Human brains are wired for survival. They’ll pick the safest, easiest, most comfortable option over anything else. And those little three-pound blocks of wiggly grey matter are tough; they’ll have you marching to their orders faster than you can say “willpower”.
It’s not their fault – they’re trying to keep you alive. It’s why they tell you to be scared of the cliff edge, and why we should want other humans as friends (safety in numbers), and why eating high-calorie take-out in our warm, safe houses is better than pretty much anything else.
The problem is, the survival part of our brain has no other context. Its one and only job is literally to keep you alive. And it’s good at that job – think CEO of the year – because if there’s an optimum way to keep you the safest, it’s already thought of it and is instructing you to do it.
But that doesn’t help with – oh, I don’t know – a lot of our life’s plans. If you want to get fit (which is also healthy) your survival brain is going to see going for run as a threat. Your heart rate is elevated, your breathing gets heavy, muscles start to hurt – your body is out of comfy homeostasis and your survival brain goes into overdrive. Stop running immediately and go home, and while you’re at it eat food in case there’s a famine. Not exactly the outcome you wanted, especially since an ordinary run is (highly unlikely) to kill you.
But that’s what I mean about no context – your survival brain is trying to keep you the safest it possibly can in any given moment: it doesn’t understand the long-term benefits of getting fit or doing something exciting. It still thinks you’re a caveman, and to keep those suckers alive all it had to do was find food and not walk off a cliff.
So when a modern-day challenge comes up, like pushing for a promotion or going for a jog, it doesn’t compute. The fear response it triggers is exactly the same as when facing a woolly mammoth. (Did cavemen fight woolly mammoth? Where they even the same time period? Come to think of it, the term caveman might be completely archaic and offensive these days, I have no idea.)
Anyway, your brain will try to stop you. It will do this anyway it possibly can, which means not just manipulating you physically (sweating, hyperventilating, fainting) but mentally too. Those thoughts where you doubt yourself, or start to overthink things – that’s your survival brain, trying to make you back out. It will use everything at its disposal to make you quit whatever you’re doing that’s elevating your heart rate and get you to sit back down. Preferably somewhere warm.
So here’s the thing though – those doubts aren’t real. They have no context. Your survival brain doesn’t understand what’s really going on. (You’re facing a woolly mammoth, for all it knows, remember?) I’m going to look stupid is your brain trying to protect you from alienating the rest of the tribe and getting kicked out (which, when facing a giant elephant, is not a great idea). It doesn’t actually mean you’re going to look stupid. That’s just what you’re scared could happen, so your brain is doing what it can to prevent your fear (whether it’s true or not) from having a negative effect.
Those little doubts and negative voices in the back of your mind? They’re fear responses. They’re not real. They have no idea what’s true. They have no idea about the situation. They’re just manipulative little safety mechanisms trying to protect you from an immediate threat. They just don’t realise they’re protecting you from the bigger picture.
This is why we have to break out of our comfort zones – and why doing so feels so scary. Survival brain wants to keep you safe every single second. But life needs us to keep pushing forward. It needs us to face the woolly mammoth (metaphorically – I am completely against any kind of harming of any and all animals (extinct or otherwise)) so the human race grows and expands and doesn’t spend millenniums just pro-creating in caves.
Don’t be a cave-dwelling, pro-creating caveman. Be someone who realises their doubts are just survival instincts, without any context or facts, and go for it anyway.
Just, you know – maybe do listen when it warns you about the cliff.