What is at the root of our resistance to our best possible selves? Why is it that we seem to generate some pretty terrific ideas only to have them die in transit to action?
You know the story – you've got some thoughts swirling around in your mind about a topic for a compelling book you'd like to write or excitement with a new relationship that's taking off, musings about running for town council or a family relocation to some long-imagined exotic location. These thoughts feel exciting and inspiring … until they either come to a screeching halt or quietly slip away. Why does this sequence of events happen so frequently? Why do we end up resisting the very thing we long for?
Enter the Lizard or Primitive Brain – our amygdala “fight-or-flight” center. The primary purpose of this part of the brain near the top of your spinal cord is survival. When doubt or fear creep into our thinking, it opens the door to the room where the lizard lies sleeping, sometimes just a tiny bit. But a little is all it takes to nudge the lizard brain awake. Those creative, innovative ideas that were just percolating in your neocortex are now at risk. Fear is almost always the trigger.
It's a bit like having two brains that operate under opposing forces. The Lizard brain has an essential role (if you need to run from a T-rex) but can become a real barrier to positive life change. Because of its involvement in processing and storing emotional memories, it has the power to hijack or impede the thoughts and actions of the evolutionarily younger cerebrum. While our cerebral cortex is processing all sorts of cutting-edge ideas and contemplating risk, our lizard brain is trying to protect us and keep us safe. Unfortunately, our “safe zone” is not where personal growth takes place. So, what can we do?
The challenge is to cultivate awareness of this phenomena and develop strategies to lull your lizard back to sleep when not truly needed. Be on the lookout for Shenpa, a Tibetan word for the urge or hook that triggers our habitual tendency to shut down. Think of shenpa as the lizard response. In a rather obscure way, we feel a tensing or tightening, a sense of withdrawing, self-rejection or shutting down. And, that tight feeling has the power to hook us into blame, anger, guilt, envy and other negative emotions that might sabotage our best efforts. We get hooked in that moment of tightening and often get stuck there. We could call the everyday experience of shenpa “that sticky feeling.” Tibetan teacher, Pema Chodron, tells us “Shenpa thrives on the underlying insecurity of living in a world that is always changing.”
To get unhooked from the attachment of Shenpa, to tame our lizard fear that is trying to keep us safe but is actually getting in the way, we begin by recognizing that moment of unease and learning to relax in that moment. If we can see shenpa just as we're starting to close down, when we begin to notice the tightening, we might catch the urge to do the habitual thing, and refrain from doing it. The ability to recognize and label the lizard's presence is the first step. This awareness provides the knowledge to begin re-patterning our habits. Next, remind yourself that the lizard likes to release adrenaline into your bloodstream in preparation for fighting or fleeing. Instead of allowing the flood of adrenaline, relax by breathing slowly and deeply. Close your eyes if it helps. Use self-talk to tell yourself that you observe the shenpa and are choosing to release it. Since you've been conditioned into shenpa for many years, it will take some time to learn to avoid your well-worn path and relearn the new awareness and habits. Consistent practice is the key.
We can restrain the "fight-or-flight" Lizard brain by counting blessings, committing to positive thoughts and acknowledging the beauty and love around us. Fear and self-protection sabotage our higher purpose but Gratitude tames fear. Just the posture of “being in gratitude” seems to disallow fear or anger because positive thoughts displace negative ones. The more you practice taming your lizard brain, the better you will become at sustaining consciousness and cerebral higher-level thinking that can move you forward in your life. Confronting our fear is less about pushing it away and more about acknowledging it for what it is and stripping it of its power. Of course, if you need your lizard brain to react to real, imminent danger, by all means let it do its all-important job. But, most often the sense of danger or fear is a misperception, a distorted amygdala hijacking, and could be preventing a real growth opportunity.
Survive or thrive – it's your choice.
A few of my clients have been struggling with Ambivalence. And, for good reason, as this is a normal and necessary part of the change process. Life change isn't something that happens quickly or easily for most of us. It often requires small steps to discern what we really want and whether we are ready to choose it.
The second stage in the continuum of change is Ambivalence. If you have acknowledged that a particular behavior is problematic for you, wish you could change it, but feel uncertain about how to do it, you are in Ambivalence. As you move away from denial toward new awareness, you may linger for a time in Ambivalence as a place to rest before taking action. You are no longer content with the status quo, but are still unsure about what to do next. Congratulations! This is great news, because you are moving forward. It may not feel like it, but awareness brings you closer and allows you time to get ready to be successful.
In Ambivalence, you are being pulled in two opposite directions - your desire to change and your fear of changing. Fear of change is a common experience and may show up in different ways: fear of something unknown can cause insecurity but also excitement; fear of failure can cause lack of confidence but also motivate you to succeed; and, some people fear their choice will not be accepted by their friends or family.
Is is important to not rush, but also to watch out for inertia. As you consider your Ambivalence, try asking yourself these questions:
What would your life be like if you changed?
What are the advantages of the change? Disadvantages of the change?
What strengths do you have that will help you to change?
How important is this change to you?
What would happen if you gave it a trial run?
Having a sounding board, someone to bounce your thoughts and ideas off of, can be very useful. While a friend or family member could fit the bill, you may find that the objectivity and professional experience of a Life Coach provides a broader lens through which to evaluate the decision.
So, don't worry if you're feeling ambivalent about what to do next. You are likely exactly where you should be in the process of your life! Breathe, relax and open yourself to the possibilities that lie before you. You are growing and life is fun!
Certified Health and Lifestyle Coach, Sheryl Melanson, partners with people to transform limiting habits into mindful choices that express their values, create action plans and recalibrate their lifestyle to optimal well-being.