It is normal to feel uncomfortable at times with people who just seem to be too different from you. The way they dress, their food, their culture, their sexual orientation, their skin colour, their music, their hairstyle, their gestures, or any other trait I have not listed here, might just feel wrong to you, like it should not be part of your life or this society.
You seem to have nothing in common with them, and that can leave you feeling very uneasy, and perhaps even a bit threatened, and you might want those uncomfortable feelings to just go away, you might want those people to just go away.
When thoughts like this pop up in your brain, it is often the oldest part of our brain, the Reptilian Brain, who is in charge. Its prime objective is to assure your survival, it controls your fight and flight response, is super fast and works mostly on an unconscious level, which means that most of the time you don’t even know it’s working.
It scans the environment for any threats, likes black and white thinking, and can’t stand shades of grey. It will quickly categorize people or situations into “safe or unsafe”, “friend or foe”, “for me or against me”. It has a tendency to be rigid and impulsive, and will most times identify “different” automatically as a “threat”.
The Reptilian Brain is an important part of your internal survival system, and it has been key in allowing our species to survive and thrive. However, if you allow the Reptilian Brain to have the last word, and you don’t consult your Prefrontal Cortex, which is your reasoning center as a second step, then that can lead to considerable mental and emotional pain in your life, and the lives of the people surrounding you.
People who only listen to their Reptilian Brain have a strong tendency to be symbiotic thinkers. A symbiotic thinker has black-and-white, either-or kind of thinking patterns. That person believes that there is only one right way to do life and that is their way.
Imago Therapy states that symbiotic thinking is the fuel that drives the power struggle between people. At its core is the belief that the other person should share your thoughts, feelings, and ways of seeing the world. Rather than focusing on the similarities, now you see the differences and these differences are experienced as a threat.
There is a great cost to symbiotic thinking. It leads to war in relationships, societies and between countries. It fuels the “I am right and you are wrong” kind of dynamics we see right now unfolding in so many places. It can be at the root of domestic violence, racism, xenophobia and genocide.
The opposite of symbiotic thinking is differentiation. Differentiation is the result of consulting your Prefrontal cortex, your reasoning center, after your Reptilian brain has chimed in. It is the result of consulting the wisest part of you, that expresses your highest self.
Differentiation allows you to move away from right-or-wrong thinking patterns. It permits you to see that there are many, equally valid ways of living life, and you can learn from each one of them. If you have that kind of mindset, you can see a person who is different as an asset, that will allow you to grow, learn, and enrich your life. There is not one person you can’t learn from, if you meet that person with curiosity, respect and openness.
My clients give me the privilege of sharing their deepest, most private parts with me. As a result of that experience, I know that we all have much more in common than what divides us. The differences that seem to divide us are only surface level. All of us know struggle, long to be loved, have known rejection and pain. All of us want to be accepted, respected, live a peaceful life, and have the opportunity to take care of those we love. All of us are just looking for a place in the sun, no matter our ethnicity, age, skin colour, clothing we wear or sexual orientation.
Ready to start a new chapter and become a differentiated thinker, leaving symbiotic thinking patterns behind? Great! Here are some concrete steps you can take.
1) Don’t Judge Yourself When You Feel Uncomfortable with People Who Are Different from You.
When those feelings and thoughts pop up in your brain simply let them be. Welcome them, allow them to exist and don’t judge them, knowing that they do not indicate anything about who you are as a person.
They are perfectly normal and no problem at all. They are simply an indication that your Reptilian Brain has kicked in. When you become aware of them, I invite you to become a non-judgmental observer of your thoughts and emotions, a bit like a scientist would watch a science experiment with curiosity, and say out loud, “Interesting, I guess my Reptilian Brain has gotten triggered. That is ok. I don’t need to act on it, I will give myself time to figure this out”.
There are no good or bad emotions or thoughts, however, how you express them through your behaviour can be beneficial or destructive to yourself and others. Therefore, at this point I strongly suggest you don’t act on them and move to the second step.
2) Do What You Need To, to Return to a Calm State of Mind
When you feel uncomfortable about another person’s differentness, do not act on it, that is say or do nothing at that moment. The only goal at this point is to give yourself time so you can return to a calm state of mind. This will allow you to avoid becoming reactive, act on impulse, and say or do things you might regret later on.
At this point, you need to buy yourself time, so you can calm down and allow your bloodstream to absorb all the distress chemicals, like Cortisol and Adrenalin, that have previously been released in your bloodstream when your Reptilian Brain had been triggered.
Only when you have returned to a calm state of mind can you get I touch with your reasoning center and will be able to connect with the wisest part of yourself and choose actions that you will leave you feeling good about yourself later on.
Initially, it might be helpful to remove yourself from the situation or person that triggered you. Next, you can calm yourself down by simply going for a walk, listening to some soothing music, reading something uplifting, making a cup of tea, watching something that makes you laugh, taking a warm bath, cooking your favourite meal, or any other soothing activity you can think of.
It can also be helpful to practice the “5-4-3-2-1” mindfulness tool, which will quickly allow you to move away from your upsetting thoughts, ground you in the present moment, and help you experience the peace that very moment is offering to you, as most of your moments are good, if you can connect to them.
Start out with taking ten deep breaths, then identify five things you can see right now, then find four things you hear, following look for three things you touch – which could be anything from the fabric of your pants on your skin, the back of the chair touching your back, or your toes touching the ground.
Next, see if you can smell two things, and finally, ask yourself what is one thing you taste – which could be something like the lingering taste of coffee or simply the regular taste of your tongue in your mouth. Then, expand your awareness, simultaneously noticing your breathing and all your senses simultaneously, and say out loud, “Right now at this moment I am safe, and there is nothing to worry about”. This will allow your brain and body to relax.
During this time, it will be important to not get stuck in blaming, name-calling etc. If during this time you focus on what a “flippin’ ***hole” this other person is, you will return to the situation just as mad as you left it. Instead, apply the soothing and centering techniques described above, so you can return to a calm state of mind and once you have arrived there, move to the next step.
3) Consult Your Reasoning Center and Connect with Your Inner Wisdom, Which Is the Highest Part of Yourself
Once you have calmed down, now is the time to connect with your reasoning center and access your inner wisdom. This helps you to move away from symbiotic to differentiated thinking.
This step will allow you to put your experience in perspective, to remember that you have more in common with anybody than what divides you, that you can learn from anybody if you meet them with curiosity and openness, and that another’s differentness can expand your horizon.
Ask yourself questions like, “What does my inner wisdom tell me to do?”, “How would I like to be treated by others?”, “If these people would be my father/mother/child/sibling, how would I like them to be treated?”, “How can my actions contribute to making this world a more peaceful and respectful place?”
You have an inner GPS, an inner voice, that guides you the right way, but you have to calm yourself and become quiet to be able to hear it. As you do, I feel confident that you will choose to express yourself in ways that are beneficial to yourself and the people around you. Each choice matters, with it you will either contribute to a more peaceful and respectful world, or you take away from it.
4) If You Have the Opportunity, Get to Know a Person Who Seems to Be Very Different from You
When you do that, be intentional in looking for what unites you and what you have in common.
And, I am quite certain, soon you will discover that you are not that different after all. That you really have way more in common than what divides you. This is an effective way to challenge stereotypes and it allows us to see the “human” in the other. For, we are all deeply connected in our humanity.
Moving forward, my hope is that this blog entry has inspired you to experiment with becoming a curious, proactive observer of your brain.
To notice when your Reptilian Brain has been triggered, take it with a grain of salt and don’t act on it, but instead treat yourself to some time to calm down and then get in touch with your inner wisdom, choosing to express the highest part of yourself. Your life, and all of the lives you touch, will be so much better for it.
The Origins of Symbiosis, Imago Clinical Training Manual Text
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