The Power of the Brain

I went paddle-boarding for the first time recently. I received some basic instruction about how to stand up but it’s easy in theory! I expected to fall off about ten times before I’d be able to stand up and paddle along. In actual fact, I fell off twice – both times when the wind had blown me into the side of the lake and I didn’t see the bank coming!

So I was a bit better at balance than I expected but it was really hard work. Every little movement had me trying to counteract it to stay still. I had a few literal wobbles where I was over-balancing and expecting to fall in but I managed to cling on.

I persevered for about an hour, not falling in but my feet were killing me from a combination of the strain of steadying movements and trying to grip the board like a monkey gripping a branch! I realised that I wasn’t really enjoying this, that it was much more difficult than it looked and not at all the gentle alternative to windsurfing which I tried and gave up on 30+ years previously.

I had a little rest and sat on the board, letting my feet recover from their efforts. It was a 2-hour session and I wan’t quite ready to give up yet. I gave standing up one more go and it was completely different! Suddenly my legs knew what to do – my brain had taken the balancing that I was doing very, very consciously and started doing it automatically. I started steaming across the lake, wobbling a bit but not as worried and much steadier. I started to enjoy it!

Lessons Learned

Why am I telling you this? Is it just a humble-brag about taming the ripples?! Maybe. Actually it makes me think of two things – ‘trusting the process’ and the power of the brain in forming habits and automatic thoughts.

Trusting the Process

While I had some basic confidence that I would be able to learn how to balance, I doubted this at times. Part of me wanted to get off and go and sit in the outdoor cafe in the sun. However, I felt that I should just keep going and the learning process would kick in.

It’s like this in counselling sometimes. The process of exploring your own issues, thoughts and feelings in a supportive and non-judgemental environment can lead to big or small gains. At times, I sit there wondering if we will get there; how does exploring this particular area help? Has this session been any use? We haven’t found any answers yet, etc.

However, I have learned to trust the process. It’s not about me being the all-knowing one who can see the bigger picture – yes, I can see parts of the picture that the client might not yet but it’s a joint exploration. As the process progresses, we make links and we gain new insights.

The Power of the Negative

It could have gone very differently; sometimes the brain’s automatic processing is less helpful. If I were a perfectionist and afraid of failure I might never have tried. Or if I had a low opinion of my own abilities, it might have gone something like this:

I won’t be any good at paddle-boarding but I’ll give it a go. OK, I’ve fallen in – I knew I wouldn’t be any good at it. I’ll try once more to be sure. Nope, I’ve fallen in again. I just can’t do this!
Habitual thinking at its worst

This is an example of confirmation bias. I could have interpreted me falling in as confirmation that I wasn’t any good at it. I might actually have been stood upright for a full minute but would have filtered out that positive and taken the worst message.

Often our background and life experiences cause us to filter in this way. How we think can affect how we feel. The cognitive behavioural school calls these ‘negative automatic thoughts’; our brain automatically supplies the worst-case interpretation as that’s what we are used to doing.

Learning to recognise that these thoughts are automatic and just one of a range of possible ways at looking at things can be helpful. Instead of believing that voice as the truth, we can think “what else could it mean?” and start to challenge ourselves to build a better habit.

While cognitive behavioural therapy focuses on acknowledging and challenging these thoughts, it might also be helpful to take a compassionate view on why they are there in the first place, rather than be self-critical because “I can’t even think right either”!

In a Nutshell

The brain is powerful and can sometimes learn quickly. It can work with us or against us.

In counselling we can work with where the thinking has come from or sometimes directly with the thinking style itself.

Pictured below is me after a good hour and a bit!!

Me, standing upright on a paddle-board in a wet suit, sucking in my stomach!
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