Are Your Decisions from Your Evolved or Primitive Brain?
Decisions can be motivated by thoughtful consideration from our higher mind (frontal lobe/executive functions) or fear-based survival instincts (amygdala, impulses) from a more primitive mind. When decisions are informed by our higher mind, they are more likely to lead to positive outcomes. Alternatively, decisions driven by survival instincts from the past can hold us back.
John, a successful engineer, had episodes of procrastination, doubt, and panic when making decisions. He would ruminate indecisively.
Growing up, John’s dad was anxious and opinionated. Fearful of his dad’s criticism and anger, John tried to stay under the radar or figure out the “right” answer. As an adult, he re-experienced the fear of a boy facing high stakes and lacking the resources to cope.
Here, the cause of John’s paralysis wasn’t his anxiety, but the loss of access to his higher mind reflective capacities and perspective. Re-experiencing is like an emotional flashback or dreaming. We’re embedded in the story and lack awareness that it’s only a state of mind.
Compartmentalized fears from childhood can intrude into present-day reactions without our awareness, complicating decisions and clouding judgment. Ingrained reactions, behavior patterns, and inner dialogues — shaped by attachment experiences growing up — are childhood adaptations that develop for emotional survival that can persist out of context, into adulthood.
Similar to an oversensitive smoke detector, alarm reactions can be activated in the absence of actual danger, triggered by situations that unconsciously resemble anxiety-producing situations from the past. When this happens we re-experience overwhelmed states of mind, believing we’re in trouble when we’re not, and underestimating our present-day ability to cope.
Typical fears from childhood include fear of:
- Being wrong (from having been criticized)
- Exposure/failure (from having been shamed)
- Having hope/disappointment (from unpredictability)
- Being hurt (from unsafety, abuse)
- Loss/abandonment (from emotional unavailability, loss)
- Rejection/loss of approval (from criticism, authoritarian parenting)
In an improved scenario, as John understood what was happening and developed his reflective higher mind, he practiced stepping back, noticing the fear, and recognizing it as an outdated instinct. He learned to catch the anxious, negative inner dialogue and break the spell — taking a walk and listening to music (a nonverbal, right-brain activity) to shift his mindset and disengage from thinking.