That's right, there is a part of your body that is dead set against your finding love and happiness. Scary, isn't it?
As I mentioned on Twitter and Facebook a week or so ago, I recently picked up Seth Godin's newest book, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?. It's a business/marketing book but in my world that basically means it's a dating/seduction book. I was hoping to find some tips on becoming indispensable in one's personal relationships, as a good seductress always ends up being indispensable to her target. Unfortunately, while I did find lots of encouragement that I'm doing the right thing with my life by penning my book and launching Sirens, I didn't find a lot that was terribly applicable to indispensability in romantic situations.
But what I did find might be even more important.
Halfway through the book is a chapter entitled The Resistance. The Resistance is Godin's name for your amygdala, also known as the lizard brain. It's not just a concept, it's a real organ -- it's a couple of squishy things sitting atop your spine. Millions of years ago, your lizard brain was responsible for your survival -- it told you to be afraid of predators, to keep a low profile, to eat when you needed sustenance, to ensure your safety at all costs. Back then, it was useful. Today, it still does those things, but it's utterly antiquated, because our social evolution happens far faster than our physical and neurological evolution. Biologically, we are still programmed to operate as though we are living in a 100-person tribe with lots of sabertooth tigers hiding in the bushes, even though that's not even remotely what our world looks like today.
In the working world, the contributions of our lizard brain manifest themselves in a desire to play it safe, to hide at our desks, to do whatever it takes not to attract the attention of our superiors (the amygdala hates attention, as attention is a threat to safety). The amygdala tells us not to speak up at the meeting, because people might laugh at us and our ideas. The amygdala tells us not to accomplish anything significant and to just check facebook and twitter all day because that's safer. The amygdala tells us to shut up, sit down, and exist in comfortable mediocrity. It will invent countless reasons, excuses, emergencies, illnesses, and distractions in order to get us to do so. It is afraid of what might happen if we were to actually contribute something meaningful.
So I'm sure you can imagine how the amygdala reacts when we begin to do something that will upset our status quo as much as, oh, falling in love. Not only will such an act call the attention of all our friends and peers (who will want in on the news and will want to place their own unsolicited judgments on our choices, whether good or bad), but let's remember that the amygdala is even afraid of eye contact that gets too intense. Godin describes a zoo in Rotterdam that gives out special glasses to visitors so that the gorillas won't think they're being looked in the eye and freak out. Considering that intense eye contact is one of the defining characteristics of a romantic relationship (in fact, psychologist Arthur Arun describes it as perhaps one of only a few prerequisites for love -- full article here), it's easy to see why we get the impulse to run away. "The amygdala resists looking people in the eye, because doing so is threatening and exposes it to risk," Godin writes. "Eye contact, all by itself, is enough to throw your lizard brain into a tizzy. Imagine how scary it must be to set out to do something that will get you noticed, or perhaps even criticized."
Obviously the amygdala is afraid of taking a risk, because it is afraid of failure. It is afraid of what others will think of us, and what we will think of ourselves, if we fail.
But here's the kicker: The amygdala is just as afraid of success. If we succeed in something risky, this means our world changes. Success means we're going to have to get comfortable in an entirely new environment. And it puts enormous expectations upon us from the outside. Eat, Pray, Love* author Elizabeth Gilbert describes in this TED talk the incredible pressure she felt at the freakishly unexpected success of her book and how everyone asked her how she was ever going to top herself after that and wasn't she worried that her greatest success was behind her. If we stay within the confines of mediocrity, on the other hand, no one will ever expect much from us, and it won't be too difficult for us to deliver.
And so in order to avoid the pressure of success or the risk of failure at any stage, we make excuses, we make up stories, we rationalize, and eventually, we sabotage. We sabotage all of the hard work it took to get us to the place where we could see that first glimpse of potential success and happiness, and then we think to ourselves, "Oh well, I guess it just didn't work out."
Because where would we be if we allowed ourselves to find love and happiness? We'd have to change. We'd have to give up those stories we love to tell ourselves, the ones that go something like, "There are no good men left," or "All men are cheaters," or "I'm not good enough to be loved," or "I'm too old to find love," or "Everyone I love ends up failing me so what's the point of trying," or "I just can't get a break," or "Real love doesn't really exist except for in the movies," or "Everyone's going to leave me in the end so why should I set myself up for loss." (One of those stories is mine, by the way. And I am fighting it tooth and nail every day, and I can't always say that I'm winning, but I'm trying.)
I know a woman whose amygdala goes into overdrive at the start of a new romance (though she's far more self-aware now than she was years ago). When I advised her that she wasn't giving a new partner enough encouragement and that she really ought to do something nice for him that demonstrated her interest (say, something simple like take him to a nice dinner), she replied with, "But I don't see why anyone would value an offer like that from me. Why would anyone want that?" (She's incredibly attractive and ridiculously intelligent.) And on another occasion when she felt it was unlikely that someone would perceive her as valuable and I asked, trying to point out her poor logic, if she felt that people might ever feel that way about me, she replied in totally earnestness, "Well, but I don't think you have any visible flaws." Now I'm pretty awesome, but I am far from flawless (as my business partner James likes to point out at every available opportunity). Do you see how far the amygdala will go to create any ridiculous, nonsensical rationalization to keep you safe in the status quo? Long ago, this woman walked out on a man she was devastatingly attracted to, a man who pursued her relentlessly for over a year, because she was certain that he must be joking about his interest in order to make fun of her. Despite the fact that he held her and confided how long he'd been waiting to kiss her, she left his home before he woke up and never called him again. Because she thought he was kidding about it.
So that thing that makes you not send that email before it's too late, the thing that makes you conveniently forget times and dates, that thing that makes you keep your phone shut off or causes you to make endless excuses for why you shouldn't do something and then to rationalize each of those excuses over and over again... that's your amygdala. Your lizard brain.
Guess what. YOU ARE SMARTER THAN A FUCKING LIZARD. SO GET OVER IT.
There are no sabertoothed tigers hiding in the bushes outside your apartment. All your hunting and gathering needs are taken care of at the local Whole Foods. You are not living in a 100-person tribe where your ostracization equates your death. Your amygdala serves you almost no use save to keep you from running in front of buses and putting your hands on hot stoves.
You are better than your fear, your anger, your defeatism, your anxiety, your insecurities, your paralysis. You possess strength, genius, love, generosity, and this awesome thing called a neocortex (the frontal part of your brain responsible for things like great ideas and human connection). Your lizard brain wants to sabotage all your potential successes because it doesn't believe they are worth the risk. Don't blame it; you're lizard's just looking out for your survival in the only way it knows how.
But your survival is not the same thing as your happiness.
*It should be noted that I first typed this as Eat, Prey, Love and was tempted to leave it that way. It might have been even more apropos had I typed it as Eat Prey, Love. Actually, maybe I'll use that for the title of my book instead. :)