There is no such thing as maladaptive.
No. Behavior. Is. Maladaptive.
Sure, there are LOTS of behaviors that have pretty big negative consequences… for ourselves and others.
But the way the human mind is so brilliantly working all the time leaves me with an unwillingness to negotiate the truth that all behavior is adaptive.
11 Million Bits of Data
In every moment, our bodies, brains, minds, and nervous system is taking in 11 million bits of information. 11 million!!! Obviously, the very vast majority of this information is being taken in and processed without any awareness or conscious attention, right? Imagine driving for a moment. How much information is your brain constantly processing that’s allowing you to get safely down the road? More than we could even speak to. And thank goodness it’s done unconsciously or really…we wouldn’t be able to drive.
So our brilliant brains are taking in 11 million bits of information every moment but only somewhere between 12 and 50 bits of information are we able to CONSCIOUSLY pay attention to!!! (Process explicitly). The very very very vast majority of information coming into our senses is processed completely outside our awareness.
Neuroception- Knowing without Knowing
Then there’s amazing phenomenon called ‘neuroception.’ Neuroception is the idea that we are processing these 11 million bits of data unconsciously in every moment…and part of what we are doing with that data is determining if we are safe…or not. It knows this without us even KNOWING it knows this.
In fact, our brains are doing this constantly. At least four times every second.
It’s almost impossible to wrap our heads around ¼ of a second OR 11 million bits of data.
The brain is astounding.
Bringing Together Then & Now
Then our amazing brains blend the information that it is processing RIGHT EXACTLY NOW with all the information it has store in our memory networks. Which is…A LOT of information. Those two streams of information (then and now) merge together like two rivers merging together to create our conscious experience of NOW. But see…it’s not only based on NOW info.
Our brains are beautifully anticipatory machines…designed to guess what’s about to happen and how we should respond. And yup…it makes that guess based on those two streams flowering together…then and now.
And our brain is absolutely 100% only interested in what is best for us. Period. End of story.
If we are safe, what is best for us is relational connection. Because we are human and that’s just how it goes.
If we are NOT safe, what is best for us is protection from danger.
BUT REMEMBER!!! We aren’t making the decision of safe or not safe based only on objective information that is happening right now. There is a lot of ‘past’ that is influencing that decision.
This is true for all humans. The past is always invading the present. Thank goodness or I would have no idea how to even use the machine with buttons with letters to write this all out- let alone use it with any speed and efficiency that allows a little bit of ease in my life.
Integrated memories allow the past to flow gently into the present so I can ‘do something’ (behave) in a way that works, makes sense, and continues to meet my goals (staying alive, staying in relationship, etc. etc.).
The dam of the past
Memories that aren’t integrated…often due to emotional overwhelm at the time of the experience….don’t flow gently into the stream of now. They crash into the stream like a dam has been released, overflowing and overtaking…now our past becomes the majority of our now.
This obviously impacts the way our brain determines if I’m safe or not. If my river is flooded with past unsafe, and that is a huge part of what is creating my experience of now, my behaviors are based on the past…on being unsafe.
We are ALWAYS trying to be safe. We are ALWAYS trying to find our way back to connection. ALWAYS.
But if my experience of NOW is overly impacted by my experience of THEN, it’s highly likely I’m going to behave in ways that don’t really reflect OTHER’S experience of NOW.
This will make it LOOK like I’m behaving bad, inappropriate or unsafe. Even controlling or manipulative. Overreacting. Histrionic. UNDERreacting. This may be easy to label self-sabotage. In extreme circumstances we start to label these behaviors as personality or character deficits.
The behavior CERTAINLY LOOKS MALADAPTIVE.
But the brain just doesn’t work that way. The brain doesn’t do maladaptive. The brain takes then and now, mashes it together, and then does something next based solely on what it believes is best given how the then and now flow together.
Why is it helpful to consider that no behavior is maladaptive??
Well it certainly isn’t so we take pity on the person behaving badly and loosen our boundaries, allowing them to just keep behaving badly. That just increases our resentment and does nothing to help their brain more accurately bring together the then and now.
It’s helpful to consider that no behavior is maladaptive because it changes how we look at that person.
It brings us to a place of compassion and understanding. We depersonalize their behavior. We don’t making sweeping character judgments.
Every single one of us comes to know who we are by the mirror that is reflected to us through the eyes of the other.
So what would happen if people behaving badly had strong boundaries set with loving eyes. With eyes that communicated that they were doing the best they can. With eyes that expressed compassion at how the past is a tsunami on their now.
Sweet ones…this isn’t even about trauma. This is about HUMANS. We are ALL always behaving in ways that we believe are best in the moment based on how our past and our now come together.
Oh yeah another reason it’s helpful??
When we understand that this is about how the brain is working, we can consider ways to help the brain work better. To slow the tsunami. To close up the dam. To help the rivers of then and now meet gently, connecting in harmony to create something that has never been created before.
And while there are lots of ways to support this gentle connection of then and now, you know what the BEST way is???
Compassion is the energy that is needed to slow the tsunami.
And eventually when a struggling person receives enough compassion (WITH BOUNDARIES) they begin to develop self-compassion.
And self-compassion is EXACTLY the energy that is needed to bring the then and the now together more slowly…allowing the then to inform the now but without knocking it on it’s keister and destroying everything in it’s path.
Rapidly flowing water has the power to destroy everything in it’s past. But all it’s try to do is be water.
We become what we see reflected back to us.
See behaviors as what they are…the result of two rivers coming together in the best way the person knows how.
The compassion will help the river slow down…
Robyn Gobbel, LCSW, RPT-S is a blogger, teacher, trainer, and consultant for therapists and professionals working with children with a history of complex trauma. She is an interpersonal neurobiology instructor at Portland Community College.