Remember your last argument? Neither of you remember how it started or what it was about and before you know it it’s off to the races. About twenty minutes later a great comeback pops into your head … Aha! Damn, I wish I’d said that instead. Why couldn’t I think at the time?
A complaining customer, a whiny child, an out of control teen or a grumpy boss—at some point we all lose our cool. People say things or push our buttons and we feel irritated, frustrated, or overwhelmed, and often we just explode. Then, we feel regret, shame, or humiliation at how we’ve just lost our temper—again. Or we hold it in, telling ourselves it’s no big deal, it doesn’t matter what we do or what we say, so we say nothing and pretend it’s okay and march on, a recipe for stress-related dis-ease. Either way, here come the “should have’s.” I should have: known better, stayed calm, counted to ten, acted like an adult, remembered what happens when I lose my temper. Lizard Brain makes the “should haves” impossible.
In many ways, our brains have evolved since we were cave dwellers. Humans have complex language, use tools to make and fix things, and send people into outer space. But a part of the brain responsible for survival, our limbic system (which includes the amygdala) still exists, even though we are no longer running from saber toothed tigers.
In response to stress, our limbic system goes into high gear and our fight, flight or freeze response can get activated. Triggers might be his/her yelling or icy stare, his walking away from you, or those universal Lizard Brain Words like “why?,” “no!,” “you always,” “you never,” and more.
Your limbic system has been triggered and your Lizard Brain is now in charge. You’ve been emotionally hijacked and now your “thinking brain” is rendered helpless. Triggers can bring up strong emotions (i.e., pain) from the past right into the present moment, as if it’s happening all over again. The Lizard’s primary responsibility is to protect us from perceived harm. The Lizard has jumped into the driver’s seat and put the rest of you in the back, a passenger hanging on for dear life.
Congratulations, You Are Human
So why does Lizard Brain happen repeatedly to highly intelligent people? Why can’t we remain rational and controlled, since we know there’s no benefit in getting upset? It’s not about IQ or not being able to learn from the past. It’s just the default wiring of our very human brain. Our reactions to what we hear, see, and feel are very complex, and the details of the neurobiology of emotions and relationships are probably only exciting to me and a handful of others so I’ll try to touch only on the important parts.
It’s a myth that understanding “why” we react will automatically make us respond calmly next time. It’s not the logical part of our brain that gets us into trouble. Just because we “know” something or have made the mistake before may not change our behavior, especially under pressure—when it really counts. The Lizard Brain switches off the Thinking Brain which explains why your aha! moment after an argument comes later, when the reactive Lizard Brain is no longer driving the bus and your pre-frontal cortex regains control.
Next, it is impossible to “leave our feelings at the door” or “not feel” or “ignore” a feeling.
What’s the Good News?
It is possible to tame your Lizard Brain, even if you’ve let it reign the same way for years and years. There are opportunities to create new neural pathways. Changing our behavior, or learning to do something new takes awareness, intention, action and practice. Just as when you learned to ski, ride or play the guitar. Growth and change are possible and you can begin now with these 3 steps:
Awareness – Simply become an observer of your patterns. What has to happen to trigger your own, your partner’s or your bosses Lizard Brain? Describe the pattern sequence to yourself or someone else. Do you react to “Lizard Brain Words.” Do you use them? Notice what happens when you replace a judgmental “Why did you … ?” with a sincere question, for instance “How do you see it?” These words land differently, and allow you to create more productive pathways in your brain (and his/her brain).
Acknowledge the emotion – Use your powers of observation without judgment (ban the should have’s). Notice opportunities to acknowledge the emotion without feeling you “should” change it, stop it, or judge it as “bad” or “wrong.” Instead, see what happens when you respond with an emotion such as curiosity and words such as “Mmmmmm, interesting …” (with your eyebrows up, please!). See if you can get a little distance and prevent an emotional hijack by observing the conversation, as if you were a bystander.
Rename – Label or rename the feeling (not the person, not their motivation, not their intention) as “sad, scared, hurt” instead of ANGRY. Anger is actually not a real emotion, it’s just a “safer” feeling and often a mask for Sad, Scared or Hurt. When we believe someone is angry, our Lizard Brain gets engaged and we feel defensive. When we can re-label anger as “Sad, Scared or Hurt” or a combination of such feelings, the part of our brain responsible for empathy is engaged. The Lizard gets out of the driver’s seat and our thinking brain can work again.
Practice makes perfect (and new neural pathways).
By understanding a few simple facts about how our brain works and making small adjustments to the words we use and practice, we can stay cool under pressure, lower our blood pressure and, as crazy as it sounds, begin to see conflict as an opportunity for growth. Yes, even imagining yourself taking these steps will help create new neural pathways, because our brain doesn’t know the difference between what’s imagined and what’s really happening.
On tempering temper Christina Haxton, LPC