Building new pathways in the brain by intentionally practicing something different

What is a do-over? A do-over is a chance to correct a behavior, thought, or belief that interferes with the types of relationships we want to have. They are chances to practice something different. They are a method to build new pathways in the brain or strengthen pathways that are already there, but not used very often. I like to think of do-overs as physical therapy for the brain.

A few years ago in New Mexico, I decided to break out the snowboard I had tried to learn to ride in my 20’s.  I had somewhat mastered skiing and wanted a new challenge on the slopes. On this trip, I was now in my 30’s and hadn’t tried the snowboard in several years.

I didn’t have strong pathways in my brain to allow me to ride a snowboard very well. Despite this, I had somehow convinced myself after a day of practicing with a snowboarding instructor and friends that I had it down well enough to increase my speed and challenge my skills. I went flying down a green run that I had practiced on several times that day and the day before. I was doing great and felt self-assured in my progress, so I kept going. I weaved back and forth smoothly as I passed slower travelers, and I even made a quick stop to avoid a crash ahead of me. Avoiding that crash made me feel more confident in my abilities and I thought I finally had enough command of this skill to safely say I could snowboard.

I began to believe I had this snowboarding thing figured out when I was swiftly and violently proven wrong. I came upon my friends and attempted to slow down, stop, and rest with them. As I was slowing down, another snowboarder stopped abruptly in front of me. I tried to swerve around him and I lost control of the board and myself. I tumbled and spun uncontrollably down the mountain directly in front of my friends, brushing one of them on my way down. Once my movement stopped, I sat up and immediately felt some discomfort in my wrist. I moved it around a bit then took off my glove.  I examined the damage and confidently and mistakenly declared that it was only a sprain.

I decided I would be fine and I would easily make it to the bottom of the mountain on my board.  My friends offered to call ski patrol to take me down, but I was not about to endure that kind of shame for what was most definitely just a sprained wrist.  So, I picked myself up and headed down the mountain. Everyone went ahead of me because I had convinced them I was completely fine. They weren’t worried about me getting down the mountain on my own.

That was the most excruciatingly painful jaunt down a mountain I had ever experienced. Each small bump or groove in the groomed snow that I crossed caused enormous amounts of pain to shoot through my wrist and hand.  I felt the blood leave my face and my stomach insisted that I let loose its contents so more blood could flow to the wounded extremity. My vision began to get blurry as I struggled to not wreck again. It was difficult to simply make it to the bottom. I knew then that it was more than a sprain. Either that or I had suddenly experienced a tremendous decrease in my body’s pain tolerance.

My broken wrist required some time in a cast to heal. My injured ligaments required some physical therapy to learn to function properly after being held dormant for weeks. The physical therapy was painful.  The ligaments in my wrist lost their resiliency. They didn’t want to move because the time in the cast had retrained them not to move anymore. The effects of the trauma they endured left them paralyzed.

I had to retrain the ligaments to move in all of the ways they were supposed to so I could use my wrist again. I made some poor choices that led to events that damaged my wrist and therefore, my relationship with my wrist. It could not and did not want to comply with my requests to move in ways that were good for our health. I wanted to have a good and productive relationship with my wrist again, so my wrist and I had to conduct do-overs, repeatedly, painfully, consistently for weeks.  I had to maintain the pressure of conducting these do-overs as my wrist resisted in screams of pain.  It wanted to stay put or only move in one or two ways. I had to say, “ok, wrist, we need to try that again in a different way.” And we would try it over and over and over again until we got the correct movements mastered.

After weeks of physical therapy, both at the clinic and at home, we didn’t have to keep conducting do-overs to get the movements correct. We had done them enough that my wrist was now trained to work appropriately on it’s own most of the time. There were a few occasions for about a year or two afterward where I would have some pain with too much strain of some sort. But it would subside, and each such episode would continue to strengthen my wrist.

This same kind of retraining I had to do with my wrist applies to our relationships. If we want to build new or stronger pathways to thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that improve our relationships, we have to practice what leads us there. We have to retrain our brains to follow new neural pathways.

First, we have to stop doing the things that are causing us problems. For example, my ligaments had to stop refusing to do anything except rest and hold my joint together. But the healing didn’t end there. My ligaments had to have something else to do. They had to be trained to move appropriately again.

Likewise, when we are trying to heal our wounds and those in our relationships, we can’t just train our brains to stop following the undesirable pathways. New pathways must be created in the brain. If we don’t intentionally do this, we just revert to the old pathways and the old behaviors that cause us problems.

Creating new pathways is painful, frustrating, and time-consuming business, just like retraining my ligaments was painful, frustrating, and time-consuming business. I was frustrated because of the time it took, how painful it was, and that the healing wasn’t happening as quickly as I wanted. But I had to intentionally practice the therapeutic exercises hundreds of times before my ligaments began to learn the new movements.

This same approach applies to healing relationships. We have to practice a new thought or a new behavior before we begin to develop a new pathway in the brain for what we wish to achieve. And we have to do this over, and over, and over, and over again (hence, do-OVERS) for as many times as it takes to make the pathway big enough and strong enough that we do not have to intentionally practice anymore. I’m going to say this part again, because in my work with children and caregivers I am often asked in exasperated tones, “How many times does it take?”  The answer is IT TAKES AS MANY TIMES AS IT TAKES to create or strengthen that pathway in the brain. Once it’s there, our brains begin to automatically follow that pathway and we begin to see the effect of it in ALL of our relationships.  Just like when my wrist wanted to revert to the comfortable movements on days of too much stress, our brains may try to revert to old pathways when we experience too much stress or too much pressure. But if we continue to practice the do-overs in those moments, we make the new pathways even stronger and, as an added bonus, we increase our tolerance for pressure and stress.

If you look at maladaptive behaviors, thought patterns, and beliefs through the do-over lens, you can begin to see them as opportunities for growth and change. The more you look through that lens, the more your perceptions about your difficult relationships begin to shift to something hopeful and healing.