A CONVERSATION WITH STEVE BIDDULPH
Imagine there are parts of our minds we never use … that, if awakened, could make us so much happier, connected and alive? Imagine if awakening those parts could bring peace to the conflicts and struggles we all go through?
Enter Steve Biddulph: best-selling Aussie author and psychologist. His new book, Fully Human, explores the new concept of ‘supersense’ – the feelings beneath our feelings – which can guide us to a freer, more awake way of living than ever before! He also discusses the ‘Four Story Mansion’ – a way of using your mind that can be taught to a five-year-old, but can also help the most damaged adult.
And no, these aren’t airy-fairy, head-in-the-clouds ideas. They’re based on cutting-edge research – where therapy meets neuroscience – and they can change your life.
Steve’s a great friend of Grapevine, so it wasn’t too hard to track him down on his hometown island of Tasmania. He graciously agreed to spend time with us – sharing insights into what he describes as his most important work yet.
GRAPEVINE: Fully Human is somewhat of a departure from your previous books … what was it that prompted you to write it?
STEVE BIDDULPH: That’s an easy question. I got sick a couple of years ago. And, while it turned out not to be serious, it was like ‘death noticed me’. So, I figured out it was time to set down the really important things I have learned.
However, not long after starting, I began finding out all this new stuff coming from brain research – stuff that backed up what I’d learned from my clients over the years. People are in so much pain during this time of crisis, and I wanted to leave something of lasting value. So, it was exciting to find new shortcuts to using our minds better.
This book, then, is kind of my life’s work. If you’ve read Raising Boys and Manhood and Raising Girls, this is a whole new level. It’s about fixing YOU.
GV: So … in a nutshell, what’s it about?
STEVE: It gives you a map of your own mind – a way to help you move more freely inside that mind. And especially the parts of your consciousness that are super helpful, but you barely notice (and usually totally ignore) them. Once these parts of your mind are awakened, you can live a more powerful, fulfilling life.
The truth is, just writing this book changed how I live in my own body and mind. It’s like discovering you have a wild creature caged inside. It wants to be free and be your friend. In fact, it’s the real you!
(I bet that’s got you interested – haha!)
There are two key ideas at the heart of the book. The first is Supersense: the way your body sends you messages – which is something it’s doing every second that you’re alive. These messages are often quicker and more subtle – and they’re much smarter than your conscious brain at knowing what’s going on. Yet most of us ignore them!
The second key idea is the Four Story Mansion: which is an easy-to-understand way of navigating the multiple levels of your mind, and getting them to work together – instead of (as they often do) tearing you apart.
GV: Our ‘supersense’ (or gut-feeling) is no longer seen as simply fluffy spiritual stuff – am I right? Can you tell us how it works, and what the science now says?
STEVE: If you’ve ever seen a picture of the brain – even the brain of a fish or a bird or any animal – it’s got this remarkable thing: it has two halves! Is it so you’ve got a spare? No, it’s for a reason! It turns out that those two halves do two different things …
For example: if there’s a blackbird on your lawn, its left brain is thinking, “Worm, worm, worm …” – very single-minded. But its right brain is thinking, “Whoaa, this is where my mum mysteriously disappeared – there were just a few feathers left! I’d better keep my eyes open!” Of course, I’m exaggerating slightly, but that’s what right brains do: they watch out for the big picture, for context. And they tap into a lifetime of memories.
But our right brain can’t reason or think in words. So it’s both very smart, and literally dumb. It talks to us just as it would in a wild animal – through ‘gut feelings’. Not a metaphor (like ‘the seat of your pants’) but actual gut sensations!
You’re feeling those right now! We’ve just forgotten to listen to them …
All day, every day, your senses take in vast amounts of information, far more than you can consciously pay attention to. Deep in your brain, these are cross-checked automatically with your lifetime memories.
Then something remarkable happens …
Your hippocampus (where your memories live) talks to your amygdala (where your emotions live), and sends signals down your vagus nerve (actually a vast network of nerves to your many organs and beyond). All you know about this is that something physical happens. Parts of your body activate – a twinge in your stomach, perhaps? And your conscious mind can then notice that ‘gut feeling’ – and start asking: What is it? What’s wrong?
It’s an extraordinary power just waiting to be used!
GV: So, how can we use our supersense in day-to-day life. And what can we expect from developing this skill?
STEVE: Well, for starters, it’s very helpful with raising children. Little babies start out tuned into these senses – and we can learn to keep those qualities alive in them, to nurture them so they stay wild and free. We teach them to listen to their bodies … and, if they don’t feel right about something, don’t do it. So they can resist peer pressure. They can tell (amongst all the mixed messages out there) what their true feelings are. And they can be less manipulated – tell that person pressuring them to have sex, for example, what they truly feel about it.
When you’re tuned into your supersense, you’re able to recognise those sensations – a feeling in your gut, your scalp, your shoulder muscles, in the muscles around your heart, or even in your hands or feet. You’re able to recognise that your unconscious brain has something to tell you! We function best when we enter a kind of dialogue with our supersense – to find out what’s at the bottom of those feelings.
It always has something to tell us, and occasionally it will be life-changing:
This friend is not a friend!
I’m not taking my child back to that babysitter!
This job is not for me!
My marriage is unsafe and disrespectful, and I will no longer accept that!
A friend of mine, now in her late 40s, developed a migraine three months into her marriage, and suffered from it for almost 20 years. Then one day, she discovered that her husband had a lover; he had started the affair soon after their marriage. And when she confronted him and kicked him out, the migraines stopped and have never returned.
Our bodies are amazing, and they talk to us all the time. If we don’t listen, then they have to SHOUT! Eventually, your slowpoke conscious brain comes online, and you work out the next steps. But first, you have to be woken up.
GV: Our gut feelings aren’t always accurate, though, right?
STEVE: No, not always. Our sensory processing system is not infallible, but getting your logical brain into gear quickly is still important. My friend, who is a Vietnam veteran, had this happen to him. He suddenly started having these massive panic attacks. The reason was, a Vietnamese refugee family had come to live in his street. It wasn’t rocket science to work out what was wrong. In that war, you never knew who wanted to kill you – the whole time you were over there, you were terrified. And it was all coming back.
By being tuned in to his body, he could make the connection. And he did a marvellous thing – he went and introduced himself to the family, and they became good friends. It quickly reassured his amygdala (the fear centre in the brain) that he was safe with them. I think it also healed him on a deep level from the old trauma as well.
GV: So what can we do to test whether our supersense is ‘on the money’?
STEVE: The best thing to do is never override a gut feeling, but kind of ‘interview it’ or ‘interrogate it’ – in a welcoming way: “Thank you for helping me. Can I enquire further? What are you trying to tell me?” And make a few guesses. Incredibly, you’ll feel a change in the sensations in your body as you start to inquire. It will strengthen … change … or say “yes” or “no” in some way. And it’s always got something to say.
It’s definitely a skill that grows and becomes smoother over time. But it starts with just noticing, for example, “Every time I’m with this person, I feel flat, or edgy, inside …” You’ll soon get your thinking in line with your body’s messages.
GV:One of the things you argue in Fully Human is that to live a full life, we must have a complete view of what a human being is – of what we ourselves are. So … what are we?
STEVE: If you ask people, they say, ‘we’re an animal … a mammal. We’re a social being … a spiritual being – looking to belong and find our place in the universe.’ Then, eventually, they get to this concept of ‘layers’ – that we are multidimensional. While everybody knows this – because they experience it – we just pay lip service to the idea. The reality is, most people today ignore or neglect most of their levels. The average person is trapped in a tiny corner of their mind, usually a stale and scratchy bubble of self-talk that goes round and round – while, all the time, a wonderful richness of aliveness and connection lies unused all around them.
What I wanted to give people was a map of the architecture of their own mind. In other words, a simple way to find their way around themselves, which could be taught even to a five-year-old child …
GV: And that’s how you came up with the ‘FOUR-STORY MANSION’ analogy – a map for our minds, right? Tell us about it …
STEVE: Basically, the brain and the mind have levels. Our body is the start … it’s the foundation of who you are, the ground floor of your mansion – and we definitely need to notice it more.
As I said, it’s got important stuff to tell us. Every parent knows if a child needs a wee, or a chance to run off their energy, or a snack to keep them going, or a hug, or a peaceful quiet time to regroup. This seems obvious. But adults often ignore or neglect those aspects of their own lives, and wonder why things aren’t going well.
Our supersense or gut-feelings are part of that too …
Then, one floor up, we have emotions. They’re needed to power us through situations. In the book we use an illustration of a near-miss car accident on the way to work: A car in the oncoming lane has somehow lost control and is now in your lane, skidding, tyres screeching, heading right at you …
After narrowly avoiding a collision, you’re left with this residual ‘charge’ in your body that needs to be dealt with. An emotion: a change on the inside, in response to an event on the outside. In fact, in this illustration, LOTS of emotions! Fear – as you might have needed the adrenaline to escape a car wreck. Anger – that someone might cause you injury by their stupidity. Sorrow – imagining that you could have died and your family being left without you … These all spring up and are there to help you.
Thankfully, nothing happened (although you may be in a quivering heap!). But you’re left with this excess ‘energy’ in your system with nowhere to go. However, the research says that the experience won’t traumatise you if caring people are at hand. You can cry, rage, shudder, get hugs, tell the story in detail to get it out of your system. And if that can happen within a few hours, you will not just be okay, but you’ll be somewhat improved as a person. A bit wiser.
PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) happens when we don’t get support after a traumatic event. If we don’t get the chance to ‘discharge’ these emotions, that ‘charge’ gets stored in our body … which later becomes PTSD.
The book goes into how to restore natural and easy emotional expression. For example, letting boys and men cry when they are sad, which is how our body resets itself after the pain of grief. And it’s important to understand that emotions are there to help us.
With feelings, the way out is through!
The third floor is thinking – your intellect. Thinking is how we make sense of our lives and how we communicate with others around us – putting things into words and sending them out there. Some people get stuck on the emotion floor, and need to think more about solutions and options. Counsellors are good for this, if you find it hard. Other people get stuck in thinking – on the third floor – and need to go down a level and feel their hearts.
Interestingly, those people are generally very boring or repetitive! Good thinking gets you somewhere different. It’s like saying, “Well, we’ve tried this and this, now it’s time for something new …”
The top floor is amazing – it’s the home of our spirituality. It’s where we connect to everything … the place where you have a sense that you’re linked to all that’s around you. It’s like a rooftop garden, open to the sky. It’s where you see the big world around you and understand that you’re at one with it.
It’s where we realise we are part of something big, going somewhere big, and our lives will thrive – and matter – if we are tuned in to this!
I’m old now, and I realise I’m like a leaf on a tree. I’m not too fussed about myself – my leaf will fall one day. But I really care about the tree … that it grows and thrives forever … that all our children and grandchildren have beauty and safety and their chance to shine.
Spirituality lifts you out of yourself. We let people realise that everything they’re drawn to is spiritual – whether it’s surfing or rave parties or making love. Things normally not seen as spiritual can be made sacred by our awareness opening even wider.
Even patting a dog or growing a garden is spiritual – if you really let that in! It’s about regaining that sense of freedom and unity and everything that flows out of that: compassion, peace, creativity …
GV: Why is it so important that we line our floors up? And how do we do that?
STEVE:In my workshops, I sometimes get people into small huddles with a few other people, and ask them to share the following: “Now you know about all your floors, how well do they line up?” Does what you are doing match what you are feeling and thinking, and does it make you feel connected to the universe?
And an odd thing happens: very often people start crying. They feel so at odds with their true selves. And we tell them: this is GOOD … because all you have to do is notice.
Your supersense will speak more loudly and clearly in the days to come. You’ll just know: this job is not for me … this friend is not a friend … I haven’t properly cared for my partner and want to change that … our family needs a really big break … we should drive around the country and get to know each other again.
Listening to yourself more deeply like this makes it suddenly very clear what to do.
You have to live in the whole mansion and move about between the floors. Travel up and down all the time: How is my body? How am I feeling? Am I thinking clearly here? And, of course, keep a sense of the big picture – yourself in the big world around you.
You start to feel very spacious and lovely doing this. More alive. And, as you get clearer, it makes you stronger and more sure of yourself.
It’s wonderful for kids to be able to know their own selves, and not follow peer pressure so much.
GV: So, what’s the end goal of being ‘fully human’? And how should we expect this newfound understanding to impact our day-to-day lives?
STEVE:There’s something I didn’t mention about the right side of your brain: it is super-perceptive of people around you – their faces and emotions and needs. So, as you get more in touch with your supersense, you’ll get better at being close to, and in harmony with, other people.
You’ll notice when one of your kids has something going on that needs your help. You’ll be steadier and less reactive or less likely to go off the deep end, because you’ll notice little storms building up inside you – and either talk about them, or calm them down if they’re just baggage.
Your right brain is an antenna that links you to nature and the world. So, like a wild creature, you’ll flow more smoothly in the world around you … sensitive and alert and wise.
GV: Any last words of advice?
STEVE:There is one important thing.We humans aren’t meant to figure things out on our own. We are a powerhouse when we work together with our loved ones … share our worries and inspirations … and join our efforts together.
I tell my therapy trainees: if we were damaged by humans, we need safe, caring humans to heal us with as much intensity as we were harmed.
So don’t just plough on alone in your life. Talk to those close to you. Get help if you need it.
The Fully Human book is a wonderful map, but you might need some companions on the journey it opens up. The book will help you recognise them.
Andie Llewellyn, part-time GP and mother of two little girls, was having a pretty good day. Her parents were minding the kids, and she’d taken the morning off to go into town to have lunch with friends. Now she was headed for home. She stepped off the train at her suburban station and walked briskly, as the wind was chill, to the car park. She wrestled with her keys and bags for a moment, got the car door open, and got in. From the corner of her eye, she could see a figure in the distance, a young man moving in her direction.
As she started her car, he was closer, and calling something to her. He was well dressed, quite nice looking; it seemed he wanted her help with something – maybe he had lost something or needed directions? Her lifelong habit of good manners tugged at her conscience; it went against the grain to ignore someone. Her hand even went to the window to wind it down. But somewhere in the pit of her stomach, a tiny clenching sensation made itself felt, and uncharacteristically, almost in a panic, she drove quickly past him and out onto the road. In the mirror, she saw him standing, motionless, staring after her.
Even when she got home, her heart was still pounding. What’s the matter with me? she thought.
Back in the tumult of home, the warm greetings of her parents and her little daughters, Andie pushed the incident out of her mind. Until she watched that night’s TV news. A man had been arrested by the police near a suburban train station – her train station! He had attempted to abduct a young woman at knifepoint, but she had screamed and fought back, and, by incredible good luck, two other women had driven into the car park just then, and the man had fled.
Andie’s mind took just a few seconds to make the connection – it had almost been her! And that poor other woman … Andie’s husband was shocked, coming into the living room, to find her shaking and sobbing on the couch.
Together, they rang the police. That night, two detectives came to her house. They brought photographs, and she was able to identify the man as the one who had approached her car. They thanked her and said that she was very smart to have avoided him. (They carefully did not use the word ‘escaped’.) Andie was shivering and shaking again as her husband saw the detectives to the door.
Steve: Andie was a patient of mine when I was starting out as a young therapist. She stayed safe and, quite possibly, alive on that windy afternoon because she listened to some very specific signals – literally, her ‘gut feelings’. She reacted in exactly the way that she needed to, to protect her own life. This was a wired-in response of the kind that has kept people alive for millennia.
IF YOU’RE INTERESTED IN LEARNING MORE, CHECK OUT WWW.STEVEBIDDULPH.COM. HIS BOOK, FULLY HUMAN, IS AVAILABLE AT ALL GOOD BOOKSHOPS.