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Price: Keep your 'toddler brain' in check

Ron Price
Special to The Daily Times
Ron Price

I have been privileged to write this column for more than 4 ½ years. I must say with all due humility that some of the columns have been even better than others. Today’s column, I truly feel, is one of the absolute best.

I met Steven Stosny at my first Smart Marriage Conference in Orlando, Fla., in 2001. He was a major presenter as he was at each of the next seven annual conferences I attended, and each time I came away impressed that he has great insights into healthy marriage.

Stosny is the author or co-author of several books, including "Love Without Hurt," "Living and Loving after Betrayal" and "How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It." I recently read his newest book, "Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain Under Any Kind of Stress." It is absolutely one of the most powerful and insightful books I have ever read.

Today’s column is an adaptation from "Soar Above." Stosny and I will discuss his insights more fully on "TWOgether as ONE" at 6 p.m. Monday on KLJH 107.1FM.

As you read this column, and hopefully hear the radio program, I invite you to consider how what he talks about has impacted your life and relationships in the past and how you can choose positive improvements for the future.

You can find more information about Stosny and his resources at compassionpower.com.

Turn toddler feelings into adult relationships

If it sometimes feels like you make the same mistakes over and over in your marriage, you’re definitely not alone. Everyone on Earth is capable of repeating the same mistakes again and again. We can all fall into relationships filled with cold shoulders, boredom or high conflict. And we’re all sadly capable of turning pain into suffering.

We can repeatedly shoot ourselves in the foot for one simple reason. Under stress, we tend to retreat to habits of emotion regulation formed as far back as toddlerhood. Our thought processes become self-obsessed, and our feelings veer toward the volatile, if not a full-blown rollercoaster. We’re likely to act impulsively, with little foresight and poor judgment. The only available solutions seem like, “No!” and “Mine!” (“My way!”)

Why we repeat mistakes

The toddler brain is dominated by feelings, rather than analysis of facts. (If the feelings are negative, they seem like alarms.) Not surprisingly, habits formed in the toddler brain are activated by feelings, rather than analysis of the conditional context of past mistakes and their consequences. When we feel that way again, for any reason, past behavioral impulses grow stronger, increasing the likelihood of repeating the mistake.

Steven Stosny

We’re likely to eat the whole cake and then realize that we should have had a V-8 instead. We’ll throw a temper tantrum (or repress one) before remembering the resolution to take a time-out. We’ll pout, criticize or devalue others, instead of seeking to improve and repair. The dominance of feelings (over judgment, analysis, foresight and sensitivity to other perspectives) is why diets don’t work, addicts relapse, projects fail, marriages falter and Mr. Hyde can’t remember what Dr. Jekyll learned in marriage counseling.

In 30 years of clinical practice, virtually all my clients have come to me with entrenched habits of retreating to the toddler brain when things got tough. Unlike personality, genetics and temperament, habits are readily changeable, although the change process is often tedious and repetitious. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that once habits are formed, they are not changed by insight or understanding of how they started. They can be changed only by establishing new habits.

The toddler brain is self-obsessed, volatile and all-or-nothing

Toddlers are incapable of seeing any perspective other than their own. (Perspective-taking — understanding how other people experience the world — is a higher order operation of the adult brain.) Toddlers fill in the huge gaps in their knowledge of other people’s perspectives with imagination. But their imaginations are dominated by how they feel at the moment, and how they feel at this moment is unlikely to be how they felt a few moments ago — feelings in the toddler brain are highly volatile. Their attributions about other people tend to vacillate between the very positive and very negative. This subjects them to what psychologists call “splitting” (the wellspring of adult "all-or-nothing" thinking). You’re either all good or all bad; they love you or hate you; they think the best about you or the worst. You probably know adults who put you on a pedestal when they feel good and cast you as a demon when they feel bad. They become needy or aloof — they cling or pout. If their feelings are hostile, they’re prone to passive aggression and even violence.

It doesn’t take much experience with a toddler to recognize periods of neediness and bouts of pouting. Less obvious is passive-aggressive behavior, which is a toddler way of asserting autonomy. Video studies of toddlers show them doing things like intentionally dropping objects as a way of saying, “No,” purposely making noise when their parents are on the phone, telling fibs about other kids, using one parent against the other and faking injuries — or actually hurting themselves — to get reward or avoid reprimand.

Adults in their toddler brains try to feel more autonomous by moralizing, preaching, lecturing, psychoanalyzing, acting like martyrs or by devaluing and demeaning others.

Two quick ways to invoke the adult brain

Focus not on how you feel at the moment, but on how you would like to feel. If you focus on feeling, say, isolated, your brain will select behaviors based on the feeling, which are likely to make you feel more isolated, such as criticizing your spouse. If you focus on wanting to feel connected, it will select behaviors more likely to get you connected.

Write a description of the kind of partner you most want to be. (Most people list compassionate, kind, loving, flexible and fair.) Let your description guide all your interactions with your partner, regardless of your temporary feelings. Your only chance of getting the partner you most want to have is to be the partner you most want to be.

Ron Price is the owner and operator of Productive Outcomes Inc. and the author of "PLAY NICE in Your Sandbox at Work," an e-book available on Amazon. He can be reached at 505-324-6328.