Ever wonder why it’s so damn hard to do what’s good for us? I certainly have and still do. Everything from leaving a partner, a job, a friendship to changing unhealthy habits can be like leaving a cozy (if restrictive) cocoon.
We feel attached to our way of doing things, even when we know there’s a better way. Trouble is, that better way can feel overwhelming or maybe even elude us all together. So we stay in our safe orb. It is what we know. Stepping out of what is familiar to us, even simply thinking about it can send out internal alarms.
Turns out, from the perspective of the brain, there are some pretty compelling reasons why we stay in our comfortable orb, sticking with familiar people and habits.
Gay and Kathlyn Hendriks, both psychologists and the authors of many books on relationships call this phenomenon of coming out of our comfortable orb “the upper limit.” The limit that feels like we’ve hit our max, that scary place where we feel overwhelmed. Many schools of thought, including our own inner critic, would say that this upper limit place is an important one. Like a protective barrier against rejection, loneliness or feeling inadequate.
Check out for yourself when you feel that limit. Whether it’s coming from inside yourself, as in worry, or from the outside, like at work or with a friend. Notice what that limit feels like for you. For many, it’s a sense of being stuck, our thoughts feel cloudy, our breath is shallow. Any clarity we might have felt before has vanished.
The trick here is becoming familiar with sensing our “pre-upper limit.” Catching it before we hit that fear head on and potentially freeze.
Examples of how this pre-upper limit might look are endless. Here are a couple of common examples:
- You are in a new situation, with new people, and new landscape. The stakes are high. Perhaps it feels like you might be under scrutiny.
- Or, the situation is more familiar but you have some history there. Maybe that history left you feeling shamed or with a loss of our power.
In both these examples, there might have been days of worry beforehand, with you mentally turning scenarios over in your head, thinking you are preparing. And in a way you are. At the same time other things are happening too, namely, your body is having a response.
If you were to pause in those moments you would likely notice many sensations in your body. Bracing, shallow breathing, tension or nausea would not be uncommon. Your whole body might feel light, or as though there is “no there there.” After a few experiences of pausing to check in, you will likely see a pattern in your responses.
These are all signals from the body and the brain that you are pretty close to that upper limit.
Okay, let’s get back to why it can be hard to do what is good for us. This is best explained with a bit of neurobiology. One easy way of saying it is that fear and logic reside in two completely different areas of the brain. Fear is a lower brain function and when that fear is especially overwhelming it can literally take over our experience. Whether it’s fear of going for the next right thing or a full on panic attack, it means that the higher brain, where logic is stored, is offline. We can lack imagination and curiosity. We literally take leave of our senses. Sensing the possibilities for our lives eludes us.
From that place, we have little access to the kind of logic (higher brain) that’s required to take care of ourselves and our lives, to move forward and make a change. The lower part of the brain, called the limbic brain, where feelings and reactions ignite, really requires what I’ll call “limbic contact:” having someone we trust that we can tell our truth to and that will help to bring words/body sensations/meaning to our experience. When we can bring those higher brain functions back online can we find ways of soothing the overwhelm that can come when we step out of our comfortable orb.
Catching that pre-state is essential when we are attempting to make a change. It takes practice, patience and often guidance.
So the next time you find yourself with a potentially difficult situation in front of you, pause and ask yourself, “what am I sensing here in my body? “In my breathing?” “What do I need right now?” Then simply pause, wait, and breathe.
Look and sense for what you find there. It might be an insight. Perhaps the slowing down will give you a sense of capacity and strength. Whatever you notice is going to be new and in a good way enabling you to take that next step.