by Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW

I think I’m turning into a zombie because I just can’t get enough brains!

I don’t want to shuffle through town with a chain saw or munch on them though.  I want to study and understand and stimulate their healing.

The psychiatrist Don Kerson, MD in his wonderful, sprawling book “Getting Unstuck: Unraveling the Knot of Depression, Attention and Trauma” discusses disassociation as a left/right hemisphere brain disorder and makes a compelling case for the following idea:

The left brain, our logical, thinking, planning, organized self is like the captain of a ship.

The right brain, our emotional, experiential, doing self is like the deck hands. 

The captain can’t possibly do everything himself, so he orders the deckhands about. The deckhands do the work, but with a willing spirit only if they respect and are treated well by the captain.  If not, they rebel, ignore, act out and just generally thwart the captain’s plans.

The captain’s command style is based on how our parents talked to us when we were children. What Dr Kerson neglected to include is that our left brain “captain” is also based on how our parents’ role modeled their own self-management skills, meaning their attitude towards getting their own life tasks accomplished. If our parents used patience and humor—even some of the time—we can access and channel a left brain “boss” who is empathic and warm.  If our parents managed the business of life with minimal complaints we develop a competent, matter of fact self managing or captain style.  If parents complain constantly, children develop a fear of effort. If parents are abusive or neglectful, children develop a left brain boss who is controlling, angry, and uses only fear (such as self talk such as: “You’ll never amount to anything” or swear words) to motivate action. 

Under abusive (this includes emotional, physical and sexual abuse as well as neglect) conditions, the deckhands or right brain doing part, goes one of two ways:  we either become hyper organized, obedient, little soldiers–you know, the kinds of folks who split their day into fifteen minute increments even when they are not at work in order to maximize productivity–or we become total slacker self indulgent pleasure-seekers–the folks who can’t seem to ever get their lives together because exerting consistent goal oriented effort is just too hard.

Integration between the two hemispheres can happen in many different ways: with mindfulness practices like meditation, yoga, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Repatterning) therapy, hypnosis aimed at integration of the selves, ego state therapy, and NLP or Neurolinguistic programming.  It also happens with the cultivation a benevolent spiritual belief system (note: fundamentalism does not gentle the captain), use of positive affirmations and mantras that uplift and enhance our internal kindness, as well as when we parent our own children and pets with love and joy.

My goal as a therapist is to help my clients develop a way of internally and interpersonally relating that is respectful, collaborative, supportive, productive and fun.  When the deckhands or right brain self are in rebellion they might be having fun but they are not being productive.  When the captain upbraids the deckhands as lazy scallywags (okay I wrote this whole blog post just so I use that word) he might get their attention and obedience but he surely won’t get their collaboration and good ideas. 

Our right brain is literally brimming with fantastic and brilliant ideas, but we will never notice them if we don’t provide space for both parts of us to talk to each other.

We need silence and space for this to happen.  And if we are new to listening to our deep inner right brain yearnings, it doesn’t happen smoothly. The first time I went away on a weekend yoga retreat my twins were two and a half years old. I wanted to run away and never go home because I couldn’t figure out a way to get my neglected emotional needs met along with meeting my family obligations. I was so accustomed to letting my important but joyless left brain planner/analyzer make all the decisions that when I felt the absorbing healing of unity consciousness, the unadulterated feeling state of my right brain, I wanted to protect it at all costs.

We don’t have move to the Himalaya’s and chant for the rest of our lives to make room for our right brains. But we do have to protect time to chill out and imagine and play. Personal growth is a commitment and like all commitments, it costs us time and energy. My self-care and emotional health goal this season is to listen to my right brain by making more time for day dreaming. 

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