The Lizard Brain is a Lonely Hunter

January 19, 2011

Goal:  facilitating calm and ameliorating fear, which I hold to be at the scene of every crime of every magnitude—from the cold shoulder to ghastly violence.  Hurt people hurt people; scared people scare people.

Today’s particular focus:  loneliness.  From modern alienation (intellectualized isolation) to primitive dread of annihilation (unconscious fear of disintegration—think panic attacks) we are wired to attach, and thus we are wired to feel our hearts come into our mouths and our guts drop horribly at anything that triggers us to feel cast out from the mother, which is akin, later, to being outside of the group.

In other words, harking back to Paleolithic times and instincts, if you are not part of the group or clan… you die.  One can imagine that the instinct to seek the mother for food, comfort and safety is also the instinct to not wander out of the cave and get eaten by lions, tigers and bears, oh my.

Imagine Darwin observing middle schoolers; imagine closely honing in on the face of the child who finds no group to sit with at lunch, the shame-drenched feeling of isolation as they pretend to be okay when in fact their secret racing heart and dropping gut feels as if they are dying.  Our heart breaks in empathy… because we know the anguish of the feeling of not belonging.

Imagine Darwin observing a grown-up who sees her three best friends at a café and realizes that she was not included… the brave face attempting to mask a feeling that goes beyond mere hurt—for it feels like they are in mortal danger (hurt, urge to run, rage at those who hurt her, desperate seeking in the racing mind for better friends, wish to get away from everyone so she can let the tears flow… feeling like she is already utterly alone and lost).

Notice how the pain of exclusion/abandonment triggers the reptilian brain—fight/flight.  Notice how the lizard brain’s angry urge to run away trumps and overpowers the mammal brain’s urge to run to others and get the much-needed hug and reassurance that we are included, good-enough and lovable.  No, in our pain and humiliation that would be unthinkable—like offering our neck to the tiger (although this is exactly the Zen way… but it cannot happen when we are frightened).

And if in our early life our mom, nanny or other caregivers were unconscious about their own traumas and losses, they may well have frightened our baby-selves—setting us up for a deep lack of trust, and thus underlying and enduring feelings of isolation.  This, along with our fear, is what most needs to heal.

If we have not been blessed early on with, or managed to somehow later earn, basic trust, we are forever at risk of being triggered with feelings of abandonment or exclusion, sometimes by small perceived slights that nonetheless panic us in our lizard brains… and my point is that it is not just “painful” to imagine we are excluded or not good-enough, it feels traumatic to a degree completely out of proportion with any current actual threat.  For even an excruciating middle school experience, or a huge betrayal in adulthood is NOT synonymous with death.  But it nonetheless feels just about as bad in the moment.

Now I think you know what I’m talking about.  So, I would hope that the fact that I know this feeling, the nameless dread, and know that more than one or two of my readers join me in knowing this feeling all too well, means that we are not alone.

Our fears, while not entirely rational, are nonetheless very real to us—rooted as they are in preverbal and non-conscious experience.

Can we draw upon our lizard brain experience and invite it up into the safety of the here and now?  Can we draw upon our past wounds and let them be the foundation for deeper compassion for each other and a wider embrace of fear in others?  Can we deepen our understanding that when others are cruel, even when those others are our kids, friends or lovers, that person is actually scared too (scared, for example of exclusion and thus driven to clique behavior; threatened with abandonment and reflexively rejecting)?

With increasing consciousness and compassion we can heal and transform our actual brains together (I’m liking the italics today, sorry if that is cloying, but I’m going for empathy through emphasis—better corny and effective than restrained, safe and tepid).  Thus my virtual hand is out to you:  join me in being honest with ourselves and each other about our fears, our loneliness, our dread of not being lovable, good enough or included… and find some solace and connection in this unlikely corner.

And, drawing upon last week’s imaginal exercise, hold that baby that you once were in your conscious mind, comfort and calm her (or him) and be aware that the baby doesn’t know where she is, or why she’s scared or even that she’s scared—she just IS.  And we don’t expect her to know what to say to others, or to take emotional risks, or pay the bills or engage in grown-up love, much less competition.

Keep this mentalization of the baby-as-symbol-of-dread-and-isolation going, it is changing your brain as you read, breathe and envision; and you will, I believe, reach a turning point where your fear is metabolized and integrated.  You can achieve basic trust and this will make your life that much more fun—and you will, in turn, be much better able to calm and soothe your child or children.

Giving what we didn’t get as kids can be curative (albeit painful), but once we do get a feeling of deep trust and belonging it will be all the easier to convey this to our kids, all our collective children, in a convincing manner.

Namaste, BD

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Randy January 19, 2011 at 6:14 am

This was just what I needed this morning. My imagined separation from others has been particularly acute the past several days as I have been taking on more responsibility than is mine to take. I abandon myself as I seek inclusion. The push-pull leaves me feeling jangled. Thanks for helping bring this to my awareness.

Randy

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privilegeofparenting January 19, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Hi Randy, I hope that you will stay compassionate and steady about holding your scared and isolated self in your own mind… and that this brings healing and a sense of increasing safety. Namaste

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rebecca @ altared spaces January 19, 2011 at 10:20 am

Hurt people hurt people. Yes. I try to tell myself this. Especially when on the recieving end of some hurt.

That’s what makes it so especially lovely when a hurt person responds with kindness or Tender Mercy. I wrote about my fascination with this and the movie of the same name here. http://altaredspaces.com/altared-spaces/tender-mercies-heal-a-barren-landscape

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privilegeofparenting January 19, 2011 at 7:20 pm

Hi Rebecca, I always admired that movie a lot—and the spirit it contains. Here’s to kindness even when we are hurt… and connection between us all in the mix.

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Mark Brady January 19, 2011 at 12:21 pm

I would love for more of us to deeply understand that reality: hurt people hurt people. They also seem to elect hurt people to public office, unfortunately. I guess the best we can hope for is one day the unhurt in the world will reach a Tipping Point and then perhaps, the hurting can stop. That’s something I’m working for. Best, Mark

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privilegeofparenting January 19, 2011 at 7:23 pm

Hi Mark, Perhaps realizing that others are hurt and afraid will help us be more compassionate, but also help us opt out of the futile quests for status and material possessions that leave us as scared and lonely as we ever were. Here’s to working together on a sort of consciousness that may reduce the hurting.

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Laurie January 19, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Bruce,
I read this then went on with my morning schtuff around the house. Yet it kept coming back to me. My son, who is in middle school-6th grade, is having a tough time with this belonging thing. Difficult to watch and embarrassed to admit tough to separate. This helps put things in perspective. Thank you for that.

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privilegeofparenting January 19, 2011 at 7:25 pm

Hi Laurie, Here’s to hoping that your son will come to feel safe and know that he’s lovable… basking in your owning this for yourself, and in us all allowing greater honesty, vulnerability and compassion between us grown-ups. Namaste

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BigLittleWolf January 19, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Another very provocative and rich post, Bruce. One I’ll need to read again and process again. Nameless dread. Lack of belonging. We confront these things at various points and yes, they resonate with early abandonment (or broken trust). Staring down empty nest, a truly empty nest, that “nameless dread” seems very palpable.

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privilegeofparenting January 19, 2011 at 7:28 pm

Hi Wolf, Perhaps the empty nest as signifier of infantile dread may transform into a signifier of a job well done, and of connections true and strong that exist in your heart and mind, even if no longer in your physical home. When the brain catches on, you will also be able to locate the full nest feeling and find nourishment, trust, play and abundance in it (or so I wish for all of us staring down the empty nest barrel). All Good and Connected Wishes

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TheKitchenWitch January 20, 2011 at 6:50 am

That is such and important, and yet difficult, thing to remember: that those who are cruel are usually very afraid and hurting inside.

Love the picture of the lizard ;)

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privilegeofparenting January 20, 2011 at 7:30 am

Tell me about it, KW—that’s why I’m so hoping we can consciously learn to hold our scared little lizards (who then sometimes get big and scary to others, and even ourselves) in not just our own private minds, but in the shared “mind” we cultivate between us.

Then it’s a new day in the kitchen, the playground, the family room and the market square—and we might do more than survive, we might thrive like happy kids ourselves, unfettered by shame, fear or restless ambition. Here’s to good days lived simply yet exuberantly.

PS I’m glad you like the lizard picture—it seemed rather a nice lizard.

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Wolf Pascoe January 20, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Hello Bruce,

Big Little Wolf turned me on to your blog recently. I love the way you delve in deep waters, and give yourself the freedom to rhumba in words.

Nameless dread pretty much nails it here. I find nothing so terrible to bear as seeing my son feel abandoned, even when he’s not abandoned. It’s so hard to know at those times whether my impulse to step in and mediate his suffering is for his benefit or mine.

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privilegeofparenting January 20, 2011 at 10:48 pm

Hi Wolf P (I love that two wolves have come by :)), Yes, it is so painful when our kids suffer, whether rational or not… sometimes quite hard to differentiate our own selves from our children and their emotional experiences (yet so important). One thing the research suggests is that accurate understanding, more than warmth, determines kids’ feelings of security. Thus, when they say they hurt, perhaps it helps them more to hear and reflect than to cheer them up or try to talk them out of their emotional experience. It’s paradoxical, but it brings more relief to be understood than encouraged (not that we are agreeing with their negative self-assessment—but at least validating they way they feel).

All Good Wishes for you, your son—and all our kids.

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rudrip January 24, 2011 at 8:16 am

Important piece Bruce and I apologize for coming late to the conversation. I often wonder when others hurt is it a conscious effort or the natural pathway for a certain friendship or relationship? It is so hard sometimes to rationalize other’s behaviors especially when it is so callous. Hinduism embraces detachment (the ultimate nirvana) where you are not attached to any single person or thing. Of course very difficult to practice, but I believe the principle in this pathway is to reduce one’s expectations which in turn cultivates the likelihood of not being disappointed.

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privilegeofparenting January 24, 2011 at 12:41 pm

Hi Rudri, We’re never late to the eternal now :)

I like the non-attachment spirit, but particularly when held as a simultaneous opposite with attachment, for it is in the paradox of the opposites that the divine sometimes shows up. Yet I hope that we can get to non-attachment (to the ego) through brave loving kindness, and not as a defense against hurt. It’s almost like we get hurt over so many experiences that it sands away our ego, our fear and our desire and all that’s left is love—tattered and torn, perhaps, but love that unifies us all.

Namaste

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Alex July 18, 2012 at 1:18 am

brilliant article, comforts me as nothing else can right now ♥

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Bruce July 18, 2012 at 8:39 am

Hi Alex, Here’s to being free, not from the world and life, but In the world and our interconnected lives. All best and soothing wishes

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Dannette August 5, 2013 at 2:30 pm

This is amazing. Thank you.

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Bruce August 5, 2013 at 9:13 pm

:)

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