from the


from the Top of the Mind


from the
Top of the Mind

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I Will Not “Should On” My Self Today!

In my seminars, I always want to be sure I’m dealing with the “real life” issues of my audience, and, therefore, I ask them to identify the types of difficult situations and people that have triggered their stress in the past, and how they have found themselves reacting. These reactions range from stress to anger, resentment, frustration, annoyance, as well as, depression, withdrawal, avoidance, and confusion.

Then, after we acknowledge how these reactions, while understandable, generally don’t serve us when we are wanting to be influential in our lives or the lives of others, I invite them to identify how they would like to respond differently in the future. Here, they come up with qualities, such as, confidence, kindness, empathy, being more objective, being a better listener, etc., which, of course, we all recognize as qualities that can help us deal with difficult situations and difficult people more successfully.

What I always point out, however, is that I’m not saying they “should” be more positive, or that they shouldn’t be angry, stressed, or upset. To make this point, I tell them about a sign that I remember seeing above a toilet in a place where I did some volunteer work that said, “I Will Not Should On Myself Today!”

This always gets a laugh because we all have experienced someone telling us what we should or shouldn’t do. This generally starts in childhood, but can continue as adults when we hear these admonitions from the authority figures in our lives, or even that critical voice inside our heads. It feels like someone is wagging a finger in our face telling us that we should be more empathetic, or shouldn’t be so angry.

The obvious problem with this is that hearing this almost always makes us want to do the very thing we are being told we “shouldn’t” do. Think of telling someone they should “calm down.” Often this is met with “CALM DOWN? DON’T TELL ME TO CALM DOWN!”

Another version of this tendency to “should on” ourselves comes from that inner critic that says we should be more productive, or finish some project, or get to bed on time, or get more exercise, etc., with the unspoken threat being that if we don’t, bad things will happen.

All of this is problematic because it is driven by fear…fear that if we don’t behave, no one will like us or want to be around us… fear that if we don’t do what we should do, we will be seen as unworthy or untrustworthy, we will be fired, we will lose our spouse and our house…and we will become a bag lady, and someone will steal our bag, and we will die!

Not a great way to live life.

Most people know this at some level, but they don’t know the science behind what is happening, nor how to deal with the problem. This is where people tell me that my “Life from the Top of the Mind” philosophy is so helpful, because I show them how our stress, frustration, anger, as well as our depression, worry, and shame all come from the lower 20% of the brain (the brainstem), while our clarity, confidence, creativity, and compassion come from the upper 70% of the brain (the neocortex). That other 10%, (the limbic system) although small, is very powerful because it acts as a scanner, processor, and router. It scans incoming data, interprets it as either positive, neutral, or negative, and then routes it either down to the brainstem, or up to the neocortex (what I call the Top of the Mind).

Unfortunately, because the first job of this middle brain (the limbic system) is to keep us safe and alive as a specie, it tends to interpret anything negative as dangerous, and throws us into the fight-or-flight part of the brain which is designed to deal with danger. Further, the reactions that come from this part of the brain (stress, anxiety, resentment, depression) are actually the result of chemical changes in our brain and body (mostly adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol). This only makes the original trigger (some difficult person or situation) seem worse, which the limbic system interprets as dangerous and sends the data right back town to the brainstem.

That’s the problem. The solution is to first raise our awareness of what’s truly going on, and shift to the clear, confident, creative brain where we can begin to have more influence over how we feel, think, and act. It’s not that we “shouldn’t” feel the way we do, it’s that it isn’t serving us. Or, as I like to put it, we aren’t doing it on purpose, it isn’t effective, and we wouldn’t recommend this way of thinking or feeling to someone we love.

Therefore, I suggest we stop “shoulding on ourselves,” or stop using the brainstem and our fear of the consequences to motivate our success, and, instead, start to make decisions that represent what we want, what we love, and what we would recommend to someone we love. In other words, start living “Life from the Top of the Mind.”

This is what I teach. If you would like your organization (school, church, family) to learn this skill, I encourage you to give me a call. It will be so much better than the mess that “shoulding” makes.

~ All the best, Dr. Bill

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