Limbic Templates: How to Change Deep Patterns

Heads up! This post is 11 years old. In 2021, I restarted my blog after many years of not writing regularly. See the the new stuff!

neuronsOur limbic system is our body’s emotional-relational system.

Some places it shows up:

  • when you feel awkward
  • when you don’t like someone and you don’t know why
  • when you fall in love
  • when you feel “open-hearted” or “hard-hearted”
  • when you sense someone has a creepy vibe
  • when you get a bad feeling “in the pit of your stomach”

The limbic system is made up of nerve centers in your gut, in your heart, and deep in your brain.

Our brain receives an immense amount of sensory data that we couldn’t possibly deal with consciously–but our brain is still tracking it.

There’s a whole lot going on under the surface.

The limbic brain (the “mammal” brain responsible for relating, a sense of self, motivation, focus, and emotions) processes 2 million bits of information a second. That includes churning through all the sensory information in our environment and within our bodies and looks for danger. That’s a whole lot of pattern matching.

Some of what it is looking for:

  • physical danger – a threat to our survival
  • relational danger – a threat to our sense of connectedness and belonging and OKness with others
  • anything that looks like anything that was dangerous in the past
  • people saying our name or trying to get our attention
  • anything relevant to our current focus of attention

This part of our brain operates strongly on wired-in networks. It’s not creative, inventive, or spontaneous. It does what it’s done before, according to limbic templates. The structures of the limbic brain evolved 65 million years ago. Our cerebral cortex has been around for about 2 million.

When push comes to shove (sometimes literally), our limbic brain takes over. In a microsecond. We sometimes call this, “getting triggered”. But our limbic templates operate at much more subtle levels than just our overt triggers. They influence us all the time, in all situations, without our realizing it.

Limbic templates are your gut awareness of:

  • whether the world is a safe place or not
  • whether the world is an abundant place that meets your needs or not
  • whether you belong or not
  • where you belong, and with whom
  • how you can expect to be treated and received by others
  • what love feels like
  • your strength or weakness relative to others

The deepest templates get created as infants.

Most of our most pervasive, deep, core templates that inform our world without us realizing it were wired in before age 2. So you have no conscious knowledge of any of the events that form your core habit patterns–especially the ones that influence your relationships. Fun, right?

Your neural circuits are a blank slate when you are born, but they quickly begin wiring together in our effort to learn how the world works.

Let’s say you’re a baby, and you get hungry. You cry, your mom responds, you eat, you feel full, you feel good. The neural circuits for “a sensation in tummy”, “crying”, “mamma comes to me”, “feeding happens”, “full belly”, “feel good” all light up. And neurons that fire together, wire together.

As an infant, you have not yet differentiated “you” from “others” or “the world” – everything is all just happening at once, so when you learn something, you learn it as The Way Things Are. So if this pattern of crying, getting fed, and feeling good gets repeated, pretty soon you’ve got the beginnings of some good conclusions going about the world:

  • it’s OK to express my needs
  • when I express my needs I get them met
  • there is plenty of nourishment available
  • and the all important one: it’s good to be me

But even in the best of circumstances, things can go wrong. Let’s say your mom loved you very much, but worked full time and had to feed you on a schedule rather than every time you were interested in food. You get hungry, you cry, you cry more, you get tired, you fall asleep. Then, later, your mom comes and you get fed. If this pattern gets repeated over and over, the neural results of this might be beliefs like:

  • there is no point to expressing my needs because nothing happens
  • when I need something I am alone
  • there is not enough for me
  • I don’t get what I need when I need it
  • I’m not important
  • it’s painful to be me
  • hunger and eating are not connected

These are what we often call “core beliefs”. They don’t all get formed before age 2 – but nearly all do before age 7. They form based on repeated experiences and on overwhelming experiences–and a great deal can be overwhelming to an infant or toddler.

But, it’s not hopeless. Babies are incredibly resilient. You didn’t die from any of these unhelpful conclusions your limbic system made about the world. You are basically OK. You survived, and you manage your life now as an adult. But the system could use some fine-tuning.

And luckily, our brains are plastic. We can change. Yay!

At any age, we can change our wiring.

All you have to do to change these limbic templates is learn and practice new ones. But this learning isn’t the cognitive kind–you can’t just read a book. You have to learn relationally by limbically “downloading” templates from other people who have more secure and stable limbic templates.

Often this happens unconsciously:

  • You meet someone who is a role model for you. As you watch them and interact with them, you are studying who they are. On a physiological level you are “downloading” their limbic templates and making them your own.
  • You are anxious and insecure in relationships, but you manage to meet someone who is happy and secure. They are patient with you, and you are willing to learn how to trust, and you relax and begin to feel secure too.
  • You aren’t very confident, but you join a work team where everyone is supportive, friendly, and tightly connected. As you become one of the group, you bask in the positive feedback and camaraderie  Over time, you absorb the positivity until it’s a part of you.
  • You’re terrified to give a speech, so you join Toastmasters. Practicing speaking in a safe environment, your body starts to relax as it learns that nothing bad is happening.

You can also consciously seek out these experiences, and accelerate the process using mindfulness. Look for role models. Hang out with the healthiest friends, co-workers, and couples you know and notice how they relate to others. Form a group of supportive friends and meet regularly. Work with a coach or a therapist who can help you identify your limbic patterns and practice new ways of relating. (I recommend Hakomi therapy and Presence-Based Coaching).

It’s important to note that you have to be willing to absorb these new limbic templates. A person could easily join a great work team and bring their pessimism or helplessness with them and not change at all. You have to be willing to be influenced by your new experiences or you aren’t going to learn any new ways of being. There must be a willingness and a seeking of new experiences with an intention to learn and grow.

Design new limbic experiences and practice them.

Let’s say you have a hard time saying no, or anticipating hearing no. You do all kinds of relational gymnastics to try to figure out what someone is willing to do without asking them, because you have a limbic template that says that “No” is scary.

You can design an exercise to work with this. Find someone who is willing, and practice saying no to each other. Ask for something, anything, and the only rule is the other person has to say no.  Can I borrow your pen? No. Will you give me a hug? No. And then breathe and realize it’s OK. Nobody died. Spend 30 seconds taking that in.

That last part is important. When you do the exercise, do it with mindfulness. Really notice what is going on in your body as you do it. Breathe. Take in the experience. This updates your neural circuitry. Practicing with mindfulness will actually make saying no easy and natural in the future. It’s phenomenal how much you can change when you start doing this work.

Mindfulness = magic.

Mindfulness is the key to actively and rapidly changing old neural pathways.

Remember the super-pattern-matching limbic brain? You need to give it a new pattern to match up against. Instead of, “I recorded an experience that saying no is scary, don’t do it”, it can now match against, “I recorded an experience that saying no is safe and fine, go ahead”. In a split second, instead of getting anxious and veering into codependency, you’re saying what’s true for you in the moment. It’s amazing.

Mindfulness does this by hooking your old pattern up to new experiences, and ‘updating’ it. It literally “saves” your current reality over your previous template, changing the old pattern permanently by changing which neurons are predisposed to fire together. This is how we learn, and how we change.

Mindfulness is a special neural network that is encapsulated, so it can “observe” other neural networks and cause them to interact with each other rather than remaining isolated. Practicing new behaviors without mindfulness does not have the same transformative effect. Practicing without mindfulness can set up a new neural pathway, but using mindfulness to experience both the old limbic reaction and the new experience at the same time lights up the whole neural map and actually wires them together, which changes the old pattern permanently.

It’s so frickin’ cool! Try it!

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Hi there! I’m Emma and I write about self-liberation. My writing is meant to share my process & inspire your own. If you want more frequent/current writing, visit my Substack Sparkly Dark, where I’m unpacking my neurodivergence.

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Thanks so much for reading! ~Emma

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  1. Oh wow, you’re making some really good points here. I just wanted to say that this is basically the way I did it to get up of from the lowest point in my life. I literally chose, consciously, who I was gonna let “manipulate” me out of the state I was in, and I went out to get those experiences I knew I needed to counteract for what had happened. And it works, it really, really works.

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