Surfing Your Brain: Know Which Brain Is Talking

Learn to run your brain instead of letting your brain running you.

Posted Dec 01, 2016


On a good day, Emily is good, meaning that her rational, reasonable brain is online. But on a bad day, it gets ugly fast – her anxious brain fills her with worry after worry – making it hard for her to focus and be productive.

On Jack’s good day he feels confident and in control. But on bad days, he has this critical voice that can hold on like a pit bull with a bone, beating him up and making him feel lousy and depressed.

We all have different brains that kick on at different times throughout the day. Here are the most common ones:

Anxious: Worry, worry, worry. What if. Waiting for shoes to drop, disaster to slam, the world as a dangerous and scary place and I'm feeling overwhelmed. This is Emily.

Self-critical: Never good enough, you screwed up, what will people think, you’re a phony and faking it and it is only a matter of time until you’re busted. Walking on eggshells and feeling lousy and depressed. Jack.

Depressed: Why bother, it doesn’t matter, I’m trapped, I’m stuck, it isn’t going to get better.

Angry / irritable: This is unfair, these people don’t care / aren’t stepping up / are too controlling, I'm fed up, I don't deserve this.

Rational: No, not Mr. Spock, just the voice that can keep things in perspective, that doesn’t over-react, that can problem-solve and not flutter out or explode.

The trick to surfing your brain is knowing which brain is talking and taking over at any part of the day. Here are some tips for successful surfing:

Check in with yourself every hour 

Once you’re in the middle of any of this, it can be hard to see the forest for the trees and pull back. The key is to check in. Every hour stop and check your emotional pulse. On a scale of 1-10 ask yourself how you are emotionally doing. When you start to hit 4-5 ask yourself what part of your brain is taking over.

Solve the problem 

Sometimes your anxious or angry brain is kicking up because there is a real problem to fix. Ask yourself that: Is there a problem I need to fix? If yes – like I’m worried that my boss is upset with me, or I’m irritable because my husband never got back to me about picking up the kids today – do something – send an email to the boss, text your husband. Take action, don’t’ just ruminate.

Hushing that critical voice 

This is likely as longstanding problem, your Achilles heel. Here you need to: #1. recognize when you are giving yourself a hard time; #2. Push back. Now you may be tempted to believe that you need to counter all the charges that your critical brain is heaping on you, but no you do not.

Instead you need to say to yourself that your critical brain is acting up and you are not going to pay attention to it. Don’t get into the weeds with the critical brain. Instead pat yourself on the back for whatever you did and if necessary distract yourself from that voice by getting involved with something else. Will you feel better? No, at least not for the first 5000 times you do this, but over time you will as you rewire your brain.

And don’t beat yourself up for not pushing back when you should. The goal is not doing better, but being kinder.

Act on depression 

Like self criticism, another usually more-ingrained voice. Again the key is recognizing when your depressed brain is coloring your world – that it doesn’t matter, I can’t do it, everything is looking grey. For most folks depression is situational – you are reacting to depressing things in your life and you most likely feel trapped. If this is the case, the antidote once again is action – doing something to feel like you are moving forward. This is not the time to figure out “The Solution” but instead just explore and…act. Don’t worry about doing it right, just do it something.

Recognize / shift

Once you can recognize what brain you’re in, you now have the option to move towards your rational side. This too will take practice and not immediately change your mood -- you're trying to rewire your brain after all. But with practice, recognizing and deliberately making efforts to shift your mindset will all become easier and over time your emotions will begin to catch up.

It’s all about you learning to run your brain instead of your brain(s) running you.