Cut yourself some slack, it’s just how brains work

Sights, sounds, smells, and all those senses enter the brain through something called the thalamus.

The thalamus passes this mix of sensations in two directions: The amygdala and the frontal cortex.

The amygdala keeps you alive by freaking out about stuff. It quickly checks with the hippocampus to see if the new information might remind us of any yucky stuff that’s happened to us in the past. And if it feels any threat, it goes “Okay, it’s time to stay alive!” And it bombards you with stress chemicals and makes you do things like fight or fly or freeze.

The frontal cortex, on the other hand, thinks a bit more critically. Like “Um that’s just a shadow” or “Not all bosses are as evil as your old boss” or “No stress, zombies aren’t real” or “Actually not everybody who calls your name from another room is about to beat you.” And so it helps you not try to hit everybody or run screaming from the room.

And here’s the fun thing.

The information travels from the thalamus to the amygdala more quickly than to the frontal cortex.

In other words: “Not responding emotionally” is literally impossible.

Your brain is wired to save you from lions and to feel suddenly hurt by your partner when they didn’t mean anything. You literally can’t help freaking out sometimes about things you don’t need to freak out about, especially when it looks or feels or sounds a little bit like something that has hurt you before.

This doesn’t mean you can’t practice and get sort of good at slowing your reactivity so that your frontal cortex has a chance to be like “Um you don’t need to punch them in the face.”

But it does mean that you’re not a bad or defective person just because you get emotional or scared or react sometimes in ways you wish you wouldn’t.

Especially when it’s stuff that brings up your deepest scars.

Your amygdala is just trying to save your life.

Deep breaths, count to 3, trust the process, your frontal cortex can help you sort it out.

That being said, for some of us these pathways have been screwed up by especially rough experiences. If you feel like you’re always, always being hijacked by overreacty feelings, don’t blame yourself–maybe you’ve just had to work too hard to keep yourself safe in life. It’s not fair, but don’t give up hope. There are some PTSD therapies that can really help to rewire this.

But in general, I think it can really help to understand about ourselves: None of us are “calm, cool, and collected” the instant something happens. Your amygdala will always show up before your frontal cortex. Which means working on nurturing a baseline of safety and taking deep breaths and counting to 3 are all a much better and fairer use of your energy than calling yourself stupid or sensitive or irrational.

You’re just good at staying alive, and sometimes it makes life weird.

That’s just human.

~

For a so-much-deeper-life-changingly-eye-opening exploration of this and other humany topics, read The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.

Good luck with your amygdala. <3

If you’d like some company figuring out this weird experience called being a human, subscribe below. We’re in this together.

See?!? I shouldn’t have . . .

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Hindsight is not always 20/20.

It’s hard not to judge our decisions and actions on a situation’s ultimate outcome.

We pick A instead of B, the situation goes terribly wrong, and we think “See? I shouldn’t have picked A. I should have picked B instead.” This hindsight feels simple. But it’s not. It’s fuzzy and confusing.

The world is a massive place teeming with a billion billion little forces. When your best laid plans go wrong (as they will), give yourself the space to remember: “The world is a massive place teeming with a billion billion little forces. Maybe this wasn’t all my fault.”

We have a tendency to judge our own decisions and the decisions of others (think significant other, friend, doctor, boss, teen-aged child, world leader–so many others)–to judge those decisions, after the fact, by what happened in the end. And then we draw powerful lessons. Lessons about what is “stupid” or “silly” or “unnecessary” or “not-worth-it” or “my fault.” Worse, we let others draw those lessons for us and, embarrassed, we quietly accept the lessons deep into our hearts.

A few examples might help . . .

You decide that you should speak up with your co-worker about something you don’t feel good about. Maybe something he’s doing that upsets you. Something that’s making your job harder. Maybe something you feel is unethical or unsafe. It’s such a tough decision for you to make–to speak up–because you hate confrontation, you don’t want to be mean, you’re worried about a putting a target on your back, you might be wrong, you don’t get the workplace politics game well enough. But you make up your mind. You speak up. And it goes terribly. Zero acceptance, zero awareness, zero accountability. By the end of it all, the one co-worker is out to get you and all your other co-workers have heard you’re a tool. . . . So did you make the wrong call?

Or maybe you’ve always been very socially anxious and don’t have a lot of friends. You grew up with too many relationships that went poorly. You never learned to trust that there was good in people. Despite all this, you finally get up the courage to make a friend. You try opening up a little bit. You put yourself out there. And it goes terribly wrong. Turns out he has zero interest in you, only in what he can get from you. He breaks your confidence and ends up shaming you for your personality and you’re left feeling more lonely and anxious than before you ever tried. . . . So would it have been better not to open up?

Or maybe you’ve been struggling for years over what you should do with a toxic family member. You need your own healthy boundaries and she always brings forward so much hurt and confusion for you. But “she’s family” and you do love her. Finally after some therapy and sleepless nights, you make the choice that you can’t have a healthy relationship with her and that you’ll both be happier if you let her go. Her birthday comes around later that year and, knowing how lonely she is, you feel deeply guilty and sad. You miss the idea of having a relationship with her and you feel deep sympathy for her sad experience of life. So much guilt. . . . So does that make the choice you made the wrong choice?

It’s easy to say yes to all these. To see something go “wrong” and immediately feel that your choice was clearly wrong. That it’s your fault. To say, “See? I shouldn’t have done that!” Shouldn’t have signed up for that race. Shouldn’t have reached out to that family member. Shouldn’t have stood up to the bullying. Shouldn’t have applied for that job. Shouldn’t have taken that medication. Shouldn’t have listened to that friend. Shouldn’t have auditioned for that choir. Shouldn’t have opened up to that person about being depressed.

But hindsight is not that simple. Choice-A being followed by Bad does not mean Choice-A caused Bad. And Choice-A leading to Bad does not mean Choice-B would have led to any better. A billion billion little forces. A hundred little choices. We do our best. Our instincts and our experience are helpful. We listen, we try, we leap. And sometimes, life also hurts.

When something “goes wrong,” please don’t jump to the conclusion that it means you never should have tried it. That you’ve made the wrong choices in life. That it obviously would have been better if you’d made the different choices.

And when someone says to you, “See, you shouldn’t have . . .”–please be careful about the shame and guilt you accept from them, and how you let their judgment change you.

Almost every time I’ve ever heard myself tell myself–or someone else tell me–“See, you shouldn’t have . . .” it’s been a very quick take, a very knee-jerk reaction, a very simplistic perspective. It’s been for the sake of putting out a spark, shifting the blame, self-preservation. Yes, sometimes we have to wrestle with whether we’ve made some bad choices or need to make some changes. But in my experience, most of the times we hear–from ourselves or others–that “See?!?” reaction . . . it’s not fair, it’s not realistic, and it’s not helpful.

Stick up for yourself a little. Keep that spark alive, the one you followed, even when you didn’t know how it would end up. Remember the billion billion forces, and make your little choices anyway, as best you can. And then, when life still hurts, let it be life.

Because very, very, very likely, yes you SHOULD have. And you should again tomorrow!

No shame, no embarrassment, no blame, no guilt. Live your life, no matter what they (or you) say when embarrassment sends them (or you) scrambling to explain life’s curveballs. You’re doing great. :)

P. S. After all, what if you just never bothered trying things you weren’t already certain about? . . .

When life gets normal again

I have an idea.

Get a piece of paper and write down some of your deepest thoughts from these lonely, scary, inspiring, deeply humanizing coronavirus days. Thoughts about yourself, about the world, about your neighbors and friends, about hope and kindness and sacrifice. Thoughts about what matters.

Then bury it somewhere in your closet with all the boxes and bins of old stuff.

A couple years from now, when you come across it again, I bet you will learn something about the depth you found during crisis. There may be some bits you had forgotten about as soon as the crisis. ended. Really important bits. Really special bits.

Can we find a way to remember the depth we are finding in crisis? The beauty, the courage, the friendship, the purpose? Can we draw ourselves some little maps, so that when life gets normal again, we won’t forget the deep places we found in these not-normal times?

Some of the changes in ourselves will be good. Can we keep them?

when life gets back to normal 2

Love is it.

It’s a new year, and I’m sitting at a coffee shop thinking about what I want to do as a writer this year. I want to grow. I want to get better at writing. I want to make more of an impact. I want to take it seriously. I want to chase the dreams I have about it. But what do I want to write about this year?

Impact. Significant impact. I want to write about something that has significant impact. That’s my dream. I see a world full of mind-boggling wealth and full of cold, starving, sick, and homeless. I see news stories about people shooting people. I see vicious arguments between people who just think a little differently. I see so many turning blind eyes to people who are suffering. I see abuse. I see people being shamed for being themselves.

What heals all this?

I guess that’s a lofty goal.

What heals some of this, then?

I think it’s really good to learn about communication. It’s really good to learn about relationships. It’s really good to learn about teamwork. About motivating and inspiring people. About mental health and well-being. About vulnerability. About honesty. About happiness. About strength. About psychology, the brain, the heart. Those are all big things.

But if I had to pick one thing that I could inspire people about in my life? One thing to show, to make okay, to spread, to advocate, to learn, to be an example of, to share, to celebrate–one thing with which and about which to make an impact?

I keep coming back to LOVE.

I didn’t used to. It was too broad, too obvious, too cliche, too already-been-done.

But I think I notice, every single day, the impact love makes in this world–and the impact made when love isn’t there.

Abuse. Greed. Addiction. Taking advantage. Neglect. Poverty. Violence. Loneliness. Bullying. Cruelty. Hunger for abusive power and control. Fear. Brain-washing. Shame. Low self-esteem. These are a few of the things that happen when love isn’t happening. And these are a few of the things that need love.

Love, as a subject, has definitely been talked and talked and talked and talked through for hundreds and thousands of years. It’s nothing new.

It’s also a pretty simple thing, I think. Yeah, how it ends up looking and feeling in each unique life is a pretty complex and difficult and scary and weird thing. But love is a simple enough concept. Simple enough that it doesn’t take much to share it, to spread it, to advocate for it.

So if it’s so simple and so already-talked-about, why keep coming back to it? Because we’re humans. And humans need a lot of inspiration, a lot of patient reminders, a lot of help, a lot of love.

Many things about our world make love very unsafe. All kinds of love–intimate couple-love, family love, friend love, stranger love, all-the-world love. Our experiences make love unsafe. Our fear makes love unsafe. Others’ reactions make love unsafe. Society’s expectations make love unsafe.

So despite how much we all know the deep importance, the centrality of love–we need to hear it again, see it again, feel it again, talk about it again, try it again. Every. Single. Day.

There are so many voices around us and in our heads and in our pasts and in our fears that drown out love. So there’s no such thing as spreading love too much.

It’s been striking to me lately how much everyone knows the solutions. We live in a smart age, a knowledgable age. Everything you need to know is at your fingertips. There’s no reason for there to be so much hurt and ugliness every day all around us. Everyone knows better. Everyone can do stuff to help. Everyone can stop doing stuff to hurt. From casual little interactions to big government policies and business decisions–people can choose to do the good thing–the love thing. But every day people don’t. And we’re left with a lot of ugliness in the world.

I don’t think the problem is that people need to know all the strategies and all the statistics and all the skills and all the ideas and all the answers. I think mostly people need to choose love. And to choose love, people generally need to feel love. And to feel love, people need you and me to get genuine and vulnerable and expressive and kind with them. You and I need to love.

Love has the biggest impact.

This isn’t a new thing. It’s timeless.

“Where there is love, there is life.” – Mahatma Gandhi

“God is love.” – John the apostle

“Hatred does not cease through hatred at any time. Hatred ceases through love. This is an unalterable law.” – Buddha

“Looking back over a lifetime, you see that love was the answer to everything.” – Ray Bradbury

“Life without love is like a tree without blossoms or fruit.” – Khalil Gibran

“There is only one happiness in this life, to love and be loved.” – George Sand

“The only thing we never get enough of is love; and the only thing we never give enough of is love.” – Henry Miller

“Love is our essential nutrient. Without it, life has little meaning. It’s the best thing we have to give and the most valuable thing we receive. It’s worthy of all the hullabaloo.” – Cheryl Strayed

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him.” – Viktor Frankl

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

“All religious institutions, despite different philosophical views, all have the same message: a message of love.” – Dalai Lama

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” – Lao Tzu

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” – Jesus

“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” – Maya Angelou

“Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.” – Oscar Wilde

“Love each other dearly always. There is scarcely anything else in the world but that: to love one another.” – Victor Hugo

“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” – Buddha

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

“One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love.” – Sophocles

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” – Dalai Lama

“. . . but the greatest of these is love.” – Paul the apostle

“Love the whole world as a mother loves her only child.” – Buddha

Love is timeless. And that means it is very much a right now thing.

Every day, love.

Most of all, love.

I think love really is the biggest thing.

P.S. Honestly–I challenge you to remember love every single day this year. And when you remember it, give someone a smile, text someone what they mean to you. . . . Love is powerful.

Victor Hugo - nothing in the world but to love

Sometimes you’ve gotta feel

Sometimes you’ve gotta feel, gotta get emotional.

At a seminar I attended last week, the speaker reminded us of a very real, very important fact of life, one that I know at least I forget a lot: You have to find inspiration. Like, inspiration with a capital I. Like deep emotional connection and feeling.

He explained that’s why we listen to music, among other things. Or read and share sweet stories. Watch inspiring movies. That’s why people in spiritual gatherings sing together and make moving music.

Every single day, I know that it would be healthy to get some exercise, to eat healthy, to slow down and take some time to recharge. But KNOWING this every single day doesn’t mean I DO it every single day. If we all did the things that we “knew” we “should” do, the world would be a very different place. Sometimes being aware of what’s good and positive to do, or being aware of what we want–having that knowledge isn’t enough.

I’ve learned a lot this year about the weirdness and randomness and arbitrariness and unstableness and just doesn’t-quite-make-sense-ness of feelings. They come and go, they feel massive and then they don’t feel at all, they motivate and then they disappear.

The “head” and the “heart,” as we speak of them, are two very different things. I grew up thinking that they weren’t. That what you need is to “get it.” To “understand.” But I’ve discovered, as I’m sure you have, that knowing your want/should doesn’t mean you follow through. Motivation to actually follow what we know, what we know we want–motivation doesn’t happen in the same way that understanding happens. Motivation is when you feel about it.

I’m one of those people that cries like a baby at movies and at music and at songs and at poetry and at beautiful landscapes and at an adorable thing that someone said or at like seeing a couple walk down the sidewalk holding hands. In other words I get feelings a lot. And I sometimes have seen that as a weird thing, a weakness, or something to be a little embarrassed about. Or at least something others will think is weak or weird.

But I also have noticed that the more of those feelings I have, the more I be who I want to be.

I can “think”/”understand”/”make sense of” myself and the world all the way down to a quiet, bland acceptance of the status quo with no drive to change, to act, to search. Or instead. I can let inspiration take hold.

Sometimes you’ve gotta feel. You’ve gotta get emotional. Gotta remember the butterflies you felt when you met her. Feel the giddy that you felt when you got that comic book as a kid. Feel the heart-wrenching pain of watching helpless, hopeless people, sick and suffering, needing the world to remember them. Hug yourself and the people around you and feel the word “support.” Sometimes you’ve gotta FEEL love, FEEL friendship, FEEL sadness, FEEL needs, FEEL purpose.

I don’t know if all this makes a lot of sense to you or helps you. Maybe it will resonate with a few people like me. If it does, go get inspired. Go find stuff that will FEEL you into ACTION.

All the good you want to do in the world, find the emotional stuff that will actually make you DO it. Put that stuff in front of your eyes every day. Stop scrolling Facebook for a minute, and go find the stuff that touches you deep down. Cry, laugh, hurt, dream, burn with desire.

I made a Spotify playlist called “All the feels,” because as silly as this is, I’m a better person when I listen to those tracks.

What makes you come alive? What connects you to the people you love? What connects you to your purpose? What makes you feel not-quite-there-yet, and sets you back on the road to your dreams? What forces you into the reality of the people around you who need your help? What INSPIRES you?

Look at that stuff. Get emotional. Be epic. People need you, you need you. We’re all in this together.

Happy adventuring! <3

Goethe - be inspired every day