There’s been a lot of talk lately about a tiny little part of the brain called the amygdala. Some have called it the monkey brain, others call it the primal brain – it’s the part of the brain which is responsible for our fight, flight or freeze response. In a nutshell, the amygdala is in charge of making sure we survive, both as an individual and in a meta sense, as a species.
But it’s not only in charge of making sure we survive physically, it’s also in charge of making sure that we survive emotionally, mentally. So, if our little amygdala senses some sort of threat, it will send us running in the opposite direction of whatever caused that threat, just as if it was a great big grizzly bear.
So one method for dealing with the paralysis that results when you’ve got something that needs doing but you just can’t seem to pull it together to do it, is to take a piece of paper and divide it into two columns. The first column is the “what’s the worst that can happen if I do this” column and the second column is the “what’s the worst that can happen if I don’t do this”. Now as you can imagine, that can take a lot of digging. I mean, why is it that I keep putting off calling back that client, really? Often times our first reaction when we ask ourselves this question is, “I don’t know, I just don’t feel like it.”
Well, I hate to tell you this, but it’s rarely that you just don’t feel like it. I mean you may think you “just” don’t feel like it – like when I just don’t feel like taking that half-mile walk with my dog on a cold rainy morning. It doesn’t seem like there’s any deep-seated threat to my emotions, I just don’t feel like it. I don’t want to be cold; I don’t want to be wet, and I don’t want to exercise.
It turns out that even something as simple as not wanting to go out for a run, isn’t actually a matter of just “not feeling like it”. You see, that itty bitty primal part of our brain that is in charge of our survival has a really big job to do, so it has some shortcuts – kind of like hyperlinks on the computer, to increase the odds of survival. It’s called the motivational triad.
Just like we have autonomic functions that work to keep us alive without having to think about it – things like our heart beating, breathing, and even blinking, we also have 3 autonomic behaviors that increase the odds that we will survive.
- The avoidance of pain
- Seeking pleasure
- Conservation of energy
We are always motivated to do things that don’t hurt, feel good and are easy. If you think of it in terms of ancient man, these things motivated us to hunt, have sex and seek warm shelter.
Unfortunately, while these motivations were important for the survival of our caveman ancestors, for the modern human, they can be extremely detrimental.
For example, the avoidance of pain, actually causes us to not want to take risks, to avoid venturing into the unknown, which had its place in a jungle or forest where dangers abound, but today it translates into avoiding conflict, staying in an abusive marriage, or playing it safe in a miserable and dead-end job.
The desire to seek pleasure means that we fall prey to the seduction of instant gratification, eating foods that are literally killing us, escaping emotional challenges through binge-watching on Netflix or compulsive over-spending.
And the conservation of energy? That means that we tend to live life on autopilot, never challenging our long-held beliefs about ourselves, or our world. And while autopilot is comfortable, even when uncomfortable, if we keep on doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep on getting what we’ve always gotten, as they say.
So, it turns out that there is a direct connection between the part of the brain that is in charge of our survival, and which activates the fight, flight or freeze mechanism and the neurons that drive us to avoid pain, seek pleasure and conserve energy.
Because of this connection, the brain perceives potential emotional discomfort in the same way it perceives physical threats to our survival and sends the message to run the other way.
So even when we don’t feel like doing something just because we don’t feel like it, and no other deep hidden reason, our brain treats that desire to avoid the task as if it were a threat to our physical well-being, and will assist us in avoiding that task.
This is reinforced by the language we use. The more often I tell myself that I really don’t want to go running, the more my brain perceives running as a threat and does everything it can to help me avoid running.
The famous therapist Marissa Peer says that your brain always does its best to give you what it thinks you want.
So, that means that the first principle in getting unstuck and avoiding procrastination paralysis is to watch the language you use when you are thinking about things you need or want to do.
The words, “I hate” or “I don’t want to” should be used very sparingly in our self-talk because they send the message directly to the brain that this is a threat in some way.
I hate dieting, I hate exercise, I really don’t like the heat, I don’t like to talk on the phone, I don’t like travelling for work…. You can see how this goes, right?
What’s something that you regularly put off doing that you have spent time using the threat stimulus language about? Maybe it’s time for a change. I’d love to hear from you, let me know in the comments section about something you put off doing and realized that you need to change the language you use regarding this.
For me? It’s definitely exercise. So I’m going to stop saying I hate exercise and think in terms of how good I feel when I move my body on a regular basis.