Blog 5: How experiences shape us

suitcase

Experiences are like a suitcase we carry with us through our lives.

The Power of Experience
For a long time, scientists have argued about whether it is nature or nurture that ultimately decides our fate. Are our behaviors, thoughts, and emotions biologically determined? Or are they primarily influenced by our environment? The answer is both.
We are all born with certain biological tendencies. Our genes determine our physical characteristics and many aspects of our personality, such as how energetic or sensitive to stress we are. But this is only half of the story.
The other half is our experiences. Experience physically shapes the brain. Just like waves can mould hard rock into fine grains of sand, so too can our experiences mould the physical structure, and resulting patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving, of our brains. On an even deeper level, scientists are now realizing that experiences even have the power to influence our genetics by turning certain genes ‘on’ and others ‘off’. All this is to say that experience is a powerful force in creating who we are, and fortunately we have a lot more ability to control our experiences than we do our biology.

How Experience Shapes the Brain
Any kind of experience, be it physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual, causes cells in our brain to activate. Called neurons, these cells form millions of connections with one another in an intricate system that gives our brain it’s complexity. When a neuron is activated by an experience, it ‘fires’ off a signal to other neurons that cause them to ‘wire’ together – forming a neural circuit that will become a pattern our brain will refer to the next time it encounters a similar experience. For example, if you had a positive experience the first time you encountered a dog, your ‘feeling happy’ neurons fired at the same time as your ‘dog’ neurons, and thus whenever you encounter a dog in the future, you will likely have pleasant feelings. However, if your first experience with a dog was negative or frightening, you will likely feel anxious or afraid when encountering a dog in the future. This is the scientific basis for the phrase “What fires together, wires together,” and it’s the primary principle through which experience shapes the brain. Therefore, the music we listen to, books we read, things we do, emotions we feel, and people we love are all going to shape our brains in different ways.

This isn’t to say that we should assume every negative thing we encounter is going to cause irreparable damage however. Yes, there are certain circumstances in which a single negative event, or trauma, can cause serious harm, but this is not what we are referring to in discussing how experience shapes the brain on an everyday basis. When it comes to ‘normal’ experiences, what tends to create the most impact is repetition. For example, in the case of the dog, the person with the fearful approach will likely react to future encounters with dogs in a negative way, perhaps even provoking the dogs to behave in ways that reinforce their initial fearful perception, and strengthening the circuits in their brain that have come to associate dogs with negative feelings. Therefore, it is repeated experiences that will most strongly reinforce the development of the brain.

This is good news for parents and caregivers because it means that we can give ourselves some grace when it comes to how our children’s experience of us will shape their brains. Rather than amplifying the pressure caregivers already feel to be perfect, rest assured that research has demonstrated time and again that ‘good enough’ caregiving is sufficient to promote healthy brain development.

Good Enough Most of the Time
So what does ‘good enough’ parenting or caregiving look like? Rather than hitting the mark all the time, we need only hit it most of the time. Take the example of a caregiver and an infant. When a baby cries, it’s up to the parent to figure out what they are needing. Are they hungry? Cold? In need of a diaper change? Often we might have to try more than one solution until we get to one that allows the baby to calm down, but it is our persistence in doing so that allows the infant to experience us as ‘good enough’ caregivers. We might not always get it right the first time, but the baby can count on us to persist until we do. However, if we consistently get frustrated with our efforts, or don’t even try in the first place, the infant now experiences us either as ‘inconsistent’, or even worse as completely ‘unreliable’ because we can’t be counted on to persist in attuning and attending to them.

The same is true with older children in our ability to attune, respond, and set consistent limits most of the time. In this scenario, our mistakes, blow-ups, or inconsistencies will have less of a damaging impact because our children will have come to experience us as generally safe and secure. Indeed, within such a relationship our mistakes with our children can be valuable teaching opportunities for them, especially if we use them to help our children understand how to be responsible for their actions, and repair relationships when necessary.

All this being said, being a ‘good enough’ caregiver or parent can still seem like an impossibly tall order, and if you feel like hitting the mark even some of the time would be a good start, know that you are not alone and that it is not too late for you or the children in your care.

Becoming Good Enough
Ultimately, we can’t impact how our children’s experience of us will shape their brains until we have made sense of how our own experiences have influenced us. Research shows us that the experiences that most positively impact our children are those in which we create a shared emotional state. This ability to tune in to our child’s inner world and allow ourselves to be impacted by what we discover is referred to as attunement. When a baby smiles at us and we smile back at them, or when they cry and we pick them up and make sympathetic sounds, we are tuning in to their inner world. The same is true of older children. When our teen expresses frustration with how much homework they have and we empathize with them rather than pointing out that they wouldn’t have so much work if they had gotten some done over the weekend, we are showing them that their experiences not only matter to us, but also have the ability to affect us.
Unfortunately, our ability to attune to the children in our lives is going to be drastically reduced if we can’t get past our own experiences. Imagine your child’s world as a radio frequency. In order to tune in and be able to ‘hear’ what they are experiencing, we need to be able to turn down the volume of our own frequencies. However, It’s incredibly difficult to do this if we are still stuck in our past experiences, or hooked on present ones.

For example, imagine a man who never felt good enough growing up. His parents were extremely hard on him, and would always focus on what he did wrong. If he scored two goals at his hockey game, his dad would berate him for the pass that he missed. Or if he got a 90% on a math test, his mom would shrug and say “Not bad I guess”. What do you think this man learned about failure? I would suggest that deep down he is terribly afraid of it, perhaps even associating failure with the rejection he so often experienced in response to his own shortcomings.
Now imagine this man becoming a father. How do you think he will handle his own failures as a parent? How will he handle those of his children? When confronted with either, it is likely that his own feelings of fear and rejection will be so loud that he will be unable to attune to what his children are experiencing. This is how, despite our best intentions, we often repeat the patterns of our parents. Until this man comes to terms with his own painful experiences around failure growing up, he will be unable to tolerate them in himself, and thus unable to tolerate them in his children.
The same can also be true of our present experiences. If we are depressed or anxious, stressed by financial pressures, caught in marital conflict, or otherwise overwhelmed by our experiences, it will be difficult for us to dial in to what our children are experiencing. Ultimately, this misattunement is often at the heart of most of the problems we experience with children. When children sense that we are not attuning to them, they often dial up the volume of their own experiences in an effort to get our attention, or completely withdraw from the relationship – both of which lead to immediate and long-term negative consequences.

As discussed in our last vlog, when such problems with our children do occur, our first reaction is often to focus on them. We desperately look for solutions to ‘fix’ their behaviors, not realizing that it is we who truly need the fixing. Indeed, the greatest gift we can give our children is to deal with the experiences, past or present, that are getting in the way of our truly being able to be present for them. For example, for the father in the situation above, no amount of pressuring, tutoring, rewarding, or punishing is going to prevent his children from failing. Thus, the best way he can help his kids is by coming to terms with his own experiences of failure. Only by working through these painful experiences will he be able to show up for his children in the way they need when they inevitably experience failure.

This is what it means to become ‘good enough’. Not to expect that we will never fail or have experiences that will overwhelm us, but to have the courage to deal with them when we do.

Questions for reflection:
Think back to your earliest memories as a child. What were your parents like? What was it like growing up in your family?
How was emotion handled in your family? Were there any emotions (such as anger or sadness) that weren’t tolerated?
What did discipline look like in your family?
If there was one thing you could change about growing up in your family, what would it be?
Think about what your family and your relationships with your children look like today. Do you see any similarities between your past experiences and what’s happening with your family in the present?
If there was one thing you could change about your present experiences with your family or children, what would it be?

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