In all of our teaching programs about Perceptual Style, we strive to provide specific, practical application actions as well as information-rich content. The combination enhances the learning process.
While I recognize most people emphasize the value of practical application, I have always been convinced that the process of self-discovery, of knowing and understanding yourself better, of being able to observe as well as participate in your life has value in and of itself.
For years this has just been a strongly held belief of mine. A recent experience provided concrete and empirical evidence of this belief’s profound truth.
In my typical Activity manner, my account of coming to this realization integrates several stories that may not at first blush seem to have anything to do with each other. I think they do, and I hope you have the same experience of excitement and discovery reading about them that I had when I lived through them! Here we go…
Part of the annual process of renewing my professional license is the requirement to earn a minimum number of continuing education credits. Often this is a review of ethics, laws, and professional conduct that has great value in keeping me up to date but is at best mundane and at worst tedious. Every now and then, as I did this year, I stumble onto something truly exciting that impacts my practice in significant ways.
Let me tell you about it!
Throughout my career as a private practice psychotherapist, a personal growth coach, and a corporate business consultant, I have emphasized to my clients that the most valuable service I offer is helping them develop the ability to observe and reflect on their thoughts, feelings, and actions. At the beginning of our work together, many clients have difficulty understanding how awareness of what is going on inside their head can affect what is going on in their life.
What I mean by this is that they think their dissatisfaction with life is because they are not doing something “out there” well enough. They come to me for help looking to get better at something in the external world they believe will finally deliver the elusive happiness, satisfaction, meaning, or success they have been missing. The first step is to help them accept that the answers are never external.
The real world “out there” is pretty much the way it has always been: struggles and problems mixed with opportunity. Attempts to change, manage, or fix the world are destined to come up short. As a graduate school professor of mine once said, “You can’t cure life. You can’t even treat it.”
But this doesn’t stop most of us from trying. Let me give you an example from my private practice. A very bright young woman contacted me because she had begun to suffer from chronic anxiety and worry that she was not performing at an adequate level in her law career and that her life was not going where she wanted it to.
She spoke at length about the plan for her life that had, until recently, been on track. She complained that she was now behind schedule and was in danger of being “left behind”. Most of her peers were married, and many already had children. They owned houses in the suburbs and were moving on to the next stage of life. She, on the other hand, didn’t even have a boyfriend.
Her anxiety came from a combination of feeling like she wasn’t hitting her marks and the tremendous pressure she felt to accomplish a “perfect” life. Inside she knew something was wrong, but the solution she was pursuing was to try to solve her anxiety by figuring out the right decisions that would put her back on track.
It wasn’t working, and her initial goal in therapy was to get me to help her figure out how to make those decisions correctly. The tears that came flooding out when I told her doing more of the same wasn’t going to help were both from anguish at the despair of abandoning her life plan and also from relief that there might be a way out of her pain other than pushing herself as hard as she was.
The challenge was to get her to accept this truth in order to help her let go of trying to manage the unmanageable and change the unchangeable.
What we can change and control is our approach to life and how we represent what is going on externally to ourselves inside. The conclusions we make from our experience, the meaning we find in the events of our life, how we manage our thoughts and emotions, and what we tell ourselves about what we think and feel are all part of our own internal mindmap. The more integrated our internal mindmap is, the greater our mental health!
There are many things to integrate in the mind, but the first is the integration of consciousness. This is the ability to observe ourselves as we move through life—to place focused, conscious attention to observe the information and energy flow within and use it to shape the flow’s characteristics, patterns, and direction.
Developing this critical self-awareness is the approach I have taken in my work with my clients all my professional life. As with the client I’ve been describing, the problem is that when the outward focus is so strong that attempts to develop an interest in self-discovery fall on deaf ears. In these cases, I work to find a way to initiate the journey inward before the client, who is getting no relief from their symptoms, leaves in frustration. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t.
So, now back to that interesting CEU course that impacted my practice. Only 75% of the CEUs required to renew my license can be self-study, and the remaining 25% must be in live interactive classes. I found a class that looked interesting and fit my schedule and signed up for it. Little did I know!
The course title was “Interpersonal Neurobiology” and was based on the work of Daniel Siegel, M.D.
Interpersonal Neurobiology is not a style of psychotherapy like psychoanalysis or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy but rather a lens through which to view the therapeutic process and define what the mind needs for maximum health.
Dr. Siegel proposes that the definition of mental health is when nine different domains of the brain are integrated and working together. You can read more about Interpersonal Neurobiology in Dr. Siegel’s book Mindsight.
I won’t go into the nine different domains in this article, but guess what number one is? Integration of Consciousness or “Hub of Awareness,” which is defined as “the ability to observe where you place your attention with skilled intention.”
What most caught my interest as the course proceeded was that it gave me an understanding of what was going on in the brain when clients lacked the ability to turn inward and self-observe. More importantly, it provided concrete ways to promote integration.
Equipped with this new knowledge, I recently had a groundbreaking session with my client. We had frequently gone around in circles, with me trying to get her to look at the internal sources of her anxiety and her focusing on all the things that are going on in her life that are making her feel anxious and trying to fix them.
My client is very “left brain” oriented and spends much of her life in the legal world of the linear, linguistic, logical, and literal. My explanation of deeper psychodynamics and emotional experience didn’t hold much power or interest for her. I saw one direction that would be helpful was a better balance between left and right brain, but her left-brain orientation rejected the solution as illogical.
During our session, she was caught up in her inability to decide about major issues in her life for fear of making the wrong decision. She would list the horrible consequences of being wrong and then return to the anxiety caused by her indecision. Her ability to self-observe and control the focus of her attention was absent.
Drawing on what I had learned in the seminar, I spoke directly to her left brain and asked her to name the emotions she was feeling rather than asking her to feel them. When she did, it was like flipping a light switch. She instantly lost all the tension in her body and her urgency to solve what she had determined was the source of her anxiety.
As soon as she thought about “fixing” the things she believed were causing her anxiety, the tension and urgency in her body returned. She discovered that she could turn the tension and urgency on and off by focusing on just naming her experience versus trying to fix things. This integrated her consciousness as she became fascinated by watching her internal process and how much control it gave her.
My instructions to her were not to try to figure out what to do with her feelings, just to name them. Paradoxically giving her left-brain control through the naming process opened her to the ability to allow herself to observe her internal process. This was a huge moment in her work with me as she had experiential evidence of my claim that inner awareness, not external problem solving, was the key to her mental health.
So, what happened when the switch flipped for my client? Prior to the course I took, I would have said, “She suddenly got it!” without really knowing how it happened. Through my fledgling understanding of Interpersonal Neurobiology, I now have a compelling explanation that I believe is worth taking a little bit of time to explore.
The ability to step back from our experience and observe ourselves rather than be run by our emotional brain is mediated by the middle prefrontal cortex. This area does not fully develop until we are about 25 years of age, but successful development is a combination of social development and brain maturation.
Before this area develops, our emotions are pretty much in control. We come prewired for fear as it helps us to survive, but too much fear is really stressful. So how do we survive the onslaught of childhood emotional experiences when we literally do not have the brain power to manage it? The answer is we borrow our parent’s prefrontal cortex!
When we are hurt, stressed, afraid, etc., as a child, our parents literally scoop us up in their arms, hold us close, and reassure us that we are OK and will survive. In this process, we experience comfort, concern, and safety, which are picked up by our mirror neurons and integrated into the developing prefrontal cortex. This leads to a sense of secure attachment in the world and allows us, as grown-ups, to use our own prefrontal cortex to manage the ups and downs of our lives.
Or at least that is theoretically what happens! What happens when mom and dad are unavailable, indifferent, or abusive? We develop a sense of insecure attachment that provides inadequate comfort, and we remain at the mercy of our childhood emotional mind. This is the realm of frequent emotional hijacking of our mind integration into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode, emotional issues such as explosive rage, depression, and paralyzing anxiety, or impulsive, self-defeating, and self-harm behaviors.
There are many different solutions we, as humans, create that lead to a chronic inability to keep the nine elements of our minds integrated. The one that my client chose was to push her emotional response away and focus on creating a “perfect life” through hyper-rationality and perfect decision-making. She ended up coming to me after she discovered the trap that she had created for herself. She was still affected by her emotions but no longer knew how to access them.
Emotions do not go away just because we refuse to allow ourselves to experience them, but our ability to access and manage them comfortably can atrophy. My focus on getting my client to feel what was hidden beneath her anxiety failed because my prescription made no “rational” sense to her mind. It was only when I got her to name what she was feeling by co-opting one of her left-brain strengths that she was able to open to the more right-brain mediated integration of her emotional experience.
This integration of both right and left brain also unlocked her “hub of awareness” as she was able to observe how her experience changed when she moved from naming to fixing and back again. It was a breakthrough moment for both of us, and the relief and excitement she felt were wonderful to witness.
So, this brings us back full circle to the original premise of this article: What is the practical application of knowing your Perceptual Style, and how can you use that knowledge to increase your internal well-being? Let’s summarize the steps that lead to the answer:
We cannot change or control most of what goes on in the external world, but we can learn to change and control our approach to life and how we represent what is going on externally to ourselves inside.
Our ability to manage our internal world depends on nine different mind domains.
Mental health and an internal sense of well-being come when all nine domains come together to create an integrated mind.
All domains are important, but the first – consciousness or the “hub of awareness” provides the ability to observe ourselves, to live consciously, and is a necessary prerequisite to develop the ability to work on the other eight.
Integrating the hub of awareness allows us to observe ourselves, our thoughts, emotions, and sensations and correctly identify them as parts of an experience we are having rather than the truth about us. This is the difference between the phrase “I feel anxious.” as opposed to “I am anxious”
The middle prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that allows us to observe ourselves as we experience life and do so from an integrated mind.
The middle prefrontal cortex grows and strengthens, in a positive feedback loop, as we gain knowledge of and self-awareness of our mind.
Any process that increases knowledge of and self-awareness of our mind has a direct positive effect on our mental health, overall sense of well-being, and ability to interact and function effectively in the world.
Psychotherapy is one such process, and when done well can have a profound impact on our ability to develop an integrated mind. However, most people don’t seek therapy until they are experiencing some sort of distress or acute mind disintegration.
Fortunately, there are many non-clinical processes that are beneficial to mind integration and are readily and easily available. Understanding Perceptual Style Theory, discovering your Perceptual Style, and learning what it says about you is one such process.
Knowing how your Perceptual Style contributes to how you create and discover meaning in the world provides an aspect of self-awareness that promotes, in and of itself, integration of the mind.
The excitement of people’s initial experience of self-discovery that their assessment results provide comes from the increased self-mastery that is inherent within them. Even if there were no “practical applications” beyond the understanding of self that Perceptual Style Theory provides, that would be enough.