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Getting to Know Your Three Brains: Part 1

bigstock--128905457Happy relationships make happy people. Perhaps the most important relationship we have is the one with our self. In fact, the better the relationship we have with our self, the better we feel, the easier life is and the better relationships we have with others.

When we judge our self harshly, we tend to judge others harshly as well. There is a direct correlation between how we treat ourselves, how we feel and how we treat others.

Regardless of whether you believe it, you do have power to change for the better. How do I know this? I know this because in my journey to become a health care professional, I had the great fortune of learning about the brain. This knowledge helped me tremendously.

With simple knowledge about how the brain and mind work, which I will give you in this series, we cannot help but think and feel about others and our self in a new and different light. In my daily life, I use my understanding of my three brains to help me feel better and to understand the people around me.

Here’s a simple example of how I use my knowledge of the brain:

I was invited to a party and I was getting more and more nervous about going by myself. My nerves made me start to wonder if I should really go. “Maybe it is a mistake,” I started telling myself. My mind started looking for excuses not to go.

Knowledge of my brain taught me that external events, such as going to a party by myself, could shake me up in several ways. I used to think it was only my negative thoughts that could upset me. In fact, five different types of experiences occur. I may be upset by:

  1. My thoughts
  2. The visual images my mind is making (we’re making pictures in our minds all the time)
  3. Emotions evoked by the situation
  4. Physical sensations evoked
  5. My unconscious beliefs about my Self that going alone to a party brought up

How does being aware of these five factors help me? Now that I know they exist, I can actively look for all of them, see which one of them is most affecting me, and work with my brain accordingly. Moreover, not only can I work with my thoughts, images, emotions, physical sensations and beliefs, I can manipulate them in a wide variety of creative ways for better or for worse. The way I work with my mind is all governed by the science I have learned about how brain cells move, make new connections, or stay more entrenched.

Here’s what I noticed when I was dressing for the party:

My thoughts were “Will I know anyone?” “Will I feel comfortable?” and “Will I be appropriately dressed?”

I had two visual images, one positive and one negative. In the positive one, everything was going well. I saw myself talking to people and having fun. In the other, I saw myself standing alone awkwardly, unable to penetrate the many conversations going on around me.

The emotions I was having were varied and conflicting, which is not unusual for the brain. I was excited about the party, and I was scared I wouldn’t fit in. I was also palpably anxious.

Physically, I noticed my stomach was clenched and my breathing was shallow.

I was aware I had two conflicting beliefs about myself. When the positive image was in the forefront of my mind, I saw myself fitting in and having conversations with others. My belief when I had that picture in my mind was “I am fine and I can go to this party and survive no matter what happens.” My negative belief went with my negative image of not fitting in. My negative belief was: “I am different and weird and no one will be interested in talking to me.” I noticed that when this upsetting image popped into my brain, it made me feel ashamed.

How did I use my knowledge of the brain to help myself? I mustered up all the mental energy I had and chose to focus on the positive scenario. I actively pushed my mind in the direction I decided it should go. I allowed my fear about going to the party to exist, but I chose not to act on it. Additionally, I repeatedly reminded myself that if I felt embarrassed for any reason, I would get over it, and ultimately be glad I at least tried.

So, to review, what does learning about the brain give us?

  1. Power to work with our thoughts;
  2. Ability to accept and channel emotions wisely;
  3. Ability to recognize and control impulses;
  4. Ability to calm emotions and the accompanying physical sensations they produce;
  5. Ability to challenge our negative beliefs about our Self and others;
  6. Enhanced ability to think through the best course of action that is in sync with what we want.

Just as we have the power to enhance well-being in specific ways, we can interfere with well-being in other ways. Being aware of the ways we further distress, such as the three examples I mention below, gives us the opportunity to stop our brain from going to those automatic places that make us feel worse. Knowledge of the three brains and the self helps insure we don’t worsen our problems by:

  • Reinforcing negative beliefs and worries by replaying them over and over again in our mind, which strengthens the wiring of those negative brain cell networks.
  • Amplifying negative feelings. We can choose to calm and work with painful feelings so they diminish. And, we can choose to amplify “positive” emotions that feel good like joy, excitement and pride in the self.
  • Not engaging in self-destructive behaviors, which predictably lead to more negative feelings, which make us feel emotionally worse, which adds to physical stress and pain.

In essence, the brain-work I am advocating gives us power and control over our mind as we honor and accept ourselves fully.

Most of us live day to day by blocking aspects of ourselves that cause us pain or conflict. But, we all know that blocking, defending, or burying things inside leads to symptoms and more psychological pain. Understanding how to use the various parts of the brain to deal with problems as they arise helps us live well.

We humans are complicated and nuanced, but our brains behave predictably. I find this very reassuring — there is a reliable path to wellness. How long it takes to change the brain and how to achieve the changes we want varies widely for each of us. But, the basic principles are similar for us all. I hope to pass on practical and simple brain knowledge in the next four parts of this series.

Stay tuned for Part 2, “The 3 Brains And The SELF.” I will shed light on what each of the three brains do.

Getting to Know Your Three Brains: Part 1

Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW

Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, takes the complex world of emotions and makes them easy to understand for all. She is author of the award-winning self-help book, “It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self” (Random House & Penguin UK, 2018). She is a certified psychoanalyst and AEDP psychotherapist and supervisor. Hilary’s blog on emotions and how to use them for wellbeing is read worldwide.For more FREE resources on emotions and emotional health, visit:

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APA Reference
Jacobs Hendel, H. (2018). Getting to Know Your Three Brains: Part 1. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 18, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.