- The brain prefers self-preservation to self-actualization, and it must be outsmarted.
- It takes courage to explore the stories that direct someone's everyday behavior.
- Throughout the day, people should stop and ask what story has directed their current actions.
- They can try on new stories, repeating the narratives until they feel they are real.
Your brain is designed to keep you safe. This objective can help you escape physical danger without much thought. Yet your brain doesn’t differentiate physical from mental danger. It wants you to feel certain about the outcomes of your behavior instead of facing the danger of trying new things even when you know the outcomes are not ideal.
Author and psychotherapist Virginia Satir said, “People prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.” Your brain prefers self-preservation over self-actualization.
Why Emotions Overrule Logic
Most of the time, you give little thought to your daily routines. You spend your days living by old beliefs and repeating behaviors without question. These patterns become entrenched even when you consciously have a deep desire to change up your schedule. You may have overwhelming evidence that your behavior isn’t helping you reach your desires for the future, but you resist making positive changes, putting them off for later and rationalizing choices that stunt your personal growth. You may desperately want to achieve your goals, but your brain doesn’t want you to feel unsettled or afraid.
You not only avoid negative threats like possible failure or rejection. You may also avoid positive things like claiming your power or success.
Your brain isn’t just resistant to the discomfort of change; it is lazy. In his classic book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman says it takes effort to think about your thinking.1 You don’t tend to question your decisions and actions before or after they are made. Even if you ask yourself why you did something, you are likely to quickly find a reason for your actions and move on to the next activity. Logic rarely comes into play when making routine decisions.
Unfortunately, it could take an accident or crisis to bring the truth of a situation to light. A damaging result can break down the walls of your defensive brain. You then look back and see the errors in your thinking. Hopefully, you commit to making a change based on what you learn from your mistakes before your memory overrides the pain and you return to the same-old unsatisfactory behavior.
Humans are master rationalizers regardless of the level of education achieved.
Change your stories, change your life.
To change, take risks, and move forward, you must explore the stories based on past experiences that create the mental manuals your brain uses to direct your behavior today. Psychologist Dan McAdams of Northwestern University says old goals, obsolete values, and outdated self-perception are the “core planks of a life narrative” 2 that give you a false sense of consistency and certainty.
To think and act differently from what you are used to doing, you have to observe and muster the courage to overrule your brain’s automatic processing. Examining your stories, not just an individual thought, can open your brain to learning and free you to act differently from what you habitually do. These realizations can cause uncomfortable tension, but they help you grow.
All of your stories paint the landscape you believe to be reality. Jonathon Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, says, “Story is so omnipresent that we are hardly aware of how it shapes our lives.” 3 You navigate your life every day based on the stories you recall.
To help reveal the stories and mental models your brain is using to direct your behavior throughout your day, stop what you are doing, and consider these questions and steps:
- Ask yourself: “What feels important about what I am doing?” Write down your thoughts without censoring them.
- Read your words as if someone else wrote them. Ask, “What beliefs are forming these thoughts? What assumptions am I holding that are keeping me from acting differently?”
- Notice your impulse to defend your choices. These statements are the idea threads holding your story together. Then say the opposite idea out loud, even if it feels ridiculous.
- Be creative. Try on a few new thoughts. Play with shifting your thoughts and the story until you feel you are more in control of your narrative.
- Ask yourself what could stop you from changing. What are you afraid will happen? What could you gain if you tried to create a new habit and story?
- Write down the new story you want to embed in your brain. Read it at least twice each day, early in the morning and again before you sleep, until you feel it is real.
Because of your protective instincts, you may struggle with evaluating and changing your stories on your own. When someone else summarizes, paraphrases, and repeats back to you the words you say and the stories that emerge, you might be able to see the gaps in your logic that are keeping you stuck. Consider hiring a coach to help you hear your thoughts and ask you the questions that will help you stop, think, and change your mind.
You have the power to create new narratives and reach your goals by observing your brain at work. You can even laugh at your brain, overriding its power and activating your free will to do, feel, believe, and behave differently, realizing growth you can be proud of.
1. Daniel Kahneman. Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin, 2012.
2. Dan McAdams, “The stories we tell about ourselves: understanding our personal narratives,” interview by Antonia Mufarech, North by Northwestern, edited Jan 25, 2022. https://www.northbynorthwestern.com/the-stories-we-tell-about-ourselves/
3. Jonathon Gottschall. The Storytelling Animal. Mariner Books; 1st edition, April 23, 2013.