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Your Brain is a Control Freak
By Scott Rower, Phd
Humans are motivated by two things…
A) to move TOWARD what we want B) to move AWAY from what we don’t want
Very simple right? This makes sense since our brain’s main priority is to keep us alive, to survive. Get safe shelter. Get lunch, don’t be lunch. Find a mate. Stay away from people that want to hurt you. In short, the strategy is to control or avoid potential threats. So of course the brain craves to control as much as possible, it’s only doing its job. However, this instinct can often get us into trouble and can be responsible for some of the most significant suffering possible as a human.
Think of one person you know that is really struggling with a lot right now in their life.
If you think about what’s not going well for them and how they’re reacting to it I bet you can see how they are striving for some type of control. And it’s not working well for them. Yet, they continue to do it anyway.
Part of the problem is that us humans did something no other animal has done – we invented language. With language we had the new ability to communicate about the things INSIDE of us (our thoughts, feelings, sensations and memories). Our human brains that evolved to be motivated by the two rules above now applied to these same rules to our ‘inside the skin’ experience as if they are ‘outside the skin’ experiences (a bear, a storm on the horizon). This is important – your brain has a very, very hard time telling the difference between an emotional or imagined threat (I’m going to be late, she’s not going to call me back) and a physical threat (that guy over there has a knife and is looking at me weird).
Insecurity, anxiety, and sadness are now automatically seen as things to move away from. Joy, excitement and appreciation are experiences to move toward.
Why is this a problem? Think of something in your life that was difficult but was really worth it. Finding a way to be open and trusting with a partner. Going on a first date. Studying hard for an exam. Running a race or completing a hard workout. Quitting cigarettes, alcohol or drugs.
What was it like at the very beginning of these experiences. What was happening inside you? Was it things like…
“This is too hard”
“I’m going to fail”
“I’m not good enough”
“I don’t have time”
Memories of being rejected or giving up in the past
Look at anything in your life right now that is working well and you are proud of (work, relationships, health). When you first started working on getting this didn’t you have experiences like those listed above?
The short-term result of moving TOWARD important, meaningful and rewarding experiences in life is a good dose of uncomfortable experiences inside your skin (thoughts, feelings, sensation and memories). When these experiences get seen as a threat it sets off the whole network in the brain to motivate you to get away (the famous fight or flight system) and it’s quite hard to stay in contact with long-term rewards. Guess what happens as soon as you move away. Sweet relief! It feels good. Procrastination pays off… for the moment at least.
This is the trap of avoidance. Avoidance can move us away from what matters most in life. Life becomes about feeling comfortable and safe. We get instantaneous comfort, relief and satisfaction but suffer ultimately with a smaller, less meaningful and less rewarding life.
The self-reinforcing cycle of avoiding feeling can be called depression. The self-reinforcing cycle of trying to anticipate and control fear can be called anxiety. Thankfully there is a solution to this trap! It is outlined in a brilliant and modern psychotherapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
FIRST – get clear on what values are most important to you (e.g. health, authenticity, simplicity, fun)
THEN – build your willingness to experience uncomfort in the service of what’s important to you. This is a skill. It is a ‘muscle’ that can be built up over time with practice. There are many techniques that can help with this, one of the most powerful is mindfulness meditation.
We can’t have success without risk of failure. We can’t have love without risk of rejection.
If you courageously risk in your life you will feel uncomfortable. You don’t get a choice in that. But you do get a choice of if you move AWAY from fear or TOWARD what’s truly important to you.