Manage Your Brain to Play a Bigger Game

Be the master not the victim of your brain.

Posted Dec 22, 2011

Have you ever sensed a danger is present before seeing it? This means your brain is doing its job. The primary function of your brain is to protect you and keep your body running as efficiently as possible.1

This works well if the threat your brain perceives is real. However, according to Dr. Robert Sapolsky, your stress response is often similar whether the threat is physical or psychological/social.2 In other words, your reactive brain doesn't know the difference between what is a threat to your physical body--a big deal--and what is threat to your ego--often not that big of a deal as we make it to be. Your brain just keeps on protecting you even if this interferes with your success.

If you want to play a bigger game, release the courage to take risks, and calm your fears of looking silly, stupid or inadequate, you need to be more conscious of how your brain is making decisions for you.

Your brain reacts in the same way when someone looks like they may slap you as it does when you perceive that someone may hurt your feelings, test our authority or make you feel stupid. You react to both of these threats by getting defensive (fight) or physically or mentally running away (flight).  

Without consciously stopping your reaction, it is nearly impossible to judge present circumstances objectively. It is difficult to change your response in the moment.

Because your fight/flight response is automatic, instead of questioning your reaction, you will adeptly rationalize your behavior and let your brain keep protecting you.

We are masters at rationalization. By now, you are probably an expert at rationalizing your way out of playing a bigger game with your life.

1. The first step in outsmarting your brain is to become aware that your protective reaction has been triggered.

This means you have to practice recognizing when you have an emotional reaction as soon as your feelings arise.  Feelings are the portal to self-awareness. Don't try to hide them. They give you information you need if there is a chance to shift your response in the moment, choose to do something else later or even say you are sorry for a bad reaction.

According to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, at any moment your rate of breathing, blood flow, tension in your muscles and constriction in your gut represents a pattern in your brain that you can identify as a feeling.3 The quicker you tell yourself you are reacting, the quicker you can use your cognitive brain to determine what caused the reaction and how dangerous the situation is, really.

Emotions may not disappear with awareness, but only when you identify them can you understand them and then consciously choose how you want to behave.

Additionally, when you understand that your emotions are biological reactions, that your brain is simply reacting in ways it primitively perceives to be beneficial to your health and happiness, you can begin to free yourself from the shame, blame, guilt and anger caused by not understanding why you think and behave the way you do. You learn how to forgive yourself for being human. You can then find gentler ways to talk yourself into trying out new thoughts and behaviors.

By paying attention to your feelings you can better manage your life.

2. The second step to outsmarting your brain is to determine what triggered your emotions.

Once you are aware you are having an emotional reaction, ask yourself, "What is my brain protecting? What does it perceive that someone is not recognizing or has taken from me? What is it identifying in the situation that could cause me harm?" When you understand the source of your physical reactions, you have the information to make decisions and resolve many of your conflicts.

To help you find the answer, think about what you do well to help you succeed in life. What you do well is what your brain most dearly protects. If you have succeeded because you are smart, your brain reacts when it perceives someone is not acknowledging your intelligence. If you are happy because you are good at connecting with people, you will react when someone doesn't like you. If you are good at managing projects, you won't like when someone else takes control.

The following list represents a subset of common trigger points.4 There are other triggers, but I have found these to be most common with my coaching clients. What triggers fight or flight in you if someone doesn't give you, takes away or keeps you from getting what you need to feel good? If you can, prioritize your top three triggers.

acceptance                               respect

being liked                                achievement

recognition                                being understood

being needed                            being in control

being right                                 winning

treated fairly                              feeling safe

freedom                                    peacefulness

order                                        consistency

attention                                   adventure

love                                          to feel worthwhile

Be honest with yourself. Which needs, when not met, will likely trigger a reaction in you? Identify what your brain holds most dear.

Once you are aware you are reacting emotionally and you sense what the trigger is, you can ask yourself if the intention to harm you is real or if you are taking the situation too personally. If it's true that someone is ignoring something important to you, can you ask for what you need? If it doesn't really matter, can you breathe, let go and move on? If you can ask for what you need or let it go, you are choosing to respond to a situation instead of reacting to it.

To truly bring more peace, creativity and health into your life, you must heed your feelings so you can begin to distinguish what is a real threat and what is not. Over time, your brain will see these situations as less of a threat. You will handle negative feedback with more grace, speak up for yourself more often, or quiet your brain when someone else's brain is protecting their ego in your meeting or conversation.

The more you are a master not a victim of your brain, the more you can choose to play a bigger game, or at least define the life you want to lead.

1 Ratey, J. A User's Guide to the Brain.New York: Pantheon Books, 2001. Pg. 115

2 Sapolsky, R. Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases and Coping. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1998. Pg. 4-18.

3 Damasio, A. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc. Pg. 85-88.

4 Reynolds, M. Outsmart Your Brain: How to Make Success Feel Easy. Phoenix: Covisioning, 2004. Pg. 29.