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