I’m a day late getting this out, but I’m going to have a little grace for myself. One of the things we learn in coaching is to have only one big goal at a time. When you try to take on too much, your brain can hit overwhelm easier or you just start moving in circles and never finish anything. Trying to plan a wedding and finish a basement at the same time has proven to be two very big goals for me. That said, Grace and Taylor are now back from the honeymoon and we just passed our final inspection for the basement today so, whew! Two big goals done! Complete with moments of overwhelm and maybe a little crying to get me through it. I am swimming to the top of the water, trying to catch a little breath before I dive in to my next adventure!
Today I want to go into a little more detail about the adult brain and the toddler brain. I know I’ve mentioned them in past episodes, but haven’t really explained who they are and why it’s important to notice which one’s driving the bus in your life.
Our brains are divided in many ways. If you study out the brain, you’ll find many different definitions and divisions, depending on what you’re studying. If you google “functions of the brain,” it’ll tell you “The brain is a complex organ that controls thought, memory, emotion, touch, motor skills, vision, breathing, temperature, hunger and every process that regulates our body.”
That’s a lot! When someone is referred to as a vegetable in the hospital, their brain isn’t functioning and essentially brain dead and the only thing keeping them alive are the machines that they’re hooked up to.
I think all my listeners know how important the brain is. The two regions I’m going to talk you about today are the upper and lower brain. The lower brain is also referred to as our survival brain, our reptilian brain, or our toddler brain. There’s good reason why it has all those names. It’s called the survival brain because this is where the fight or flight instincts reside. It’s what kicks in to keep you safe from unexpected surprises and dangers that would cause you harm. The problem with the survival brain is it frequently exaggerates the negative to get you scared enough to act fast and it on own, it can’t decipher if what it’s experiencing is a real threat.
I’ve heard it called the reptilian brain because it’s the brain that all living things have. It allows the living creature to have it’s motor skills, vision and body regulators and it’s great at keeping the animal alive because the animal is always on the look at for what’s wrong. It’s why most dogs bark when they see a stranger or birds take flight when a person is walking up to it. It’s their natural survival instincts kicking in.
It’s referred to as the toddler brain because this is where the brain tantrums come from. When a baby’s born, their upper brain hasn’t formed yet and so most of their first human experiences revolve around surviving. Eat, sleep, stay comfortable, repeat. And if this isn’t happening, cry. Because that’s the only way to tell mom there’s something wrong. The child gets to the age of two and they’ve mastered some pretty big human qualities like learning to walk, feed oneself, and maybe even learn to potty in a way that won’t leave them feeling uncomfortable with a messy bottom. They see the bigger humans doing all these things and want everything they have. However, toddlers can tantrum a lot because they want what we have, and they want it now, but don’t have the ability to see what’s really going to cause them danger because they’ve only just begun to tap into the adult brain and all it’s wonderful features.
It’s like when you get a brand-new car with an abundance of new technology and, although you can drive it, because that’s its basic function, learning out how to use all the technology takes a bit of figuring out. So these toddlers have to essentially try out the world before they can accurately assess what’s good for them and what’s dangerous. Sure, they can drive their little bodies, but learning that a hot stove is not something they want to touch and looking both ways before crossing the street is foreign until their upper brain has logged in why it’s good to know. They don’t understand why they can’t have every candy bar they see at the checkout. They can’t see too far past the present when it comes to possible consequences. Their adult brains keep growing and stretching and learning until they are 24 to 25 years old and then their prefrontal cortex has finally closed.
The adult brain, the prefrontal cortex, is where all the logic resides. It’s what we use to make informed decisions. It’s what we use to make our dreams come true. It’s what stops us from hitting people when we are angry at them. It is what separates us from the animals and keeps us at the top of the food chain. However, it also takes way more energy to use the adult brain and sometimes, it just wants a break. So our knee-jerk reactions and our habits sit in the lower brain to allow for that. It’s why we can breathe without thinking breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out and it’s also why we find ourselves at work or the store instead of the new destination we were driving to when we’re really tired or stressed or distracted.
In the toddler brain is also where our inner critic lives. It’s looking out for you, trying to keep you safe from physical and emotional harm so it’s going to amplify everything and always be scanning for what’s wrong. What’s wrong with me, what’s wrong with you, or what’s wrong with this situation? The inner critic thinks it’s doing you a favor by keeping you safe and inside your comfort zone, but it’s tactics to get you there are why it’s called a critic. It’ll always point you toward the negative and try to convince why everything is bad instead of a good opportunity.
For example, say you’re watching a show and everyone’s had a long, fun day and are laughing in the car on the way home, but it gets dark and starts raining. What does your mind think? Mine is, oh no, something bad’s going to happen, I just know it!
In fact, I loved watching Downton Abbey. I loved that time period. Probably because it reminds me of most of the Jane Austin movies, which, I love. Anyway, I think sometimes the characters were a little full of themselves on Downton Abbey and not very down to earth. Enter Matthew Crawley. I loved this guy! He seemed genuine and caring and level-headed. To me he was the voice of reason the family needed. He fell in love with Lady Mary, who kind of annoyed me, but Matthew’s charm softens her and after two marriage proposals she finally accepted. It’s about time she figured it out. After some fertility problems and a scare that Downton might not have a secured foothold in the family with an heir, Mary gets pregnant and gives birth. Everyone is elated, and Matthew wants to sneak some alone time with the wife he adores and his newborn son so he goes to the hospital and is in complete bliss as he holds his son and talks to Mary. Beautiful music is serenading the scene and it’s such a tender moment of a father, his first little boy, and his true love.
Elated, Matthew leaves to report the good news to everyone back home. He’s driving in his convertible, feeling the wind in his hair and taking in all the greenery around him and I’m thinking, no! Don’t do it! Like the writers of the show could hear me. The next shot is of a big farming truck coming down the road toward Matthew.
“Oh, you better not!” I say. “If you kill Matthew, I’m done! I can’t handle it!” But I knew this was the end of the season and it had to have a cliff-hanger. “Do not kill off the only person who makes sense to me in this family!”
And the next scene is his car off the road with him lying there dead. I couldn’t believe it. And I stopped watching the show.
But instead of just enjoying the moment, my lower brain was scanning what could be wrong here. It was trying to protect me from a big letdown, but no matter how hard I tried, when it actually happened, I was still let down. I still haven’t watched the show or either of the movies! Not necessarily because I hate it, but I just haven’t had the desire now.
If you let your toddler brain drive the bus, you could be missing out on some amazing things. For some reason, my brain has worked hard on tying my worth as a person to my achievements. So it hurts extra hard when I fail because my lower brain tries to convince me that there’s something wrong with me. When I allow the adult brain to drive the bus, I know that’s not logical and no amount of failing can change my divine worth as a human. Something wrong might have happened, but there’s nothing wrong with me. But if my toddler brain drives the bus, it will have a tantrum and try to criticize me and keep reminding me of how I failed to try and get me to never do it again.
For example, at my daughter’s wedding, I forgot two boxes of gold candlesticks that were to lift the flickering LED candles above the live greenery and make them easier to see. My toddler brain kept yelling at me every time I looked at those candles sitting on the table without their candlestick. It would say “You’re such an idiot! You knew you should’ve brought those extra boxes just in case. And because you didn’t, now you’ve failed. The decorations aren’t exactly how you imagined, and the tables don’t look as good.” And I had to continue to use my adult brain to tell my overachiever lower toddler brain that it’s not the end of the world. It all still looks beautiful. It would say, “but this is the only night you could’ve used them and you’ve been planning this for 6 months now! There’s no fixing this!” I had to say to my toddler, “well maybe I did mess up, but it’s still beautiful.” And throughout the night I had to keep reminding my toddler brain that this wasn’t life or death. It was just a little mistake.
It still lives in my habits that my worth is connected to my performance. My toddler brain didn’t like feeling like I wasn’t enough and there’s something wrong with me, so it kept pestering me to make sure I’d never make a mistake like that again.
Now maybe you don’t have an overachiever saboteur for a toddler brain, but we all have an inner saboteur that developed based on our life experiences and keeps us from fully enjoying life to its highest possibility. Maybe your saboteur is closer to needing to control everything around you, but it results in high anxiety or impatience with others. Or maybe you think to be a good person you need to put the needs of others above your own and you think the world would be a better place if everyone did that, but then sometimes find yourself resenting how ungrateful some people are. Or do you not like conflict so you avoid telling people what you really need or how you really feel and then act passively aggressive towards them damaging a deeper connection with them? Or do you restlessly move from one thing to the next, looking for the next big thing anytime what you’re currently doing gets unpleasant or uncomfortable.
Our toddler brains will always provide what seems to be logical reasoning to us of why there is something wrong. Just like my brain’s argument that I’d been working on this for six months now and there was no fixing this!
And then when we realize that we’re doing it, if our adult brain isn’t driving the bus, our inner critic will then proceed to make us feel bad, giving us plenty of evidence of why or how we’re not measuring up like we should be.
So when my toddler brain offers the argument that I’d been working on this for six months now and there was no fixing this! My adult brain would offer back to my toddler, “Well, yeah, that might be true, but the other truth is, it’s all still really beautiful.”
When your adult brain is driving, you’ll still hear your toddler brain having a tantrum, but just as a mother knows that too much candy isn’t good for their toddler or crossing the street without looking is a bad idea, she will still be there sharing her wisdom because she sees the bigger picture. Your adult brain takes time to see the bigger picture. It’s not stuck in fight or flight, thinking it’s do or die.
Do we need our toddler brain? Yes. We need to be able to react quickly when there is a definite threat on our life. And we want to be able to breathe and walk, talk, and brush our teeth without using lots of mental power. Our brains weren’t designed to be in adult mode all the time, but when using our toddler brain is affecting our overall life results, that’s our signal that it’s time for the adult to step in and take the wheel so you show up how your higher self would prefer.
Ok, I hope that makes some sense to you and next time you hear me refer to adult brain and toddler brain, you will know exactly what I mean.
Until next time, I hope you have a brilliant day!
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