The three books that have influenced my individual therapy style the most are Bonnie Badenoch’s Being A Brain-Wise Therapist, Bruce Perry’s, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, and Daniel Siegel’s Mindsight. All of these books provide an inside look at the brain from an attachment perspective. In other words, they each bring the reader’s awareness to the importance of right brain connection, which is my primary focus in the therapeutic relationship.
Two Hemispheres – The Right & Left
If we cut the brain in half long ways we have broken it down into the right and left hemispheres. Although there are billions of different functions across all areas of the brain, understanding the specialties of the right and left is really important; especially when it comes to therapy.
Let’s start with the left hemisphere. The easy way to consider the left is to remember the L’s: Logic, Linear thinking, language and literalness. The left-brain likes it when things make sense. If we go through a certain event, the left-brain attaches words to that experience and likes to find patterns like cause and effect, right and wrong, and yes or no.
The right brain, on the other hand, is much more receptive and nonlinear. It is responsible for understanding nonverbal communication, how we interact in relationships and helps with using words creatively such as in poetry or music. It’s our meaning maker.
Bringing this understanding to our emotions, as is so pivotal in psychotherapy, the left and right hemispheres work in different ways. Our right brain, which is centered on relationship and emotional understanding, is where our reactionary emotions are produced. When there is a threat, our right brain decides if we should avoid or withdrawal. The left brain, with its logical thinking, creates emotions based on our approach to the experience (i.e. Expectations).
To make some of this jargon more comprehendible, think of left-brain as the L’s and the right brain as Relational. Overtime, research has suggested that more than any other factor contributing to outcomes in therapy, the relationship between you and the therapist is one of the most important. And doesn’t that make sense!
Our relational mind begins creating relational meaning from the moment we are born. Babies that miss this connection may develop abnormally or have physical and mental health issues later in life. The brain will literally not grow, it will atrophy. This goes the same for those that have experienced trauma. The relational right brain is active well before the logical left. This is where the therapist can help.
A counselor who is knowledgeable in this style of work is very focused on the conditions required for healing. And it’s all about the relationship. When you see your therapist you should feel safe, secure and supported. While difficult emotions may emerge, this sense of security helps you to stay present for re-wiring areas of the right brain required for healthy self-regulation.
This type of work goes deeper than words and talking. It is not about the acquisition of skills or techniques but truly healing in a relational context, both with yourself, family, loved ones and the world. During a session you may decide to talk about a difficult scenario or something challenging that happened earlier in your life. If you can stay present with these feelings you will be working to re-write this memory ensuring growth and change.
The big takeaway from the right brain’s role in therapy is remembering the motto “Connection before Correction”. Feeling safe and attuned with your therapist is the real first step before a big change.