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March 14, 2021

5 Ways to Balance the Two Apes in our Minds (& become Less Reactive).

Humans are naturally resilient.

Our DNA comes from stern stock—namely great apes, who are tough critters.

As a bipedal hominid species, we have overcome nature itself and the most heinous social and economic atrocities to create an advanced society. And yet, if I am honest, some days it seems to be a miracle that we are not still scrounging around in caves fighting for a rib-eye.

Something is compelling about the friction we experience, otherwise known as stress. The electrical buzz that has got us to where we stand on two feet today is truly remarkable. We all feel it. And the fiction we create about who we are and the cause of that stress is equally fascinating.

The problem is that most of us mix these signals up regularly.

We have two ape minds—one dynamic and one rational. We know intellectually that it is a bad idea to call our mother-in-law a demented bat—but part of us has to do it. If we don’t, maybe she will destroy our marriage or ruin our baked bundt cake. We feel driven to make those words stick.

Why? Is bundt cake that important?

No.

Essentially, we want reality, or in this case, our mother-in-law, to be a different person.

The friction ape jump-starts the fiction ape—every time.

Friction on its own is just anxiety born from various stimuli. Fiction causes us to want to change things—and in extreme cases, destroy them. We are bound to misinterpret these signals. The fiction machine in our heads kicks in, and we start catastrophizing; we say things we don’t mean. We wade deeper into fear—a primary emotion.

Fight and flight are not useless. We evolved because of them. And they still serve us when we encounter real danger.

So it is likely a bad idea to rely on a built-in search and destroy the system to maintain our most cherished relationships. But until we tap into what makes both brains tick, we won’t know the difference between a banana and a baseball bat.

Fear drives a lot of decisions, and fear is not rational.

We are prone to react poorly to stress when we are overworked, under considerable stress, or simply tired.

Everyone has experienced what happens when something rubs us the wrong way. We create an entire narrative that is far more extreme than what stimulated us.

Indeed you’ve either acted this way or know someone who has. The most common mistake is that we make to confuse the constant friction and tension with total fatality. We conflate the natural friction of life with the fiction in our heads. Some might say that we are so addicted to drama that we create stress in its absence.

Emotions are real but not permanent. They are literally electrical signals that indicate how our body is experiencing certain stimuli—and therefore, by design, temporary.

Let’s talk about that wiring.

The interior part of our brains, known as the amygdala, reaches back into our evolutionary past and keeps us wired for only two modes: fight or flight.

When our brains sense a potential threat to safety, the amygdala kicks in and starts flooding an area of the brain called the locus coeruleus, awakening the body to prepare for either fight or flight. The brain is jolted into defense mode. The locus coeruleus triggers norepinephrine release, which mobilizes sugars from around the body to fuel an adequate stress response and activates the sympathetic nervous system.

This system is responsible for our evolution and has compelled us—made us resident for millennia.

All-day long, while we are looking at spreadsheets, taking meetings, and bustling here and there, we use an antiquated operating system.

A system that is really geared for a long walk in the woods. The Neanderthal life that predominated our existence was not about digital interface, traffic, long periods of sitting, and staring at a computer screen.

With the sympathetic nervous system’s activation, the body is primed to fight—and at this point, you can’t tell the difference between a grizzly bear or an annoying colleague.

Your muscles will tense up as your body prepares itself to either fight or escape. You need this energy if you’re going to start running soon, but you don’t need it if you have a bad day and your wife is yelling at you.

Like most of us, I have done and said stupid things in my life—hardly anything that can be construed as heinous but nonetheless hurtful. This is part of growth. However, I have learned that it is too easy to default into the system without a method or practice to alleviate a natural response.

“All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story.” Boris Cyrulnik, in Resilience: How Your Inner Strength Can Set You Free from the Past.

It is funny to think that the same biological capacity we have for bearing sorrow—call it resilience—is actually at odds with the intellectual part of us that can write poems about it. Taking responsibility for our bullsh*t means distinguishing between the two ape minds and getting them on a leash.

The friction-bearing ape and poem-writing ape need a calm handler.

When we can reconcile the friction without creating unnecessary fiction, we will be inclined to good relations and calm interactions.

A frictionless life might not be possible—a relatively friction-free one is.

Here are five ways to help you drop the two ape minds:

1. Walk your forest ape.

If you have a tendency to fly off the handle or indulge in potty mouth, blame others and go kinda nuts—hold it. Go for a walk and come back.

2. Ask other apes for help.

Be transparent and ask your family and colleagues to gently remind you that you are working on it. They will gladly do it. Sometimes when we act horrendously, even though we had good intentions—we are keen to get stuck in our actions’ shame. The only way to move past this is to bravely own it—clean your side of the street.

3. Apologize immediately to the other ape.

If you can catch yourself—apologize straight away. Here’s what that sounds like: “Hey, I am sorry. My emotions got the better of me, and I started off down the wrong road.” Being transparent and acknowledging that others might find your attitude unsavory goes a long way for your own peace of mind. Don’t let yourself get away with being an aggressive gorilla.

4. Let the two apes write or draw.

I get up around five or six every morning to get my thoughts down—what I call my morning pages (what you are presently reading). I work through what is emerging from my unconscious sleep, from the day past and the day ahead. By exercising these muscles before our day kicks in—with a bit of good Earl Grey and some soft music (I listen to Gregorian Chants), we set the brain up for a more calm and peaceful patterning for the day. Gift yourself quiet time—it pays later on.

5. Go find a professionally level-headed ape.

I am careful not to set myself up as some kind of armchair shrink who can give you good advice. I encourage you to look for an excellent therapist to help to guide you through the emotional land mines. Reach out to your family, church, community for a good therapist. More often than not, the part of us compelled to act outcomes from an archaic hurt of unresolved trauma. Get in touch with it. Contact with the material that serves only to undermine our good intentions is vital.

No one can solve our problems—but we can do good work by learning to tame the parts of ourselves that make life tougher than it needs to be.

~

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