In our first column, we introduced the idea that how parents make sense of their own early life history is one of the best predictors of how their child will become attached to them. At the heart of that process is integration, the linkage of differentiated parts of a system. To promote such linkage in our lives, we need to be able to see our internal world and that of our children with more clarity. This is where mindsight becomes an essential skill in that it enables us to monitor with more clarity and then mold our inner world with more power. In our second column, we began to build a strengthened mindsight lens by trying the widespread reflective practice of focusing attention on the breath. While some might think this simple exercise is silly or useless, research has actually shown that this biological process of refocusing attention once it has wandered actually builds the circuits in the brain that help balance emotions, focus attention, and even cultivate compassion. A renowned professor of psychology, William James, years ago once called this the "education par excellence." The take-home message of the last column was that a regular practice of focusing attention on something like the breath could actually positively change the structure of the brain itself.
How can that be? How can what you do with your mind actually change the physical architecture of the brain? This month's column will address this question and extend our ways of building the capacity for mindsight by exploring what stabilizes this lens and enhances our ability to see the inner world. The key issue is this: You as a parent can use the power of your mind to actually approach how you raise your children in a way that empowers them to become more resilient, to meet their full potential, and to feel at home in their own skin. No matter what your own early childhood experience was, you have the power to "make sense" of that experience and to awaken your own mind in a positive way. Mindsight is at its heart the ability to be fully awake, to sense the past and not be a prisoner to it, to seize the day and make the most of your life.
I can imagine individuals who are more behaviorally oriented thinking, "Why doesn't he just tell me what to do with my kids, not teach me a new way to be with myself!" If positive behavioral results are what you are after, you actually may find what we're about to explore is challenging but will in the end be more powerful in yielding the external results you seek. If you are indeed oriented mostly toward the external dimension of behavior, keep this in mind: Research in behavioral outcomes of children has repeatedly demonstrated that a child's capacity to balance his emotions, to pause before she impulsively responds, to make close, meaningful relationships, and even to become a moral citizen are each directly related to that child's attachment patterns with his or her primary caregiver: YOU. And the best predictor of that attachment becoming secure and predicting positive outcomes in each of these domains for your child is how you've made sense of your early life history. That is all straight from carefully collected scientific research, not someone's personal or even professional opinion.
In Parenting from the Inside Out, a book I wrote with my daughter's preschool director, Mary Hartzell, we offer the step-by-step approach to making sense of your early life history so that you can integrate your own brain. We knew that could be challenging work, and we wrote the book to be like one big supportive hug. Here I'd like to share with you a new finding that is just emerging: making sense of your life appears to go along with something called "mindfulness" that we discussed in last month's column. Being mindful is a trait that allows you to stay cool under pressure, keeps your thinking clear under stress, and allows you to be fully present, even when things get rough. Mindsight embraces these mindfulness traits and broadens those abilities into the larger realm of seeing and shaping our internal world toward integration. When we have a stabilized lens to see that inner world, we can then shape it in positive directions. And so the Inside Out book ends with a chapter on the importance of mindsight, which is what we are exploring here in this column.
How do you make your mindsight skills stronger, whether or not you learned them early in life? Does making sense of your early life history mean you gain more mindsight skills? And can we teach mindsight to our kids? Yes, by developing mindsight ourselves, we can pass on this strength to our children! When we learn to see the inner world of memory, for example, we gain a perspective that can free us from the automatic pilot that can often interfere with conscious, intentional parenting. We are then free to connect with our kids in ways that support their understanding their own experiences-ones in the present, and those they recall in memory. Learning to be reflective in this way helps us, and it helps our kids. When we build a new skill -- like speaking a foreign language, playing a musical instrument, or developing proficiency in a sport -- we are literally changing the circuits in our brain. Mindsight is a skill, and strengthening it can require some practice. But first, we need to understand the basic elements that make mindsight work.
What follows are the foundations of the practices we can learn that build and strengthen our "mindsight lens." When that lens is stabilized, we can see the inner world of ourselves and of others with more depth, clarity, richness, and detail. Just like having a video camera stabilized when we record, the final result (the "video") is much more powerful if we can make out all the fine details of the scene. And so here are the three foundations (the "tripod legs") that stabilize our mindsight camera's lens. When the camera and lens are stable, the image created will be too. I'll describe these essential features here, and then in next month's column I'll introduce you to a more in-depth practice beyond the breath-awareness exercise we explored last month that can refine your mindsight abilities further.
Mindsight is stabilized with Openness, Objectivity, and Observation. These are the three legs of mindsight's tripod that stabilize how we see and can shape the internal world.
Openness: When we are open, we accept things as they are. If you have a lot of expectations for how your child should be, it can be quite difficult to see him as he actually is. Nothing is wrong with having high standards and dreams for your child; the secret is not to let those preconceived notions interfere with the equally important way in which you can attune to how your child actually is. Being seen accurately is a vitally important element of an attachment relationship. Research reveals that children thrive when we see them as they are and don't distort our perceptions as parents by unrealistic wishes that cloud our vision. When openness becomes a clear goal for our own way of being, we can actually see more clearly. In the brain there is a mechanism by which our expectations actually mold our incoming sensory information to conform to what we anticipate seeing. Instead of having some pure perception we actually have "wishful seeing." In other words, the brain distorts what it takes in to match what it imagines or desires is actually there. In the parenting world, those expectations of our child can actually make seeing with clarity a real challenge. Both parent and child can be at a disadvantage with this brain tendency. This is the role of mindsight to enable us to let go of expectations and see clearly.
Objectivity: Being objective does not mean having no emotion or feeling or concern for what is going on. Instead, we can use the concept of objectivity to refer to the way we can have a feeling, thought, or memory and know that these are just mental activities in our minds, not the whole of our identity. We can learn to be objective about our own internal world. When we can practice certain mindsight skill training exercises, we can come to view our mental life with more, well, objectivity. We can see that a feeling that "took us over" was just an emotion, not our identity. As is commonly said, "a feeling is not a fact." Sometimes we may flip our lids, fly off the handle, and "lose it." Yet after those highly charged times it is especially crucial that we return to our baseline, regain equilibrium, and see that explosion objectively. Rather than hiding from the reality of what happened, being objective allows us to be human and to take responsibility for our actions and make a repair with those around us, especially our confused and sometimes terrified children. Objectivity is part of mindsight's strength as it empowers us to realize that we are more than our momentary thoughts or feelings. Our children -- and all of us in earshot, including our own selves -- will benefit enormously from such a skill.
Observation: The third "tripod" leg of our mindsight lens is the ability to be observant. In each of us is a capacity to be the narrator of our own unfolding life history. We can tell the story of our life, even as it is unfolding. Research in children suggests, in fact, that kids who have an "internal dialogue" like this are more resilient and can regulate their emotions with more power. Clearly, this is an important part of becoming emotionally intelligent. Observation is an essential mindsight ability because we can sense what is happening from a bit of a distance, not to make ourselves numb but rather to give ourselves some space in which to become more flexible. From this reflective stance, we can participate fully without being swept up in the moment-to-moment reactions we may have to our kids' behavior. With observation, we can watch those emotions, memories, or thoughts arise and fall, narrating their meaning in the larger context of our lives without losing balance.
That's a lot of background for one column! Openness, Objectivity, and Observation are basic tripod legs we can put in the front of our mind as we interact with our children, and other adults! We'll explore next time how we can develop these specifically, step by step. But for this month, let me invite you to just reflect on these three supportive elements of our mindsight lens. As you connect with your child this month, see if you can let these three notions of being open, objective, and observant fill your awareness. It is in these interactions, even or especially those that are challenging and filled with emotions, that you'll find an opportunity to further strengthen your mindsight abilities. And as you do, you'll be building the brain circuits at the heart of being resilient and compassionate. Now that is a great step forward as you parent with the brain in mind! Have a great month...
Dan is the author of Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation and The Developing Mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are, and co-author of Parenting from the Inside Out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive.
Dan is the executive director of the Mindsight Institute, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA's school of medicine, founding editor of the Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology, a practicing child, adolescent, adult, and family psychiatrist, and the father of a son and a daughter who are is primary professors of child development.
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