This article first appeared on Happify
When aspects of our lives frustrate us, we tend to set goals—grand visions of an optimal self in a beautiful relationship with others, with work, or with our bodies.
These goals excite us, motivate us and make us feel hopeful and energized. In a fit of momentum, we even break them down into specific action steps that are both realistic and achievable. Or so we think when our long-term focused conscious brain is running the show…
But Here’s the Not-So-Little Hitch…
When obstacles arise along the way, it’s the emotional brain that rushes to the rescue, determined to steer us away from potential disaster and ensure our survival.
We’re now in a battle of brains—caught in the turmoil between a deeply desired goal and the risk of pain, difficulty, failure, and yes, rejection. How successful we are in achieving our goals depends on which brain we listen to.
Which Brain Tends to Win Out?
Given that the vast majority of us never achieve our goals, it appears that we often succumb to the emotional brain. This isn’t surprising, given that it’s far quicker and louder than the conscious brain, which is, by nature, lazy and quite satisfied towing the line of the emotional brain.
When you face obstacles, this is what plays out in your mental quarters:
Emotional brain: “Obstacle!! RUN—it’s going to destroy you!!”Conscious brain (way at the back): “I agree—it does seem rather daunting from here.”Emotional brain (hyperventilating): “Why are you still around? Run—QUICK!!”Conscious brain (wanting the saga over with): “Yes, you’re really not capable/qualified/likeable enough…”
As this mental chaos continues, the fear of not being “enough” attaches itself to subconscious beliefs and gathers momentum. External obstacles soon become internal obstacles that feel like the truth, stopping us in our tracks.
Achieving our goals is about getting the conscious brain to wake up fully and take its role seriously, rather than feeding into the fears of an aroused emotional brain. A technique that’s very helpful is to think of the emotional brain as a scared little child in the car, desperate to shove you off the driver’s seat in order to steer the two of you towards safety. What are you going to do?
Reclaim Your Power
First things first: the child needs to be in their car seat in the back, while you reclaim your position behind the wheel. Not only is this crucial for safety purposes, it also makes them less terrified knowing that you’re in charge. When both you and the child are the same person, it means disconnecting from the frenzy and cries for immediate action, and reclaiming what Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy calls “presence”. When you’re present, you’re in that space between stimulus and response, and in control of yourself and your actions. Research shows that you’re also more likely to approach challenges, be open to multiple pathways, and act courageously in the options you choose.
Transform the Energy
Even in the back seat, the child may continue to wail and cry. This is because they’ve revved up the drive-system of the brain and still have momentum. Instead of expecting them to suddenly shift to the stop-system and relax, it’s much easier to convert their negative emotion into an equally intense positive emotion. This reminds me of my son when he was two, and of how much easier it was to get him to laugh than to calm down when he was having a meltdown. If you find yourself in a high arousal state of fear or anxiety when facing obstacles, Adam Grant’s advice in his book Originals is to channel that energy into a positive and constructive direction by saying to yourself “I’m excited!”
Align Your Goals
Both the conscious and the emotional brain have their own motivational systems. While one wants to plan ahead and do good, the other simply wants to make sure it avoids pain and stays safe. The secret to success is to ensure that these two systems work together. This means imagining how we would feel when we reach our goals, so our emotional brain is aligned with our purpose. Its also means getting the conscious brain to listen to our emotions, and use them as a compass that guides us en route, and helps us decide our path, not our purpose. In the car, its about getting your child excited about the prospect of reaching your destination, while keeping them happy along the way, even if means taking a detour when needed.
It’s rarely the external obstacles that prevent us from reaching our goals. Those are but the first darts that life throws at us. It’s the second darts we throw at ourselves that often stop us in our tracks. If we can recognize the emotional brain in action when fear looms large on its mental Jumbotron, we can get the more evolved parts of our brain to act responsibly when most needed, and thus show up fully in the world.