Your Neurochemical Self

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

Three Little Words You Long to Hear: “It’s their fault.”

Avoiding blame feels good now but cripples you later.

When things goes wrong, our problem-solving brains look for the cause. If it’s your fault, your brain senses threat. Cortisol surges and spreads alarm throughout your body. If the blame settles elsewhere, you feel relieved. Avoiding blame feels good to your mammal brain. Even though you're objective and compassionate in your conscious brain, your inner mammal avoids blame because it feels good.

You can prove it's "their " fault because your brain finds the information it looks for. Your brain has ten times more neurons telling your eyes what to look for than it has to interpret whatever your eyes happen to stumble on. That makes it easy to overlook evidence of your responsibility while you are looking for evidence that others are responsible.
 

But you pay a high price for the good feeling of avoiding blame. In the long run, it makes you feel like a powerless victim. It cripples your ability to grow from experience. Blame obscures the power of your own actions. Once it becomes a habit, it's hard to take responsibility. Just thinking something is your fault triggers your cortisol, and you surge with rage, panic, fear, or anxiety. This cortisol is caused by a neural pathway you built long ago. If you got hurt by taking responsbility long ago, and shifting blame relieved the hurt, your brain built connections that spew cortisol in similar situations today. If you grew up around others who avoided blame, your mirror neurons took it in and more connections got built.

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"Why should anyone be blamed?" you may say. But when your brain sees a problem, it looks for a cause. Your conscious mind has no intent to blame, but it skillfully marshalls "evidence" that makes you feel good in the moment. In the long run, this habit leaves you feeling like a victim of other people's misdeeds. If you surround yourself with people who see the world this way too, you never know what you're missing. You successfully avoid the dreaded feeling of being responsible for what happens to you. But you're trapped in a dead end.

To escape this dead-end, imagine a mountain goat on a steep cliff. It strolls through the most awful spots in a way that looks effortless. (See this on Youtube) It succeeds by focusing on its next step. It wastes none of its precious concentration on thoughts about the injustice of these rocks being in its way, and the stupidity of those who failed to fix them. A hundred percent of its attention is scanning for safe footholds. 

A brain cannot climb a mountain and curse it at the same time.

You can find safe steps through a bad place if you focus on finding them. It's tempting to rage at obstacles, but if you keep scanning for good opportunities, you will find them. As you put your weight onto the step you've chosen, your cortisol may surge. But you will be focused on your next step, and your next. You will build a new pathway in your brain if you keep doing this. You will expect to get past rocky peaks. You will trust your climbing skills instead of your blaming skills. Life will not be easy all the time. Even mountain goats backtrack, tumble, and go hungry at times. But they meet their needs because they focus on their own steps.

Your old neural pathways will always be there, ready to tell you It’s their fault! Why should I suffer for their mess-up!  When this circuit lights up, it feels absolutely true because your brain finds facts that fit and ignores the rest of the story. Your brain is trying to protect you in a way that worked long ago. Focusing on new steps with old wiring is not easy. That's why every philosophical tradition tries to support this transition.

Forgiveness is a popular approach to the problem. Forgiveness is a way to let go of distraction so you can find your best next step. Forgiveness does not mean abandoning yourself to align with adversaries. This doesn't work, as illustrated by the betrayed wife in the movie The Descendants. (spoiler alert)  She says I forgive you to the comatose body of the “other woman.” But her rage is triggered and her words pick up speed. I forgive you even though I should hate you. I should hate you for stealing my husband! I should hate you for wrecking my family!! I should hate you for...... She is quickly escorted to the door by the other woman’s grieving husband.

People who ignore their own needs in the name of compassion often end up bitter and resentful. Your brain sees your needs as a matter of life and death, and it will blast you with emergency signals if you insist on neglecting yourself. You can forgive without abandoning yourself. Simply forgive others for having a brain that sees itself as the center of the world. Forgive yourself for that too. That doesn't mean we get to meet our needs by trampling on others. It means we are bad judges of when we are trampled on, and when we are merely experiencing the fact that we are not the center of the world in other people's brains.

Many people insist we should focus on the needs of others. But their brains trick them by equating their needs with "the greater good." You can see other people doing this, but it's hard to notice youself doing this. No brain is a good judge of the greater good. You are better off respecting our brain's survival focus. This doesn't entitle anyone to abuse others. Each brain learns to accommodate its natural self-interest to a world full of others focused on their self-interest. Sometimes it has to learn the hard way. You will not always like these accomodations, but if you make that your focus, it will drain you.

You will thrive if you focus on your next step instead of on the steps you think others should take. Keep scanning for the tiny footholds of that allow you to get where you want to go. Your brain cannot process every detail of the world around you so it is always picking and choosing its information. The less energy you waste on analyzing the moves of others, the more energy you have for optimizing your own moves. You have all the energy you need if you remember that you cannot climb a mountain and critique it at the same time.

But..but..but...it really IS their fault, you may keep thinking. Your old circuits are powerful until your new circuits develop. You can give your new circuits a kickstart by surrounding yourself with new messages. My book Beyond Cynical shows how we get wired to focus on flaws, and how we can PARE our natural negativity with Personal Agency and Realistic Expectations. Joe Vitale’s books Zero Limits, and At Zero, explore the rewards of taking responsibility for your experience of life.

  

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is a Zoo Docent and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. 

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