It was an unusually sunny day in Seattle, fluffy white clouds in a bright blue sky reflecting on the gentle ripples of the lake. I watched this merry scene with sweaty palms and my heart pounding out of my chest. Something in the back of my head screamed: “THIS IS HOW YOU DIE!!!!”
You see, on this beautiful day, my friends wanted to go kayaking. They wanted to take tiny little boats out into a massive fucking lake and the current best-case scenario running through my head was that I’d be knocked unconscious early in my inevitable drowning and not suffer too much.
I did not share this vision with my friends. I tried to keep my voice from wavering as I nodded to instructions, tried to fake a smile. I tried to ignore my arms shaking as I lowered myself into a tandem kayak and used every ounce of self-control not to scream when the little blue boat rocked as my friend climbed in behind me.
We (and by we I mean my friend with the help of the dock attendant, I was too busy frozen in a panic trying to remember how to swallow) pushed off from the dock, the kayak wobbled perilously, and… nothing happened.
The boat floated steadily out into the lake as my friend paddled and I feebly wiggled the oar around trying to look like I was helping. My body remained tense as my lovely friend assured me that it was all ok and I’d get the hang of it. Minutes later, out in open water, a motorboat cruised by and panic consumed my body as our kayak bobbed in its wake.
This was it, the boat was about to flip, images of me somehow trapped under it struggling for air surged through my mind, the kayak rocked sharply to the side, and… nothing happened.
Our idiot-proof rental kayak stayed marvelously upright, and continued to do so for the duration of our outing, right up until we bumped it back against the dock and I scrambled safely onto land, luxuriating in the rush of endorphins that accompanies surviving what my not-idiot-proof brain had interpreted as a near-death experience. I might have even had fun.
Living with Your Inner Lizard
So why does this happen? I would describe myself as a logical person, who usually has a pretty significant amount of agency over her emotional responses, yet in this particular situation, all the logic in the world couldn’t calm the fear that initially consumed me when I got in that boat. It didn’t matter that we were in kayaks made for beginners, on calm water, in life jackets, and I’m a perfectly good swimmer — my inner lizard saw a deadly situation. And while it’s often less obvious than this, our brains actually do this all the time.
When I refer to my inner lizard, I’m talking about the ancient components of the brain that we’ve inherited from deep in our evolutionary family tree. This part of the brain doesn’t understand logic, it is wired for one goal, and that goal is to keep me alive. I am grateful for my lizard brain, its guidance has allowed humanity to survive long enough for me to exist today; however, it is not honed for modern human problems. It does not see a world of gradients, instead only knows two states: safety and emergency. When it is in emergency mode, it is all systems go, but it is using the same program for both public speaking and being chased by a tiger.
A younger me would have felt a lot of shame for being so scared of an unmistakably safe situation, but a wiser me is super proud of myself. Why? When I got into that boat, my brain was having the exact same reaction as if I were about to charge at an angry bear, my brain was telling me I was about to die, and I did it anyway. And doing the scary thing kills the fear.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that when my human brain says “this is a safe situation” but my lizard brain is screaming “WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!”, I need to do the thing I’m afraid of. Sure, kayaking around a lake might not change my life, but what happens when I’m worried about giving a critical presentation, nervous to lean in for a first kiss, anxious about posting my writing on Medium… do I really want my inner lizard running the show then?
Absolutely fucking not.
So do the thing! And if you’re not ready to do it for yourself, do it for your friends, do it for your family, do it for the gram — whatever gets you out there. If nothing else, the universe will reward you with some pretty epic memories, and I’m willing to bet a whole lot more.
What fear have you showed who’s boss lately? What is your lizard brain hung up on that you’d like to kick?
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