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