Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

Conquering the fear of standing up to bullies

The herd may turn on you but a new herd is always there.

Bullies thrive because mammals tend to stick with the herd. Your mammal brain knows the herd could turn on you when you oppose a bully. A mammal without a herd soon lands in the jaws of a predator. That's why people fear losing the safety of social alliances - and appease bullies instead of opposing them.

This fear is not quelled by reason. Lofty principles do not subdue fear because they are just abstractions while the feeling of imminent annihilation is real. The neurochemicals surging through your body are real. The bully's potential to retaliate against you is real. The brain that evolved to protect you from social threats sounds an alarm that feels very real. As long as your mammal brain fears losing the support of the herd, your cortex will invent cockamamie reasons to keep supporting a bully.

You can resist a bully if you accept your mammalian urge for social support instead of trying to reject it. Work with your anxious mammal brain by substituting one social alliance for another. Of course you can't build a new social network in the middle of a conflict. But you can mentally connect to a network that's already there- the protection of the law. The legal system is the herd that protects you when you distance yourself from a herd that is bent on bullying. To your mammal brain, the law is a new social alliance that soothes the fear of losing the support of the herd you already have.

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The B Word

Bullying seems to be on the rise in American culture. If schoolyards are the stomping grounds of young bullies, offices are the playground of grown ones.

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Before the rule of law evolved, vendettas and blood feuds were the accepted mode of conflict resolution. Today, we restrain our anger and allow the wheels of justice to turn. Those wheels can be frustrating, but revenge cycles are much worse. We rely on the law instead of our hostile impulses, and in exchange we gain protection from the hostile impulses of others.

You don't need a gang to protect you because civil society is your gang.

You know this but your mammal brain doesn't. It focuses on tangible humans and familiar habits. When you deprive it of its usual sources of support, you have to be ready to feed it an alternative sense of support.

I distanced myself from an unhealthy herd when I was in middle school. It was my first herd and I did not want to lose it. We foraged together in a shopping mall, as girl herds tend to do, and one day our queen bee decided to shoplift. She told us her plan and my heart started racing. I walked slower and slower to distance myself from her. In what seemed like seconds, she had done it and security guards were walking her off to a back room. Boy, was I glad I had hung back and separated myself from her!

When security released her, she talked tough, like it was no big deal. But I did not buy her "everybody does it" attitude. Instead of raging about the unfairness of security guards, I broke my ties with that herd. It left me completely alone.

Truth be told, my mother would have beaten me if she got a call from the police. She would have kept me in the house forever as her companion in misery. But I had already distanced myself from her herd too. I wonder how I had the courage to do these things now that "peer pressure" has become an acceptable justification for breaking the law. I think it was my awareness that there was a larger herd somewhere that I could belong to by being a decent human being.

Oxytocin is the mammalian neurochemical that triggers the feeling humans call "trust." Your mammal brain needs to trust to feel safe. When your trust is betrayed, you may not want to see the evidence because your mammal brain needs somewhere to put its trust. That's why people often keep trusting bullies despite the abundance of evidence.

Many people do not trust the legal system, but I think they're wrong. In my experience, the objective third-party responses of the law are more reasonable than any individual herd of humans. 

My book, Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity is a plan to feel good about life in a world full of mammals.

My book I, Mammal describes the evolutionary origins of our brain's urge to one-up our fellow mammal. No one likes to imagine this in themselves, though it's easy to see in others. When you know how your neurochemical ups and downs are controlled by your mammal brain, you have more power over them. 

 

 

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is the author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals and founder of the Inner Mammal Institute.

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