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12 Ways To Tame Your Lizard Brain & Go After Your Dream Job

Surreal scene with a lizard and a monument depicting the brain

Melody has a dream.

She dreams of quitting her job as a Corporate Director of Operations & becoming a therapist.

She is fascinated with the human mind and loves working one-on-one with people, helping them understand how their past is connected to their present.

But every time she even considers going this route…..she becomes frozen with fear.

Melody hired a career coach to help her push forward.  She cried to her, “I don’t understand it…. I WANT this new life…. But every time I go to take a step towards it…I freeze up, I second guess myself, I start to imagine myself going broke from failing at this transition….”

Here’s the problem:

Melody has two different parts of her brain that are playing tug-of-war with each other.

  1. Her Neocortex:  Which desires personal growth & fulfillment.
  2. Her Lizard brain:  Which keeps her stuck.

My 3 Brains

Step with me into my time machine.  Hold on tight as we travel back in time over 200 million years.

(Before your eyes gloss over, stay with me through the science of this, as it is DIRECTLY correlated to why you are not in your dream job RIGHT NOW.)

Here is what the evolution of the human brain looks like:  

It started over 200 million years ago, with the lizard brain, (a/k/a the “reptilian brain” or “amygdala.”)  The lizard brain is the primitive, prehistoric part of the brain that focuses on survival.

Over a long period of time, a second layer, “the limbic system” or “mammal brain” developed over the lizard brain. 

Ultimately, a third layer developed on top of the other two, called the “neocortex.”  The neocortex allows for complex skills such as rational thinking, creativity, and languages.

One unfamiliar with this topic might think that the lizard brain evolved into a new type of brain – the human neocortex.

Nope.  

We never shed our lizard brain. We just evolved with layered-on brain matter that grew right on top of the other.

Your Lizard Brain’s Purpose

Our Lizard Brain has ALWAYS had one single purpose:  to keep us alive by alerting us to perceived threats and danger.

Back in prehistoric times, the lizard brain reacted to a threat in an immediate and automatic way. 

I’m talking about primal instincts here, like fear.   

When there is even the slightest hint of danger, the lizard brain hops in with “I’ve got this!”  and immediately activates our flight, freeze, or fight.

This was a good thing. When a predator was pouncing , there was no time to process information. In this way, the Lizard Brain allowed us to survive.

But the key point here, is that the Lizard Brain only has 2 modes:  SAFE or UNSAFE.

When it perceives “safe,” it lets the rest of the brain run the show.

When it perceives “unsafe” it activates flight, freeze, or fight.

The Problem With Today’s Lizard Brain

So now, here we are running around the planet with these “Lizard Brains.” Yet also, here we are as evolved humans with big hopes and dreams.

We are no longer in a prehistoric world where predators are hunting us for food.

But our caveman survival instinct hasn’t evolved and now it’s gotten the message twisted.

Not only that, but your Lizard Brain is stubborn and overly risk-averse.  It exaggerates every threat to seem much bigger than it really is. This kept us alive back in prehistoric times, but today it’s limiting our personal growth, happiness, and higher goal achievement.

Your Lizard Brain & Your Dream Career

So, the side-effect of keeping you “safe” is that your lizard brain will also talk you out of your dreams.

Any time you try something new or different such as going after a new career, your Lizard Brain’s survival mode interprets movement towards that goal as:  “Warning! Warning! Perceived threat. Danger imminent”

The lizard brain will then launch into a campaign to get you back into the comfort zone. It hates change, risk, or perceived risk.

This is why you FREEZE UP like a deer in the headlights when the thought of going after your dream role crosses your mind.  

At a primal level, animals freeze so their predator cannot detect movement.  

So your lizard brain’s instant reaction is:  “Stay still & stay safe. Movement will get you killed.”

When It Comes To Your Dream Career, Your Lizard Brain SOUNDS Like This:

  • “Stay where you are. Don’t go after that role.”
  • “You’ll lose all your money OR you won’t make enough money. You’ll be out on the streets.”
  • “You can’t do THAT role because of your mortgage, because you’re inexperienced, because you’re too old, because you don’t have what it takes.”
  • “Enjoyable careers pay less.”
  • “It’s too risky.”  
  • “Be careful.”

When It Comes To Your Dream Career, Your Lizard Brain LOOKS Like This:

  • Procrastination
  • Avoidance
  • Rationalization
  • Settling
  • Obsession over needing to know the “how” before proceeding
  • Self-sabotage
  • Excuses
  • Self-Criticism
  • Scarcity mindset
  • Black or white thinking

The closer you get to going after your dream… the louder the lizard brain sounds the alarm.  The lizard brain has no concept of “soul-sucking jobs” versus “dream careers.”  

It will always seek out familiarity because familiarity feels safe. 

And the lizard brain has only two options:  Safe. Or Unsafe.

It cannot compute the gray area in between.

How To Tame Your Lizard Brain

Listen, your Lizard Brain will NEVER support your self-improvement, self-actualization, happiness or acheivement of higher goals.

That will be up to the EVOLVED you -and your willingness to activate your frontal lobe, your rational thinking brain.

Enter your neocortex!  (Picture a little brain in a superhero cape.)  Your neocortex remembers what’s important to you, what you value, what decisions would honor those values.

You have the power to override the Lizard brain with your neocortex, if you so should choose.  

Have you ever heard the Cherokee tale of the two wolves representing the inner fight going on within each of us?   (Google it if you are curious) The spoiler is: the one you feed is the one who will win.

You can think of your Lizard Brain & neocortex the same way.

Here’s how to feed your neocortex & starve your Lizard Brain:

  1. Spot Your Lizard:  Awareness is the first step. Identify when your Lizard Brain is speaking.  (Refer to what your Lizard Brain Looks Like & Sounds Like above.)  Make a list of YOUR specific recurring lizard thoughts & behaviors.  What is the #1 Lizard message that gets you every time?
  2. Talk to Your Lizard.  Once you are aware the Lizard is speaking to you…. Talk back.  I’m dead serious. The next time you notice him, I want you to stop what you are doing and say out loud, “I see you, Lizard.”  Call. Him. Out.  Separate his presence from yours.
  3. Acknowledge Your Lizard.  First, let’s cut him a break.  After all, he doesn’t understand this is a false alarm – Remember he only understands “Safe” or “Not Safe.”  Carry on with your lizard conversation, “I get it buddy.  I’m nervous about trying a new career path and you are trying to keep me safe.  False alarm, little guy. I got this from here.”
  4. Challenge Your Lizard.  What is the story you are allowing your Lizard to tell you?  Is the danger real? How true is it that if you start taking steps towards your dream job, you will end up homeless, out on the streets?  It’s important to be OPEN to the possibility that your lizard message is not accurate. You can DECIDE to believe something new.
  5. Safety:  Make your Lizard feel safe in OTHER ways than giving up on your dream.  What is the little guy freaking out about? Money? Build a budget, land a bridge job, create a buffer fund.  Failure? Let your neocortex show your lizard how to get comfortable with and appreciate failure as a part of the process.
  6. Act Now:  Act now, think later.  The best way to silence the lizard is to act.
  7. Act Imperfectly:  Embrace imperfect action and beginner’s mind.
  8. Start Small:  Break your big career goal into small, manageable parts and take one step at a time.  Start so small that you know with 100% certainty that you will achieve that step.  Over time you can adjust how big your steps are. But for now, all you need to know is the “next move.”  It’s like driving a car in the dead of night. You only need to see as far as your headlights but keep driving and you will eventually arrive to your long-distance destination.
  9. Lose the How:  You do NOT need to know all the details in order to proceed.
  10. Lose the Excuses:  That’s not YOU talking.  That’s your Lizard feeding you those excuses.
  11. The Power of Why:  Latch on to a “why”, a “personal mission statement” that is so strong that NOTHING will stop you.  (That’s your evolved brain talking to you!)
  12. Goal Focus:  What is your career goal?  Stop what you’re doing and say it outloud.  Every time your lizard brain screams…  shift your focus to the goal at hand.

We did not come this far in our evolution to be lizards running scared.

We were put on this earth, granted the freedom to discover and use our gifts, to light our souls on fire, to whip the covers off the bed on Monday because we cannot WAIT to do that “one thing” we were meant to do.

Your lizard is like a little pet on a lifetime road trip with you.

You can’t kick him out of the car. But you can tell him to get in the back seat, buckle up, and enjoy the ride while you steer.

HAVE I LIT A FIRE UNDERNEATH YOU YET?

Take the FIRST STEP towards overriding your Lizard Brain.

CLICK HERE to download your Free Surefire Guide to Finding Your Passion.

Let’s do this.

Betty Kempa, CPC, ELI-MP, is an executive career coach helping mid to senior-level corporate women transition out of unfulfilling jobs and into their dream careers. 

Visit:   bettykempa.com

Contact:  coachbetty@bettykempa.com

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