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Dr. Julia Harper: Rewiring the Brain and the W.A.Y to Change

All your senses light up. Messages on the walls, the sound of children’s voices, their parent’s soft footsteps following behind; there’s a perfect combination of colors to bring you up and simultaneously ease you back down, coupled with a rising feeling of excitement in your stomach that tells you there’s something special going on around you. This is what it feels like to walk into TheraPeeds, a family therapy services company in Davie that helps children with developmental disabilities.

I didn’t think I could be more moved by the uniqueness of the place and their approach until I was introduced to Dr. Julia Harper, founder and CEO of Therapeeds, and the woman who is making a change in people's lives across the world. “Did you ever think you’d see yourself as a bald, black woman from Trinidad?” she asked me with a wide, cheeky smile. She was referring to the ability to, almost literally, put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This ability comes from the realization that we all have one essential thing in common: a brain. “My vehicle for that seeing of myself in that thread of humanity is neuroscience, its neuroplasticity, it’s the brain,” she says.

As a psychologist and occupational therapist, Julia has spent over 20 years combining the science of neuroplasticity and the practice of self-awareness to help people change their lives.

Apart from being a successful business woman and entrepreneur, Julia is a world-renowned therapist, speaker and coach. She is a writer, with a book in the works. She is a mother of two children and wife to a husband that she “could not have fathomed” for herself. She has a wonderful sense of humor, the kind that is honest and unapologetic. Her office, where we sat for our interview, seemed too small for her energy. I was not surprised to hear she spent most of her time outside, interacting with patients and the community.

It seems like an almost perfect picture right? The first thing we think of is how easy it can be for someone in a position of success to say there’s a way to be better, to feel better. And it’s true that it's easier said than done, but Julia’s learnings, and her ability to share them, go beyond her success, her studies and her patients. When she says there's a way to change, it comes from her own experiences and the path that led her to find her way, and ultimately, a way for everyone.

Born in Trinidad as a 26-week-old premature baby, Julia made it almost miraculously after being sent home in a shoe-box. Her parents were absent in her life and she was raised to be an impeccable student and “good girl” by her grandparents. She would graduate school at 15, only to become a therapist by 19. “I know rejection. I know what it’s like to have a story in your head about not being heard or wanted,” she says. “I couldn’t be of value just because I existed, I had to be of value because I earned it.”

She spent her life hustling to prove what she could do, but her actions were reactions to a bar that was just too high to reach. Like many of us, also, she was harder on herself than anyone could be. “I was going to set the pace and blaze the trail and prove to everyone that I was the sharpest, hottest, smartest, brightest thing out there. Because if I didn’t do that, and stopped for half a second, I would be of no value,” she tells me.

Until the day her daughter was born. “I tell her all the time she saved me. That day I decided I had to change myself,” she says. So, the discovery of a way to change began: she studied what she had to, practiced different solutions, “if it was going to make me different and stop the pain from touching that little girl, I was going to do it,” she says. But the language was often inaccessible, the routes were too many and the reasons not clear enough. In the end, when she found the way, her biggest realization was that the search didn’t have to be so meandering and long; that, ultimately, there is a shorter way for all of us. “That way, is in,” she says.

According to Julia, to live is by default, to want. By wanting we bring into existence the things we don’t want. “What’s called ‘don’t wants’ is literally anything I don’t want to happen,” she says. Things as small as waiting in line, and as undesirable as something happening to your child. “Any time you face a don’t want, your brain reads it as a threat. And because we don’t know the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat, it reacts the same way,” Julia says.

It all begins in the brain stem- the part of the brain that perceives threats and functions as a tool for survival. According to her, those reactions tend to be one of three things: fight (you control), flight (you avoid), or flee (you ignore).

We’ve all had that sensation after we react: you’ve done something wrong, you’re not good enough, the blame is on you. That feeling spreads, even if we can’t understand where it comes from. It makes us unhappy and unsatisfied, no matter how perfect everything outside might seem. “You don’t realize you’re reacting, you do nothing to change that, but at the end of the day, and this is the important part, you feel the effects of the reaction,” Julia says. Suddenly those reactions accumulate, and without knowing it, you’ve built a life out of them. But what Julia's method is about is seeing that those reactions, those feelings, are not in the blood, they're in the brain.

Like many others before me, I feel identified with Julia’s words. In them I find a sense of possibility, which mixes with a somewhat frustrating need to know how I can change my reactive behavior. Julia smiles widely, she’s gotten this question a million times before. “See, change, do,” she says. “Asking ‘how’ is asking ‘what do I do’? And before you do, you must see, then you can change. Because if I don’t see it, then there’s nothing for me to change, and if I don’t change what I’m thinking then there’s nothing for me to do.”

As we become more evolved, our list of wants and don’t wants extends beyond our needs, and these primal reactions of survival don't work for the modern brain. Julia teaches others to move from reaction, to response. “I start off this process by inviting people to acknowledge that as a human being I have a brain stem, that in the presence of every don’t want my brainstem is going to convert it into a threat, which then means I’m going to react. That is neurology,” explains Julia. “Since I know I’m going to react let me then open my eyes and pay attention.”

Ultimately, paying attention means taking control. It means owning our reactions instead of putting the responsibility on someone/ something else. Julia explains that when we try to build our power from the position of a victim- he did, she did, they did- we are setting ourselves up for failure. “I’m not saying that those victimizations aren’t real, but what I am concerned about is that at the end of the day all of that is ‘don’t wants’, and guess what were all doing? Reacting,” she says. “You can’t build empowerment on reaction, because your reaction is powerless. If we want to build empowerment we have to do it on response.”

This is what the Way to Hope, the program Julia created which merges her two models H.O.P.E and W.A.Y, is all about. H.O.P.E (Harper’s Optimal Protocols for Enrichment), focuses on rewiring the brain of children with physiological, learning and attention limitations. While W.A.Y (What About You), helps retrain the brain to move beyond emotional and thought limitations.

The WAY model came after the realization that to help children, parents needed to find their way back to themselves as well. Convincing them wasn’t an easy task (she had to make the program a requirement for her to treat the children), but the results were far beyond what she could have expected. They didn’t only change with respect to their children, they also began to see improvements in every other aspect of their lives: work, relationships, etc.

Eventually, it became apparent that W.A.Y was too paramount to keep inside the doors of TheraPeeds. That is when Julia Harper Inc., came to life. “There is a world full of people who cannot walk into this building,” she says, because not everyone has the reason or means to do so. “I want that magic, and that connection, and that change to go outside.” Through Julia Harper Inc., Julia finds different ways to connect with people around the world, whether it’s through videos, her blog, by offering talks or workshops, or through the chance to connect directly with her.

In the age of self-discovery and personal growth, the rat race is now not only about who can get to the top first, but also about who can do it all while living off of kale-avocado smoothies and keeping a monk-like inner balance worthy of praise. In the midst of all of this self-searching madness, everyone is telling you they have the answer. But, Julia's method, unlike many others, is an actionable roadmap, with realistic steps to follow every time you fall down the rabbit hole. In those moments where we get tangled up with ourselves, having a clear, consistent path to fall back on, not only arms us with the tools to change, but also reminds us that we're not alone.

That's where Julia’s work comes full circle, when we remember we're not alone, we get to start using the one attribute our world lacks exponentially: empathy. That attribute lives in the deepest and most complex corners of ourselves. But, when we gather the courage to explore them; when we stop ignoring our reactions, at an individual and collective level; when we turn the eye in, everything around us begins to change. Because what we create for ourselves, is what we put out into the world. So, as Julia says: “Go into it, its kind. You don’t have to know what is there, just go in.”

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