By: Bria Wannamaker, MS., RP.
Everyday, we choose to live out our own worst nightmares by thought and thought alone. You see, the ways in which we think, influence how we feel, which facilitates what we say and do. Then, these patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting are reinforced via feedback from the environment around us (a feedback loop), which feeds into our core beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world around us; this then drives future ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. Before you know it, you’ve got yourself a habit of certain ways that you think, feel, and act, even if these patterns are distressing to you, such as limiting beliefs or negative thought patterns, they can be hard to break.
Patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting are reinforced via feedback from the environment around us.
Our bodies become addicted to the chemicals released when we feel stressed, our lifestyles evolve to sustain these negative beliefs, and our brain continues to seek out confirmation bias from the environment (people, places, circumstances), to support our worldview, or “The Ego”. When our brain is in survival mode, fight-flight-fawn-freeze, when we are operating on primarily from the limbic system, rather than from the prefrontal regions of the brain (responsible for executive functioning skills, planning, organization, as well as creativity, curiosity, problem solving, compassion, connection), the limbic system alerts us to scan for potential threats in our environment, keeping us hypervigilant, keeping us seemingly protected from any harm on the horizon. The Ego says “I am this”, “I am not that”. It labels others “They are this”, “they are not that”. Humans, being such fascinating creatures, also desire deep connections and community with Self, others, and nature.
One could then assume that we have these two, competing drives, one being the search for connection, and two being the quest for protection. Can these two core needs exist in harmony? Can we truly experience both love, and safety in unison? Not only within ourselves, but within our relationships to others and to nature?
The Ego, or survival brain, categorizes experiences, people, and places in a binary fashion; good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, for vs. against, anti vs. pro. You could say then, that those with dogmatic beliefs and opinions that are unwilling to compromise, see things from a different perspective (also known as a lack of empathy and compassion). These people are living in fear. They are living in a deep amount of pain. When we are so fearful of “other”, of “different”, of “change”, of “possibility”, of “novelty”, The Ego has taken over, dominated that brain’s control system. The person’s worldview narrows based on their fear of the unknown, their fear of uncertainty. They become emotionally closed off, intellectually closed off. Unwilling and unable to see the world through clear lenses, rather, their spectacles are tinted so that they only see the world in black and white.
The magic of life lives in the grey. This excitement, health, wealth, happiness that we’re all searching for, it lives in the present moment. It lives in the beautiful healthy meal that you cooked and how you savor each and every bite, it lives in the lively blue sky, or in the slow and comfortable stormy day, it lives in the snuggles from your pets and loved ones, the first sip of your morning tea. The magic resides in you, when you are mindful of how the gravel path sounds beneath your feet as you walk on the trail in nature, and how you intentionally brush your hair and take the time to put moisturizer on your face. But how can you possibly see all of the beauty in life when your survival brain is constantly scanning for the negative, the attack, the threat, the assault to your safety. Again, the survival brain finds comfort in the binary, “it’s too hot out”, “it’s too cold out”, “this tea tastes good”. “this tea tastes bad”, “I had too many treats, therefore I am bad”, “that person cut me off in traffic, therefore they are a bad driver.”
When people have experienced significant trauma in their lives, repeated trauma, attachment wounding, loss and grief, and when they did not have safe and supportive people, places, and experiences to help them to heal from these traumas, The Ego says “I will never let this happen to us again, I will protect us”. The protector drive takes over and the connector, a state of emotional vulnerability, love, gratitude, acceptance, and appreciation, takes the back seat. The Ego can also show up in the form of perfectionism and hard work, keeping you busy and preoccupied from the potential stressors of everyday life, allowing you to avoid true emotional intimacy with yourself and others, ensuring that you aren’t rejected or neglected as you have been in the past. How do we allow our connector and our protector to share the driving? To support us? To propel us toward our goals rather than to drive a wedge between us and everything that we’ve ever wanted.
A beautiful place to begin is to simply, question. We are often operating out of past programming and conditioning, living in the past if you will; that’s the survival brain reminding us of how we’ve been hurt in the past, felt embarrassed, or disappointed; it’s job is to help us to remember these painful experiences so that we may be less likely to interact with similar circumstances going forward. To begin to question does not change your past, it does not heal trauma, that is deep and important growth to be explored with care and support. But to begin to question The Ego, the binary, the black-or-white, all-or-nothing way of thinking that keeps us stuck and holds us back in hold habits and patterns, that is when we can start to be in the flow with the magic of life. When the person cuts you off in traffic and The Ego says “that person is a bad driver, I could have died, do they have no consideration for others!?”, begin to question with the compassionate and empathetic connector in you, “Do I know this to be true?” “What are some other possibilities?” “Have I too perhaps made errors in driving?” “Can I relate to the other’s experience?”
When we begin to question, we allow for possibility, we refrain from labelling and categorizing, we experience less stress as we begin to let these minor infractions go rather than holding onto anger and fear all day about the bad driver. Is the feeling of fear real? Yes, absolutely, you are entirely entitled to feel scared because of this careless driver. The feeling is real. The story, the thoughts, the beliefs that you attach to the situation can be within your power to shift. The Ego says “this city has so many horrible drivers” “what if my child was in the car and they hit me” “what if I wasn’t looking and didn’t slam on the brakes?” “My family needs money, what if they hit me and I couldn’t make it to work today?” We attach these stories to each situation when we are living in constant fear. We walk down the street and when someone doesn’t smile at us we assume “they don’t like me” “they are in a bad mood”. Begin to question, “do I know this to be true?” “how do I feel?” “what am I in control of right now?” “what is truly happening in the present moment?” Or when your partner or friend has other plans, The Ego says “they don’t want to spend time with me, what’s wrong with me?” “what’s wrong with them?” “I’m not reaching out again”. These fear driven thoughts lead to feelings of fear, scarcity, and lack which lead to what we say and do, which end up being actions driven by fear; we aim to control the situation, we lash out in anger and attempt to regain our sense of power. But what if you just took a brief moment today to question The Ego, to question your negative automatic thoughts. What shifts would you see in your life?