Why it’s so hard to change – your brain can be such a jerk! (Episode 36)
In this episode, Kay Coughlin talks about our brains acting like jerks about change! But why does it happen? Listen to this as an “explainer” episode to help those of us who aren’t neuroscientists understand what’s going on in our heads when we are faced with the idea of changing anything. And why we can get so exhausted when we do confront change.
Learn more about all of this work at FacilitatorOnFire.net/LearnMore.
Transcript of episode is below.
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Transcript: Why it’s so hard to change (Episode 36)
Hi there. I’m your host Kay Coughlin, and you’re listening to From One Caregiver to Another. This is episode 36.
Before we get started today, I just want to tell you that if you want to find out more about human giver syndrome, which can play a major role in causing exhaustion and burnout for caregivers and for parents, go to facilitatoronfire.net/LearnMore. There you’ll find a link to my next webinar or presentation, and you’ll also find a PDF on healing from the costly habits of human giver syndrome. And you can also listen to episode number 31 of this podcast, which is about human giver syndrome.
In the past few episodes, I’ve talked a lot about the family pressures, expectations and systems that really keep caregivers stuck. Today, I want to talk a little bit about why your brain buys into all of it and why it actually like it’s when you’re stuck. I have to tell you, our brains are really a jerk about this stuff. Our brains fight us on change because there’s a real reason for this. Our brains really believe that staying put and staying safe is a great way to keep us alive because it used to be a great way to keep us alive. And to be honest, sometimes it still is even today, but here’s the thing. The part of our brain that’s in charge of knowing the difference, just can’t tell the difference between physical threats and opportunities to grow and become self-aware.
I actually talk about this every time I do my seminar, which I do for businesses and groups of people, and that’s on building trust across generations. And I talk about it because I really think it’s helpful to understand how so much of what we do seems to happen on autopilot. And as I always do with those groups, I’m going to apologize right now to you if you happen to be a neurologist, or if you study the brain in any way, because what I’m doing here is I’m really just simplifying this down so that it makes a lot more sense for a wider audience. I am not a researcher or a psychologist. I am an amateur behavioral scientist, and I’m a life and a leadership coach. So my specialty is helping people understand themselves and other people. And that includes the reasons why we do what we do.
Also, there’s just this big caveat whenever we’re talking about the brain. The is that we think we know a lot today about the brain, but that can change drastically over time and sometimes overnight. So the best that I can do for you here is to tell you what we think is true right now. And again, this is my interpretation of this. All right.
Way back before recorded history, when a big chunk of energy every day went into making sure we stayed alive, our human brain developed what I’m going to call here a safety trio of types of behaviors that it prefers above everything else that we do. These are the three basic behaviors our brains wanted us to do then, and it still wants this for us because it wants to keep us alive. It wants us to: one, seek pleasure; two, void pain; and three, expend as few calories as possible. So I’ll say those again, real quick, seek pleasure, avoid pain, and expend as few calories as possible. And we often hear that last one phrased in a different way. What we hear is to conserve calories, but I like this phrasing better. This expend as few calories as possible. And all of this is what people are really talking about when they use brain jargon terms like the limbic brain system or the lizard brain. And the lizard brain is a pretty common term right now.
As far as we can tell, the limbic brain system is responsible for emotions and memory, and it’s also responsible for the way we respond to things with bursts of hormones. And that’s going to be like adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol is commonly referred to as the stress hormone. And also this limbic brain system is going to be responsible for our habits and the way we respond to behavior and the way behavior is reinforced. So it’s about the way we respond to punishments and rewards. And yes, another part of this is going to be the fear response system. That’s what we know of as that fight or flight or freeze mechanism that we’ve all heard about. And that itself comes from the amygdala.
So this safety trio of behaviors and the fear response system, well, those are all about increasing your chances of survival. That’s why your brain really likes those shortcuts. And this is all very useful when it comes to staying alive in a hostile environment. This could be when you’re being stocked by a tiger. That’s way back in history. Well, sometimes today too, but today our physically threatening situations tend to look a lot different. That fear response system keeps you alive in the immediate moment when that threat appears, whatever that looks like today. And then that safety trio of behaviors over time makes sure that you develop habits to help you seek pleasure, avoid pain, and expend fewer calories to keep you alive in the long term.
I like to say that this limbic brain system of yours and of mine, it tends to recognize only two states of being, certain safety or imminent death. It’s like there’s this light switch in your head, and there’s this little dude running around, ready to flip that switch from safe to imminent death at a moment’s notice. And that’s to keep you alive. It’s so that you survive and this makes you a normal human. But here’s the thing. That little dude doesn’t know the difference between a real threat and an emotional threat or even an imagined threat. And it certainly can’t tell when there’s an opportunity to grow in front of you. So unless you’ve learned to recognize the difference and react differently, you’re always going to react like a normal human toggling back and forth between knowing with certainty that you’re going to live and knowing with absolute certainty that you’re going to die if this thing happens.
Here’s what this actually looks like. When somebody, and I mean, anybody yells at you, and this is just one example, but it’s a good one. When someone yells at you, your brain is interpreting that as a very real danger that you’re going to get killed right now, or that you’re going to get thrown out of your tribe at the very least, which would mean that you’ll probably die. And yes, that is a very big leap from getting yelled at to knowing that there’s certain death ahead of you. I know it sounds like overreacting when you put it that way, but if you really think about it back in the way, way back, losing the protection of your clan or your tribe would be a very serious threat to your immediate safety and to your longterm safety. So this fear response that we all have, it will protect your body from harm by making sure that your tribe is happy with you. And our lizard brains, they don’t know the difference between keeping your tribe happy and keeping you safe, and as I say, seeing an opportunity to change or to grow.
Now, when someone says to you that they don’t like confrontation, this is why they are reacting like any typical human would react. And they’ve just never learned a different way to respond to threats. Now, I am not judging here. For a lot of my life, I would freeze in a confrontation. I wasn’t a fight or a flight person. I was a freeze person. That’s different now and I’ll talk about that in a second. So the main problem that we have here is that surviving is not the same thing as thriving. No way. There is a big range of life that happens somewhere between absolute safety and imminent death. Your brain instincts are all about keeping you alive and they’re not subtle. They have nothing whatsoever to do with your purpose or your happiness, or certainly not your fulfillment in life.
And so this fear response, along with that safety trio of behaviors, seek pleasure, avoid pain and expend fewer calories, makes it really hard for you to change and for me to change. It just seems so much easier to survive if you aren’t rocking the boat, if you aren’t risking anything or potentially making anybody angry. Anger and risk are scary, and they send that little dude in your brain into panic mode, and he flips that switch from certain safety to imminent death. So if even the thought of changing something or speaking up in a confrontation makes you feel anxious, let me reassure you once again that you are 100% normal. Fear is a very real part of our human experience and change can be especially fearful, it can be scary for caregivers. It’s because we are going to have to deal with family if we want to change and our families are our tribes.
And so remember when you have a conflict with your tribe or in this case, your family member, your brain is probably going to flip out and it’s going to flip that imminent death switch. And your fear response is going to kick into high gear. So unless you’ve learned how to respond differently in that kind of situation, you’re very likely to fall back into those old habits and behaviors, ones that keep you physically safe by seeking pleasure, avoiding pain, and minimizing the calories you expend.
So using myself as an example here, I have to tell you that I still don’t exactly like confrontations, but learning about my own brain has helped me so much to be able to respond differently in confrontation situations. You see, now I understand my very human response to fear and to the idea of change, and I understand that my brain sees that as a threat and it wants to keep me alive. And it helps me to understand this about myself, because now I can instead decide what kind of threat I’m facing and I can practice in advance how I’m going to respond in a situation like that. Today, now I do something very different than I used to. I can actually stay in a very difficult conversation that years ago would have sent me running for the hills. I’ve also learned that any of us actually can train to react differently in this way.
Now I’ve done this work myself, so I know that it’s not hard work exactly, but it’s really like building any muscle that you would train. It does take a lot of repetition and consistency over time. And the results for me have been incredible. I guess I’d have to say this has been life changing for me because I’ve been able to have some very, very challenging and scary conversations with my family members, certainly more so over the past 10 years that I’ve been practicing this. I want to tell you that this is something my clients work on with me a lot too.
The good news here for you and for me and for everybody who happens to be human, like we are, is that we can learn to respond differently if we want in challenging situations. Even as caregivers, we can learn to manage our brains even when our brains are being a big jerk about it, the way they tend to be, so that we can make change happen in our lives whenever we want.
Thank you so much for listening. You can learn more about me and about all of this work at facilitatoronfire.net. That’s facilitatoronfire.net. And there, you can also sign up for notifications about new podcast episodes. And that will be in my newsletter, which is also called From One Caregiver to Another. If you want almost daily doses of straight talk for family caregivers who want to learn how to improve their own lives, this is not about becoming a better caregiver. This is about living your own life. You can follow me on Instagram and there’s a link for that in the show notes. If you liked this episode, please leave a review because that’s going to help other caregivers find their way here too. And definitely tell a friend who also happens to be a caregiver. I can’t wait to be here with you again in the next episode, From One Caregiver to Another.
Kay Coughlin, CEO and Chief Facilitator of Facilitator on Fire, has a dream to create a world that is generously inclusive of all adult generations. The best place to connect with Kay is on Instagram.
“Caregiver Coaching” is for family caregivers who are ready to improve their own life. Facilitator on Fire’s “Building Trust Across Generations” seminar helps leaders and managers build amazing teams that are attractive to people of all ages. Kay’s keynote address, “Top Myths of Leading Generations,” helps businesses see the hard costs of miscommunication between generations.