From our Ask The Experts Contributor Dr. Merry Lin
First off, can we please talk about our brain? It’s like that elephant in the room, because if we don’t talk about it, we will completely miss the point.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but as much as we’d like to think we’ve evolved since Adam and Eve first walked the earth, there are just some things that are hardwired into our human physiology. It could be why we seemed doomed to repeat history again and again, and why we take such comfort in reading the stories of all the human mess-ups in the Bible.
I’ve read plenty of history books (okay, maybe it’s more like historical romances, but still) and I’ve travelled the planet to some pretty obscure places, and I have to tell you, we human beings have a lot more in common than we think. In fact, 99.9% of our DNA is exactly the same for all human beings! (I don’t mean to frighten you, but our genes are 96% the same as chimpanzees; now THAT is worth sharing at the dinner table when your kids are acting like monkeys.)
So while we are incredibly unique and we are each beautifully created to reflect a different aspect of God’s glory, I also want to emphasize how much we have in common with one another, regardless of our gender, race, sexuality, socio-economic status, upbringing, and experiences. We can find compassion for ourselves and others when we bond over our humanity. And we can understand our hardwired responses so we can choose better.
It turns out that our ability to over-ride our basic instincts and choose better is what differentiates us from our primate cousins. The more we understand that, the more we can be intentional about our responses to each other and to our environments. To be in control of ourselves. To change our thought patterns and therefore our responses.
The human instinct to survive is our most powerful drive. It shapes how we think, what emotions we experience, and the ways we behave and interact with others. It forms what we psychologists call “cognitive biases” that help us filter what our brain has decided is useful information that help us survive and protect us from perceived danger. Given the millions of bits of data we are exposed to each day, this helps us process and remember information, problem solve and make decisions. But of course, as the word “bias” tells us, it can also lead us astray in what we pay attention to and why and how we react.
The way we think and our emotions that have survival value then produce behaviours that increase our chances of survival. BUT our survival instinct can also fail us and keep us stuck in habitual patterns of dysfunction, especially if we’re unaware of how deeply this instinct runs through all of our responses to life and others. It can lie to us and tell us we are in danger, when we really aren’t. It can move us to a stance of self-protection that blocks connection with others, that prevent us from risking and growing. It can actually be counter-productive to our survival and put us actively in real danger to our health and well-being.
At the simplest level, our brains are wired for survival, for connection and for belonging. We’d like to believe that our thinking is objective and based on factual truth, but in actuality, because our brains are wired for survival, connection and belonging, here are 3 factors we have to consider as to why we think and believe the way we do:
- Our memories are highly selective. They aren’t like a video reply of actual events but they are housed in our brains based on our experiences of that event, our interpretation and our emotions. That means that they are highly subjective, particularly when we don’t bring it out to light with some reality testing. So they can feel very real and “true”.
- Our trauma deeply trains our brain to think a certain way. Traumatic experiences will trigger certain beliefs and conclusions – for example, many children believe that the abuse they’ve experienced is 1) their fault 2) they are powerless to stop it and 3) they are unsafe (part of the work we do in trauma work is to change that thinking to the opposite).
- Our thinking is actually a social activity – Because of our need for connection, we deeply want to fit in, so from birth, we are filtering in and out data that will allow us to feel like we fit in, that we are loved. We do not develop our thoughts in a vacuum but are highly impacted by our group. We are particularly susceptible to believing people in positions of authority or influence. (Think parents, teachers, and pastors.)
So out of all of that, we develop certain filters for how we see the world, for how we interpret what happens to us. And the enemy knows that. He’s been watching us from birth. So he knows how to push our buttons. They become biases that make us see things a certain way and blind to other perspectives.
What might be some of the lies you believe?
I am not enough.
I have to earn love.
I am powerless.
It’s my fault.
It’s my responsibility/It’s all up to me.
I am not safe.
I don’t fit in.
No one can be trusted.
I am all alone. No one loves me.
I am stupid, loser, [put in negative label]
So how do we stop believing these lies and change our narrative to a healthy one? This is not a “one and done” process as those sneaky lies can slip into our lives and wreak havoc before we realize it. It takes time and repeated choices of healthy beliefs and responses. But as I’ve always said, start with awareness first:
- Think about your life experiences, both good and bad. I usually suggest that people draw a long horizontal line on a paper, that represents their life from conception to current (think in chunks: conception, birth, toddler, grade school, high school, young adult, adult). Note down memorable experiences and put on the line according to the approximate age you were at that time. Draw a line upward for each positive experience and a line downward for each negative one.
- Once you’ve completed Step 1, review all the memories and identity any themes (both good and bad).
- Out of those themes, begin to identify the lies you believe (this can help if you pray and ask God to show you what they are. You can also talk to close family and friends and I’m sure they will have noticed themes).
- Look for the opposing truths to combat the lies. Look in scripture, ask God to help you and also people who love you.
- Renounce the lies and mental agreements.
Even once you’ve identified and renounced the lies, it’ll be a daily choice to believe and live in the truth. Insight won’t be enough to change your thinking, but it must be lived out in wisdom and lived out intentionally and habitually. It may help to invite wise people who know you well, to journey with you in breaking free from believing lies.
For a more comprehensive process to break the lies and mental agreements, sign up for Dr. Merry’s VIP page here.
Dr. Merry C. Lin is a psychologist, podcaster, and speaker with over 25 years of clinical expertise. She is the Executive Director of Dr. Lin & Associates, where she leads a team of psychotherapists, life coaches, and leadership experts. A wise counsellor and respected speaker, she can be heard on her popular podcast, The Fully Lived Life, with her friend, Coach Gillian, where they speak about life, love and purpose through the lens of faith and science. She is an advocate for social justice and works globally to equip and support leaders who serve human trafficking and abuse survivors. Dr. Merry is the author of The Fully Lived Life: Rescuing Our Souls from All that Holds Us Back, and her teaching videos are available on her website, YouTube and RightNow Media (https://linktr.ee/Drmerry)