On Self-empathy

Build your relationships first….then your dentistry. ~ Bob Barkley

On Self-empathy

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You have perhaps heard about the famous 1960’s experiment in psychology involving the “Marshmallow Kids,” in which a group a kids were confronted with a choice: they could eat one marshmallow now, or if they were willing to wait 15 minutes, they would be able to eat two.

This represented a test of each child’s level of impulsivity vs. self-control. Hence it measured their ability to tamp down immediate desires for the benefit of a longer-term goal.

This ability…the ability to reign in our impulsivity, has long been considered a higher brain function where the cerebral cortex overrides the “limbic brain” via “top down”management. A reward offered today is consciously denied to ourselves for a possible bigger reward in the future.

Neuroscientists have recently identified the location of this activity within the brain. It is called the supramarginal gurus, and is located at the right temporal junction.

This right hemisphere area is connected to our “limbic brain,” and therefore our emotions and our memories. But since it is right hemisphere, and therefore inductive and creative, it is also imaginative. And that is because the supramarginal gurus is where our capacity for empathy originates.

Our ability for empathizing with an other person’s situation, requires us to first have had personal experiences…memories…which allow us to closely relate how we felt at similar times to how the other person MIGHT be feeling. It is speculative…it is inductive, and most importantly, it must be tested to see if it is accurate and valid. And if it is, then we have connected deeper with the other person, and they “feel felt” as Daniel Siegel likes to say.

Now, let’s take this understanding one step further. When we delay our gratification for a future goal, a goal about which we will significantly benefit, we are functionally and on a neurological level, EMPATHIZING WITH OUR FUTURE SELF. We are imagining, through an interplay between our limbic brain and our supramarginal gurus, what we will feel like if we do this now instead of that.

And our ability to do this, as was seen with the Marshmallow Kids, has huge downstream implications, as people with high levels of self-control “win” at the game of life, much more often than those who do not. They are willing to forestall income for education first. They are willing to “pay their dues” in starting level positions and work their way up in an organization. They are willing to put aside money today, so that they can have more money tomorrow.

The same pattern exists in our patients, as only those who have the ability to see a better tomorrow for themselves-dental health wise- are willing to make sacrifices today to see it happen.

Yesterday, I had a long discussion with a seemingly healthy 27 year old who has his doctorate in Physical Therapy. He works-out regularly and is fit and trim. But he has also been diagnosed with mild sleep apnea, can’t tolerate CPAP nor a mandibular advancement appliance.

He has a deviated septum from a sports injury as a young child, and can’t breathe through his nose at night. He has no stable or balanced occlusal contacts. He has a narrow dental arch and over-uses his tongue to try and balance things out.

The idea of another round of orthodontics with palatial expansion and a nasal surgery is daunting to him, as he has a ton of student loan debt.

Consequently, the only way he will be able to make the best decisions for himself today, will be through his becoming more willing to make significant sacrifices in the areas of time, energy, money, discomfort, and inconvenience today – for a POTENTIALLY healthy future. And the only way any of that is likely to happen will be through my facilitation of HIS empathizing about HIS future self, though HIS visualization of what it all means to HIM.

I’ll bet that you have situations just like this happen every day in your practice as well, if your are committed to running a truly health-centered practice.

And when you do this YOU are empathizing with your FUTURE SELF. All of this was what Bob Barkley was referred to as “future focusing” with patients, which he accomplished through the Codiscovery process. And that included the facilitation of values clarification and self-empathy – cornerstones of all truly health-centered practices.

Paul A. Henny, DDS

Read more at Codiscovery.com

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