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Why Your Actions Are Not Your Own

Has this ever happened to you? You had a long day working. It was stressful. A bunch of things went wrong. You get home late at night, over-hungry. You don’t feel like cooking dinner — you’re too tired. You open the fridge and there’s a piece of chocolate cake, cookies, chips, or whatever junk food you love staring back at you. You know they’re bad for you. You know you don’t want to eat them.

Looking at those “bad choices” you think,

“No, I don’t want to have that. I want to be good. I know that if I eat dessert so late at night I’m gonna have a crappy sleep. I’m gonna wake up with a headache in the morning.”

But then another part of you says,

“What a fucking shitty day! I deserve to feel better. I want to chill out so I’m just gonna eat that dessert. I don’t care if it’s 9pm at night.”

You give in and you eat it. Afterwards you feel like crap, even ashamed with yourself. It’s happened to me and it happens to everyone.

But why?

Is it because your willpower sucks? Or that you have no motivation? Are you weak-willed? What’s wrong with you?

There’s nothing wrong with you!

BUT… there’s absolutely everything right with what happened during that process. Here’s why…

We Have Three Brains

Our brains have evolved to respond to our environment. We have the reptilian brain, also called the amygdala. There’s the mammalian or limbic brain — which is responsible for emotional, behavioural, and social responses. Finally we have the youngest part of the brain (along the evolutionary continuum), the prefrontal cortex.

The Reptilian Brain

The reptilian brain is about survival of the physical body. It’s constantly assessing if there’s anything threatening us.

It’s responsible for fight or flight, fight or flee, and it wants to know, ‘Is this dangerous?’ A great example is when you put any food into your mouth. The reptilian brain is immediately trying to make a decision, ‘Is this bad for me? Will this hurt me?’

It’s always looking to the negative — ‘Is this bad for me, should I be afraid, should I run, should I fight, should I flee?’ If there’s nothing happening that triggers the reptilian brain, fantastic! We can chill out.

The Mammalian Brain

Our mammalian brain (sounds like a mammal and there are similarities) handles emotions, feelings, behaviours, and the social aspects of life.

For example, say something negative happened in your childhood. Your mother or father did something to make you feel better. They thought it would be a good idea to give you some chocolate to calm you down. Now, when you experience that past negative situation (whatever it was), it triggers that past emotional response. Your limbic brain doesn’t have a sense of time. It references that negative memory, and the corresponding feeling. It’s role is to make you feel safe and comfortable. It responds with the solution to the past situation, i.e. eat some chocolate so you’ll feel better.

What seems like unconscious behaviour is a “safety” or a “control” managed by your limbic brain. All you can do to change these “controls” is to notice your environment and triggers when the behaviour happens.

For example, when do you,

  • Smoke a cigarette? Are you stressed at work? Or do you “only” smoke when you drink?
  • Browse a dating app? Feeling bored? Horny? Not getting your needs met with your partner?
  • Run mindlessly to the store, buy a large bag of chips and pop, and then inhale them on the couch watching TV? Is it your menstrual cycle? Did you have a fight with someone? Did someone say you look fat?

Both the reptilian and the mammalian brains work subconsciously to protect us from harm and discomfort. They are responsible for about 80% of our actions.

The only way we can attempt to change these unconscious actions, is to notice our behaviours. Notice when we do things we don’t want to do. Then we use our pre-frontal cortex to come up with an action plan to interrupt the undesired behaviours.

The Pre-Frontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex, also called our human or conscious brain, handles writing, thinking, decision-making, and setting goals. You know, the stuff that makes us human! Unfortunately (depending on how you look at it) our pre-frontal cortex is responsible for, at best, 20% of our decisions and actions.

If the needs of your reptilian and mammalian brains are not being met, you’re not going to be able to do what you want to do. If you say to yourself, “I’m not going to eat that chocolate cake,” but you’re dealing with fear or stress (reptilian brain), or if you see that cake and it starts to make you feel better (mammalian brain), you’re not gonna win.

The subconscious brains will win. They will override what you want to do (come on pre-frontal cortex!). No amount of willpower is going to help you. That cake is already in your mouth. Hmmm cake! 🙂

It’s not that you’re weak. But there’s hope!

When we understand how our brains work we can take steps to change our unconscious behaviours and actions. Sometimes that requires working with a therapist or a coach. You can journal and notice the triggers that bring on these behaviours and feelings. You will begin to notice things like,

  • What actions can I take to alleviate me going down this road of becoming fearful, stressed out, or wanting to flee and needing emotional comfort?
  • How do I satisfy that feeling? Is it food? Is it friendship? Is it my children? Is it my lover? Is it sex? Is it drugs?

Once we have noticed our behaviours and resulting actions, we can take steps to prepare for the next occurrence.

When I ran my 30-day Meal Planning Challenge in September, I asked the participants to tell me their biggest struggle with healthy eating. Most of them cited the fear of eating the same meal repeatedly. That was fascinating! Their worries and problems were connected to a feeling and a social need.

One of the moms has two kids under two. She has a hyper-active mammalian brain response happening. It sounds like this: “Are my kids safe? Are my kids hungry? Have I taken care of them? Do they need me? Do I want to take care of them? I need to protect my children?”

With all that unconscious chatter going on, how is she going to have the willpower to eat right?

Her subconscious brains are telling her to take care of her children. She is literally being a mama bear protecting her kids, which makes total sense. It doesn’t mean she’s a bad mom for eating McDonald’s because that feels like the only choice she has. On a conscious level, the prefrontal cortex, she’s thinking, “Fuck, why am I doing this? I know I shouldn’t be doing this. I don’t want to be eating these carbs and saturated fats. All this is making me fat!”

Notice What’s Happening

Take notice of what’s going on in your life, now that you understand how your three brains work for and against your goals. Notice how your unconscious brain overrides your conscious choices. This awareness helps you to prepare for future behaviours responses.

What I did in my meal planning group was to help people take steps to be ready. Having food prepared and ready to eat makes it easier to override past conditioning.

Say you come home late at night and you’re stressed out. You open the fridge door and you see five different prepared meals ready to go. You only have to heat one of them up. With healthy meals prepared ahead of time, you don’t need willpower. Instead it’s a simple, “Yay I’ve got food here. It’s prepared. It’ll be ready in three minutes. I don’t have to stress out about what to eat.”

There’s no panic and no fear. You see that there is food ready to eat. Your mammalian brain is happy. It thinks, “Oh good, there’s food. In a couple of minutes I’m going to eat.” The mammalian brain is placated and the conscious brain wins! Your pre-frontal cortex thinks, “Sweet! I get to make a choice that’s healthy and I’ll feel great about myself!”

Did you find this helpful?

What’s ONE unconscious behaviour you’d like to change? Let me know in the comments.

Be well.


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