Ways to Be Less Crazy: Train Your Lizard

Today in my column on The Hairpin, I answered a question from a gal looking to understand why she finds it so hard to break up with her sub-optimal boyfriend, even when she knows darn well it ain’t right. Why does she/anyone stay with a bad boyfriend? I responded by talking about the ancient wig-out center of the brain — the lizard brain — which often goes bananas when we contemplate leaving a romantic relationship. Other things make her flip out, too: body image stuff, taking a career risk, speaking up on your own behalf in the presence of people she perceives to be more powerful.

Basically, your lizard wants you to sit tight and shut up, which is good advice if your goal in life is simply “don’t die” but bad advice if you actually want to live.

Now, she is trying to help, but she's not exactly what we'd call feminist, nor is she reasonable. And all her needless flipping out can make it hard to execute even the most-needed life changes — it can keep you on square one forever.

Clearly, if we want to contain our personal craziness and create lives we actually want to live, we must never ever let the lizard be in control. But how does one resist an urge so irresistible? Here are some concrete things to try.

1) Think hard, make good decisions, and write them down. Sometimes you can make a resolution and then in the heat of a lizardy panic, simply “forget” it. Which, remember, sets you back to square one or even before that! So write it down on Post-its, your hand, a sign on the wall — anywhere you will see your decision and remember it.

2) Get to know your lizard; pay attention to her. She is like a process that runs in the background of your brain, and the trickiest thing about her is how quickly she can go from Wigdom Level Mellow to Wigdom Level Incandescent. So be vigilant. Learn about how she works, what’s likely to set her off, and how it feels in your body when she starts to take over — this knowledge gives you the opportunity to notice and disrupt the pattern in real time. A curious-but-detached stance also gives you a little distance, which allows you to…

3) Muster some objectivity. When you feel yourself breaking out in scales, recognize what is happening and pour on as much reasonable, rational objectivity as you can. Remember that the lizard is just one small trigger-happy part of your brain, just one stream of data that is available to you out of many, just one way of looking at things. There are other ways, too, and you have access to them in every moment.

4) Reason with yourself. Stand up to the lizard when she states things that you know to be false. Like, if you are two weeks post-well-considered break-up, and you feel yourself panicking and wanting to call him, ask yourself stuff like:

  • How will I feel this time next week if I call him? If I don’t call him?
  • What basis do I have to think that things will be different between us now?
  • What could he possibly say or do that would make things right? Is he likely to do or say that?
  • Will calling him do anything good for me?
  • How many times have I already played out this scenario? How many more times am I willing to do repeat it?

5) Distraction. Often, if you can put your attention on something besides what the lizard is freaking out about, you can calm down — we are all kind of like little children in this way. So find something shiny to look at until the freakout subsides. Get into The Wire finally, or whatever tremendous thing everyone is always telling you to get into.

6) Make something. This is a more advanced and even more effective version of distraction. Knit, draw, cook something yummy, play the guitar, work in the garden ... whatever is compelling to you. Pull your attention away from the lizard and put it on the amazingly humanizing process of Creation Itself. If you can get into a flow state, you will feel a thousand times better.

7) Call your girlfriend. Or your guyfriend. This is not just an excuse to link to a hilarious Robyn song, or a beautiful kitchen-table cover of it — it’s good advice! Your friends are not as close to your situation as you are, so they are bound to be more rational about it. Let them lend you some of their cool clear rationality. Let them love you and talk you through it and make you laugh — you would do the same for them, right? You don’t have to bear things alone!

8) Sweat it out. Forcibly put your attention on your body by moving it around. Take a walk or a bike ride and get some sunshine, or have an indoors dance party, or do some challenging yoga. Sweating gets all that wig-out energy out of your system faster.

What kinds of stuff do you do to manage your lizard-based craziness? How do you get through the panicky moments and stay the course?