Many people come to therapy with the belief that something is amiss, broken, or “wrong” with them. Sometimes I wish it were easier to convince people this isn’t true – most of the time, the people that come to sit in my office are “working” just fine. Have they been thrown an unfair number of lemons by life? Sure, maybe. Have they responded to those experiences creatively and adaptively, in a way that has both helped and hindered them? In every case, yes. That said, you’re not broken, you’re adapting.
How Does Adaptation Happen?
Genetics is one element that explains our wonderful human diversity, and another is environment and experience – we all have a rich tapestry of experiences, and no two tapestries are anything close to alike. Those tapestries, I believe, are all quite beautiful.1, I’ve noticed people generally prefer movies that end happily, but when it comes to art and music, it can be the mournful, the bleak, the dark, the unsettling and unresolved, that has more power and meaning for us.2 The darker shades in those tapestries are worth sitting back and soaking in, they touch us deeply. This is one of the many reasons I love my job so much. Another is that sometimes, one of my coworkers brings in muffins.
Ok, back to the thing. Neuroscience has known for many years now about the incredible plasticity of the brain, an organ that readily and creatively adapts to its environment. Most of us have heard that people who experience blindness have a more heightened sense of hearing and smell. One reason for this is that the brain takes unused real estate – certain areas devoted to visual processing – and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, the neurologist Oliver Sacks shares stories of brain-damaged patients who have responded with unbelievable neurological adaptations. Sacks comments “…there is always a reaction, on the part of the affected organism or individual, to restore, to replace, to compensate for and to preserve its identity, however strange the means may be…” (p.6). Brains find a way to preserve and reinvent themselves in the face of damage, and people find a way to preserve themselves in the face of challenge. Trauma and anxiety are prime examples: a dog bite when you are three years old might give you a paralyzing fear of dogs for the rest of your life. Your three-year-old brain saw that your life was in danger and it made a high priority, instantly accessible file labeled DOGS = DEATH -> AVOID that pumps you full of anxiety and adrenaline when a dog might be nearby.
Many of our adaptations are not all that dramatic and some are more complex. Maybe our dad told us not to be a baby when we cried, and so to preserve that relationship (our brain knew this was more important) we created a file that evokes anxiety when something might feel sad. Now, we are an expert at avoiding not only physical sadness, but things that even might make us feel sad based on our experiences.
What Do We Do About Our Adaptations?
Your adaptations are there for a reason, and that’s ok. They might not be as helpful as they once were – you’re an adult now, and dogs aren’t all that dangerous most of the time – they’re actually awesome. Avoiding sadness was functional before, but now you find yourself feeling depressed more often than not. In your last relationship, it made sense to be angry with your partner, because it felt like the only way to get through to them – but in your other relationships, that anger is less useful.
Adaptations in our life are unavoidable and necessary, and this is a good thing. If you lacked the ability to adapt, then I might agree that something is wrong with you. But I’ve never met anyone for whom that was true. You see, blind folks don’t tell their brains to reuse that real estate for hearing, brains just do it, which is so cool. And our brains, as wonderful as they are, don’t always make the best long-term choices. They find a way to stop us from driving after we have a bad accident, terrified that we might die, convinced that losing our job is better than death. When we are frustrated at ourselves and sad about the loss of that job, they talk us into pouring a drink, and when it works, they think “Perfect!” and they keep doing it. When people close to us start to bother us, they might solve the problem by helping us avoid relationships altogether (great idea for a week, but not for a year, or a lifetime). When our coworker brings in muffins, they talk us into stress-eating four of them, because the first one was oh. so. good. I think you get the point.
Working With Our Adaptations
We can get to know our adaptations, and be brave enough to set aside those we no longer need (and adjust the ones we do). We can come to see that our adaptations are actually strengths – the lengths that we go to in order to avoid something can spark incredible creativity. These are some things we might do in therapy. But first, we might work on the belief that there is something wrong with you in the first place – and, wouldn’t you know it, our brains are fantastic at holding onto those beliefs. So, if you take nothing else out of this article, make it the belief that you – whoever you are – are mostly just fine, and you are weaving a meaningful and worthwhile tapestry with the threads you are being given.
If you’re struggling with some of your adaptations, give us a shout. We’re here to help. Remember, you’re not broken; you’re adapting.
1. You’ll have to let me have this one – I’m an incredible, unabashed sap, for better and worse.
2. I have a client who is a fantastic artist, and I sometimes have the privilege of seeing some of what she’s made – it reflects her experiences, and it also connects me to some of my own. Art in many forms has that effect, and those who do it well are a real gift to the world. Meg, who runs the therapeutic art program here at Alongside You, often uses a wide range of colours and tones to create pieces that seem able to capture any mood under the sun – a few seconds soaking these in are seconds well spent.
3. On the tapestry metaphor note, his op-ed in the Times on his terminal cancer diagnosis is a worthwhile read along with this blog post – here’s a link to it.