Living Empowered with Dr. Julie Lopez

Dr. Julie Lopez is a licensed clinical social worker and the author of Live Empowered!: Rewiring Your Brain’s Implicit Memory, a comprehensive primer on implicit memory—those stored memories we don’t actively recall, but that affect our thoughts and behaviors. I interviewed her about the different types of memories our brains and bodies process, and we discuss how those memories affect our mental health, sometimes creating roadblocks from illogical places that hold us back from reaching our full potential. 

This is an interview every entrepreneur (and human) should listen to.


Brandon Green: Hello, everybody, excited to have you back for another interview this month. I am thrilled to have Dr. Julie Lopez join us. I’ll tell you a little bit about how I came to know Dr. Lopez. 

Dr. Julie Lopez: Okay Brandon, you have to just call me Julie. 

BG: Just Julie? All right. So, Julie. This whole thing came about because I have been working over the last couple of years with helping people create possibilities in their lives, particularly around vision, journey, and finances. More and more, I became really interested in the brain and how some are able to move things forward in their lives and how some are not. They encounter roadblocks that are seemingly impossible to get through. I was chatting with a mutual friend, and he said, “You need to talk to Julie because she’s done a whole body of work in this area.” I am thrilled to welcome her. 

By the way, a lot of this conversation might stem from her book, which I want to plug in at the beginning: Live Empowered! Rewiring Your Brain’s Implicit Memory.

DJL: Thanks for the nice plug. I appreciate that. Yes, I’m super passionate about helping people get through roadblocks in every way. So, I’m loving the opportunity to have this conversation with you—another person who really enjoys helping people do the same.

BG: We’re doing the same work in different ways and this is powerfully bringing it together. Let’s start with you helping us understand your background. How did you get into this work and help us contextualize that a little bit?

DJL: Yes, I always wonder which version of the story to tell, but essentially, I think to be totally candid, I need to tell the early-early story which leads to how I ended up here. 

So, I was actually conceived in a violent way by two young teens. It was date rape. My young mother, who was 15 at the time, was sent away to an—at the time, they were called homes for unwed mothers. Her family, who was fairly well-to-do, just told people she was studying for a year in California. She had me, and I was given away for adoption. 

I was in an orphanage for about three months and then adopted into the family who raised me. This becomes relevant and kind of a cornerstone for my life’s purpose and the work I’ve been invested in doing because…Well, first of all, in my own therapeutic journey, I realized some of the things I was struggling with didn’t have a logical origin story. There was nothing I could remember that caused some of the struggles I was having in relationships. 

In my early twenties, I was exposed to brain-based therapy, and it’s made profound changes in my life. I switched from my engineering degree while I was working as a systems consultant at a very big company and went back to school to start studying what I consider a much more complex system: our human system. I’m pretty much obsessed with understanding the way we’re wired and that led to more of an understanding of these nonverbal therapies. In my book, I focused on brain-based therapies, but there are a lot of other ways we can start to understand the unconscious things held in our body that are very alive and well. They can be the underlying causes for roadblocks that keep us from having the relationships we want, the professional realities we want, the relationships we want with ourselves. 

I think, in a nutshell, that’s the very quick version of what caused my passion for this work; started with my own healing, and I just can’t even tell you that over the last two and a half decades of immersing myself in this area…the kinds of incredible roadblocks that have been lifted and set aside by clients. To have that reported back to me from supervisors I’ve been working with, it’s awesome. It’s really a practice of changing lives.

BG: Let’s dive into that a little bit. You talk in your book about this idea of implicit memory and its role in driving performance—or not. In helping people create the life they want—or not. What is implicit memory and what role does it play in the context of all this?

DJL: We have two types of memory. Explicit memory comes out of our frontal lobe; things we remember. Then there’s implicit memory which are things that make an imprint on our system, but we don’t remember them at all.

There are different types of implicit memory, but the main thing I focus on is emotional implicit memory. It’s things that can get put into our brain through trauma. When we experience something traumatic, a part of our brain goes offline, so the data goes into our body. Anything that’s experienced before the age of three also goes into implicit memory. If we have a high-stress situation, which, you know, you and I being in the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia area) so many people here are in high-stress situations. There can be things we consciously don’t remember yet the imprint stays stored in our body. 

An example of this might be (and I see this frequently as an entrepreneur myself when I work with businesses) when someone says, “I really need to fire this person.” The manager says, “I know it consciously [that I need to fire this person]. I can see the numbers. I’ve been tracking the whole thing. I’m going to have the conversation and then somehow, I don’t have the conversation, or I get distracted with cleaning out my inbox, a task my executive assistant is supposed to do, but suddenly it’s the most important thing. Basically, avoiding something. It doesn’t make any logical sense. I’ve talked to my forum about it and I’ve talked to my peers and they’re all like, just do it. And I think, ‘Yeah, I’m just going to do it.’ But something is always getting in the way.” It’s a great example of implicit memory. 

Now I’m going to give you an example to make it more crystallized because I worked with a client where this type of thing was happening. In fact, he had a history in his family. Not anything that he would call abusive, but he saw a high [amount of] conflict with his parents, and consequences he felt as a child were really dire. He did not think this consciously, but somewhere in his body, his system had encoded conflict with danger. He didn’t even think that. He could have a conversation and be like, “I’ll be fine. Of course, I’ll be fine. I know that logically.” But his system was on high-alert to keep away from firing this particular employee who was not conflict-avoidant at all and had a reputation for going for the jugular. Unconsciously, this manager was avoiding something that his system had marked as dangerous. That stuff happens to us all the time and the way we figure out that it’s implicit memory is that it doesn’t make any logical sense.

BG: I call it the rip current: you’re making progress, but something just keeps pulling you back and you’re unable to move forward logically, like advancing a key business relationship or life relationship. It’s my term, but yours is a much better scientific term.

DJL: I love “rip current.” I’m always trying to find more relatable words. Great visual.

BG: The other thought I have about what you’re saying is the trauma that impacts us. Sometimes when I hear the word “trauma,” I think of big events, horrific things. But sometimes trauma isn’t like that. It could be small events, less severe events, but still impactful nonetheless. And it’s still running back there in the implicit memory. Is that essentially the same as the unconscious or is there a distinction?

DJL: It is a part of your unconscious. So it’s a part of the area that you can’t consciously connect to. 

BG: What do we do with it, then? If we say, “Okay, there’s a bunch of stuff back there that is creating the rip current or whatever. It’s holding us back. I know you go into this idea of brain-based therapy, and I’d love to talk about this because I think it’s very, very interesting. You’ve got three different approaches to this, right? You’ve got the eye movement, desensitization, and reprocessing technique. It’s called EMDR, neurofeedback, and brain spotting. Tell us about that and I’d like to understand how you’ve been able to move people through this in a therapeutic way to remove these roadblocks. 

DJL: Let me first tell you that it’s very hard to explain without experiencing it. That’s my caveat, my disclaimer. Before I even start, this is an experiential type of thing that people go through. Clients say this all the time. They’re anxious before they do it, and then afterward they’re like, “Oh, my gosh.” Because what happens is you get a substantive shift in the body and you can tell that it’s been desensitized. 

BG: I feel that already and we haven’t even [had a session.] It’s interesting because somebody said to me the other day that “Our issues are in our tissues.”

DJL: If you go to the back of my book, there’s an appendix on all these different types of nonverbal therapies, because one key thing about implicit memory is it is not stored the way we think. It is not stored in a linear format. 

Like in my example with that client scenario that the idea of conflict was connected to danger in such a way that the code said, “avoid danger.” I said that in words to tell a story, but the way it is felt in that person’s system is more sensory and visceral than that. It’s more like, “I see this thing. I hear this tone. I get this energetic hit that tells my heart to beat faster, my stomach to clench up. It actually informs my behavior, not consciously, but I start doing things like sidestepping.” That’s the riptide. So, it’s not just brain-based therapies that can do this work. There are a whole bunch of other types of nonverbal therapies because the language of implicit memory is about senses and visceral inputs like sight, sound, smell, touch. 

So that’s the vehicle with which we’re communicating these codes in our body. I often mention a scenario where a business owner is talking to another business owner and they’re all saying, “Yes, we all agree logically this is what needs to happen” or why a person might be like, “I know that I want this relationship. I know I want to be more intimate. I know I want to be closer. And yet my behavior looks like I’m giving it the Heisman, pushing it away. Logically, I’m tracking it.” If you try to talk to the implicit memory, logically, it won’t work. It’s like speaking Chinese to someone who speaks Spanish. It just doesn’t compute. It’s why people get frustrated.

BG: So, you can’t talk about it logically, which is why your business coach may struggle to help you through it, because they’re trying to say, “Well, let’s look at the impact of making that decision then.” But that’s not the issue. That’s not going to help us.

DJL: It’s not going to help, and you might even be saying, “I know the impact. I agree with you. This is all stuff I need to do” and it can feel like moving a boulder up a mountain. So, yes, I do the brain-based work and I can tell you a little bit about it. 

EMDR is a practice and a therapeutic intervention that essentially looks at getting into these neural pathways which are part of neural networks. It gets pretty messy pretty fast because this is the way we code information in the body and we’re actually using bilateral stimulation. Right and left sides of the brain. We can do this virtually which I’ve been doing for eight months now. It could be sound. It could be sight like moving your eyes from side to side. Back in the day, it could be a tactile sensation. I was trained a long time ago, multiple decades ago, and they didn’t have all the fancy machinery. We would use our fingers to have people track side to side, use snapping to do the audio, tapping to do the tactile. By tapping into a neural pathway, we can desensitize some of this material and then reprocess it in a way to catch up to what we already know logically.

BG: Non-verbal…so we’re using sounds, visual cues? 

DJL: Exactly, and then we’re doing sets and in between the sets, my role as an expert and facilitator is to follow what your body needs to unknot or rework the memories that they’ve shared and are held inside the body. I used an example in the book that I was in a house fire, a fire I actually caused. 

This imprint had been set in my system that I was going to die, even after I got out of the fire [unharmed] because there was an explosion and there was this big visual cue of extreme danger. I was still holding that belief with me, even though, logically, I knew I didn’t die. It’s like my body hadn’t caught up to the reality of what happened. And so that was how I was first introduced to EMDR and it helped me within one session to catch my body up to the actual reality. What had happened before was someone teased me about being in the fire because I had a cooking accident. I like to think I have a good sense of humor, but I wasn’t humorous with that. I was kind of a jerk when he was teasing me, or I teared up. It just told me that it was still alive and well, this fear and this terror I felt. But after the session, it wasn’t like that. I could joke about it. It’s like my body caught up to the reality. 

BG: How do you know in a session where to go with this? Somebody describes the issue, but then is it a bit random or is it more generalized so that you know you’re going to execute the therapy and it’s going to hit all kinds of things? Like the fire when you’re nine, the trauma when you were fifteen, or do you have to somehow zoom in on certain things in some way?

DJL: In the beginning, we zoom in on the core belief the person’s holding about themselves.

BG: Which they may not know about.

DJL: Which they may or may not know. The first 15 to 20 minutes is kind of getting into that space and there are specific protocols around that. Then what is stacked in there is as unique as every human being on the planet. So, it is targeted on entry. I’m following the journey just as much as the client is. The difference is I’m looking for places where they might get stuck. 

I’m looking for ways they might need to pull in more adaptive thinking. This gets really nerdy really fast. I start doing something called somatic interweaves where I’m using data and the body to help rework something if they’re getting stuck. Because sometimes these distressing experiences can just repeat themselves or there can be a secondary gain. I’ll stay with the same example I was using. For the person who has conflict coded with danger, maybe in their childhood home they would run and hide. By avoiding, they received a comforting gesture from an older sibling, as an example. 

So, there was also a positive hit that the avoidance gave them this other thing. They might not actually want to engage. This is all unconscious because they want comfort. It can get pretty complicated and my role is to unwind some of that stuff and help the body just keep moving. Because you have to. 

BG: You said you said data in the body. What do you mean by that?

DJL: The data in the body for this example might have been their throat closing up, the heart beating faster. As he moved toward starting this conversation to fire this employee, his body informed him that this really wasn’t the way to go. All unconscious, but it’s like, “You know, I think I’m going to do this other thing instead.” Or it can feel so heavy like they can’t make forward movement. It’s that data in the body saying, “do something else, do something besides what you logically want.”

BG: When I am tense or stressed about a situation, I can feel it sort of in the upper neck area. So that’s data in my body, I suppose, on whatever is triggering that feeling. 

DJL: Exactly and that kind of stuff will come up as we’re processing it. Would you believe that stuff from when you were seven or twelve or fourteen, if it never got processed, will also come forward? We always want to process things out of our system. When you get a splinter, your body is going to try to work it out. It’s the same with your emotional mapping and we hold this stuff physically and it can change. It’s awesome!

BG: Let’s zoom in on what you might be seeing right now. We have been going through a pretty traumatic time with not only the challenges in politics and the social and racial tensions, but also COVID. I mean, good grief, what a traumatic year we’ve had. What are you seeing people do with that as they’re trying to figure out how to move forward into 2021? And what might you offer people who are stuck? They’ve got a roadblock because they’ve had a big impact, maybe people they knew died. I mean, there’s so much that could have happened that’s holding people back from experiencing a great 2021. What do you do with that?

DJL: So, those are also things held in the body. There are imprints in the system. We just try to process it out. Our body doesn’t hold things forever. It’s only when it’s avoided or not really looked at. If we’re connecting to something directly, like the painful loss of a loved one. I have to say this, not in all communities, but in general, something like the loss of a loved one is much more overtly held in a community. It’s normal for a funeral. There’s time for grief. People bring food. There’s a break. Not that it goes away, but there’s room for it. There’s plenty of other types of distress and grief that have no outlet. You’re just supposed to be fine with it. Racism is a great example. 

I think this has been a powerful year to bring more visibility to the pain and the trauma of being a black, indigenous, or person of color. But historically, there hasn’t been a lot of space to honor how distressing that experience can be. I think all the isms work that way because they have really negative messages that can even be life-threatening for groups who are discriminated against in our culture, and that stuff is damaging to the sense of self. 

A lot of this work is about helping grieve or process it out in this nonverbal way. I’ll be honest, a lot of people avoid doing this deeper dive work because they go, “Ick…I don’t want to touch that…I don’t want to relive that. It’s so painful.” In my experience, the non-verbal therapies have been helpful because you don’t have the trauma of retelling a horrible story. You’re bypassing that.

BG: It’s like a safe shortcut if you will. I question generational issues that might come into this because I can certainly understand experiences in one’s life and how that is going to hold somebody back and create roadblocks until you figure out a way to deal with it. What about some of these isms? There’s been a lot of talk as the country reckons with the sort of racial inequities we witness and experience with people saying, “You know, slavery had such an impact on this country that it’s still affecting people today.” Is that part of some of this work as well, that these traumas carry on through generations and need to be dealt with by the individual living today, 400 years later? 

DJL: Absolutely. Since you brought up slavery, I’ll give an example. I just finished up a really powerful clinical course by Joy DeGruy, who is a black clinician who developed a newer term called “post-traumatic slave syndrome.” She shares an example whereby visibility for a child in slavery was very dangerous, particularly visibility with intelligence or achievement. Whippings, killings, and lynches were a real threat if a black child outshone a white child. So, the messaging that was taken in was “don’t be visible.” Think again about the implicit memory. It’s not conscious, but it’s a protective [reaction] to not be visible. 

It might have been clearer to the person directly experiencing the trauma, but passing it down, people being “freed,” [later generations experience] the same type of messaging. Because they grew up in that environment where a parent was trying to downplay their achievements after taking in the same code. Bragging or visibility is life and death dangerous. They don’t even think that, but they’ve learned this adaptive behavior that comes directly out of the slave experience. Not from anything consciously that they experience, necessarily, but it gets passed down in the stories, not the stories with words, the stories and behavior of how to adapt to our current culture and be safe. So someone comes in saying, “You know, I don’t even know what’s going on. I never put myself forward for these promotions. Like, I don’t even feel comfortable. People have told me I need to, but every time I go to do it, I just don’t understand it at all.” We don’t have to know the story to be able to reprogram the outcomes. 

BG: You know, I read somewhere that when you’re thinking of something, the brain doesn’t say, “Oh, well, they’re not actually experiencing that today. They’re just thinking about it.” A distinction isn’t necessarily made. It’s being experienced. As you know, it’s sort of like going back to the old fight and flight state if I am encountering some sort of conflict situation. I go into fight or flight like I did when I was a caveman after a bear came into the cave. 

But there’s very little distinction in the brain, even though I’m not really in danger, the brain still thinks that there’s a physical threat to me and no distinction that it’s 2021 and I’m here in a lovely house. It’s sort of like the brain is primitive in that way. I don’t know if that’s right, but it feels like that.

DJL: Our limbic system is what you’re talking about. It’s very primitive and it’s our primal driver on survival. It does all kinds of cool things. I mean, if you’re literally going to die, it cuts off sensation so it’s not so painful. If a friend is in danger, it will literally cut off all functions deemed unnecessary and rush blood to your legs and arms. You’ll have incredible strength like even lifting a car because it’s needed for survival, something you could never normally do. It’s awesome, but it can go awry. 

Like I said, if there’s a coupling of this idea with life and death, what’s hard for people is they don’t intellectually think it, it’s just the mapping in their body kicking in a limbic response. Then we get into all kinds of other issues, especially if it’s not needed. You get a cortisol hit and then we’ve got stress running awry, and then we’ve got other problems like adrenal fatigue. Because if adrenaline kicks in all the time to get the deadline, to get the sale, to get the proposal in, or whatever. These are organs in our body. They burn out.

BG: So, let’s talk about the management of this in the day-to-day because it sounds like there’s great value in dealing with what may have been imprinted in the past. But then there’s managing a day-to-day, month-to-month schedule so that you don’t create more trauma for yourself going forward. Do you prescribe meditation techniques or other things to keep some of that in check?

DJL: Absolutely. I would say the biggest thing is if you do one of these intensive types of reworks, you will actually experience things differently in the present and going forward. There is a free online resource we created called the Resilient Brain Project [LINK]. It’s a huge repository of all of these different pieces of information, including apps and other types of experience-based blogs. It walks you through how to downshift your nervous system. It covers about 13 areas of mental health, and you can find all kinds of things there. 

I love to share that because it’s like a love project for the world, helping people feel more empowered about the way their bodies work. You know, it’s super normal in our culture to work out and to know about nutrition and physical health. But emotional health and mental health has just as much impact on our wellbeing. Just like going to the gym, there are ways you can strengthen and build those muscles that give you greater tolerance for stressful situations and don’t kick in your limbic system and maybe help you negotiate increasingly complex deals or negotiations happening at work, and you can stretch that and build that so it’s not taxing your body.

BG: What I take away from this conversation is folks pursuing things in life hit these roadblocks. There’s nothing wrong. You’re not crazy, it actually exists. While it might seem completely illogical, there’s an issue in the brain and it can be addressed, and it can be resolved, and you can move forward from it. I think that’s really empowering. Oh, there you go, “Live Empowered!”

DJL: I think that’s a major similarity between you and me. I think we’re really passionate about helping people make progress and my bigger message is things aren’t always what they seem. Just because you’re at the end of the road of what you know or what you see doesn’t mean there isn’t more going on.

BG: This is what you see as a constricted set of options. That doesn’t mean that’s your only option. There’s a lot more out there and tapping into resources for help. Speaking of resources, if somebody listening to this thinks, “I need to engage in this,” what do they do? How do they reach out to you? Do they schedule an appointment? Tell us a little bit about how we can access this material ourselves.

DJL: Well, you already did a nice plug for my book, and I think that’s a nice place to start because there are a number of things in there that might spark ideas around what might be happening for you. There’s a whole chapter dedicated to an exercise I do with people, which is called Pact. It helps identify what might be in your implicit memory. It’s a beginning exercise to get a little more curious about yourself. That appendix I mentioned in the back has all these types of nonverbal ways of changing the data in your body is helpful. To get in touch with me, julie@vivapartnership.com is my email. Welcome any emails. My center is vivapartnership.com, and I do a lot of speaking and training, and my personal website is drjulielopez.com. I love collaborating with people too.

BG: So, what is your big priority for 2021? What’s really important for you?

DJL: My big priority for 2021 is to address the big problem of people suffering from mental health. Last month, The New York Times called mental health the fourth wave of the pandemic because while people were in survival mode, they were kind of putting one foot in front of the other. Just like we see in traumatic events, a lot of times PTSD or post-traumatic symptoms don’t come up for another six months or so. So, we’re starting to see people reeling with all of the things you already mentioned that we’ve all been through this year. 

My big priority is to try to create a bigger web for those people and, most importantly, to get out the message that mental health and investing in mental health and looking at possibilities around enhancing mental health is normal. That’s my big priority: to try to meet the need of what’s going on right now.

BG: And I find it just fascinating to study the brain. We all have one and learning about what we know…there’s so much we don’t even know yet. Do you see this scientifically advancing to an even greater degree? I think COVID has created a lot of interesting medical advancements. I don’t know if you’re seeing anything on the brain side, but I wonder if we’re going to start to see more scientific data-driven technology tools that we’ll connect with that give us more insight. Anything interesting there?

DJL: It’s happening already. The last 30 years have been a complete blossoming of understanding between how the brain and the body are connected through the nervous system and how we can affect change. Particularly mental change by addressing psychological and emotional areas of stress in the body. I’ve seen that with my own eyes with hundreds of people who saw changes to ailments they hadn’t gotten answers for through the traditional medical fields. That is so exciting. And there’s research going on right now about different approaches to making those types of changes.

BG: Well, Julie, thank you for being with us today. I love this topic. I think it’s really powerful and important as people are working to better themselves and their businesses as entrepreneurs or just as humans. Thanks for your work and your commitment. I highly recommend, folks, that you take a look at this book, Live Empowered!, by Dr. Julie Lopez. I found it very fascinating, and I hope you found this conversation very fascinating. Thank you very much for being here with us today.

DJL: Thanks so much, Brandon, and thank you for being a leader and a pioneer, helping people reach their biggest success and to enjoy the journey along the way.

BG: My pleasure. All right, folks, we will see you next month.