Finding Your Lever

Persistent and recurring problems are a perennial blogging favorite of mine, mostly because I have so many of them. Difficulty eating right, trouble staying on top of bills, procrastination, indecision. Yours might involve fitness goals, time management, religious or ethical considerations, or maybe you just really overdo Christmas and it’s slowly alienating your family and friends.

We do things, we know we don’t like them, but we persist! Maybe facing your problem seems too big, so you avoid it. Maybe you’ve got urges that seem way too persuasive in the moment (“I know I shouldn’t buy another pug, but all my others might be lonely!”). Heck, maybe you have an anger problem, or a drinking problem, or relationship problems.

I’ve got good news and bad news about your problem behaviors. Bad news first.

The bad news: Everything that you do is strongly informed by your hindbrain and subcortical structures (the bits hidden underneath the squishy walnut-like surface of your brain). These parts are, evolutionarily speaking, hella old. Like, predating mammals old. They do basic things for us, like keeping us breathing and regulating our various juices (this getting too technical?). They also make us do important things by changing the very way we think.

The hypothalamus, one of the aforementioned structures, really wants us to eat good food, avoid scary things, and have all sorts of sex. If you haven’t had food in a while (you’re dieting!) and you’re in an environment with easy and available junk food (Debbie brought cupcakes!), your hypothalamus won’t just make you hungry, it will change your mind about cupcakes.

The hypothalamus is … somewhere around here. What am I, a doctor?

The good news: It’s still your fault. Wait, that didn’t come out right, but stick with me.

The simple fact is that you are your hypothalamus, and it is you. You are the product of a rich and complicated brain, new parts and old, and you wouldn’t be you without it. “The hypothalamus made me do it” is only a good excuse if your brain is at war with itself. You, the valiant hero; versus the gluttonous, cowardly, horny hypothalamus.

There is no war (certain psychiatric illnesses excepted). The new, squishy, contemplative outer cortex of your brain only makes sense when it sits atop the old, selfish, pissy part of your brain. You need those desires and fears and pleasures and pains in order to create a whole human. You just need to accept that this incredibly persuasive set of neuronal modules is always there, always with a clear agenda, and then you can figure out how to work with it. You need to find your lever.

Physics people, look away, as I’m about to say something offensively reductive:

Levers are things that make work easy.

Imagine putting a  pry bar in just the right crack and splitting a rock in two. Now imagine putting a piece of uncooked spaghetti in that same crack and… well, not much happens. The spaghetti breaks. Your problem behaviors are the rock, and your current coping strategies are the spaghetti. I just wanted to make that clear.

If you’ve got a persistent problem, it can be easy to give up when you feel like you’ve tried everything. The point of this post is to plant the seed of an idea in your head: Trying the same failed strategies over and over will only lead to discouragement. Don’t look at the tools that you’ve used in the past. Try to re-examine the problem with fresh eyes, and see if there are any cracks in the rock (being super hungry is something you can control, being around cupcakes isn’t). Now look for your lever. Find something that resonates with you, an idea that motivates you, or something that just feels right. How can you budge your problem at that point that you can control?

This is still a little abstract. We’ll talk more about cracks and levers in the future.

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