I like to think of myself as emotionally evolved, but lately I’ve begun to question the feeling of security that gives me. After all, every person comes equipped with the same brain chemical and glands that armed our ancestors for terrifying encounters with four-legged predators. The brain regions called amygdalae are perpetually on guard for danger. When activated by fear, they pump out epinephrine in that reaction we call “fight or flight.”
To be emotionally evolved means to exercise the thinking parts of our brains enough to know (at least most of the time) when the limbic system has taken charge. To be really evolved means we can choose not to identify with those reactions, treating them as something chemical that is happening to us, rather than as believable bulletins from reality. Instead of “Oh, no! Repel the attack!” we can say something like this to ourselves: “There goes that reactivity again!” That differentiation—that ability to recognize that we are not actually being attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger—opens a path out of compulsion and into choice, where if we’re really, really evolved, we can let the chemicals subside, then get on with our lives.
Lately, though, I’m noticing I’m not nearly as evolved as I thought I was. I’ve gotten enmeshed in a cycle of reactivity with someone close to me. I do something that pushes that person’s button (usually it’s something that can be interpreted as critical or rejecting), and when that person’s amygdalae set off a ballistic reaction, my button gets pushed (usually by the feeling that I am not being seen, received or heard accurately, but am being used). The injuries that created these buttons are very old for both us, stemming from earliest childhood. We both thought we’d done enough work to heal and integrate those experiences that they couldn’t control us any longer. Surprise!
Evidently, if the limbic response is repeated enough, our brains normalize it. We become like the returning veterans who jump whenever a door slams or a car backfires. Our fears become huge: I will always be trapped in this pain, I will never get out of this. Then they become our expectations. After that, it doesn’t take much more than tripping over a word or gesture to start the whole painful, humiliating cycle over again. The things that set off reactivity between my friend and myself are so trivial, I doubt anyone else would even notice them. Indeed, often the interaction unfolds beneath the level of awareness, and our reactivity surprises ourselves.
When our brains are flooded by fear chemicals, our choices seem constrained: it’s either battle or hiding under the covers. The neocortex (no matter how evolved it previously seemed to be) tends to step aside, deferring to the reptile brain, site of rage and terror. Under these conditions, rational thought requires tremendous awareness, self-command and wisdom. Even though I think I understand exactly how this works, I often have hard a very hard time summoning those qualities.
In between bouts of ballistic fear, anger and despair, I can see the whole thing so clearly that it seems simple. Sometimes, I try to explain it to my friend, thinking if we both could understand what was happening, it would be easier to separate ourselves from it. I imagine each of us taking a step to the side, the way characters in Woody Allen movies sometimes step outside themselves to comment on the action. I imagine both of us remembering all this the next time the button is pushed—or to use a more apt analogy, the next time the match is struck, I imagine that neither of us touches it to the fuse.
But reality has not yet come into line with my imagination, and each repetition makes it seem more difficult. My much-vaunted evolution has enabled me to hold onto my awareness for a few iterations of each exchange, sometimes even for an hour, but if my friend insists for long enough that the fear is justified, the threat is real, and I am it, I eventually feel my self-control slipping away.
We are born with this equipment, and so far as I can see, there’s nothing we can do about it. Trying to prevent that match from being struck in our brains is a lost cause, like trying to prevent competitors from feeling aggressive or addressing the “root causes” of violence as if there was something we could to eliminate them, as if they weren’t in our own minds.
I’ve been thinking since reading Our Inner Ape, Frans de Waal’s book about primates, that the emphasis on finding and eliminating the underlying causes of social conflict is often way off-base, that we ought to focus instead on the problem of reconciliation, on what to do after the match has been struck, on how to restrain ourselves from lighting the fuse.
The thing is, in intimate situations as in global politics, the road to reconciliation is rocky because it asks us to do an extremely difficult thing: repel the loud chemical rush in our brains, inciting us to retaliate, and by force of will and intention, choose reason, communication, and other higher brain functions instead. By many accounts, meditation training helps. Good psychotherapy can help. On the global stage, listening to figures like the Dalai Lama can help. But nothing can make is easy, and nothing can reduce the need for force of will, sheer intention and effort.
When I bring my will into the arena with my chemical demons, I try to feel like Princess Redfish, whom I once saw enacted in Chinese Opera. With a sword in each hand and feet nimble as fists, she repelled four attackers simultaneously. I still need a lot of practice, though. I must admit, I have a lot of evolving to do.