Using subcortical processing to overcome performance blockages

Addressing emotional blockages is key to personal and professional change. Neurobiological techniques that target subcortical processing are effective in accessing what is hidden from our conscious minds. Embedding these focused treatments into the safe space of coaching and counselling provides significant transformational momentum. Here are three simple steps I follow with my clients:

  1. Becoming aware of the impact your childhood still has on your adult behaviour
  2. Recognising your signature triggers in order to process what you are stuck with
  3. Tapping into subcortical areas of your brain, you can unshackle your mind and body for good

Note: The actual processing of a blockage or trauma can be done in silence and without disclosure of any details.

Assessment using structured questionnaires

Some people are surprised to discover that the childhood they thought was happy had elements of neglect or smothering and even abuse. Questions like “Were you hugged as a child?”, “Did your caretakers tell you they loved of you?”, “Did your parents implement punishments such as slapping or spanking, denying food, or silent treatments?” can help you understand what was going on in your childhood and what was missing.

This process aims not to blame, accuse or condemn our parents for what happened to us. Instead, we are working to gain a much clearer understanding through observation and reflection. Sometimes, what was going on is what hurt us – parents who were violent, unpredictable, or anxious and smothering. Other times, it is the lack that can be hard to name, yet still has a crucial role in who we developed to be. It is often helpful to resist the temptation to confront your caretakers, siblings or childhood bullies to demand acknowledgment and apologies.

Often, we don’t have many memories of what happened during our childhood. As we start the healing process, we are tempted to dive in with full force. We may begin therapy, buy five different books about the different types of childhood trauma, and work to recover these buried memories. Remember that your body has its own intelligence. If a memory is buried or repressed, respect that. Memories may come up when you feel safe and ready – don’t push! Respect the healing process and the time it takes. Taking on too much at once carries the risk of re-traumatizing ourselves.

Key Areas to strengthen: self-nurturing and self-guidance

With the awareness of how our childhood wounds manifest today, we are better equipped to raise self-esteem, improve self-image (including body image), quiet the inner critic and heal from shame. 

Many people in my practice struggle with self-nurturing, which can be seen as feminine or mothering energy. Clients often find deficits remembering their own mother. Note that the nurturing part is not really missing, as many can take on a nurturing and care taking role with their own children, friends or colleagues but find it difficult to care for themselves. This tendency can show up in codependency, overworking, and inability to say no to others. 

Others tend to struggle more with the fathering side or masculine energy like setting effective limits and being disciplined in self-care. One common way this shows up in our lives is self-sabotaging bedtime procrastination which often manifests as overconsumption of news, alcohol, TV, online shopping or gaming. Staying up late despite sleep deprivation negatively impacts performance, mood and health. A lack of self-discipline may also show as setting unrealistic goals for one-self not being able or ever feeling ok with what was achieved.

No matter how your childhood wounds show up in your daily life, you can learn practical tools to manage them.

Healing can be done in silence and does not require exposure or talking

Part of the healing process is creating a sense of safety in your body and the world around you. It’s essential to tailor your healing journey individually in a way that gives you a sense of agency, independence and acceptance. A common misunderstanding persists that therapy requires the explicit purging of a patients inner experience – memories, images, thoughts, … It does not!

Breathing exercises like tai chi and yoga are popular ways of developing the mind-body connection and teaching your body to ground and stabilise. You can build a sense of safety with a therapist. This process can be done in silence, without the need to share the content of your past that you are not ready to share.

Subcortical Processing can help with trauma, work performance and sport blockades

While talking interventions like coaching and therapy aim to give a conscious understanding of the past are, it may be beneficial to explore tapping into the brain through other non-talking pathways. Trauma can sit deep in our body inaccessible to our rational (neo-cortical) brain.

EMDR is a popular intervention for PTSD based on using eye movements to help the brain reprocess traumatic memories. Randomised trials support the effectiveness of EMDR in treating emotional trauma and find that it can be a more rapid and effective treatment than cognitive therapy.

Neurofeedback and brainspotting are two additional treatments that target the subcortical or subconscious processing systems. These methods have a growing body of research that supports their effectiveness in treating trauma, but also support people with performance blocks in sport and leadership.

While both EMDR and brainspotting utilize vision in the sessions. EMDR uses eye movements while in brainspotting the gaze is in a fixed position. Neurofeedback often uses vision as a means to train the brain. Neurofeedback uses EEG to measure brain waves and provides feedback to teach the brain to produce the desired results.

All three methods can be highly effective as add-ons to counselling and coaching. In my practice I integrate Brainspotting in a comprehensive way with approaches that activate other areas of the brain in order to leverage full healing potential. Clients report great success with rewarding experiences, deep insights and liberating effects on their lives.

Far from over: How your upbringing impairs your work performance

As children many of my now adult clients were exposed to suboptimal parenting. What happened – and oftentimes what not happened – in the interaction with primary caregivers during childhood has left psychological marks. Childhood is the longest phase in life as is impacts who we are as professionals and how with think and operate at work.

Your childhood is past, but the effects are far from over

Many adults fail to see the true results of suboptimal parenting on their behaviour today. There are many reasons for this. One is that we often minimise our past. Even in cases of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, people often say: “It wasn’t that bad. Other people have it worse.”

People frequently tend to believe that they are fine unless things are really bad. “If I can function, if I don’t have a mental disorder, if I have a job and relationships – I am fine”. In fact, suboptimal parenting can actually lead us to be outwardly successful. A child who has learned to perform – for love – can grow up to be a workaholic who doesn’t know how to rest. The adult might be outwardly successful with their strategies of adaptation, even when they suffer internally.

Emotional Neglect

This denial is particularly true in cases of emotional neglect. In these cases, there often aren’t “bad memories”. However, parents who never hit or yelled can still have left lasting emotional scares. It’s what was not there, that causes problems to the work performance. Children are not only harmed by receiving what is bad for them, but also by not receiving what they need: appreciation, playfulness, joy, carefree being (often traded in for a rigid focus on grades, discipline and performance). Emotional abandonment is just as damaging as physical abandonment.

Smothering / Possessiveness

The flip side of emotional neglect is smothering. Parents who do not give their child freedom, who are overly protective and oftentimes intruding into their lives. Damage is done to the sense of Self when the opportunities to explore skills and boundaries are limited by an overpowering parent. The child’s individual experience of emotions is frequently taken out of hand, twisted, amplified or muted – replaced or overwritten by the parent’s or desired experience.

Typical challenges at work

Many people have a mixture of abuse, neglect, and enmeshment/smothering in their childhood. At work and in private, the adult can struggle with boundaries, discipline, balance, and self-care:

  • Not recognizing red flags in work relationships – being unclear about professional boundaries
  • Being perfectionistic, setting unrealistically high standards, investing too much time to reach an optimal outcome, doing too much and doing it too diligently
  • Catering for everybody’s needs but your own
  • Finding yourself being caught in the middle – feeling unable to assert yourself, voiceless, powerless
  • Always carrying GUILT, wherever you go, whatever you do

52% of the participants in a Nottingham Business School study that was cited in People Management Magazine agreed that their individual productivity had been affected by their trauma. The majority in the study reported that their employers were not able to respond to their needs helpfully.

  • Dealing with authority figures: either being afraid of authority figures or resistant to being controlled
  • Chronic emptiness can lead to difficulty in finding fulfilment at work
  • Catering to everyone else’s needs, people-pleasing, or an inability to say no
  • Procrastinating and struggling to start new projects as well as under-performance

Upside of Perfectionism

Some of the traumatic long-term effects actually manifest as benefits at first: People pleasing, perfectionism, and over-performing can be highly valued by managers. Colleagues will appreciate the person who is always helping out, often excelling every task and unknowingly engaging beyond boundaries.

In these cases, it may seem like there is no downside. But our bodies and minds are paying the price. Seemingly unrelated issues such as back pain, skin problem, digestive issues, blood pressure, and even injuries that are taking forever to heal can all be tied to the effects of stress and repressed emotions.

The Body Says No

The physician Dr. Gabor Mate wrote When The Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, merging his experience with his patients and scientific data. He says: “When we have been prevented from learning how to say no, our bodies may end up saying it for us.”

Recognising the role our own developmental trauma plays in our lives is paramount. The parenting we have been exposed to is not our fault. The aim is not to blame, accuse or condemn what we have lived through. The aim must be to regain the power to observe, learn and grow. 

Our trauma does not need to control us. Instead, we can get to a place where we can emerge as an embodied, present adult who responds to situations with insight, knowledge and wisdom.