August 30, 2017

A Sneaky way our Prehistoric Brains can Sabotage Us.

Is love your “charging tiger?”

The other night, while I was devouring my new book, Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., I came across a few paragraphs about avoidance and where it comes from.

Hanson writes that our “brain is built more for avoiding than for approaching.” He says that’s because “it’s the negative experiences, not the positive ones, that have generally had the most impact on survival.”

He goes on to give examples: If you miss your opportunity to hook up with a sexy partner, you can always find another one. But if you miss your opportunity to dodge a charging saber-toothed tiger, you’re dead. No second chance. So, how does that prehistoric behavior apply to today’s Western world where there’s virtually no threat of charging tigers?

Well, according to scientific research, we still desperately try to control and protect ourselves from perceived threats. It’s almost as if our brain doesn’t distinguish between a charging tiger or a partner who is placing a pretty serious demand for commitment on us. Our brain doesn’t see the difference between an attacking mammoth and a nagging heap of responsibilities piled high on our desks. In our evolved brains, these scenarios are all seen as equally unpleasant threats that need to be avoided.

That got me thinking about how I spent nearly a lifetime chasing after bad relationships. I would get hooked on guys who barely knew how to love me, or who, even worse, didn’t love me at all. And when the relationship would fail despite a gazillion attempts on my part to fix it, there I’d be, crying on my pillow over yet another failed relationship, wondering why on earth I wasn’t good enough or worthy enough for true love.

The reality is that I was avoiding love. The more I chased after toxic, unavailable, abusive partners and focused on fixing something in that relationship that could never be fixed, the more I was avoiding myself and avoiding the ultimate chance for a healthy, loving relationship.

To me, love was the charging tiger.

The trouble is, I didn’t see it that way. I wasn’t able to recognize that I was actually in avoidant mode. I wasn’t able to see that love, intimacy, and closeness were the perceived threats because my behavior, by all accounts, reflected a woman who was seeking those things.

Strangely, I was seeking the opposite. And like it or not, actions don’t always relay what’s in our hearts. We’re only human. We get lost. We send mixed signals to ourselves and others. And, we’ve become so evolved, layered, and complicated that our logical brains have amazingly creative ways of protecting us when we don’t particularly need it.

In my brain, because true love and intimacy were such grand mysteries to me, and concepts that scared the heck out of me, I dodged them and went after relationships that were far safer. Sure, these bad relationships were more painful. But, they allowed me to avoid the really scary stuff.

And so, the more I committed fully to a non-committed individual, the more I was able to steer clear of meeting my essential needs, which was difficult for me to do. And the more I remained anchored to fantasy land (he’ll come around someday…), the more I was protecting myself from a reality that overwhelmed me. And the more I avoided love, the less I learned about it and the scarier it became. Worse, I was avoiding taking care of myself mentally, emotionally, and physically. I was avoiding making responsible, safe choices by choosing people who didn’t respect me, who were not kind to me, and who really didn’t want to be close to me.

I was avoiding growing up and all that entails. Those things were the true threats to my well-being and so, every bad relationship I threw myself into was my safe harbor. Or so I thought.

What is your safe harbor? What are you avoiding? What is your “charging tiger?” We need to ask ourselves these questions in order to see clearly into our nature. I had to ask myself, “Am I built to avoid love or face it?” That question was a challenge to me and one in which I was eventually able to answer.

And, while we may be prone to our prehistoric biology, we have, luckily, evolved enough to recognize and re-evaluate what is truly life-threatening versus what is merely uncomfortable or awkward.

My brain now graciously allows me to rethink why I do what I do and allows me to change my behavior if need be. And—back to Buddha’s Brain—Hansen suggests that ultimately, love over avoidance wins out. “[L]ove has been painstakingly bred by evolution to be more powerful—and more central to your deepest nature.”

So, the advantages of love to our survival, in the big scheme of things, weigh more than running from a tiger that’s not really there.

Author: Tracy Shields 
Image: Courtesy of Author; Pixabay
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Danielle Beutell
Social Editor: Lieselle Davidson
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Tracy Shields