The human brain is remarkable. We are hard-wired for survival. This is handy, since most of us would prefer to stay alive. But it does mean your mind can play tricks on you.
Traumatic and painful events are imprinted on our memory clearly so we remember next time to avoid a similar situation. Back when we were living in caves, this kept us alive. A saber-toothed tiger scares the beejezus out of you while picking berries. Next time you’re picking berries, the anxiety reminds you to keep an eye out for tigers.
But once we reach adulthood in our present century, the majority of the threats we encounter are mental, not physical. To our caveman brain, these threats are as real as tigers.
So that same survival mechanism goes into action after you’ve been painfully dumped. Your caveman brain knows love=pain, just like tiger=pain. So you avoid meeting people or getting involved. You hold your heart at a distance. – maybe even sub-consciously. You explain your avoidance of new relationships with rationalizations. “I don’t have time” is a popular one.
Using this Journaling Prompt
We learn from our mistakes. Some situations are best avoided a second time. But you need to distinguish between actual threats and harmless situations your caveman brain has hard-wired as DANGER. We have to get crystal clear about why exactly we feel the way we’re feeling.
There’s a journaling prompt that can help. It goes like this:
What does this remind me of?
Identifying the traumatic event your brain hard-wired can help you decide whether the same caution is necessary in this new situation. It may be a false alarm.
Here’s an example.
One of my friends, who’s normally quite dependable, totally forgets that we have plans. I call her from the restaurant and she is extremely apologetic and embarrassed.
I’m pretty pissed. I feel angry, hurt. Slighted. My brain starts jabbering. “I guess I’m just not important to her at all. In fact, it’s like I don’t even exist! How can she just forget we have plans? I’m tired of being walked all over and forgotten about…” Lather, rinse, repeat.
Except I can look at my reaction to the situation and ask myself if these feelings are genuine. Am I really feeling slighted, or is this just my caveman brain looking out for my survival? I turn to a blank page of my journal and answer the question, “What does this remind me of?”
Oh… right. This reminds me of how I felt when I was perpetually blown off by someone else. My ex-friend who flaked out on me 79.8% of the time – without seeming overly concerned. The one who would initiate plans and then cancel if something better came along. The one who made me feel like a second class citizen most of the time. (Which explains why she’s an ex-friend.)
So now I can look at this situation – my dependable friend having a brain fart – and consciously compare it with the traumatic situation my brain is identifying as DANGER! TIGER! and I realize they are totally different.
Even though my body is reacting to the feeling of being slighted with a fat dose of adrenaline, anger, and hurt feelings, I can quickly calm them by reminding myself in writing that although this feels like what happened with friend X, it’s totally different.
Thanks for looking out for me, caveman brain, but it’s a false alarm!
I immediately cut my friend some slack. Of course it’s okay, apology accepted. She’s been overloaded lately. I know what it’s like to over-commit and lose track of what day it is. All her past actions have indicated she respects me and is invested in our friendship.
Ooops.. Wrong Relationship
You might find this journaling prompt handy to use in your amorous relationships, as well.
When you’ve been burned in the past, it’s easy to jump to the same conclusions with your new mate. That’s your survival mechanism taking good care of you. But you can use your higher brain functioning to recognize the distinction and prevent making a mountain out of a mole hill.
I use this prompt all the time. Without realizing it, I’m fuming while washing plates. “Why do I have to do all the domestic crap like I’m some hired hand?! He doesn’t even appreciate it.” Except when writing it out, I recognize an old reaction that’s no longer applicable. Wrong relationship. In fact, he did the dishes yesterday.
So next time you’re feeling hurt, scared, or slighted, take out your journal and ask yourself what this reminds you of. Sometimes the situation warrants a good freak out. A lot of the time it doesn’t.
You’ll improve your relationships and learn to soothe your own frazzled nerves more easily. Save all that energy for something positive, like another shot at dinner.