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A Lifestyle Lesson in Learning

Have you ever tried to teach a child, cat, or dog something new? It usually takes time, repetition, and some kind of reward…

Oh, and a whole lot of patience, compassion, and determination.

As humans, we need the exact same conditions to learn something new. Whether it’s changing our diet, going to sleep earlier, breaking our addiction to social media, or improving our ability to articulate our feelings, every little and large change we make in our lives requires time, repetition, and some kind of reward… and a whole lot of patience, compassion, and determination.

The difference between adult humans and our (fur) babies is that change can happen a lot quicker since our prefrontal cortex (the most human part of our brain) is more mature.

The problem though is that our brain stem (the most primal part of our brain) is a bit stronger.

This means that sometimes when we’re trying to change a part of our lives, our prefrontal cortex and brain stem won’t get along.

So we’ll eat a sleeve of cookies even though we swore off sugar. We’ll snap at our partner even though we’re working on intimacy in therapy. We’ll forget our phone at home on the day we need it most at work, even though we’re trying to get a promotion.

These moments can be very frustrating because they are very self-sabotaging.

Although the neuroscience can be a little complex, at a very basic level, what’s happening during these moments is that your saboteur is trying to protect you. You brain stem as the unconscious part of you learned a pattern long ago that kept you safe. And even though your prefrontal cortex now knows it’s safer to do something different, your brain stem couldn’t possibly care less. It will do the annoying habit anyway, usually in an unconscious, automatic way.

Personally, when my saboteur is triggered, she feels like a toddler throwing a tantrum, and quite honestly, sometimes I want to smack her.

But fighting with your brain stem is counterproductive. Becoming harder on ourselves, triggering self-critical scripts in our mind, or pushing through doesn’t work. Your brain stem is stronger than your prefrontal cortex, and it will win every time.

The trick to creating change – whether it’s following better nutrition, becoming more intimate in your relationship, or growing your role at work (or anything else) – is to treat your brain stem just like you would your child, cat, or dog – with a lot of patience, compassion, and determination along the way.

Here are three practices that can guide you through. I’ll even use a recent example of my own saboteur to help illustrate what you can do.

SEE: You must notice when your saboteur is triggered.

Usually, you can see your brain stem in action when you’ve forgotten or misplaced something. This is a sign that your brain stem temporarily broke up with your prefrontal cortex. This process is called dissociation, and it’s like the brain stem ran behind the curtain of Oz, pulled a bunch of levers, and left your prefrontal cortex totally out of the loop.

When you’ve noticed a moment like this, take note. This is your brain stem trying to revert you back to your old behaviors to “save you” from what it thinks is a threat.

Here’s how it recently happened with me.

I was working on my relationship with money, revealing illusions, rewriting lies, and basically leveling up my entire financial life. A few days later, I took my wallet into the back seat of my car to make an online payment. I set the wallet down and heard it fall somewhere, but didn’t stop long enough to process where it went.

Two hours later, I found myself frantically tearing apart my entire SUV trying to find the wallet that I had unconsciously lost, worried it had fallen out at my previous destination.

STOP: When you find moments where your saboteur is triggered, stop criticizing yourself.

Personally, I find losing things to be one of the most irritating experiences ever. This is because I’m the one who put the thing where it is and the fact that I’m also the one who cannot remember where I put the thing just seems downright cruel.

Like, that seems like faulty design.

But I also know that beating myself up about losing the thing serves absolutely no one. In fact, it’s counterproductive.

The reason the brain stem has sabotaged you is because it felt unsafe. And it’s hiding the thing, changing your behavior, or making you forget because it thinks doing so will increase your chances of survival.

So if your mind goes after your saboteur with a slew of shaming self-criticism, it’s only going to feel less safe than it did before. The best thing you can do is stop these scripts before they start.

When I lost my wallet, I kept saying to myself out loud, “Don’t panic. You’ll be okay no matter what. We’ll figure this out.”

I also had been aware enough of my evolution around money to know exactly why my brain stem lost my wallet in the first place. Making this connection makes it easier to be gentle.

You might roll through the sleeve of cookies because you need a sugar high to get through a difficult decision about your kids.

You might snap at your partner because becoming too close means healing very difficult aspects of your sexual trauma.

You likely left your phone on the counter at home, because your brain stem is like, having a promotion is going to make more demands of your time just like your family did to you when you were a kid.

And I definitely lost my wallet because there is a part of me that believes making more money will somehow disconnect me from my parents forever.

Talking to a therapist or getting lifestyle coaching can help you clarify these patterns and make it easier to be kind when you’re stuck in a moment of self-sabotage.

START: Smother your saboteur in safety.

The job of your prefrontal cortex in moments of self-sabotage is to increase your sense of safety so that your brain stem can settle, let go of the reigns, and release control back to the higher parts of your brain

Whenever you find yourself in a moment where your behavior doesn’t align with your best intentions, it’s time to slow down and be gentle with yourself.

Take a few breaths. Walk away from the situation. Get support from someone you trust. Maybe do a forward fold since an inversion is the quickest way to reset your nervous system. You might even need to do a bit of journaling in conversation with your brain stem to find out what’s going on.

To do this, grab a pen and paper. Playing the role of your prefrontal cortex, write down your experience and invite a response from your brain stem:

Okay, I can’t find my wallet. This is probably the most important tool that we own, and you won’t let me find it. Tell me what you want me to know.

And then just write down whatever comes next.

For me, it might have sounded like this:

Look, I see that you’re transforming our relationship with money and becoming more self-sustaining. But don’t you understand that if you fix our financial situation, you’ll have it all? Don’t you know how much people are going to envy you? Don’t you understand how much they’ll hate you? People aren’t supposed to have it all. So, no. You can’t have your wallet back.

Continue the conversation with yourself by reassuring your brain stem, sending it messages of love, and negotiating a way forward.

You might need to take a 20 minute nap to gain clarity before making decision about your children.

You might need boundaries around physical touch as you grow closer to your partner.

You might need to identify aspects of the promotion you need in place to protect your personal time.

This looks different for everyone, but in the end, you will have satisfied your brain stem’s need for safety while also evolving your life.

My internal conversation eventually led to me finding my wallet – thank goodness!

MAGIC MANTRA: I’m on my own team.

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