Most people, most of the time, allow life to happen to them.
If you are alive, and get out of bed today, there will be a challenge for you to face. Something will happen that you will either:
- Choose to do something about and take action, or
- Find that you have to do something about and react.
And your choice at this point matters a great deal.
In this guide we’ll consider how critical it is to make a good choice in response to the many varied challenges we face every day. How easily we can get trapped by “Effect” and the two enemies of our mind into a spiral of anxiety and fear or be at “Cause” for ourselves and our life.
I’ll introduce you to the two cycles of Being at Cause, and Being at Effect. We’ll examine the two enemies of our mind and debunk some brain myths about emotion that will put you, and your brain, back in a sense of control. Then we’ll consider a couple of powerful Neuroscience hacks that you can employ immediately to choose to be at Cause.
At your next challenge or obstacle you face today, use one or both hacks and begin to feel that locus or sense of control. This will immediately give you an extra flush of dopamine and serotonin which will make you feel great. More importantly, you'll know that you are not at the mercy of your emotions and on the road to victorious living.
Your choice in the face of every challenge matters: In the first – you choose to take action knowing that there is (or will soon be) an obstacle or challenge that you will need to overcome. You may need to experiment and keep on approaching the obstacle until you get your desired result and celebrate your victory. All the while, you are learning how to better tackle future challenges. You have chosen to be at CAUSE for your life (this part of it, anyway) and your have adopted a growth mindset.
In the second – you will confront the two enemies of the mind:
- “What if”, and/or
- “If only“
“What if” is your fear of the future. What if I’m wrong? What if I make a bad decision? What if I fail?
“If only” is your regret of your past. If only you had paid attention the last time/at school/to your coach. If only you had more skills/money/connections/friends/lovers.
Fear of the future means that you like to avoid obstacles just in case you fail (again).
Regret of the past means that you adapt to go around the obstacle because you (believe that) you lack the resources necessary to succeed.
Either way – your results will be less than you desire – so you’ll probably blame yourself or someone else, be disappointed and adopt a survival vision of life because life is indeed difficult and you are at EFFECT in your life.
When we are at EFFECT, it’s easy to excuse our own choices. After all, history proves our point and we are at the mercy of our feelings, and everyone knows that our primal emotions are easily triggered. Only they’re not!
Time to debunk some flawed theories about emotions
Since Darwin in the 1860s theorised that our human brain evolved from lizards and MacLean’s triune brain in the 1960s – the popular theory is that our emotions are triggered in the “lizard” brain (from the outside world) and this determines our actions and choice. It may be popular and compelling, but it’s wrong, and neuroscientists have known this for decades.
Our emotions aren’t “triggered” in our “Lizard” brain (nor the Limbic system!) Actually, our brains make predictions (constantly and continuously) about what is going to happen based upon our personal experience in and through life. These predictions, based on concepts constructed on the fly from internal sensing networks (our interoceptive network) and from our perceptions of what is happening outside (proprioception).
The groundbreaking book “How Emotions are Made” by Lisa Feldman Barret, tells the detail of Constructed Emotions and is a must read for a complete understanding of this (it's also available on my favourite book site: Scribd.) In it, you'll also have the notion that there is a universal recognition of facial expressions with specific emotions blown away.
This construction of our emotions does happen extremely quickly and we are most often unaware that we are in fact constructing emotions because it is beneath our conscious perception – but we can attune ourselves to better notice and thus interrupt any rapid response with deliberate thought and choice.
Having turned the conception that emotions are triggered and not under your control on its head, let’s just turn you inside out whilst we’re here :-)
Barret’s book provides the detailed neuroscience behind this but it’s best summarised in Malcolm Gladwell’s truly excellent: “Talking to Strangers” (if you haven’t had a chance yet, do get the audiobook – it sets a new standard for audio books.) as the “Friends Fallacy”.
If you watch an episode of Friends with the sound off, you can easily deduce what's going on and how each character feels in the scene. The actors blatantly and with exageration display the “universal” emotions on their faces and bodies. Only there are no “universal” signs and many people deliberately hide their emotions (in real life). That is Darwin's theory and more importantly for anyone arrested by the police or FBI in the USA, Paul Ekman’s theory of universal expressions of emotion, are wrong. The next time you see someone frowning or curling their lip, don’t be too hasty to jump to conclusions about their feelings.
What this means is that you (and I) need to choose how to respond to situations and other people. Heck we need to choose our reactions to what happens inside of ourself. We need some control.
- ### A Christian thought sidebar
As a born again Christian and behavioural neuroscientist these new findings fascinated me. Interestingly, Lisa Feldman Barret is culturally Jewish but a self-proclaimed atheist and in parts of her book disdains the idea that we are created in God’s image with a spirit or soul, claiming that Darwin put paid to that idea with “the evolution of man”. Meantime, the research points out that our brains have not evolved from a primate or lizard as Darwin suggests.
Fabulously though, the idea that emotions are constructed and that all our thinking can be brought under control (captive to the obedience of Christ 2 Co 10:5) implies that we do have free will. Whereas the disproven theories that our brain makes a decision based on emotional triggers BEFORE we are conscious of it seriously undermined the realisation of free will.
The Book of Proverbs is filled with wisdom that shows us how to make better choices in life. As does Ecclesiastes and the oldest book in the Bible, Job. And Christian’s know that we can cast all our cares and anxiety on Him (1 Pet 5:7).
It seems that neuroscience is slowly catching up with the truth of the Bible :-)
How can I choose if I’m not in control of the situation!
There are many things in life that you are unable to control. Everything outside of you!
Everything inside of you is within your control. Sure there are some things that happen inside that at this moment you cannot control – for example, I had a massive heart attack on July 4th 2014 at 11:33 in the morning. I wasn’t able to control it at the time, that is true. “If only” I had taken action earlier to prevent it: never smoked that first cigarette, eaten healthy, kept fit, maintained weight, not eat fatty foods, avoided undue stress. Choices have consequences and bad choices tend to have bad consequences. Now I make better choices.
You’re not in control of your boss’s mood when you need to spend more on a project, or delay an order, or miss the monthly target. But you can choose a different approach toward them that might work.
You cannot control the storm clouds spoiling your wedding day but you can choose to have a tent on standby just in case.
You may think that you cannot control your stress or anger in the moment, but you can. It may take practice and it may take a moment or two, but you can.
What we need is a sense of control
Psychologists refer to this as a problem of your Locus of Control. This is the belief that you, as opposed to external forces (beyond your influence) have control over events in your life.
Being at Cause is having an Internal Locus of Control, whilst Being at Effect, is having an External Locus of Control. Become aware of how you tend to view situations and ask people who know you well. Two quick questions for you:
- Do you tend to blame everyone and everything else for every misfortune or do you tend to blame yourself?
- Do you think that everything good is because you are brilliant (and in control) or do you attribute success to others?
Be especially aware if you think everything successful is because of you and every failure is someone else’s fault.
Going Beyond Resilience and Well-Being
Organisations and HR teams talk a lot about improving resilience and well-being these days. The enforced virtualisation of work in 2020 and the slow emergence of the hybrid workplace is costing a lot of mental stress.
Resilience gives you the capacity to deal with ongoing stress, adapt efficiently to changing situations, cope with work and ‘bounce back’ from setbacks.
When you are in a state of wellbeing at work, you’re able to develop your potential, be productive and creative, build positive relationships with others, and make meaningful contributions.
Choosing to be at Cause is the inflection point of these critical abilities. When you choose to be at Cause, you are choosing to use your creativity to experiment with possible solutions to overcome obstacles or challenges, improving your personal wellbeing by learning each time from success and failure and, resiliently, trying an alternative solution until you achieve the desired results. To reinforce your choice, celebrate! Even a quick fist pump, and secret nod to yourself will give you an extra dopamine spike and that will help you consolidate your learning and memory of what works well and what doesn’t work so well – further enhancing your wellbeing and resilience.
Choosing to be at Effect (and it is your choice!) is the moment you have decided that either your fear of the future or some regret you have in your past has already decided your future failure. Thus you avoid obstacles or adapt until you somehow get beyond them and achieve less than desired results. Repeat this enough and your resilience melts away and your wellbeing turns into sickness and chronic disorders.
As I say – it’s your choice. And the choice you make matters a great deal.
OK, so how do I do it?
I’m going to share two super neuroscience based brain hacks that will give you the power to choose to be at Cause – if not every time, then most of the time.
There are five steps and, with practice, the first 2 will take you about 4-5 seconds. Steps 3-5 perhaps 3 to 5 minutes.
Step 1 is to become aware that you are facing a challenge or obstacle and reacting to it. You may say, John that’s obvious… well sometimes it isn’t. You’ve seen something, heard something, felt something, tasted something or smelt it.
To do Step 2 you need Hack #2 – The Secret Power of the Pause.
You’ll find the details of the hack in the link (and the neuroscience behind it. So pop over there and come back when you’re ready.)
Step 2: Take ONE deep breath. As deep and long as time allows.
Yes, your brain may well be ahead of you already. After all, it’s busy predicting what’s going to happen next and you are already adjusting your body budget for the predicted future – adrenaline to run or fight, a dose of cortisol, some cytokines to fight pathogens, increased heart rate. That’s all OK, because all of this activity needs energy and it needs more oxygen. Simultaneously, you are exerting a little more control of your brain’s choices and thinking about them.
Step 3. Choose to be at Cause for your response (even if you choose to react and avoid the obstacle, you are choosing, though please do reflect on your choice and consider if maybe, perhaps, there might have been a better way. Which leads me to Hack #3 – Who's Your Caddy?
Step 4. Follow that link and learn about this tremendous tool to improve your decision making. For now. Whether you chose to take action and overcome the challenge, or you chose to react and avoid or adapt, now is the time to branch back to Cause.Reflect on the situation, reflect on your choice, consider what happened from:
- Your own Point of View
- The POV of the other party (most challenges do involve another human.)
- A third party who is connected to the challenge, and
- A fourth – external, person you consider as your mentor, wise coach or just someone you respect and admire.
- Learn what they advise you to do (all in your own perceptual mind this!)
Step 5. Rinse and repeat
Pausing alone will change your life, by the way. And yes, this is a process that others call ‘mindfulness’. Do it often. Before long you will steadily shift to being more at Cause for your life and choices and other people will begin to take notice. They may even ask you what happened to you. Teach them this and one day the world will be filled with people who take responsibility and accountability for their lives and the lives of those around them and the world will be a much better place to be living that life.
You’re on your way to #JOYATWORK