When my boys were babies and toddlers, I spent time wishing that they’d sleep more, that breastfeeding didn't take so long, that motherhood didn’t demand so much of me when I didn’t have anything extra to spare. Because this “first trimester of motherhood” throughout my sons’ infancy and preschool years felt so hard, I focused my attention and effort on getting to the second phase, what I called The Light at the End of the Tunnel – kindergarten. I told myself, "When my youngest gets into kindergarten, it will all be so much easier."
And it was. I had more time to focus on the work that I enjoyed, to build a bit of self-care into my routine, to enjoy time with girlfriends and my husband, to breathe.
But by keeping my eyes on that light that promised easier times ahead and pushing through the sleep deprivation, fussy babies, and demanding toddlers, I didn’t take in the happy times, the good stuff, the irretrievable moments of sloppy baby kisses and sweet smelling skin.
It was like traveling through Italy’s countryside in a train car with the blinds closed. I ended up in Rome, but didn’t see any scenery along the way.
My husband Bill has so many vivid memories. He’ll start reminiscing about something from when the boys were little and sometimes I’ll have a vague, fuzzy recollection, like an out of focus photograph without any rich emotional connection to it. I can easily recall so many of the hard times – I remember vividly the long night I initiated sleep training for my two year old son based on recommendations from the book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, the wrenching frustration when the nanny spilled full bottles of holy breast milk, my consuming fear when my infant son had a unexplained fever that wouldn’t break.
Our brains are wired to hold onto the hard moments. This negativity bias served humans well in ancient times. As hunter gatherers, we didn’t have the luxury of waiting to see if the rustling in the bushes was a tiger or a rabbit. “To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities),” writes Rick Hanson, PhD, neuropsychologist and author of many books including his recent Hardwiring Happiness. “This is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life.”
According to Hanson, our brains and our bodies are still wired to take in the negative more quickly and more fully. We experience intense pain throughout our bodies but, for the most part, we only feel intense pleasure in a few specific physical areas. Our brains produce more neural activities from negative stimuli than positive. The amygdala, the deep part of our brain that processes emotions, especially fear and aggression, uses about two thirds of its energy looking for the bad. When found, these negative experiences go straight into storage, unlike positive events that have to be nurtured and invited into our long-term memory.
“The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones,” says Hanson.
So other than creating a Shutterfly photo album each and every year to store the sweet special moments (which I do), what else can we do to get more of the good stuff stored in our brains?
Hanson recommends a ten second, four-step process for taking in the good that he calls HEAL, which stands for HAVE a positive experience, ENRICH it, ABSORB it, and LINK it. Ten healing seconds over time can actually rewire the brain to be more positive. HEAL opens the blinds on the train car to see the sunflower fields, the bright yellow flower faces in the warm summer sun.
Here are the steps:
H - HAVE a positive experience or remember one from the past
Notice the good that is happening in your day-to-day. A giggling baby. The beauty of the way the sun shines through the clouds. The smell of freshly baked bread. Or remember a moment from your past that was particularly happy – like a vivid memory from a vacation or a special event from your childhood.
Here’s a happy moment for me … A few days ago, my not quite ten year old son was lying on the couch reading. I nudged him over a bit, squeezed in next to him, and started reading my book, too. We stayed there, close and comfortable, for a good 20 minutes. Snuggly moments with my tweens are becoming few and far between so I cherish the close moments, like this.
E - ENRICH the experience
Pay attention to the sensory details of this positive event. If it’s a memory, remember what you were seeing, smelling, hearing, touching, or even tasting to really bring the moment to life. Who were you with? What were the colors around you? If you’re taking in a happy moment as it’s happening, truly bask in all of the details of it. Lying on the couch with my younger son, I paid attention to the smell of his hair, the sound of his quiet breathing, my contentment with being close.
A - ABSORB the experience
Take a few seconds to preserve this memory, like you’re taking a mental and emotional photograph for your inner photo album. Imagine that your memory or positive moment is seeping into your skin, sinking into your bones, and filling you up with the positive emotions that you are experiencing – love, joy, contentment, happiness.
L - LINK the positive experience with a negative memory
This optional (and more advanced) step involves allowing the positive memory to stay strong in your mind while mentally calling up an old emotional injury at the same time. During this process, you keep your positive memory at the forefront and allow the old, negative injury to be present, but small. This step, done repeatedly over time, can soften and gradually replace hurts from the past.
Each time you go through these steps, you rewire your brain for the better. “It’s the law of little things: a small thing repeated each day adds up over time to produce big results,” says Hanson. “A small thing that is in your power to do – in a world in which so many things are not. Just one thing that could change your life.”
Remember, it only feels like a tunnel because you’ve closed the blinds. Open the windows and take in the view. Even if it’s only for ten seconds.
Certified life coach and mommy mentor Kathleen Harper works with moms to help them find and savor the good, reframe and release the bad, and enjoy the messy and mindful work of motherhood. She talks with moms in one-on-one sessions, leads a monthly group called Saturday Sanctuary, and gives presentations to new parent support groups and mothers' groups. If you're interested in finding out more or scheduling a free 30-minute (non-salesy) sample session, please send an email or fill out this form to get started.
I'm a mother of two incredible boys, wife to Bill White of Happy Baby Signs, author of the books The Well-Crafted Mom and Signs of a Happy Baby, and an intuitive life coach. I like to blog about my adventures with my family and the life lessons I'm learning along the way. I hope you'll join me on this journey.
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