You Thought You Could Trust Yourself
A deeper look into our brain(s) and how they guide our creativity and growth
A little warning: This is pretty long and information dense, and to be honest, gets a little weird at the end. But it will change your life to know it.
Did you know that there is a part of your brain that’s only job is to make sure you don’t change?
No joke. It also happens to be the oldest part of the brain. The part of the brain that’s been around since humans existed, but long before we existed in the world you and I know now.
I call this part of the brain the “critter brain.” My sister calls it her inner animal. Which is actually a really good name for it, because the critter brain is our primal brain.
It has one concern: safety. Keeping you alive. And it does that in one very specific way. It is constantly scanning your sympathetic nervous system for signs of stress. This part of your nervous system is your flight, fight or freeze response. It also controls all of the automatic functions in your body: heart rate, blood circulation, breathing, etc.
When the critter brain does a scan (and it does this ALL day long) and picks up on a sign of stress, its one job is to make sure you don’t die. Since this brain evolved in a time when our lives were actually threatened all the time, any sign of stress was a sign of possible death.
It also picks up on changes in our patterns and habits to scout for unknown and uncontrolled variables. And even though our stress, or variables, are rarely life-threatening today, our critter brain can’t tell the difference. The physical experience of stress hasn’t changed. To the body, stress is stress, emotional or physical, real or imagined.
AND the critter brain isn’t exactly graceful. It will tear shit apart internally to make sure you don’t change.
Here is why this matters.
Introducing the second part of your brain. When you decide with your cortex — your thinking, desiring, learning, growing brain — to do something new, get outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself, you likely get excited.
**Ok, quick pause.**
Before I take this any further, I have to introduce the final brain. Your limbic system. Your limbic system controls emotion and happens to be the mediator between the cortex and the critter brain, who are basically mortal enemies.
All the critter brain is trying to do is make sure every single thing stays the same, all day, ‘err day. It’s the only way it knows that there’s no threat of death coming.
All the damn cortex wants to do is change everything. Grow, learn, try. Ugh. Worst words ever to the critter brain. Because in order to change, we need to change. Which means we’re throwing all kinds of new variables into the mix that the critter brain can’t control.
And the poor limbic system gets caught in the middle.
So, 3 brains:
Critter = safety, change nothing
Limbic = emotion, feeling, mediating
Cortex = growing, changing, learning
**Ok, back in.**
So your cortex (thinking, growing, learning brain) decides it wants to change. Maybe you’re thinking about moving. It gets excited. All fired up! New job! New body! New diet! New friends! New town! Woo-hoOooooOO! Let’s change everything!
Cue limbic system (emotion): WOW! I’m excited! Adventure! Play! Wait… mom. Shit. I won’t see her as much. Oh man. My friends. Will I make new ones? Fear. Sadness. Confusion.
When the body feels negative emotions, it fires up the nervous system in a specific way. The critter brain NEVER misses this. Remember, it’s its only job.
In comes critter brain: AH!! Fear, sadness! DEATH! I need to fix this now, before we die! (Seriously — that is what this brain thinks.)
Here’s where this shit gets crazy.
The critter brain manipulates the cortex using the emotions of the limbic system. Specifically, it triggers emotions in the limbic system that the cortex will pick up on and will generate thoughts (lies) to trick the cortex into backing down and changing its mind. And the cortex doesn’t even know this is happening! The critter brain is basically like a hypnotist, convincing the cortex these are its ideas. Kind of like the snake in the Jungle Book with poor li’l Mowgli.
You will have experienced this as self-sabotage.
You were dead-set on a change. Even started shaking things up. Changed up your routine, started pushing your edge. Going strong. And then seemingly, all of a sudden, you were back to your previous norm. But just like when you drive home from work and can’t really remember the drive, you don’t really know how you got back to the start here either.
If we go back to the example from above, it goes a little like this:
→ (Recap) Your cortex decides it wants to change (let’s move!) and gets excited. Your limbic system is also pumped — until the fear, sadness and confusion kicks in (what about mom?). These negative emotions fire up the nervous system, which alert your critter brain, and so the critter brain sets out to create an immediate fix.
Critter brain turns up the fear, sadness and confusion in the limbic system. Maybe even adds a little hint of anxiety and doubt.
Limbic system also talks to the cortex (because it’s the mediator and our emotions influence our thoughts). Fear, doubt, anxiety, confusion, sadness.
Cortex: Influenced by these strong emotions: “Oh man. I’d really miss mom. And it’s taken me a long time to make friends here. I wonder if I’d be able to do that again. Probably not. I’m so awkward. I don’t really want to go through that again. My job here is actually pretty great. And they did tell me that I’d probably be getting a promotion. Who even knows why. I’m not even that great at my job. I probably wouldn’t even be able to get my career off the ground out there. It’s so competitive, and I’m not a competitive person. I’d never even make it.”
What’s important to note here is that this moment isn’t really where the self-sabotage happens. That’s later.
Because those thoughts are powerful and the feelings that go with them are a felt, physical experience, your critter brain will make sure that the cortex finds evidence of them throughout the day.
You’ll call your mom and she won’t answer. In reality, she’s at yoga, but your cortex will think, “See! If we move, you’ll never talk to her!”
You’ll text your friends to see who’s available to hang out this weekend, and everyone will already have plans. In reality, it’s because you waited until Friday to try to make plans, but your cortex will think, “See! You only have a few friends as it is and everyone is busy, so you’ll be sitting alone. Can you imagine moving with no friends?”
You’ll get to work and your co-workers will tell you that they nailed their presentation. Normally, you’d be happy for them. But today, your cortex is hypnotized, so instead you think, “See! You can’t compete with that. And if you can’t do it here, you definitely can’t do it out there!”
This goes off and on for a couple days or weeks, completely confusing you. Now you’re not sure what to do. So you do nothing. Wait for the “right” time. ←
Critter brain success. Remember, this brain is the master of fight, flight or freeze. Taking NO action is as good as fighting or running. Pattern change interrupted. Variables controlled. Death narrowly escaped. Job well done.
The crazy part about this is that when we do this over and over in our lives, we end up beating ourselves up for it. We manufacture even more lies. “I never take action. I’m the kind of person who wants things, but won’t work for them. I’m not brave. I can’t make friends. I play it safe.”
These lies that you believe about yourself actually end up keeping you from taking action on the things you really do want to create and do.
Understanding this can make a huge impact on your life because it will get you questioning yourself.
Not everything you think is true. Most of what you think under stress isn’t true.
Truth is not like a duck.
If something quacks like a duck, walks like a duck and looks like a duck, it’s a duck.
But a thought can look like truth, sound like truth, have proof that it’s truth and still NOT be truth.
For more on that, read my story: Truth as your most powerful tool and most powerful weapon for creation.
You KNOW it’s not my style to give you all of this “problem” and not provide you with at least some kind of solution.
Now that you know all of this is going on, there’s a simple way to give control back to your cortex.
Remember the problem that kicked all of this off? The critter brain picked up on the nervous system response. The body scan that told the critter brain that death was coming.
Turns out, Mother Nature (or God or the universe or whomever is pulling your strings) prepped us with a really powerful tool for this.
Breathing is one of the only bodily functions that is both automatic (sympathetic nervous system) and controlled (parasympathetic nervous system — the one you can control). The parasympathetic is your rest-and-reset nervous system. This relaxed and calm state is where your bravery and creativity lie. If you can be in this state, you can do and create anything you want (and if you’re into the law of attraction, this is also the state you need to be in to attract your desires).
So quick trick to get from critter brain / sympathetic to cortex / parasympathetic (from freeze to breeze):
Six slow, rhythmic and deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth.
While the breath follows the body and brain, the brain and body also follow the breath.
So when the heart rate is high and the nervous system is kicked into stress and fear mode, the brain notices and starts that whole cascade of insanity. Breath becomes naturally short, shallow and in the chest.
But when you force the breath to slow, in and out through the nose, you change this. The brain thinks, “Hm. This is weird. Everything is telling me (including my thoughts) that things are really bad right now. But I’m breathing like everything is ok. So I guess everything is ok.”
The heart rate comes back down, thoughts get a little less crazy, and six breaths later, we switch back into parasympathetic.
Creative and easy.
That’s it. That’s all it takes. 6 breaths.
Could have been a much shorter story, ey? ;)
I heard recently that the breath is our human body’s connection to spirit, our higher selves. That’s why when we die, we stop breathing.
Give this a try today. When you notice yourself kicked into high gear, in some version of flight, fight or freeze, take 6 slow breaths.
And pay attention. Watch it all settle down. The body first (critter brain), the emotion next (limbic system), and the thoughts last (cortex).