In a previous article, we talked about conditioning, which is the process by which you learn what is appropriate (and expected of you by others) and what is not. This conditioning starts basically at birth and continues through your formative years and into adulthood. It guides your behaviors, influences what you pursue, and steers your definition of what constitutes a successful life.
You learn early on what your parents and other adults in your life think you should do – like eat your peas – and what they think you should not do – like stick your finger in an electrical socket. When you’re doing what they think you should do, you get kudos and positive reactions, which feel good. And when you’re doing what they think you shouldn’t do, you get punishments and negative reactions, which feel bad. As you get older and go to school, this same process of conditioning works with teachers and peers. And eventually, as an adult, they get reinforced by friends, romantic partners, and professional colleagues.
And here’s where your brain comes in. Basically, your brain is amazing and at its most fundamental level, it is geared to ensure your survival. Which is good! Inside your brain, there is something called the amygdala, which is also known as the “fight or flight” part of your brain. When your amygdala senses danger, it sets of alarm bells and sends signals to other parts of your body (like your adrenal glands) which get your body geared up to protect you and help you get out of a situation that is being perceived as a threat. When your amygdala is calm and doesn’t sense danger, other cool things are going on like the release of feel-good chemicals (like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin) which are associated with feelings of calm, happiness, and bonding.
Your brain, and therefore the rest of you, is happy when things are calm and peaceful. And your brain, and therefore the rest of you, is not happy when things are stressful and there’s a possible danger lurking around.
When you’re doing something you’ve been conditioned to think of as what you’re “supposed” to do, your brain is comfortable and calm because it doesn’t sense danger. But when you start doing things that aren’t what you’ve been conditioned to do – for example, when you stop meeting others’ expectations or doing things that others want you to do – your brain may perceive this as danger and have a bit of a freakout.
So when you’re in the process of finding your own way, especially when it involves doing something different from what others expect of you, your brain will send off little alerts that what you’re wanting to do may be dangerous. Because there may be social repercussions – like ostracization or people being displeased with you for not doing what’s expected – your brain wants you to avoid that. Your brain, instead, encourages you to do the comfortable, safe thing, which is to continue doing what you’ve been conditioned to do and fulfill expectations that others have set for you.
Doing things your own way, and for your own reasons, takes courage and confidence. It requires being gutsy because it means stepping out of that safe zone and standing on your own to do what makes sense for you, even when your brain is setting off alarm bells and fearing that doing so is dangerous.
In my experience, the best way to overcome this is to gain clarity about what it is you really want, find people who support you in your pursuit of that, and overcome your brain’s desire to hold you back by thinking through obstacles and challenges and putting guardrails in place so that you can pursue your path even when it feels unlikely, impossible, or insecure. That’s getting gutsy.