RENEWING YOUR MIND? - I WISH...
It was Jack’s first school sports day. At nearly 4 he was extremely excited, and for the last couple of weeks he and his classmates had been drilled on how to run a race. He had learnt Ready, Steady Go, he knew he had to run to the rope, go through it and then stop. He knew exactly what to do. Cheering him on would be his mummy, daddy and grandma.
On the day of the big event however, Someone Important decided that the race wasn’t long enough and it should become a ‘there-and-back’ event. The children were told not to stop at the finishing line but to run back to the start. The race began and off the children ran. But on arriving at the rope, every single child stopped. “Turn round! Go back again!” cried the teachers, exasperated. But the children couldn’t. They had been taught over and over again what to do, and they froze.
What these puzzled little ones didn’t realised was that there was a triple assault on their brain at this point - their front cortex heard the words ‘Go back to the start’ and understood the meaning clearly enough. But their limbic system, the emotional brain, was filled with doubt and fear that it would be doing it wrong! They’d been taught over and over again what to do, and it didn’t include running back to the start! Not only that, but their bodies had frozen, they were literally unable to move.
Through the confusion Jack suddenly heard a voice he knew: his beloved grandma. “Turn around, and run back to the start, Jack!” she said - a voice he trusted, and he looked up and saw the encouraging smile on a face he loved. Suddenly he was free to move his legs, off he sped, and won the race.
Mattie, the grandma, is a close friend of mine, and she was deeply impacted by what she saw unfolding. A survivor herself of childhood trauma and abuse, she realised yet again how easy it is to imprint instructions and beliefs on a small child, and how hard it is to believe that the opposite could be true. In her church and in her counselling sessions, she was being given many important messages about God’s love, her own value, the importance of personal boundaries, saying ‘No’, respecting herself. She heard the words, she even believed most of them at one level, but other forces were working against them, deep rooted, underlying convictions that God was angry and hostile, that she was worth nothing, that she was ‘bad’ and deserved to be punished. These neural networks were laid down primitively, powerfully and destructively in her brain and it was a massive battle to get free from their influence on her life.
It is said that the most densely formed networks in our brain come from three major sources.
Routines that are repeated regularly or given a significant amount of time and attention become reinforcements where we learn do things automatically. Few of us need to open an instruction book to find out how to brush our teeth, for example. Even the few days of Jack’s drilling on how to run a race had formed a core belief in him and his classmates. If we are told something often enough, and also by someone important enough, it can become a deep-seated conviction, regardless of whether it is actually true or not.
Events linked to emotional issues. I remember the day my beloved dog was put down, and I can still feel the loss of him over 40 years later. It made me take one of those ‘inner vows’ we used to talk about, that I would never again feel that pain, and I have indeed never had another dog since then. Loss, bereavement, separation, can all form belief systems such as, “Don’t get close to people, they’ll hurt you.” “If you love someone more than God, He’ll take them away from you.” “Don’t give away your secrets... you will be betrayed.”
Events linked to survival. Whether you are a survivor of childhood trauma and abuse, or were in a serious car crash recently, anything which felt or indeed was life-threatening is likely to have a profound effect on the brain and can affect your day-to-day living, bringing fear and anxiety into your once safe world.
When the brain takes on board new information, it links it back to existing filing cabinets stored in the neural networks of the brain and interprets the new data in the light of what it already knows or believes to be true. This is called a feedback loop. As counsellors we can be very arrogant sometimes in thinking that just because we may tell a client she is wonderful, loved by God, valued and special, that she can receive it and believe it. A primary school teacher shared in church recently that one of the most frustrating parts of art work was finding that the children had left the tops off tubs of play-do. Exposed to the elements, the once soft moulding material had become rock hard and impossible to change. It needed strong hands to rework it, deeply and repeatedly, to make it malleable and receptive to reshaping again. And then it needed a protective covering on it to keep it soft. It reminded me of Jeremiah’s lesson from God about the potter’s wheel (Jeremiah 18) and how God reworks our raw material to make it into something very precious. But many of our clients have become hardened to words - why should I, their counsellor, be more believable than the people who were their primary carers and who abused them in their early years of life? It has to take something much more than words alone to affect changes in the brain.
What part do we play as Christian counsellors in what essentially means laying down new neural networks in the brains of deeply hurting clients? People who have been battered, broken and hardened by trauma, abuse and betrayal? I’m reminded again of what helped little Jack win his race - the words and face of someone he loved, someone he knew was safe to trust. Gaining the trust of our clients is a long process and I need to travel together with them with deep humility and awe at the challenge ahead of us both. They can’t believe the truth just because I want them to. Am I prepared to stay with them for weeks, months, years, until the new messages become stronger than the old ones? Can I stay with them until finally the truth sets them free? It may mean that they have to face and own terribly painful facts about what happened to them. Am I prepared to carry that pain with them and allow them to be angry, afraid, rejecting and despairing as the battle for the renewal of their mind takes place? Yes, I know sometimes God’s Word breaks through powerfully and brings about dramatic changes, but in my experience, deep, radical, lasting lifelong changes take place systematically over a long time.
Isaiah 49:24 says, "Can the prey be taken from the mighty man, or the captives of a tyrant be rescued?"
The next verse reassures us, “Surely, thus says the LORD, ‘Even the captives of the mighty man will be taken away, and the prey of the tyrant will be rescued; for I will contend with the one who contends with you, and I will save your sons’.” (NASB 1995)
Mark 3:27 continues the theme: “No one can enter the strong man's house and plunder his property unless he first binds the strong man, and then he will plunder his house.”
I want to suggest that we can’t get the new messages through until they become stronger than the old ones. Constant, repeated reinforcement in the context of a secure, committed therapeutic relationship, where I am willing to stay with the pain and listen repeatedly to the story, can, I believe, bring about lasting change. But there is no ‘quick fix’.
We may not be able to change the past for people, but we can hopefully help them one day to remember without pain. And with all my heart I want to help them have a future. Binding the messages of the past can only be done if there is a stronger message in the present, and that takes time. Frank Lake said a child needs “the face of the mother and the voice of the father” to provide deep affirmations and secure attachment. Sadly the face seen and the voice heard by many of our clients were anything but safe, and they are constantly watching and listening to see who is trustworthy, testing us out, hypervigilant for signs of danger or betrayal. Without realising it, we can be in danger of introducing a new tyranny, giving a message that they have to ‘get it right’, be a ‘good client’ and do what we want them to do, or risk losing us. Building the secure base in the counselling room takes a long time!
The government may be trying to impose quick fixes on the counselling world, but it won’t work for the vast majority of deeply hurting clients, and we know that. The battle is not just out there, but in many churches who impose a one-size-fits-all package of ‘repent-believe-trust God-be obedient’ on the congregation, adding even deeper despair to those who can’t do it.
I need to renew my mind in many areas, and I’m working on it. I like John Pantry’s song which tells us that “wonderful grace... gives us the time to change”. This is a plea, amidst all the other promotions of short term talky therapy, for a core of us who are willing to stay with people for the long haul, and see, finally, deep, secure, lasting change taking place as the brain itself is transformed and finally is able to see the world and the self in a new light.
Director, Deep Release