Let me set the scene by asking what might seem like a stupid question. We have established that your Limbo is the emotional hub of your brain—your Home of Happy—but how does it know when to make you feel glad, bad, mad or sad?
The question is not as silly as it sounds. You see, your brain, which includes your Limbo, has no sensation of its own—it cannot feel anything of its own accord. When a surgeon operates on the brain he or she has to use anesthetic to get through the scalp and skull because skin and bones have pain receptors, but once inside and working on the brain, no anesthetic is required. Your brain is numb! Cut it, burn it, prod it, poke it, and you won’t feel a thing. This leads back to this interesting question: if your Limbo has no feelings of its own, how does it know what emotion to excite and when?
The answer is that it relies on what it is told, which of course leads to a further question: what tells the Limbo how to feel?
Your Limbo is hard-wired to several other parts of your body and it receives messages from them. Follow the logic here: if you know what those sources of input to the Limbo are, you can purposefully and intentionally use them to send the messages you want your Limbo to receive and in so doing, change your emotional state. This is what you are about to learn—where your Limbo gets its information from and how you can intentionally use those sources to send your Limbo uplifting inputs. I hope you can see the potential of this to help you live more!
So, let me tell you about the first source of input to your Limbo.
Your language zone
Located in your higher brain (remember I call it the Leader) are two areas, known as the Broca’s and Wernike’s area, that work together to form our speech and language. Leading from these areas is an extensive array of nerves connecting to the Limbo.
To state it simply: your Limbo listens to your language. With this in mind, there is something else you need to know about the Limbo. Although your Limbo carries some incredible responsibilities—it defines how you feel, determines your motivation, deciphers your memory and directs many automatic bodily processes—it is also highly impressionable. In fact, you can liken your Limbo to a two-year-old child in terms of its ability to think and reason. It is great at its job, but its job isn’t to engage in higher-order thinking; that’s the responsibility of the Leader. Essentially, your Leader is your thinking brain while your Limbo is your feeling brain, and like an infant relies upon its guardian for leadership, your Limbo looks to the Leader for guidance. Your Leader offers this guidance every time you speak, both to yourself and others. So are the messages you are sending positive?
What did I say?
Most of us talk to ourselves, we just prefer not to get caught doing it. I always speak to myself just before I launch off the side of a cliff in my hang glider. Before I get in my harness I say to myself, “OK, I have checked the glider and it all looks good, this is going to be a great flight!” Then I fasten myself in and move close to the cliff, and when the conditions feel good I say, “Feels good.” Finally, just prior to taking the first step I say, “Clear to go!” Note that I choose my words carefully because others who hear me may think I am speaking to them, and I don’t want to come across as crazy! Why do I talk to myself like this? It makes me feel calmer.
I am sure you have heard the “speak positively” thing before and you may have thought it was just pop-psychology. But I hope you now realise that it has merit because your brain is wired that way! Your Limbo is literally hard-wired to be influenced by language.
My hang gliding illustration is one example of using language for good, but often we use language in negative ways, and this is bad for our emotional wellbeing. For example, if you were to consistently say things like, “Oh no, this is really, really bad!” and “I’m so useless!” around a two-year-old in your care, what emotional state would they be reduced to? They would soon become a psychological wreck. Yet many people submit their two-year-old Limbo to this type of verbal battering. Like the Old Cherokee Tale about the wolves, you feed your feelings with your words.
I see so many examples of people negatively manipulating their own Limbo and reaping undesirable emotional outcomes—effectively sabotaging their own happiness. I once picked up a hitchhiker and as he strapped himself in I asked how he was going. Big mistake! In a gruff tone, he replied, “Terrible! I have the worst luck. Got up this mornin’ and my fridge was broken. Lost all me food and I’d just been shoppin’ the day before. This stuff always happens to me! So I got in me car and it won’t start. So here I am tryin’ to catch a ride in this scorchin’ heat.” He paused for a moment to take a breath and finished with, “And the worst thing is these things always come in threes!” How do you think his Limbo was doing? As he spoke I could imagine the two-year-old Limbo inside his skull saying, “We’ve already attracted two bad things today and another one is on its way!” As the hitchhiker got out of my car I said, “Good luck with that third bad thing.” I was sure he would find it.
Consider another illustration. If you want to feed a fear, talk it up. For example, few people enjoy needles, but those who fear them most often feed the fear through their language. They will tell you that a standard vaccination needle is “huge” or “massive.” “It’s as thick as my finger,” they will dramatically proclaim. It doesn’t just feel like a prick, “it kills!” If I was a two-year-old and someone I looked up to was telling me about this horrific experience I was about to endure that kills, I think it is fair to say that I too would be terrified. Is it any wonder their Limbo freaks out?
The point is that what you say to yourself matters because you are designed that way. It doesn’t matter whether the words that ruminate in your head actually find their way out of your mouth, your Limbo still hears them because the message still gets sent from the language area of your Leader down the “wires” to your Limbo. Hence, your internal dialogue is also important.
I make this point because you might be thinking to yourself, “Well when it comes to speaking positively, I am doing pretty well.” However, it is one thing to be able to bite your tongue or even exchange pleasantries with others, but another thing entirely to take control of what is said in your internal world. Indeed, your internal dialogue has a profound effect on how you feel.
For example, have you ever talked yourself (internally) into feeling a particular way? Perhaps you have felt a little queasy in the stomach and started to tell yourself you might be coming down with something, and ended up having to go and lie down. There is a condition comically referred to as ‘medical student syndrome’ which refers to the phenomenon where budding doctors believe they have contracted all kinds of diseases after learning about their symptoms. They sit in class and their internal dialogue goes something like this: “I get headaches occasionally” and “Oh no, I sort of had a rash that looked a little like that.” Before long they are getting themselves checked out for all manner of ailments.
I am sure you are familiar with how easy it is to talk yourself (internally) into feeling annoyed with someone. It can start with something innocuous like them not acknowledging you when you asked them a question. The real reason they didn’t respond was because they didn’t hear you, and while you suspect that might have been the case your internal dialogue gets the better of you. Words start forming in your head and your Limbo listens in attentively: “They always do that. They have absolutely no respect. They must be annoyed with me about something and are trying to make their displeasure known. Well, two can play this game! If they want war, they picked on the wrong person! Ahhh!” It is amazing how quickly internal dialogue can escalate. Within minutes an unsuspecting victim can become a sworn enemy; imagine what days and days of stewing can achieve.
Another important aspect of internal dialogue is your explanatory style. It is human to try to make sense of life, but it has been observed that people differ in the way they explain life events to themselves and this has a big impact upon both their health and happiness. When optimists experience a setback, they tend to explain it to themselves as bad luck, while they attribute good outcomes to their skills and talents. On the other hand, pessimists interpret bad situations as their own creation, and good ones as a coincidental fluke. Essentially, optimists have a tendency to bombard their Limbo with uplifting words, while pessimists flood theirs, with doom and gloom. Is it any wonder pessimists are characteristically seen as sullen and downcast and optimists as bubbly and outgoing?
The power of words on our emotional brain is well-documented. In fact, bibliotherapy—literally meaning “book therapy” and involves engaging with inspiring writings—has been shown in many studies to be highly effective for giving people an emotional lift. You don’t need to read an entire book, even just a few words can have a positive effect. Researchers from Queen’s University conducted a study in which participants were asked to unscramble sentences of five words. The researchers found that when the sentences included religious words such as “divine,” the participants displayed more self-control—in the form of being more able to endure discomfort and delay gratification—in exercises performed shortly after.
In another study, subjects were asked to unscramble seemingly random words. Some subjects were given truly random words, while another group were given words like “Florida,” “Bingo” and “Gray”—words associated with the elderly. While the subjects in the later group didn’t make that connection, as they left the study venue, the researchers observed that these participants moved slower than those participants who didn’t unscramble “elderly” words.
These studies highlight the pervasive influence that words, language and speech can have on your Limbo. The challenges at the end of this chapter will help you speak more positively, but before we get to them, it is important to know that your Limbo listens in not only to what you say to yourself, but what you say to others as well.
Speaking positively to others
I often muse over “comeback” statements. You know how it works: someone says something degrading or demeaning to you and so you attempt to level the score by firing a get-even comment back. The reason we respond in this way is because it feels so good, doesn’t it? Or does it? Delivering a devastating comeback may be sweet in the mouth, but it often turns bitter in the belly. Few times in my life have I been sharp enough to make a really good comeback. Usually it takes me about 24 hours to come up with something truly witty and by then the moment has passed. But on the odd occasion I have pulled it off, I can’t report any long-lasting emotional boost. Likewise, if you are honest with yourself, I am sure you will concede that negative speech, whether directed at yourself or at someone else, drags you down emotionally. It does so because your Limbo listens in on the lot.
One of the world authorities on marriage is Professor John Gottman. He and his colleagues have conducted numerous fascinating studies and published prolifically. In one study he could predict with nearly 90% accuracy whether a newlywed couple would divorce within five years simply by listening to how they spoke to, and about, each other in an interview. His research suggested that in order for a relationship to flourish, there needs to be at least five positive things said for every one negative.
The idea of a “positivity ratio” is intriguing, and John Gottman is not the only one who has discovered it. Marcial Losada studied the effectiveness of business teams and discovered that the highest performing ones were those that had the highest ratio of positive to negative interactions—the best performing teams had 5.6 positive statements for every negative one. While there is some debate about the exact ratio, it seems that approximately five or more positive comments are required for every negative in order for individuals, marriages, families and even businesses to flourish. If the ratio falls below approximately three to one, there is often impending trouble. Speaking positively to others benefits both them and you. Your Limbo gets to hear the words on the way out, and their Limbo gets to hear the words on the way in. So now you have learned the value of speaking positively, and the reason why it works, it is time to experience it.
Putting it into practice
Here are the challenges I will be offering in the “Experience” section that follows this “Learn” section of the lesson. Remember, the more you put in the more you will get out!
1. Be complimentary
Mark Twain once wrote, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” Following that logic, he could get by on a meagre six compliments a year! Most of us however, need them coming more frequently. So, be the dispenser of compliments. It is an excellent way to help you get your positivity ratio up! In one of the inspiring and quirky presentations by Kid President called “20 things we should say more often” he concludes with, “say something nice!” It is pretty simple but amazingly powerful.
I often tell my children that there is a greater and a lesser way to make people like you. The lesser way is to make them feel good. The greater way is to make them feel good about themselves. Nothing works better at making someone feel good about themself than by offering a compliment. We often think good things about others but we don’t say them enough. Start doing it. It doesn’t need to be face-to-face if that is too scary. Write an email. Send a text. Test and see if it makes a difference to how you feel.
2. Ingrain inspiration
We are losing a treasure from the past. Nowadays we have access to information at our fingertips—we can carry around hundreds of books on a small device that fits into our pocket! However, having something in your pocket is not the same as having it in your head! Before the advent of our marvellous technologies, people had limited access to information and therefore had to memorise texts and sayings. There was—and is—tremendous value in doing this.
So, ingrain inspiration by committing to memory one or more inspirational texts or sayings. There are thousands of uplifting things to memorise—just google them! Write it down on a piece of paper or type it into your phone—this is an important step towards memorising anything, especially if you are a visual learner. Practice reciting it until you know it by heart. Every time you do, your Limbo is listening. Also, let it become your response to negative self-talk. When you catch yourself engaging in negative self-talk, pinch yourself and instead recite back the inspirational text you have memorised.
I try to make a habit of memorising inspirational texts and sayings, and I have lost count of how many times I have had one pop into my head at a time I needed it. It is as though we create a memory bank of wisdom for our two-year-old Limbo to draw from…and it does!
Like the rest of your brain, your Limbo is devoid of sensation, so it relies on incoming messages to know when to make you feel happy. One of the sources of input to your Limbo is the language area of the Leader which means that your Limbo is Listening. Speaking positively—to both yourself and others—can help you live more!