This past week at Shalem’s in-service training, I got to try a backwards bike. I say “try” rather than “ride,” because after years of riding a regular bike, a backward one is impossible to ride without lots of practice. But it was fun to try!
A backwards bike is one that has an extra gear built into the steering mechanism so that when you turn the handlebars one way, the wheel turns the opposite way. While that sounds simple enough, it actually changes everything about how one not only steers, but also balances on the bike. All of a sudden, a whole, complex skill that we learned as a kid and now do on autopilot no longer works, and our brains have to re-learn every element of it.
Destin Sandlin of Smarter Every Day, shares his experiences of learning to ride a backward bike. He is determined to master it, and spends about 10 minutes a day for 8 months practicing until he can ride it smoothly. Destin recognized that the complex skill of riding a normal bike is wired into his brain, and that he needs to completely rewire his brain to conquer the backward one. Thanks to the fact that our brains have neuroplasticity—the ability to change and rewire, he succeeds. He learns it so well, in fact, that when he tries a regular bike, he can no longer ride it at first, but has to work hard to regain his old skill.
One of Shalem’s staff members, Shawn, had a backward bike made and he brought it to our staff meeting. He showed off his fairly smooth riding, accomplished after about 4 hours of intense practice. The rest of us were lucky to make it 2 or 3 feet without toppling!
The backward bike exercise can teach us some things about changing long-standing automatic skills and patterns, particularly ones that we learned in childhood. This is something we do a lot in psychotherapy. Often, when we are trying to make a significant change in our lives, particularly in how we deal with emotions or relationships, we are doing something very similar to learning to ride a backwards bike.
Our emotional responses and relationship interaction patterns are developed early in our lives and become part of the automatic, unthinking responses we use day in and day out. But when our habitual responses are no longer working for us, it takes significant effort to learn a new way of processing emotions or responding to our loved ones.
If we learned early on in life to avoid conflict at all cost, or to side-step all strong emotions because it is too dangerous to express them, these responses become wired in to our brains. They become our automatic ways of responding to our loved ones. But when conflict-avoidance becomes too costly in our families, or when strong emotions burst out uncontrolled and do harm in our relationships, we recognize the need to do something different.
But understanding what needs to be done—steering our emotions or balancing our interactions in the opposite manner—and actually doing it, are very different things. It takes intentional effort and sustained, usually daily practice to master a new way of processing emotions or develop new interaction patterns.
Trying the backward bike was very difficult—discouraging in fact. I knew how it worked, but couldn’t do it. While the backward bike was a simply a fun exercise at the Shalem in-service day, when we need to learn a new skill that can make or break our relationships, the stakes become much higher.
Sometimes people come to therapy expecting to change deeply embedded patterns and life-long coping strategies in 1 or 2 sessions. Other times people are discouraged and don’t believe they can ever change. Some begin to get a handle on the new “backward” skill after a session or two, but default to the old way of responding under pressure, leaving them and their loved ones discouraged and questioning the value of therapy. Others are determined to make the changes and won’t stop practicing between sessions until they have mastered the new emotional or relationship skills they are learning.
It may be helpful to know that such changes involve creating new neural pathways and strengthening them through repeated practice until they become stronger than the old neural pathways. It is the daily, even hourly choice to respond differently to my emotions and to my partner or my kids that leads to transformed relationships.
And we need to not only accomplish the new skill so that we can use it occasionally, but master it to the point that it becomes the new automatic way of being in the world. Sometimes we need to unlearn the old way of riding so that we can’t even ride the old bike any more.
I find it so encouraging to know that it took Destin 10 minutes of daily practice over 8 months to master the new bike to the point that he could no longer ride the old bike.
Similarly, there are daily practices available to help us rewire our brains to change our emotional and relational responses, practices like mindfulness meditations, gratitude lists, or having regular conversations in which we practice being accessible, responsive and engaged with our loved ones. Practices that can help us tolerate strong emotions and direct them in helpful ways in our interactions with others.
If you ever find yourself working on personal, emotional or relational issues, remember that what you are doing is rewiring your neural pathways, and that it takes intentional, regular practice—just as much as it does to learn to ride a backward bike!
Susan Winter Fledderus is a Clinical Therapist with Shalem Mental Health Network