Our highly evolved brains can be our best friends or our worst enemies. Often, our defensive thoughts escalate interpersonal tension, turning small disagreements into major falling outs. The good news is that we can all learn to harness the power of our higher functions to successfully navigate conflict peacefully.
Jenna* was an inspiring client. She transformed her life and was richly rewarded. When we first met, she was in the depths of despair. Her outlook and her days were dark and gloomy. She was in the worst physical condition of her life, despite being in what should have been her radiant forties.
Working with courage and determination, Jenna focused on rebuilding her physical foundation. As she restored her physical health, she began to unlock emotional health too. Invisible neuro-hormonal links were restored, bringing light and desire back into her life. She had started to reengage socially and was living each day with purpose.
Occasionally, though, as happens with us all, she would wobble on her new path. You see, in rebooting her life, she had salvaged her marriage. After many years of habitual conflict and pain, both she and her husband Paul* had rediscovered the early spark that initially brought them together. Now wiser, they both worked hard at their relationship. But every now and again, they would relapse into old patterns.
Jenna would begin to resent Paul for what she saw as inattentiveness and sloppy habits. She would find little things that he did annoying and become increasingly resentful. She would feel that he no longer treasured her and bottled it up inside until it exploded out of her in a storm of hostility. After a few days of directionless antagonism, she would feel remorseful and then recede into herself, blaming and judging herself for the relapse.
“This time,” she explained to me, “it was all about his water glass. He always sets it on the wooden table, and I worry that it will leave an ugly stain on the beautiful, shiny surface. It was my grandmother’s wedding gift to us, and I love it. He just doesn’t get it. He did it again on Tuesday night. Then all day on Wednesday, the same words kept going through my mind, over and over again: “He doesn’t care”…and by dinnertime, the gunpowder was primed. I was ready to explode.”
I stopped to think about those words: “over and over again.”
It’s a curious phenomenon, repetitive thoughts. I’m quite sure they’re the trigger for all conflict, from global wars to playground fights to marital breakdowns.
They start deep within our powerful brains. Fears surface in those primitive neurological centers that we call the reptilian brain, where Mother Nature implanted our survival instincts. To protect us, these primal reflexes drive us to action against perceived threats. In Jenna’s case, she was afraid of being alone. When Paul didn’t listen, or didn’t seem to care, her reptilian voice started to whisper, “What if he doesn’t love you? What if he leaves you? What if you’re going to end up all alone?”
The presence of this little voice is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it is there to protect us—and it does an excellent job. When it thinks we’re not listening to it, failing to notice a potential danger, the voice becomes more insistent, sounding the warning over and over again. Then, when it feels it still isn’t being heeded, it co-opts the powerful cognitive brain in a process we scientists call rumination. Usually the source of logic and reason, our cognitive centers respond to the insistent alarms of the primitive brain by echoing the warning in our minds.
In Jenna’s case, the words her cognitive brain had resonating all day were a damning accusation against Paul: “He doesn’t care…he doesn’t care…he doesn’t care,” over and over again. Sooner or later, she believed that, and then, bang! The storms of conflict erupted with great fury.
True personal mastery comes from the way we respond to these alerts.
I explained our elegant design to Jenna, highlighting the healthy role that the primitive brain plays in keeping us safe. Then I told her that, as always, it’s our response to the voices in our minds that determines the outcome. We must change our reaction to the primitive brain to master it.
First, we must always start by thanking our brain for working to keep us safe.
But very quickly afterward, we must establish the truth about the perceived threat. We must challenge the voice before reacting to it. In Jenna’s case, if Paul really didn’t care, there would be a lot of other evidence to support that notion.
Next, we must refute the alarming voice. In the absence of deliberate contradiction, Jenna soon found her brain overrun with negative words. Luckily, we have the ability to determine the words that flood our consciousness. Our cognitive centers are the only parts of our brain under our complete voluntary control, meaning we have the power to replace the unhelpful, fear-filled messages of our reptilian brain with something positive.
If the voice is still insistent, we must distract ourselves with positive activities and influences. For Jenna, friends, music, and exercise all played a vital role here.
And finally, the most powerful tool of all against fear and conflict is gratitude. The soft science of appreciation has been verified in many experiments. Even as she found herself accusing Paul of not caring, Jenna needed to identify his attributes that made her happy. By actively saying (out loud if necessary) how much she appreciated him for his creativity and strength, or for his ability to laugh when life gets tough, she found the road out of the whirlwind of negativity and conflict. When the deliberately positive voice of her cognitive brain overwhelmed the negative bleating of her reptilian brain, Jenna found peace. The words that orbited her presence over and over again were now kind and loving.
We need to understand the elegant construct of our brain, with its delicate leadership hierarchy, in order to avoid (or, at least, resolve) conflict. The keys to peace and happiness are in our own hands!
*Names changed to protect privacy.