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Dr. Caroline Leaf

The BRAIN SCIENCE of Shaping Your Identity & Staying Positive

It's time for an identity check.

Roy T Bennett once said, “Be mindful, be grateful, be positive, be true. Be kind.” And author Ralph Ellison said, “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”

Welcome back to part two of my conversation with Dr. Caroline Leaf, a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist specializing in cognitive and metacognitive neuropsychology. Since the early 1980s, she has researched the mind-brain connection, the nature of mental health, and the formation of memory. 

My conversation with Dr. Leaf was so powerful that we split it up into two parts. If you haven’t listened to part one yet, you can click the link to catch up before continuing. In part two, we discuss how to rebuild confidence when doing an identity check, how our beliefs shape our identity, why positivity is so important to your brain health, and how jealousy and envy can cause brain damage. 

Who is Dr. Caroline Leaf?

Dr. Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist with a Master’s and Ph.D. in Communication Pathology from the University of Cape Town, and a BSc in Logopaedics from the University of Pretoria in South Africa/ She specializes in cognitive and metacognitive neuropsychology. 

During her years in clinical practice and her work with thousands of underprivileged teachers and students in her home country of South Africa, as well as in the USA, she developed her theory (called the Geodesic Information Processing theory) of how we think, build memory, and learn. Her work has led to the creation of practical guides and tools that have transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), learning disabilities, autism, dementia, and mental health issues like anxiety and depression. 

Dr. Leaf’s podcast (Cleaning Up The Mental Mess), YouTube videos, and TV appearances have reached millions globally. She has been featured on Elle, TED, Bustle, Medium, Huffington Post, The O Magazine, Thrive Global, Something You Should Know, Getting Curious, and many other media outlets. Most recently, Dr. Leaf has been working on her app, Neurocycle, which uses an evidence-based, revolutionary 5-Step Process to help you take back control over your thoughts and your life, with scientific research showing it reduces anxiety, depression, and toxic thoughts by up to 81%.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Leaf back on Episode #1079 about how we can heal our minds and overcome trauma. It was such an insightful and helpful interview, I knew I had to bring her back! Remember to also listen to Part One to get all the information from this discussion with Dr. Leaf.

Let’s jump right in!

Identity Shapes Our Mindset

In part one we spoke about doing an identity check. This is something I feel all of us should be doing while constantly adjusting and improving upon ourselves. That’s because we build our beliefs around our identity — it’s what shapes our mindset. According to Dr. Leaf, an identity check can help us realize when our negative thinking may have more to do with how we feel about ourselves than how we feel about a situation. It can allow us to choose to see ourselves more positively, and then see challenging situations in a way that actually enhances our lives and bring us closer to our goals rather than letting those situations bring us down. 

Dr. Leaf uses an example of how an identity check can help us when we’re comparing someone else’s success to our own:

“Once I do that identity check, I’ll immediately shift to looking at something different. So [for example], something I think I should have achieved in my business, and I’m not achieving it, and I’m comparing myself to someone else, I’ll suddenly look at that and say, ‘No, I don’t need to compare. I’m not enhancing.’ So I shift from comparison and competition, which is totally toxic — it’s not at all human nature — and back to enhancement, which is: ‘Oh, gosh, that’s amazing what that person is doing! Wow! I love that for them!’ — and I mean it.” –Dr. Caroline Leaf

Catching ourselves when we’re comparing ourselves to someone else, and switching to enhancement instead, enables us to see others’ achievements as a source of inspiration. The trick is to learn how to say, “I love that for them,” and mean it. The important part here is “mean it” — if we don’t mean it, we’re just fooling ourselves. 

“If we don’t actually believe it, and we try to convince ourselves that we do, that’s the band-aid or the positive affirmation approach. When I’m saying those statements and I don’t believe them, I need an identity check.” –Dr. Caroline Leaf

Dr. Leaf says you know the identity check was successful when those positive statements are so true, you can feel them through your entire mind, brain, and body. 

Caroline hasn’t always been focused on identity. It took a chance meeting with a teacher in her home country of South Africa to make the shift. 

Dr. Caroline Leaf’s Work During Apartheid

Dr. Leaf began her career during the apartheid era when the transition began into the free society for all that it is today. During apartheid, before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, she spent three days a week working with teachers in extremely under-resourced schools. This is where she saw firsthand the impact of terribly evil social structures on humanity. 

“That’s why I chose to [work with the teachers] at the same time as doing my research and working in private practice with people that could afford to see a therapist. That’s where I learned what I really know about life and about this field.” –Dr. Caroline Leaf

She began training teachers in the education environment to help improve the terrible education the black population had been subject to during apartheid. One of their programs worked with over 300,000 people, training teachers on how to use their brain and how to learn, how to build their brain, manage emotions, and get the most out of the mind-brain connection. 

“As I started [a session], one teacher stood up and he was so aggressive. I’ll never forget he said, ‘Dr. Leaf, I’m sorry but you have it wrong. There is a kid in my class who is so stupid and so difficult that there’s no way he could learn anything or change.’ It was a whole mouth full of venom, and I was so dumbstruck — and I’m very seldom dumbstruck! One of the other teachers in the class stood up and said, ‘Sir, that child that you say is so stupid can do something that you can’t do. It’s your responsibility to trigger that in that child.’ It changed me forever, and that’s where I started researching identity in my work.” –Dr. Caroline Leaf

What an incredible insight that teacher had that changed Dr. Leaf’s approach to her work. It’s a lesson for all of us to recognize that our role is to bring out the best in each other, and then others will bring out the best in us — that is how we change society. 

“We’re very good at saying things that we don’t actually believe. When I’m saying things that I don’t believe, I know that’s when I need an identity check.” @DrCarolineLeaf  

How to Regain Control After Being Triggered

It’s always easy to talk about these things in times of calm. It’s in the moment we realize we’re being triggered and feeling a lot of emotions that things get harder. Do we lean into brain-building at that moment, or is brain-building something we can only use preemptively?

“I used to get very easily thrown… but I know now if I’m in a very challenging situation and I’m very emotionally triggered, I calm down and get my blood flow to the point where I’m okay. When I’m calm enough to move forward, then I do brain-building. I do this with all my patients. As an aside note, I never started a session without an identity check and brain-building [before we] dove into the heavy stuff.” –Dr. Caroline Leaf

It shows how important it is to gather information as the first step, in order to create awareness. That’s what you want to get to so that you can understand exactly why you feel triggered and work on that in the neurocycle process. The better the information, the greater our chance to work through the deep-seated issues. The long-term benefits are well worth it, as even Dr. Leaf has seen the impacts in her own life.

“I feel that sense of peace that I can handle that situation. You don’t have to solve it on the spot, but I try to always stand back and say, ‘Okay, I need a bit of time, I’m going to go and calm down.’ Every day is brain-building and learning.” – Dr. Caroline Leaf 

Knowing that we can prepare ourselves mentally every day to prevent the build-up of issues within also provides us with a daily practice to prepare for the bigger identity checks needed around once a year. 

Let’s find out the best way to build that practice.

How to Clean Up Mental Mess

With all the information we’ve learned about dealing with mental mess, I wanted to know what mental clean-up practices Dr. Leaf uses in her own daily routine. 

“The best thing to do is start in the morning when you wake up. It sets the tone for the day and catches [mental mess] early. You’ve got to do a check-in at lunchtime as well. I do that every day. ‘What’s my mood? What’s my mindset?’ And if it’s complaining or negative or worrying, I catch it immediately — it takes me two minutes.” –Dr. Caroline Leaf

Dr. Leaf recommends taking periods throughout the day to have “think moments.” This is when you activate the default mode network in your brain, which is very important to restore energy, balance, and reset.

“It’s great to have a 10-minute block if you can, preferably in sunshine, to literally close your eyes, switch off the external, switch on the internal, and just let your mind have a bit of a rest. That is very powerful. Thinking moments are unbelievably restorative.” –Dr. Caroline Leaf

By switching off the external and switching on the internal, we allow ourselves to daydream, where we can learn more about what’s going on in our mind. At nighttime, before going to sleep, Dr. Leaf makes sure to do a whole check using the neuro cycle. 

“I’ll ask myself, ‘What are my emotions? What are my signals? What am I thinking? What am I reflecting on?’”” –Dr. Caroline Leaf

Dr. Caroline’s Top Tip for Transforming Your Life

Perhaps as you’ve been reading this post and learning about identity checks, brain-building, thinking differently, and self-improvement, you’ve wondered, “This all sounds great, but where do I even begin??” Dr. Leaf gives us a great tip — which is also the first step we need to take in order to begin thinking differently and improving the quality of our life.

Understand the concept that your mind is not your brain, and your mind changes your brain. You can’t change what’s happened to you, but you can change what’s happening in you.” –Dr. Caroline Leaf

I highly recommend buying Dr. Caroline Leaf’s incredible book called Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. You’ll learn five simple, scientifically-proven steps to reduce anxiety, stress, and toxic thinking. It’s extremely practical, and filled with fascinating neuroscience and research. Hopefully, it will give you a lot more clarity and peace. 

Why You Should Listen to this Dr. Caroline Leaf Episode Right Now…

I hope that you enjoyed the second part of this two-part series of episodes. I thoroughly enjoyed having Dr. Caroline Leaf back on to discuss more details about our minds and how they shape our identity. Be sure to listen to the whole episode to hear the valuable details I couldn’t fit in this post. Remember to go back and listen to part one too!

If you want to hear her definition of greatness, be sure to head back to Episode #1079 to hear it. Today, I asked her what’s the one thing that you hope to improve more on in your life for the rest of this year:

“I have to get a mastery of being able to help people see the importance of [the] mind and understand [the] mind.” –Dr. Caroline Leaf

Guys, if this episode of The School of Greatness was informative, inspiring, and valuable for you, then please do me a favor and leave me a five-star rating and your review on ApplePodcasts. I would also really love it if you could tag me @lewishowes and @drcarolineleaf on Instagram with a screenshot of your greatest takeaways from this episode.

Today, I want to leave you with this quote from Alphonse Karr who said, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns or rejoice because thorns have roses.” 

Whatever the thorns are in your life, realize that there’s so much beauty in life as well. Just be willing to open your eyes and look for it, and smell those roses that are all around you. And I want to remind you if no one’s told you lately: You are loved, you are worthy, and you matter. I’m so grateful for you today. 

Now you know what time it is — it’s time to go out there and do something great!

To Greatness,

Lewis Howes - Signature

“Envy and jealousy cause brain damage.” @DrCarolineLeaf  

Some Questions I Ask:

  • How do you rebuild confidence when doing an identity check?
  • How do our beliefs shape our identity?
  • When we celebrate someone’s success rather than feeling jealous, what does that do to our mind?
  • Why is positivity so important for our brain health?
  • What do jealousy and envy do to our brain?

In this episode, you will learn:

  • How to rebuild confidence when doing an identity check.
  • The 100-second pause breathing practice and how to do it.
  • How our beliefs shape our identity.
  • Why positivity is so important to your brain health.
  • How jealousy and envy can cause brain damage.
  • Plus much more…

Show Notes:

Dr. Caroline Leaf Headshot
Connect with
Dr. Caroline Leaf

Transcript of this Episode

Music Credits:

Music Credit:

Kaibu by Killercats

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