By Angela Noel
March 1, 2018
My lizard brain recently freaked out.
In his 2010 book, Linchpin, Seth Godin writes, “The lizard brain is hungry, scared, angry, and horny. The lizard brain only wants to eat and be safe. The lizard brain will fight (to the death) if it has to, but would rather run away. It likes a vendetta and has no trouble getting angry.” I would not want to meet my lizard brain in a dark alley.
The limbic cortex, aka the lizard brain, is the part of our gray matter responsible for making it very very hard to be our best selves sometimes. It wants to keep us safe, help us survive, even help us win competitions at work or at play. But all it knows is how to react, not how to respond reasonably and in appropriate proportion to a given situation.
And this is where my freaking out begins.
Going to an indoor waterpark in the the frozen Midwest on a holiday weekend sounded perfectly reasonable. So we rented a two-bedroom condo with good friends and prepared for fun.
Once we arrived, we unpacked, threw on some bathings suits and flip-flops, then herded our collective troop towards the chlorine paradise. But the closer we got to the high-ceilinged splash-fest, the more my heart pounded.
People, people everywhere and not a place to sit.
After we negotiated the slippery stairs, we avoided discarded towels and half-folded t-shirts piled in corners around the steamy room. Strollers and beach bags lined the walls. The lucky few had staked claims on chairs and alcoves, leaving all manner of detritus behind to mark territory as occupied. Our children wanted to jump into the lazy river or head down a slide. We adults just wanted a place to sit down and keep stuff dry.
Many bathing suited-people milled around with enormous plastic chalices covered by red lids with bendy giant straws. I wondered if I should get one just to prove I belonged.
Within a few minutes, we’d found a chair or two. Later, in the wave pool area, a table with enough chairs for us all opened up as if by magic. I credit Dan, our friend and husband to Jayme (my favorite Ironman) with snagging that spot. The people leaving the table had a twin stroller, and because Dan and Jayme have twins, it was easy enough to strike up a conversation. “Oh, are you leaving? Mind if we take your table?” Dan asked, after discussing the merits of a double stroller. “Sure. No problem,” they graciously replied.
Thus situated, we spent an agreeable afternoon trying to keep the children from drowning in the sea of bodies among the artificial waves, and wondering if the people sitting wall to wall for hours by the swim-up bar ever exited to use the bathroom.
By six we trooped back to the condo, tired, but happy with our first day.
Enter the lizard.
The next afternoon, after the arcade for the children (and the dads) and a nice walk and chat for the moms, we headed to the waterpark. We toted bags for clothing and cans of beverages, sandals, water socks, and towels.
Mistakenly, we thought a Sunday afternoon would be quieter. Instead, the swarm of bodies was thicker. People had pushed tables together and heaped pizza boxes and plastic chalices on every surface imaginable. Seemingly, the claim-staking had begun at the ten o’clock hour. We were hours late to the party and our luck of the day before failed us.
While the children and two adults headed for the water, I scoured the landscape for open territory. But an hour later, I was both table-less and forlorn. “Are you leaving?” I’d asked a dozen people as they shifted their configurations or toweled-off children who looked either sleepy or cranky or both. “Nope. Not yet.” I’d hear. My heart pounded each time I passed yet another prospect, hoping for the coveted spot.
Of course, I knew finding a table or a place to sit wasn’t life or death. And yet I felt the desperation rise.
No spot. Damn it. Still, no spot.
Resources were scarce, bodies all around. To make matters worse, the air felt (and was) heavy, sweaty, and wet. My lizard brain took hold. As two young men approached a family I was racing to intercept, I could feel my pulse quicken. “Mind if we grab this?” the one guy asked of the departing dad.
“Be my guest,” he replied. I wanted to weep.
“You probably didn’t see me heading this way?” said I, sarcasm dripping from my words. “Thanks a lot.” I hoped the daggers in my eyes would wound him.
The guy stared at me, his shoulders shrugging. He had no response. I turned on my flip-floppy heel and stalked away to prowl the tables some more.
Generally speaking, I am a nice person. I’d like to think I’m above-average nice. But, this poolside petri dish brought out the reptile in me like I haven’t seen in awhile.
Shortly after the incident, I confessed my sins to Dan and my husband, Paul. “I think I just lost my nice-human card,” I said.
“They have those?” Dan replied. I smiled.
Jayme came over minutes later, she’d found a chair. Just one. But it was enough. We moved the mountains of towels and clothes to the one chair. And soon after, the couple next to us departed. We had chairs. We had territory. It was ours. We had conquered. My lizard brain calmed.
Next, I took my turn in the wave pool monitoring the water intake and buoyancy of children. I let the waves soothe me. I held the hand of one of the little girls and tossed my son in the air just to hear him giggle. Soon, I was having fun.
I tried not to blame myself for being such a shrew to the boys who won the table-lottery. As Jayme pointed out, maybe yesterday in our table-triumph someone else was cursing us under his or her breath?
Practice and more practice.
Clearly, the lizard brain holds sway over us. It has a purpose, but it also holds us back. As aware as I am, as much as I KNEW I shouldn’t take my frustration out on these strangers, I couldn’t stop the words from falling out of my face.
The neuroanatomists who, in 1954, described the limbic system may not have had a Wisconsin poolside adventure in mind. But, addictive behaviors and certain emotions are the purview of the lizard brain. “If one were to poll individuals about “unexplainable” behaviors, there would be a lot of stories. . . ,”writes Dr. Joseph Troncale in Psychology Today. “How many times have we done something that we said we would not do, eaten something that we said we would not eat, and said something that we said we would not say?”
But, Dr. Troncale points out,”Understanding this automatic behavior allows us to surrender to what we cannot control. It frees us to do the next right thing by staying in the present rather than worrying about the future or being shamed and experience guilt about the past. It takes practice. And more practice.”
Perhaps there’s a chance I can get my nice-human card back after all.
Your turn: What kinds of situations bring out your lizard brain? How do you deal with it?