Let’s say that you and I both like to play tennis. But let’s suppose that you like to play because it’s fun, and I play because my parents never gave a solitary fuck about me until I started winning tournaments and bringing home trophies. Or maybe they were literally abusive to me when I lost a match and said things like, “Our family is for winners only.”
Which one of us do you think is gonna be better at tennis? The one who plays for funsies or the one whose fundamental sense of worthiness and lovability is tied to winning?
I think there’s objectively a correct answer to that question.
Neuroscience in Sixty Seconds
Our brains are organized into three major parts:
Lizard Brain (brainstem and cerebellum) — controls automatic, reflexive, instinctual survival functions.
Mammal Brain (limbic system) — center for emotions, memories, habits, and attachments.
Human Brain (neocortex) — language, consciousness, rational and abstract thinking.
Everything we experience travels through our brain systems in the order above. Obviously, our lizard brain should get first dibs on sensory input because survival is of the utmost importance. Next, it passes through the mammalian brain (where the amygdala lives) for a quick frisk and pat down to be sure our experiences don’t pose any threat. And the last stop is the human brain, where we can ponder and pontificate.
The lizard brain is fast, disciplined, accurate, strong, and dependable. You can count on that thing to get shit done in a jiffy. Every time. It’s fully functional the day you turn zero.
The mammal brain reports directly to the lizard and is not far off in terms of timing and reliability. However, this thing is way more subjective and malleable. It develops over the course of your early childhood and is largely shaped by the nurturing and input it receives.
The part of the brain unique to humans is ultimately there just to serve the lower animal brain states. We’re like turbo-charged monkeys with microprocessor chips installed. But when survival is running smoothly, we use that neocortex mostly for goofing off and building rockets.
Human vs. Lizard
What we saw in the opening example is that one tennis player was likely operating from the goofing off section of the brain while the other was operating from an understanding that “Survival depends on connection, which depends on being lovable, which depends on winning at tennis.”
It really doesn’t matter how preposterous that sounds, traumatic childhood experiences wire our neural networks with all kinds of wild shit that doesn’t have to make any sense. In most cases, those traumas occur before we have any basis for comparison or the cognitive ability to make sound comparisons anyway. They are formative experiences.
The end result is that some of us have certain skill sets that are lizard-powered instead of human-powered. And the lizard brain is faster and more reliable than the human brain, ten times out of ten. This is why breaking “bad habits” is so unbelievably difficult — it’s a battle between human and lizard.
And the lizard always wins.
Making a Career Out of Your Trauma Response
One of the fringe benefits of having a fucked up childhood is that you might make it to adulthood with a superpower of some sort.
Maybe your dad was a violent drunk, and you learned to anticipate his moods by the sound his keys made when they hit the door in the evening. Your powers of observation and hypervigilance were so incredibly refined that you developed a seemingly unfair advantage in certain career fields — perhaps as a detective, medical examiner, nurse, or therapist.
Or let’s say you had a single mom who worked the night shift and slept all day, and you essentially raised your own ass self without any help from anyone. Fast forward to adulthood, and your resourcefulness and fiercely independent capacity to get shit done are uncanny. You become a highly successful event planner, organizer, consultant, solopreneur, or whatever. Your childhood coping strategy becomes your competitive edge.
Some people bully, abuse, and take advantage of their children in horrific ways — even downright beat the piss out of them. A few of these kids will grow up to become professional fighters, bodybuilders, or Navy SEALs — people who can withstand tremendous physical pain and exertion. And they excel at it.
One of my best friends had his house burn down with him inside of it twice as a kid. Now he’s literally a firefighter.
Think about what was most overwhelming in your childhood, which could mean too much too fast, or too little for too long. What is the thing you needed most but didn’t get? The thing you felt most powerless about? What was it you craved more than anything else?
You may discover that your career path aligns exactly with this childhood deficit. That you are most passionate about giving to the world that which you desperately needed once upon a time. And I see nothing wrong with this, so long as you don’t hate it. It may very well be a completely natural, unconscious urge to rescue a wounded inner child.
Will Healing Take Away My Superpower?
Now, this is where shit gets dicey…
Many people identify with their trauma response. Oftentimes, that thing has been around so long that they legitimately believe it’s who they are.
I have a really strong work ethic.
I’ve always been good at helping others.
I’m a born perfectionist.
And beyond deeply believing that their survival strategy is part of their identity, folks often LOVE this trait or habit in themselves. Understandably so. What’s not to love about the thing that saved your life and helped protect you and meet your needs when nobody else turned up to do the job?
So, people tend to develop a kind of internal Stockholm Syndrome with their maladaptive coping mechanisms, which makes it terribly difficult to recognize these habits as no longer serving them. It’s extremely common to harbor a visceral fear of letting go of one’s trauma response.
Hey, lizard brain, you mind if I throw this life preserver in the trash? We probably don’t need it anymore, right?
Not a chance, hot pants. Lizzy gets what Lizzy wants. Every time. And Lizzy wants ALL the life preservers.
So How the Hell Do You Heal???
Well, isn’t that the million-dollar question?
The answer is two-fold. There is certainly some cognitive work to do (learning about trauma, shame, attachment, boundaries, understanding your childhood, etc.), but remember, all that book-learnin and talk therapy is for the neocortex, which takes direct orders from brainzilla.
The second absolutely vital and often overlooked part of the healing process is somatic work. Embodied healing. Creating new feelings and experiences in your nervous system. This is the ONLY way to communicate with your lizard brain. It doesn’t speak language, read books, or attend self-help seminars. So healing is ultimately in your feet, not your head. Meaning you have to take action.
The Conditions for Healing
First and foremost, you must enter or create an environment where you feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure across the board. Full stop.
Without these conditions, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell your tyrannical survival instincts are gonna chill out. And let me remind you what psychiatrist and behavioral neuroscientist Stephen Porges tells us — that safety is not just the absence of threat but the presence of connection. So you must have your fundamental attachment needs met (the 4 S’s) with nurturing social support at least 51% of the time to even be eligible for healing.
The Decision to Heal
After that, you gotta dig down deep and decide for yourself if you wanna ride your beloved trauma response off into the sunset or if you’re willing to face the debilitating fear of not knowing what your life would be like without it. Will you choose the certainty of misery or the misery of uncertainty? Stay the same or change?
And candidly, I’m not even sure if this is a “choice” that you can just “decide” on. In most cases, healing is what people do when they run out of choices. It’s the last house on the block. The gift of desperation. The caliber of willingness only discovered on the bloody concrete of your personal rock bottom.
It’s definitely one of the most excruciating existential dilemmas this life has to offer.
I’m pretty sure I can’t make anyone heal, or even want to heal, for that matter. But if I can shine some light on the behavioral science that underlies this commonplace and wildly misunderstood human condition, I believe I will have done my utmost to empower those of you who are ready, willing, and able to transform your life.
Which is something I desperately needed someone to do for me at one point.