Last week while in Miami for work, I was sitting in the courtyard of the hotel, visiting with the facilitator (“G”) we had worked with during our team meeting. We were reflecting on the week, and on our sense of how things had resolved themselves, or in some cases, not resolved. I was feeling a little disappointed with my part in the meeting, a little critical of not being able to bring us to closure in the way I had hoped. We had intended to remove things from the team’s responsibilities and focus in on critical tasks that differentiate our team from others at the company.
Instead I found myself shaking my head at tasks being added to my team’s responsibilities. I had openly reflected out loud this concern during the conclusion of our meeting. As the operational manager for that group, I have responsibility for making sure we deliver on our commitments. But I felt we had set the group up with more, not less. This had been the problem in the first place, and I had hoped we could solve it.
While in this state of contemplation and self-doubt, “G” and I noticed a tiny little reptile, adorable in her fine detail, approaching us with quick little darts in the courtyard. I pulled out my phone to capture her, slowly and gradually, not wanting to scare her off. I was delighted with her perfect tiny features, and wanted to share this little creature with my husband when I returned home. He is what I call an “animal magnet.” Animals of all kinds: dogs, cats, birds, and other creatures, seem to gravitate toward him as though he possesses some special energy, something they crave. In our household, this could be because he feeds our furry felines every time I travel, so they know they are dependent on his attention. However, it happens with other creatures too, our neighbors’ pets, the cats and dogs of family and friends, and farm animals.
I have always appreciated this affinity he has for nearly every kind of creature he encounters. I consider it a great gift and a great comfort to me, that animals trust him. He is kind, and has a gentle heart, and I am convinced that they are able to sense it. Certainly it is one reason I believe we bonded so strongly when we first met.
For a few moments the facilitator and I watched this tiny creature, as it darted again, then poised briefly on the edge of my foot. I was amazed! I sat there breathless, trying not to move or react, since I never have had such an adorable miniature lizard perched on me like this.
I remarked to G that this was unusual and that it reminded me of the principle that neuroscientists explain to us, about our “two brains.” We have primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, which responds instinctively to situations. It is fast, it is built for survival and it is one great reason we are alive today, as individuals, and humanity in general. When it comes to fear or danger, this “reptilian brain” rapidly signals to the thalamus that action is needed. In only 12 milliseconds, this trigger is activated, and we are able to do what is necessary in the situation.
The other part of our brain, fairly well-developed in humans, is the neo-cortex, also known as the frontal cortex. It has a remarkable ability to acknowledge fear and name it, but it responds slower than the amygdala, in about 25 milliseconds. That may not seem like much, but the emotional response triggered by the amygdala has already begun triggering the “fear response” which is the body’s physical response to the stimulus, emotional and visceral, ready for fight, flight or freeze. When we truly are in danger, we do not have time to consider your options for long. We must act, run or hide, and this perfectly adaptable. Our brain is very efficient gets the job done.
Humans (and mammals generally) evolved other areas as well that are critical to their survival, particularly in developing connection to others and a sense of belonging. We have mechanisms for building our social connections, for developing trust and living in community. Dogs have these as well. They are pack animals. Cats live in prides (in the wild), and other mammals and birds live in groups, often critical to their survival.
As humans we have the privilege of making conscious choices about who we invite to be part of our tribes. Sometimes we must accommodate, at work or in other groups, where we are asked to interact with those we do not necessarily enjoy. But it is still a choice, and we can do this grudgingly, joyfully or even neutrally, when our neo-cortex runs the show. When our amygdala is particularly active, however, these interactions are not as productive or fruitful. Without trust, there is little ability to quiet that inner lizard that is yelling (internally) “run away! run away!”
But when we have the resources, sometimes time or shared experience with other individuals or groups, we can more easily calm this fear response. As we move through the world, we develop some intuition about which people can be trusted, and which ones might require some “reserve” so we protect ourselves. This is necessary and allows for preservation of safety. But it can also be limiting when we are armored up all the time. As a woman, I completely relate to this tendency. I long to be open, to trust and to invite others to do the same. I also know that people can take advantage of this openness at times, and it is okay and reasonable to protect myself.
Openness is magnetic, in a very visceral way. Vulnerability, when shared judiciously, can open up possibilities in other people as well as ourselves. It is not weakness, to acknowledge places we have struggled, or ways in which we failed. It takes enormous courage to do this, and to invite others to know our humanity. Brené Brown reminds us: “Courage is contagious. Every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver.”
That little lizard on my foot found a warm spot, and she knew I was no danger to her. She perched for a few minutes, and eventually darted off again while I delighted in this tiny lesson. In that moment I realized that my little lizard is always with me, but she can calmly sit even in uncertain conditions, waiting for the next indication of when it is time to move forward. That is what has kept her alive, and will allow her to thrive.