I have put together here a few resources that I hope people will find useful. Feel free to print the articles and documents below as many times as you like, and share them with others. I would appreciate it if you give me credit if you cite me or use my original work in your own writing, websites or publications. (Except for the ‘Bill of Rights’ and ‘Autobiography in Five Chapters’, which were written by others, everything on this page is my own work.)
I have designed a bookmark with a reminder of the practice we need to do for vertical neural integration — that is integration between the middle prefronal cortex (PFC) and the limbic system.
You can download it here and it will open in a separate page. When you print it you can adjust it to the size you want.
The PFC gives us our executive functions, what we think of as our ‘adult’ or ‘human’ characteristics. Among other things, it makes us able to plan ahead and think instead of react, so we respond adequately to new situations. It gives us self-awareness, enables us to be present and attuned to others and ourselves and experience unconditional compassion for all. The PFC also regulates our emotions and our behaviour and it is fearless. It gives us our identity and sense of self and the need for our life to have a meaning.
The limbic system, our ancient mammal brain, is responsible for our feelings. Feelings are in fact the language of the ancient limbic brain, which does not possess modern language skills. (Language skills come from the neo-cortex, the large and more modern human brain.) Feelings are nothing strange, exotic or airy fairy. All they are is simply the language of our ancient, fear-based primate brain. Feelings are the way limbic system communicates important information it considers essential to our survival. If you have ever had a dog or a cat you know that they communicate with you without talking to you — other mammals communicate but cannot speak the way we do. They communicate with us and one another through demonstrating how they feel, the look in their eyes, their facial expression, their behaviour or the way they act, their body language or a sound they might make. Our limbic brain works the same way.
When our executive brain and our limbic brain are not well connected, we ‘flip flop’ between them. As soon as we are triggered into some kind of threat (past, present or both), our limbic brain takes over and shuts down the executive. This is why it is so essential to be well-integrated in order to live a full adult life and be able to handle our adult responsibilities without losing confidence, feeling exhausted, insecure and fearful (anxious). The tiniest sign of threat can cause anyone to lose their sense of themselves and their ability to think clearly. When we are not integrated enough and are threatened we can all end up feeling like a mess or ‘lose it’…
Human children are not born integrated. Integration between the executive and limbic functions, like the way we wire in the language we grow up with, depends entirely on our environment. We are born ready for integration — just like we are born ready for language. But without the right input from the environment, it won’t happen. If parents, adult care givers don’t know how to interact with their children’s limbic brains (emotions) correctly, they don’t help them grow up integrated. It is important to offer children secure attachment, but we also have to help them integrate. This bookmark shows adults the right way to interact not only with their own limbic brain, but also with the limbic brains of children and young people in order to help them integrate naturally.
Most of us have emerged into adulthood without sufficient integration. But because our brain can continue to integrate and change its neural architecture all through life (we have ’neuroplasticity’ for this) we can do it at any stage in life! This is actually what therapy is for… People with trauma can have a harder job achieving integration and it can take longer than people who do not have trauma. But everyone needs to do this to be well psychologically and to feel like life is really worth living and is purposeful and meaningful, among other things.
The truth is that if everyone was much better integrated my profession would not be necessary. All mental health problems can be traced back to a lack of sufficient integration between our executive and limbic functions. (We learn this in the clearest way from Dan Siegel’s Interpersonal Neurobiology — IPNB — framework but also, if you think about it, from our everyday experience of ourselves and how we are in relationship with others…)
This bookmark is meant mostly for clients, but anyone can use it. Be aware that if you have a difficult history and suspect you might be suffering from trauma, it’s a good idea to see a therapist to help you with this process.
Horizontal Integration — As you achieve sufficient vertical integration, you might begin to experience strong emotions and memories. This means your brain now feels safe enough to begin to release un-integrated and unprocessed ‘raw’ experiences (emotional and physical) from your right brain and connect it to your left. This is material that you haven’t yet ‘dealt with’ or ‘made sense of’.
Our right brain is where raw experiences from our childhood/past that we have not named, processed or integrated are stored, until they are ready to be processed, or integrated to the left side of our brain. This process of ‘making sense’ of raw memories and feelings, what is sometimes also called ‘healing’, is called horizontal integration. We ‘suppress’ memories or avoid certain memories or experiences because it is not safe yet to face them.
Horizontal integration can’t and shouldn’t be forced or hurried. It happens by itself when the brain is ready, usually after achieving enough vertical integration (what the bookmark is teaching). Pushing it or forcing it by forcing ourselves or others to talk about, remember or face things before we feel ready, can lead to re-traumatisation! It’s potentially dangerous and I don’t advise it.
You should always insist on being in charge of what you are prepared to talk about and face in therapy, and also when and at what pace. You must never allow any therapist to push you or make you feel bad for having defences. Therapy and therapists must work with, not against the brain’s natural way of operating. The limbic brain is not something to ‘beat’ or coerce into ‘shape’. In most people it has suffered enough anyway and is full of unprocessed inadequate or painful raw experiences.
In other words, having defences is healthy. Healthy brains protect themselves from overwhelm by quarantining difficult material in the right brain until the conditions are right and safe to reintegrate them to the left side of the brain. This keeps us safe from potentially suffering harm to the physical brain. Vertical integration provides the safe infrastructure for horizontal integration.
Your therapist cannot be a substitute for your own prefrontal cortex and no therapist, no matter how capable or well-meaning, can integrate an adult brain. Your own prefrontal cortex has to be trained to do what your parents/adult care givers could not do for you when you were a child.
Working safely means focusing first on your vertical integration and in good time your horizontal integration will start by itself. Even if you feel strong enough, it might still be a good idea to talk to a skilled therapist to support you when the difficult stuff begins to surface. Most therapists should be able to sit with you and help you process the difficult material when the time is right and your brain is good and ready. Therapists who are working on their own integration would understand all of this and would be safer to work with.
This article can be helpful to anyone working in an emotionally demanding area such as counsellors, nurses, teachers, doctors, youth workers, social workers, and social and political activists. It suggests strategies to help prevent burnout and secondary traumatisation.
This is an updated and revised version from 9th May 2017.
This handout shows the dynamics of human emotions. It emphasises the importance of experienceing all our emotions fully, instead of blocking them, which is what most of us have learned to do. It reminds us that there are no good or bad emotions, and that all emotions are equally important.
Throughout human history, emotions have been given bad publicity. They have been seen as unreliable, as a sign of weakness or as a nuisance. However, in reality, emotions are a vital source of information about ourselves and the world around us. To reject any of our emotions means we miss out on important information that we need in order to make decisions and understand ourselves better.
Murray Bowen’s theory of self-differentiation has been known in family therapy circles for many years. In its time it has revolutionised the way we think of people’s development and maturity and how we think about what therapy does. The scale is not a prescription but rather it tries to show what people are like when they are at different levels of maturity. There is no expectation that everyone will go through the journey but it is accepted and we now have neuroscience to back this up, that the higher you are on the scale, the happier and more fulfilled you are. Any good quality process of therapy that helps your brain integrate, that helps you grow and develop and act more and more out of your most mature nature, will by definition take you up the scale. This document is my own (Avigail’s) adaptation of Murray Bowen’s scale of differentiation as it appears in the 1988 textbook: Family Evaluation by Michael Kerr and Murray Bowen. Norton: pp97-107.
This is a lovely and comforting poem that reminds us that when we want to change something about ourselves, it doesn’t happen over night. There are stages we go through before we change in a reliable way.
This is an insightful poem also because it fits perfectly with the brain science behind everything we are and everything we do. It takes the brain time to create new neural pathways and new neural networks. The knowledge we have now confirms that change also doesn’t just happen by itself. It happens with intent and deliberate work. The kind of work I am talking about is partly what I am working on in therapy with my clients: attempting to become aware of emotions at key points, taking care of those emotions correctly (as we would or should do with children), practicing being in our ‘captain’ (prefrontal cortex) and forgiving ourselves when we do not progress as fast as parts of us think we ought to. A greater level of awareness (as in verses/chapters 4 and 5) is a sign that we operate more from the prefrontal cortex. This is because this is the part of the brain that is capable of and responsible for our capacity for self-awareness.
We can all get impatient with ourselves when we see ourselves repeat old patterns, but as long as the limbic brain is in charge and the prefrontal cortex (aka ‘captain’) is not yet as dominant, or as well integrated to the limbic brain as it needs to be, we will inevitably repeat things.
I am an idealist, and I also accept that we are imperfect beings. So I have learned to forgive myself unconditionally. When I mess up and it concerns other people, I apologise, own up and make amends to the best of my ability with the intention of not repeating behaviour that isn’t kind, caring, or that reflects the way I would like to be in the world. In other words, I see myself as a work in progress and I think we all are.
A version of this was given to me by a client many years ago. She was badly mistreated both as a child and as an adult. Having been abused and used by people who were supposed to look after her, she was given the message that she was nothing and had no rights at all to her individuality, her boundaries, her needs, thoughts and feelings, preferences. As is always the case with abuse, it was made very clear to her that she had no right to protest when she was mistreated and that if she did, things would only get worse. No rights at all. It was a big step for her when she found this Bill of Rights and began to apply it to herself.
This isn’t a recipe for being selfish. This is a way of balancing out our rightful place in the world with other people’s. We cannot be in healthy, satisfying and safe relationships with others when these relationship aren’t equal. Inequality can come either from us seeing ourselves as less than others, or from seeing others as less worthy than us.
Looking after ourselves properly also means we will be more useful to others in a more sustainable way. People can’t be of service, even when they choose to be, if they are a mess. It won’t last and they will collapse eventually, if they try to use resources they don’t have and if they neglect themselves and their own needs.
I once read a comment by Erich Fromm who said that humanism means that no human being should be used for the needs of another. Sometimes we choose to put ourselves at other people’s service. There are many people who do that and it is a wonderful gift to give to someone who is in need of what we have to offer. In fact I think a life of service is what all of us should aspire for.
But choosing is one thing. It is quite another to be forced to give yourself so that another person can use you to meet their needs. This applies to child abuse (physical, sexual, psychological or in any other way) where a child is used to meet the needs of adults, rape, corporate abuse, slave relationships and really any situation where people abuse power to force other people to do what they would otherwise not choose to do. If we wish to have a better world it starts with each one of us recognising our worth and defending it, at the same time as we recognise and defend the worth of others.
And if you ask why you or anyone has any worth at all? It’s simply because we are. We were born and are here, therefore we have worth. No more reason than that. We know how destructive it is to live as if we do not have any worth or to think that others don’t. Knowing our own and others’ worth and defending it, will lead to a much better, safer more equitable and just world.
[I think we also need to consider the way we use non-human animals (we are human animals). They too have feelings, likes and dislikes and an innate need just like us to be everything they can be and live the life they wish and are capable of living. When we put animals in cages, murder, eat them or use them for work or entertainment we prevent them from living the life they were meant to live. I stopped eating meat completely in early 2013. Prior to that, for many years, I only consumed meat from organically grown free range animals. But now, not even that.]
Attachment theory — The now obsolete Nature vs Nurture debate is settled and the verdict is in! It is nurture not nature that makes us what we are.
The article linked here is by Alan Sroufe and Daniel Siegel. It gives an excellent summary of attachment theory and how we have come to see things the way we do now. (It is the last item on the Resources page of my website.)
Regardless of what genetic potential we are born with, how we turn out, to what extent we’ll be able to fulfil our potential, what kind of mental health we’re likely to have and plenty more, are all determined by the way we are brought up.
Our environment all through life wires itself into our brains. It is how humans adapt, survive and develop. The environment, in particular the relational environment, we are offered in childhood is significant to how our brain is going to be wired when we leave home. Problems in that environment wire themselves into our heads and account for many, if not all, of the mental health problems and difficulties people suffer from in childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. (Obviously, good stuff is also wired in and leads to all the healthy and functional bits of us. It’s not that the good bits aren’t there. Even really bad childhoods can have positive moments in them. Everything is wired in, good and bad. But it’s not the good bits that people come to therapy for or that cause them suffering. It’s the not-so-good stuff…)
It is not that genetics isn’t important, it’s just that the environment is responsible for activating or not activating genes and how the brain is wired will determine what genetic potential we can develop and what we might not. From a practical, therapeutic, educational and parental perpsective, there is not much we can do about genetics. But we can do a great deal about wiring and this is where the right parenting and educational as well as therapeutic environments are so important.
The good news is that with neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to wire and rewire itself — we can change a great deal about ourselves. We can and do learn all through life. This means that we can also continue to develop ourselves, heal the past and become the people we can become and that we know we can be. Psychological problems are not inevitable and are not necessary. If parents all knew how to be with their children they could raise human Mark II. All my clients are engaged in that work and those who have children have a profoundly positive impact on their development and on their future prospects.