussing how trauma transforms our brains. I originally intended this to be a four-part series, but during our discussion last week, I realized that there is another segment of this discussion that needs to be addressed: naming versus blaming.

Last week we talked about how we get trapped in toxic circumstances. In that discussion, we learned that the human brain is designed for connection, meaning, and cause/effect. Our subconscious brain is going to make connections, assign meaning, and attribute cause and effect whether we consciously do it or not.

What this means is, when we don’t intentionally assign connection, meaning, and cause/effect to our feelings and experiences, our subconscious brain does it on default. The danger of this is, without the rational skills of the conscious brain, our subconscious often misattributes blame. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s first review what we learned last week:

Instructions for our brain.

Our discussion last week talked about how decisions are instructions for our brain. When we make a decision to focus our attention on someone or something, we are instructing our brains to connect. This explains why some people feel like they attract toxic people into their life.

In reality, the universe is not conspiring against some people. Nobody is doomed to a life of toxic relationships. Once a subconscious brain was told to make a connection with a toxic person sometime in the past (such as a parent or romantic partner) a connection is formed, and their subconscious keeps seeking out connection with similarly toxic people.

It is tempting to blame people for their toxic circumstances. If they don’t like their circumstances, they should just make a different choice. But it’s not that simple. Once a connection is made, it takes specific action to change the default.

There are multiple modalities to utilize to reset the instructions in your brain to make healthier connections. We will discuss those in-depth in the last session of this series. Every modality has one thing in common – naming versus blaming.

The subconscious brain is a creature of habit.

When we are stuck in repetitive toxic cycles – whether it be toxic relationships or circumstances – most of us don’t consciously want to be there. We are frustrated with ourselves for continuing to get ourselves into rotten situations, and feel helpless to change.

But here’s the thing… Our subconscious brain does not want change.

Reread that sentence, because it’s super important. Our subconscious brain craves routine. You’ve given it instructions, and it feels very awkward and even dangerous to deviate.

So, if you were raised in poverty, your subconscious brain is connected to financial insecurity. Even though your conscious brain would love to be financially stable, your subconscious brain wants things to stay the same.

If you suffered a physical accident or illness that left you incapacitated, for a time you had no choice but to turn all your attention to your pain, your injury, your illness. Once you are recovered, your brain remains connected to the pain, and fear of future pain. Until you provide the subconscious with new instructions, your brain will remain focused on the trauma.

If you were abused as a child or by a spouse, your subconscious brain made a connection with abusive personalities. Your subconscious literally seeks out abusers, and when one is identified, your internal systems are triggered to form a relationship.

It isn’t some sort of dark magic that brings you back to toxic people and circumstances over and over. It’s neuroscience.

Cause and effect.

Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The human life is a life in motion. Our brains never sleep. In fact, while the rest of our body is sleeping, the brain is busy creating connections. For every event we experience (action), our brain bounces it around inside our head until it finds a cause. Once a cause is identified, it makes a connection (reaction).

The subconscious brain demands answers. It needs to make sense of things. It wants to identify a cause. In order to function, it needs to lay blame. This is an important survival adaptation that helps us sense danger and organize our lives. The trouble is, things don’t always make sense. So what happens then?

Blaming itself is the default.

When the subconscious brain can’t find a cause, it settles blame on the default. Itself. When left without a clear cause, the subconscious brain blames itself. 

This means, for example, that a child whose parents get divorced automatically blames themselves if their parents don’t intentionally explain that it isn’t their fault.

Similarly, someone who is hit by a drunk driver blames themselves, even though they were obeying all traffic laws, and an assault survivor blames themselves for being attacked. Yikes!

The importance of naming our traumas and feelings.

We have, as a species, developed a nasty habit of pretending everything’s fine. We are uncomfortable with big feelings, especially big feelings that we’ve labeled “negative,” such as sadness, grief, fear, and anger. We pride ourselves on being “level-headed” and “cool under pressure” and “stoic.” And we sit in judgement of ourselves and others when we don’t just “get over it,” or are “overcome by sadness,” grief-stricken,” or “high maintenance.”

The truth is – ironically – that if we’d only allow space for our big feelings as they arise, they would come up and out. They would be released, and our brain would not form a toxic connection.

Our bodies and brains are designed for action. What this means is, when we have a feeling or an experience, if our bodies are able to follow the feeling or action to its logical conclusion, our brain is satisfied. It is only when we do not allow the feeling to be released that it becomes problematic.

Psychologists call this acknowledgement of our feelings naming it. We can’t solve a problem without first identifying what that problem is. If the problem is that we feel helpless in the face of abuse, we need to name that helplessness. Once we’ve named it (identified it), we can then go about resolving it.

Name versus blame.

Naming a feeling or circumstance also helps attribute cause and effect. Since our subconscious requires that we identify a cause, when we name it with our conscious mind, we are able to assign appropriate accountability. You can explain to your brain that your parents got a divorce because they were unable to work out their relationship problems. You were just a kid. You had no control over your parents’ relationship.

When we allow our subconscious brain to rely on its default, we blame ourselves. Blame becomes shame. And shame, as we know, is highly toxic to ourselves and others.

However, when we consciously name our feelings and circumstances, an uncluttered subconscious brain listens.

What is an uncluttered subconscious?

An uncluttered subconscious brain is one that is free from toxic connections. The simplest way to achieve this is to start naming traumas and feelings with a newborn baby. Not only does this teach the child how to keep a tidy subconscious from the get-go, but it also makes the child’s transition into adulthood so much easier.

The reality, of course, is that it’s impossible for parents and caregivers to avoid passing on shame to the next generation. Until the adults of the world break the cycle of generational blame and shame, our children will inevitably learn to carry that shame within themselves as well. It’s an amazing goal to shoot for, but it does not solve the immediate problem.

Fortunately, we are beginning to learn ways to turn off our shame and create healthier connections in our brains. During the last session of this series, we will discuss several modalities to help tidy up our subconscious and make it open for new, healthier connections.

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