One of the most powerful tools for healing is self acceptance. When we understand and know ourselves deeply, we find that we can respond to our habitual tendencies from a deeper well of wisdom – and with greater mercy. We can care for ourselves as we are – and not how we wish we were.
This acceptance is a gift to ourselves: a gentle nod that says, “This is how it is right now.” We make space for all parts of ourselves, and for all our human messiness.
In particular, I’ve found self acceptance to be very helpful in caring for ourselves when we’re caught in our lower, reptilian brain. This is the part of us that can overreact, freak out, and see everything as, “danger.” We all have this lower brain. But some of us have more reactive brains – and more reactive lower brains – than others.
Are you highly reactive?
In Susan Cain’s thoughtful book Quiet, she describes the research of Jerome Kagan. Dr. Kagan and others have found that some people have more reactive brains than others. In those who are high reactive, there’s higher activity in the amygdala (a part of the lower brain) when confronted with a new stimulus. (I would use the words “highly sensitive” interchangeably with “highly reactive” here, because both point to a highly sensitive nervous system.)
In everyday language, what this means is that if you have a highly reactive brain, your brain perceives new things as more stimulating or even more threatening than those with low reactive brains.
On the surface, this high reactivity/high sensitivity can look like:
- feeling easily frustrated
- having challenges with change and transitions
- imagining worst case scenarios or focusing on the negative
- feeling easily overwhelmed or overstimulated
- and feeling threatened by change or newness
What high reactivity can look like
I’ll give you some concrete examples of how this can play out. One of my dear children – who is high reactive (um, I don’t know where he got it!) – approaches anything new with, “No.” This could be something he really, really, really enjoys – like an art class, a playdate with a friend, gymnastics, or swimming. But if the idea doesn’t come from his brain – which feels safe to him, as he’s prepared himself for it – he reacts to it as a threat and says, “No.”
Fortunately, I understand what’s going on. So I don’t take his no personally – I know it’s just his sweet brain trying to protect him from what it perceives as danger. I know a part of him does want to try what I’m suggesting – it’s just his lower brain talking to him and saying no.
Here’s another example. A few weeks ago, my family and I were going out to see Despicable Me 2. I’m not sure how I managed this, but somehow I got the wrong theater and(!) the wrong time for our outing. If we wanted to see the movie, we’d have to wait until nearly 10 p.m. – super late for our 6 year old, and find something to do for the next 90 minutes. My brain started going into the worst case scenario – what I call “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!” – about how we wouldn’t be able to see the movie after all. Exhibit A of my reactive brain talking.
But it ended up working out fine – we got a snack at Whole Foods and spent some time at REI. We ended up buying a frisbee in REI and playing frisbee in the parking lot, as the lot was empty, and felt silly and connected. What my brain imagined as a terrible night turned out to be just fine – pretty fun, in fact.
How do you relate to your high reactive brain?
So, yes, in my own life, I certainly see all of these tendencies of the highly reactive, and they can be challenging to live with! (And I’m just talking about myself here – not to mention how this may be challenging for those who live with me!)
For many, many years I despised these tendencies in myself. I felt embarrassed and ashamed about what I saw as “character flaws” that felt out of my control. But no matter what I did to change, at some point – usually when I was under chronic stress, tired, overhungry, or in pain – my reactive brain would take over. I’d be overly reactive, anxious, or overly emotional – and then ashamed of my intensity.
Healing the shame of reactivity
When I studied the work of Dr. Gordon Neufeld, I found peace. He taught me that when you have a sensitive nervous system, your brain goes into self protection mode more easily. It is more reactive, and more likely to see new things as threatening or scary. Because a highly sensitive brain processes more sensory information than a non-sensitive brain, it is more easily overwhelmed.
This was incredibly healing for me. It was this huge a ha for me – I’m not a terrible person, I’m simply highly sensitive, and highly reactive!
With this knowledge, I began befriending my dear brain. I accepted: this is how I’m wired. Instead of fighting against my brain’s tendencies, I accepted them. With this acceptance, I found a space: a space to work with my brain as a co-partner, as a loving friend, and not as my enemy.
When I deeply understood that my sensitivity is not something I can change, I discovered love – and forgiveness – for myself. I changed because my relationship to my sensitivity changed.
Here’s how that befriending played out.
4 steps to soothe your reactive brain:
1. Name it. When you notice yourself feeling overwhelmed, reactive or threatened, simply notice and name it. I know this may sound silly, but this is how I talk to myself: “Oh, sweet brain. I hear you. I hear you talking to me.” I’ve found that this tender, light touch creates spaciousness, nurturing, and levity about how I relate to my reactivity.
2. Practice acceptance. Drop any judgment about how you’re feeling. Simply accept your reactivity: this is how it is right now.
3. Validate and accept the feelings underneath your reactivity. You don’t have to stuff, transmute, ignore your feelings or make them wrong. Instead, validate them. It sounds counterintuitive, but validating your feelings – even those from the reactive brain, like fear, worry, doubt, or anxiety – soothes them.
I like to gently say to myself, “I see you anxiety. I see you fear. It’s okay.” I don’t fight them – I just let them be. This creates a space for them to soften and move.
To go back to the example of my son and the art class, I told him, “It sounds like you’re feeling scared you won’t like it, or you’re feeling nervous about drawing in front of the other kids.” I didn’t make him wrong for feeling scared or try to talk him out of it – “There’s nothing to be scared about.” In validating his feelings, he felt calmed, and ironically, empowered.
4. Practice “and.” This is where we find our realm of power, choice and action. I learned about the power of “and” from Dr. Gordon Neufeld. He calls “and” integrative functioning. This is when you’re able to take all your feelings – your fear, anxiety, doubt – and – move forward into action.
In the case of my son, I told him, “I hear that you’re feeling scared. And I also know that you’re often really excited – and glad you did it! – after trying new things. So let’s just try it and see what happens. You may end up really liking it!”
This is an example of and – honoring our reactivity and finding the deeper pull of our yes – the yes that wants to try something new. I talk more about integrative functioning in Emerge: Create a New Habit, my compassion based program on how to eat less sugar.
Thich Nhat Hanh says that “understanding is the foundation of love.” When we understand our reactive brains, we can view ourselves – and our behavior – with softer, gentler eyes. We stop making ourselves – our reactivity, our personality, our humanity itself – wrong. We open our hearts to this part of ourselves, and from this space, we grow: not only our integrative functioning or our resilience, but also our capacity to love ourselves, unconditionally.