Do you ever wonder why you hold back when you know you ought to tell your partner how you’re feeling? You know what I’m talking about—that exchange between the two of you that took a left turn into a topic that hurt your feelings or made you feel upset or insecure. Perhaps your partner said something unintentionally hurtful, and it’s bugged you ever since. You tell yourself you really should say something so that it doesn’t fester, but you just…don’t. So, why is it so hard to bring it up?
I have an answer for you—and it’s not because you’re a big ol’ chicken. In order to explain it properly, however, I have to ask you to look back in time a bit—about 30,000 years, give or take, to when early humans began living in social groups.
Common sense could probably tell you that thirty thousand years ago, a human being’s survival depended upon his or her ability to stay safe, and to stay in the cave at night when all the saber-toothed tigers were out in the dark hunting for food.
Survival likely also depended upon the successful functioning of the social group, which required members to cooperate, conform, and share, and to not go off alone just because he got a wild hair because doing so would put the rest of the group in jeopardy.
What does this have to do with you not talking about your feelings with your honey? What do the habits of ancient people have to do with whether or not you tell your partner how hurt you felt when she made fun of the Spaghetti Surprise dinner you made for her last night?
Because human brains are hardwired to protect us in a particular way. This evolutionary hardwiring protected humans by making it easier to not take unnecessary chances, to not rock the boat, to conform—to do everything possible to be safe.
No risk-taking. No conflict, no drama. No chaos. Keep everything the same because as humans, we’ve got the sameness handled. Status quo equals predictability. Safety. Survival.
Of course, no one knows for certain how the brain worked all those millennia ago, but scientists do have a couple of ideas about how it works now, and how this evolutionary hardwiring helped humans to survive and thrive.
Think of this hardwiring as an override switch in a system that is much like the automatic “fight or flight” response we experience when we are frightened or threatened. Our override switch operates when we sense danger, a threat of some kind, and it temporarily overrides the reasoning part of the brain. It slides a different program into operation that is designed to increase our chances of survival by making things real, real simple.
It turns out that you—me—all of us humans—have about six seconds to initiate an alternative course of action in response to a threat before the primitive part of our brain kicks in with this automatic, override-switch, survival response.
Only in this case, instead of instructing us to run or stand and fight, the brain’s programming says…do nothing. Say nothing. Be very, very quiet. Blend into the background. Don’t rock the boat. Go along to get along. Let sleeping dogs lie. Stay the same. Be still. Be safe.
Allow the threat, whatever it is, to pass on by without noticing the human—the small, slow, hairless, clawless, relatively toothless and weak—hiding, quivering in the shadows. Thirty thousand years ago, it was only the clever human brain that allowed humans to survive these overwhelming odds, and to thrive.
In the present time, if you perceive a threat (such as, ‘oh, no, I have to have a difficult talk with my mate and we might have a big, ugly fight if I do’ kind of a threat), and you don’t interrupt your brain’s six-second override switch, then that’s it. You aren’t going to do or say anything. Your brain goes “let’s see…have a painful talk with our mate …or (override!)… just forget about it and watch some TV. Scary conversation…or (override!)… eat ice cream and have sex. Initiate a difficult talk or, (override!)… paint the bathroom.“ Anything but the threat that tripped your brain’s six-second override programming.
Let me tell you something. This hardwiring is strong. And it executes from your subconscious, so unless you’re ready for it, you aren’t consciously aware that’s what’s happening.
So you end up feeling like, “wow, I really meant to say something about that—I don’t know why I didn’t.”
But now you do know. If you want to have that difficult talk you’ve been dwelling on, you must take some sort of action within six seconds or it just isn’t going to happen. Unless you are highly motivated to have that difficult talk, not only will you let the override switch trip, you will probably be glad it did. It feels so much better to ‘let sleeping dogs lie,’ right? At least, in the moment it does.
On the other hand, the six-second override switch explains why some of the anti-procrastination hacks work so well—things like making a list, taking a challenging task in small steps, taking any kind of action at all, however small, talking to yourself about it beforehand, rehearsing what you’ll say or do…these things work to allow you to escape the hardwiring that evolved to keep humans safe at a time when a hothead and hasty action meant becoming some toothy creature’s snack.
The modern world has diverged from the brain’s evolution, but the brain is still doing its job. Today your threat to survival isn’t a saber-toothed tiger. It’s talking about your feelings. It’s admitting it when you feel vulnerable. That’s why confronting your mate feels like a threat and kicks up that hardwiring.
However, because you can now understand why you do or don’t do something, you can make different choices if you want to. Often, just being aware of the six-second switch is enough to allow you to dip into your deeper motivations, for example, like embracing the value of honesty. Doing so can serve to interrupt your automatic response.
The resistance or fear you felt about saying something to your mate is a real feeling, but it isn’t based upon a real danger, and therefore is not a threat to your survival. So you can push past it and it won’t kill you even if your brain is telling you to run for your life.
Here’s some more good news. The more often you practice ignoring the urge to “just forget about it,” the easier it will become to “push through it” for the good of your relationship and for your own feelings of self-worth. You really don’t have to live at the mercy of your brain’s unconscious messages.
By becoming aware of more of the ways in which your brain might be trying to protect you from threats that aren’t really there, you can stop your six-second switch from derailing the communication in your relationship, or in your future relationships.
I’ll be bringing you future posts about your fascinating subconscious mind, your personality and other aspects of your very human nature and how these impact your relationship in profound and subtle ways. If that sounds good to you, please like this offering, leave me a comment with your thoughts, and follow me for more info that can help your relationship thrive.
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And remember, whether you are a couple, or an individual, where the power of Love is concerned, all things are possible.