Did you know that your brain and nervous system are constantly looking for protection and connection?
We long for relationship, bonding, and intimacy, yet our limbic and reptilian brains scan for threat and safety 24/7. They track for perceived threats for our physical safety, but also for threats to our sense of belonging, self-image, or emotional integrity. The most innocuous instances, like someone vocalizing an opinion opposite to ours, can threaten our sense of stability, security, or worth. To prevent pain and psychological collapse, subconscious defense mechanisms ignite in our mind-body.
As primal creatures, we are bound to be reactive. So how can we develop presence, leadership, and deeply fulfilling intimate relationships when we’re innately equipped with animalistic wiring?
It starts by understanding this:
One of the ultimate human paradoxes is that we long for connection and
yet we automatically protect ourselves for fear of being hurt, abandoned, betrayed, or rejected.
This means that within us, at all times, two primary programs of survival co-exist:
Connection/Nurturing: Our need to feel loved, nurtured, supported, and emotionally regulated.
Protection/Safety: Our need to track potential threats so we can maintain safety, both physically and emotionally.
When we feel threatened, our reptilian and limbic brains ignite a fight, flight, or freeze survival response.
This perpetual inner conflict can leave us with intense emotional swings, physical tension, and unconscious reactive tendencies.
Getting to know your unique triggers
We each have unique triggers and longings, based in our early conditioning. Do you know what yours are?
You may have a sense of your personal triggers, based on the patterns you’ve observed in your relationships with friends, family, or colleagues.
We all develop adaptive patterns based on our early childhood years, designed to support and sustain a sense of self and safety. From an early age, before we can verbalize our experience, we build an inner map of how to respond to people to survive, both physically and psychologically.
Our brain and nervous system build maps to track our experiences and code them into belief systems that help us make predications about safety and threat. Those predictions are based on early experiences of ourselves in relationship with our caregivers, who initially represent the safety of the world at large. For example: As an infant, when I cry, does someone notice and help me (safe) or am I ignored (abandoned and alone)? How does that translate into how often I ask for help as an adult? Did the infant feel seen and nourished by eye contact and touch, or was the caregiver distracted, leaving the infant feeling like they don’t exist and their needs are not registered as important or valuable? How does that translate into the adult’s willingness to name their needs now?
This process originates in the womb, and belief systems about ourselves and how the world works continue to be built upon over time. For the first 2 years beliefs are based on nonverbal experiences of sensations, emotional tones of parents in response to behaviors and energy. This becomes the baseline for subconscious beliefs; they exist and map themselves into our story of the world without our conscious awareness.
I often teach my clients about the 5 fundamental needs that all human beings have. These are developmental needs that emerge from infancy through, roughly, the first 8 years of life.
Here are our 5 fundamental needs, developed from 0-8 years old:
1. Seeking Safety
2. Seeking Connection
3. Seeking Power
4. Seeking Freedom
5. Seeking Validation
When our needs aren’t met by our primary caretakers, we develop unique (yet universal) responses, that unless consciously addressed, will deem our fate in future relationships and control many aspects of our lives unbeknownst to us.
For each missing experience, each unmet need, we unconsciously adapt in ways that later define our relationships to ourselves, others, and the world.
Here are some examples of common adaptations:
THE SENSITIVE CREATIVE
Most people who don’t experience a consistent sense of safety and belonging in relationship as a child become sensitive, which yields high levels of creative expression. They withdraw to focus on their internal experience, becoming focused on their own ideas, imagination, and fantasy world. This allows them to become incredibly creative, intelligent, and innovative, but often at the expense of their relationships. If this is you, you may lack a basic sense of safety and trust in relationship, and end up withholding who you are or feeling confused by your emotions. Your tendency might be to become “invisible.” You may feel fear and anxiety when in contact with others, and often feel isolated and alone.
When we’re not adequately supported as a child and aren’t sure that our needs matter, or when we are rewarded with love and attention only when we care for our caregivers, we may become overly focused on others. We become the nurturer, the one who holds a family together or keeps a group cohesive. Yet, there may still be a sense of emotional deprivation, an unspoken feeling that connection is in short supply. In relationships, it’s hard to find the balance between dependence and independence. If this is you, it may feel difficult to ask others for support, even though you give plenty; you may wait until collapse or exhaustion to turn to relationship to help you.
THE CHARMING PERSUASIVE LEADER
There’s a time in our development when we naturally need to experience a sense of independence, power and freedom. This is a time to build self-esteem and confidence, without losing our safety and connection to loved ones. This happens around toddlerhood. If our need for self-expression and autonomy is discouraged or met with disapproval, or if we are shamed for our self-expression, we start to protect our vulnerability. As an adult, we might seek positions of power and authority over others to avoid feeling the pain of our own tender heart. If this is you, you may hide behind your charm and powers of persuasion so others won’t see your fear of being hurt and looking vulnerable. You may maintain your social standing by focusing on others and their needs, so people feel connected to you even though you’re hiding in those social skills. You may be a generous and successful leader, an excellent public speaker, and a versatile and admired creator... but have difficulty experiencing true vulnerability, authenticity, and intimacy in personal relationships.
There are many more adaptive strategies, each unique with nuanced complexities. Some people learn to become overly responsible, which earns them accolades but often feels like a burdened and enduring path of burnout and martyrdom. Many of us, especially in this culture, become over-achieving perfectionists who correlate productivity with our worth. Some of us use humor or mental prowess to hide or inspire attention.
These adaptive strategies give us a glimpse into how our psyche and internal landscape developed from our early conditioning. As you explore your relational tendencies as an adult, you may flash back to your childhood emotions.
Understanding the human operating system
The body holds our history, including what occurred before we had words to verbalize what we were experiencing, as well as ancient collective memories passed through our DNA and our lineage’s evolution. Epigenetics has validated, through extensive testing and research, that we carry the trauma and history of our ancestors in our DNA. We each are born into circumstances that impact us on a deep level. Whatever we experience as traumatic becomes stored in our bodies, and we begin to create strategies to work around the pain at a subconscious level.
To identify our trigger patterns, we have to pay attention, study our thoughts and emotional patterns, and get to know what creates distress and reactivity within us. When we understand how we operate, we become more compassionate with ourselves, and can begin to make new conscious choices to address familiar patterns.
The body can be a sacred vessel to experience our spirit in action and connect us to our wisdom and higher self for healing and growth.
Our body and physical condition reveal the looping patterns of distorted thoughts we carry, as well as our emotional suffering and untold stories. Throughout our journey of healing and integration, the body is a powerful messenger that delivers information about the war zone within us. Repressed material, emotions, or beliefs about ourselves can manifest through diseases, chronic illness, and a variety of physical symptoms.
Your primal nature
We are wild creatures in a world that is often seeking to tame, shame, and cage us. Our “cultural norms” have created order and control by exiling aspects of our primal nature and wildness. Our society’s rules of suppression now live inside us, making it hard for us to imagine that we can be bigger and wilder than our expectations. Still, many of us are tearing and shredding the boxes that confine and suffocate us.
This suppression and oppression has yielded a diminished trust in our own intuition. Relying on our intellect as our sole channel of wisdom has cut us off from the multi-dimensional nature of our brilliant primal power. The risk it takes, to drop from our head into our heart and body, is not for the faint of heart. It calls us to meet the vulnerable parts of us that we’ve been protecting and hiding with self-images and beliefs. The reward for our courage is freedom, and remembering that the truth of who we are is pure love.
Reactivity, emotional swings, dark thoughts, and painful habits are not who we are; they’re early patterns that formed to protect something precious inside that felt missed, violated or betrayed. Many of these looping patterns of mind-emotions are planted when we naturally ingest cultural messaging at home, school, teachers, sports coaches, friends and media. Recognizing emotional triggers and voices of doubt or judgment - such as, “I’m a fraud”, “If you really knew me,” or “I just need to try harder” - allow us to individuate from the reactivity as patterns rather than who we are.
The process of individuation from identifying with these patterns of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors is an integral component of embodiment.
beliefs are electrical patterns
Our operating systems are organized like icebergs. The tip above the waterline represents our conscious awareness, which drives 10-20% of our behavior. Below the waterline is our subconscious, which drives 80-90% of our behavior.
The subconscious drives 80-90% of our behavior.
We are inherently efficient map makers and it begins in our DNA and brain wiring. Superhighways (well worn habitual neuropathways in the brain) are literally a collective of neurons (cells) that electrically fire and wire together based on our experience and beliefs in order to optimize our response time to conditions and circumstances in our lives.
Neuropathways are the foundation of our belief systems and hold our perspective about who we are, how the world operates, what we can and cannot expect from ourselves and the world. Even as adults, we continue to perceive the world through the lens of our early conditioning and the blueprint of beliefs we inherited. We react to the threats that have burrowed into our psyche, which, un-examined, run our present life and the ways we respond to every experience along the way.
80-90% of what we believe, say, and feel is subconscious, which means that without further investigation, our lives are run on autopilot.
Understanding the basics of brain architecture can help us have more compassion for ourselves and each other. Practicing radical self-acceptance for our reactive tendencies gives us a sense of safety, which we need in order to begin the work of noticing our patterns, taking responsibility, remaining curious, and making new choices.
Our brains evolved alongside our species’s development and growth. We are wired for connection, and the evolution of our brain demonstrates this on a biological level.
The 3 basic areas of the brain are:
1. Reptilian (brain stem)
2. Limbic (mammalian)
3. Cortex (self-reflective muscle and higher thinking)
Here is a quick study guide.
Reptilian: Located in the brainstem, where it connects our spine to our brain, this area drives the operation of our body so we don’t have to use brain power to think. It automatically regulates blood pressure, heart beating, body temperature, salivary glands, digestive enzyme release, eye blinking, and so on.
Limbic: Located in the center back part of the brain, this area regulates our emotions and was the birth of our capacity as a species to express nurturing care and consideration for life outside of us. This area includes a small almond-shaped grey matter called the amygdala, which is the “alarm bell” for threat. The limbic and reptilian brains communicate closely to track and respond to emotional and physical threats by initiating fight, flight or freeze responses, according to what will serve us most.
Cortex: Located at the top of the brain, the prefrontal cortex is situated behind the forehead with a slight winged expansion to both sides. This center is the newest kid on the block in terms of brain development, and is our meaning maker. It is responsible for our capacity to self-reflect, plan, create, interpret the intuitive senses we receive from our body, and make new choices that differ from old patterns. This part of the brain is what allows us to consciously evolve and interrupt ways of being that are outdated and no longer serving us.
A reptile’s brain, such as a frog’s or lizard’s, hasn’t evolved to include limbic or cortical development. The absence of a limbic brain means a lizard feels no attachment or nurturing affection towards their offspring or relatives. They indicate no signs of distress or impact if someone eats their young, and they sometimes eat their own eggs. The limbic brain was developed when mammals began to carry babies in a womb, give, birth and fed their offspring with milk from the mother’s breast. Many mammals are born blind and are completely reliant on the caregiver to clean, feed and protect them. This parental attunement to a baby’s needs wouldn’t occur without a brain that is wired to nurture, protect, and love.
The addition of our pre-frontal cortex is an invitation into discipline, courage, and radical truth-telling. Awareness opens the door to responsibility. Outdated patterns, beliefs and habits can transform once we are aware that they are happening in the first place.
The reptilian brain maintains our physical body's intricate mechanics of pumping and connectivity.
Our limbic brain is responsible for our sense of emotional and nurturing safety (connection) and warns us when we need to protect our beliefs (protection).
Finally, our cortex helps us make meaning of the data received through the communication channels of the reptilian and limbic brain.
Rewiring and upgrading our operating system
Our brain can rewire how it operates. Science calls this phenomenon “neuroplasticity.” This is not a passive process; it requires active presence, courage, and hard work. Excavating subconscious material and ways of operating is a walk in the dark; we can’t see the landscape without the light of support, intention, and compassion.
Self-Awareness and Noticing: This work begins with honestly noticing our behavior; evaluating feedback we receive from others about our impact; and studying our thoughts, emotional patterns, and beliefs about ourselves and the world.
Courage and Ownership: We can’t change what we don’t take responsibility for. Being honest takes a tremendous amount of courage, especially when what we’re naming is a pattern that has kept us safe in some way. Withdrawing, hiding, blaming, and judging others has been a way to keep ourselves from further pain and our own vulnerability. Tackling this takes guts.
Discipline and Support: Suspending habitual ways of being and studying our beliefs is a threatening endeavor to our egoic protection and adaptive strategies. To be successful, we need discipline, support, and whopping doses of compassion and humor. Change occurs over time with a lot of repetition; this is where the rubber meets the road. Our familiar and wired brain patterns will seduce us into automatic action, and we must see this, make a new choice, and act upon it over and over again, until a new pathway in the brain is formed as an alternative “neural superhighway.” Bucking the familiar is difficult, even if the familiar is destructive and painful, which is why support, encouragement and accountability is essential. My success is partially due to my friends and confidants who stand by me as I wrestle with myself, offer me loving direct feedback about my blindspots, and celebrate when I break an outdated pattern and choose something new.
EVOLUTIONARY BRAIN FRIENDSHIP: THE LIMBIC BRAIN AND PRE-FRONTAL CORTEX
The limbic brain downloads 4 million bits of data per second. Of these 4 million bits of data, only 2200 bits are sent to the prefrontal cortex for meaning-making. That means that our limbic system is matching all this data to our history, our memories, and our beliefs that spawned from the nonverbal template of our early life experiences (aka subconscious operating system). This is why we often exhibit behaviors and patterns in relationships that confuse us, that we can’t stop with an earnest intellectual promise. The body must come along for transformation and integration.
If we’re not present and aware of our mind-body dialogue, we will respond to perceived threats by habit. Subconsciously our amygdala (part of the limbic brain) tells us to draw our swords and shields, or turn on our adaptive strategies, to make it through the threat. The alternative is to cultivate a practice in which we use our cortex to self-reflect and observe our behaviors and patterns. We listen to our internal warning bells (emotions and physical sensations), and create space to observe, evaluate, check our assumptions, and suspend our habitual responses so we can make room for conscious choice.
For example, I’m very self-reliant, and I learned early on to be self-sufficient and take care of my needs. As an adult, when someone offers help, I often don’t even pause to ask myself if the support would be welcome; instead I blurt, “Oh, thanks, but I’ve got it.” Years ago, when I became aware of this subconscious habitual way of operating, I realized how much connection and support I was inadvertently shutting down. I was protecting my vulnerability by refusing to need anyone other than myself to function. As a kid, relying on others either wasn’t an option or felt too vulnerable. As an adult I’ve had to rewire and train my mind into a new way of being. Now, when an offer is made, I can watch my impulse to immediately dismiss the support and instead take the risk to open to it. Each time I suspect my habitual response of self-reliance arise I now can reflect, make a new choice to receive support to reinforce a new story for my limbic brain: that it’s okay to be supported; that it’s safe to have needs and to lean on others for help. Over time, having practiced this enough, my brain is rewiring to be less protective and more connective.
Scientists are discovering an anatomical shift occurring in the brain as they study neuroplasticity. As we consciously engage in a relationship between the limbic amygdala’s activation (fight, flight, or freeze) and the pre-frontal cortex’s meaning-making and self-reflection, a visual change occurs. Long fibers begin to grow downward like strands of hair, connecting the prefrontal cortex to the limbic brain. Scientists call this the Amygdala Hug. The cortex “hugs” the center of the limbic brain’s threat responder, the amygdala. Like a rational and loving friend, it suggests that perhaps it’s not an emergency after all. There is soothing and nurturing happening between parts of our brain, which allows us to rewire and transform outdated beliefs, behaviors that no longer serve us.
We are wired to connect and protect. We are human mammals who long for intimacy and connection, and subconsciously protect ourselves from the pain of loss and disconnection. However, our culture’s trauma patterns have created hyper-vigilant ways of operating that make it difficult to relax, surrender, receive, and trust.
But you don’t have to be trapped in your history. Understanding your primal intelligence and wiring is the first step through the gates towards radical self-acceptance, connection, freedom, and love.
Our body and inner wisdom want to return to a steady baseline of homeostasis and harmony that paves the way for new levels of connection and relationship.