Do you and your lizard live in a van down by the river?

by Pamela Slim

I listened intently to my highly educated and successful client express his fears about quitting his job to start a business.

“What are you really afraid of?” I said.

“When it comes down to it, I am afraid of living on the street and eating garbage out of a dumpster.”

This fear is very common for people who are making significant career or life changes. It doesn’t matter how much experience they have or how much money sits in their bank account, they feel as though one wrong move will utterly destroy their lives.

This is no accident.

We all receive multiple messages a day about how there are not enough resources in the world to support us (“The economy is falling!” “There are no good men left in New York!” “I must eat the WHOLE cake, or never eat again!”) and how we should be very afraid of the future (“The ice caps are melting!” “Serial killers are on the loose!” “The terrorists are coming!”.) Martha calls this the Wizard vs. Lizard battle for your brain in her new book Steering by Starlight.

What is lizard brain?

One of the deepest layers of your brain is a neural structure evolved in early vertebrates. It is wrapped around the cortex of your brain and blasts signals on a regular basis intended to keep you fed and out of danger. Martha says in Steering by Starlight:

The entire purpose of your reptile brain is to continually broadcast survival fears- alarm reactions that keep animals alive in the wild. These fears fall into two different categories: lack, and attack. On one hand, our reptile brains are convinced that we lack everything we need: we don’t have enough time, money, everything. On the other hand, something terrible is about to happen. A predator– human or animal–is poised to snatch us! That makes sense if we’re hiding in a cave somewhere, but when we’re home in bed, our imaginations can fixate on catastrophes that are so vague and hard to ward off that they fill us with anxiety that has no clear action implication.

Animals will live longer when obsessed with getting more resources and avoiding danger.

Humans, on the other hand, especially those of us driving minivans and owning large-screen televisions, carry that same instinct, without facing the same dire situations. This leads us to act in all kinds of unpleasant ways, including paranoid, greedy, suspicious and desperate. The more we listen to our inner lizard, the more we are pulled toward a fate we most fear:

  • A salesperson, certain that he won’t be able to sell a thing in a tight economy, calls the same prospect five times in one week, leading him to be permanently blacklisted from the company.
  • A jealous boyfriend, convinced his girlfriend is cheating on him, secretly monitors her cellphone calls, follows her, breaks into her email and has a fit whenever she wants to go out with friends. Guess what happens? She packs her bags as fast as she can (unless her lizard fear is “I will never find another man” in which case she marries him, stays in relationship hell for a decade or two before having a heart attack from the stress)
  • A young woman, so terrified that she will make a fool of herself presenting to a debate team for the first time, actually passes out when she gets to the podium. In this case, it was Martha, as described in Finding Your Own North Star (Coincidentally, as lizard wizardry works, when her worst nightmare was realized, she overcame her deathly fear of speaking and went on to be a secure and polished presenter.)

Examples of Lizard Fears:

“I’ll never find love”
“Something may have gone right, but you know that other shoe is going to drop”
“You can’t trust anyone in this rotten world.”
“I have to keep secrets; people will use information to hurt me.”
“Ultimately, everyone will betray me.”
“The minute I get anything, someone will take it from me.”
“Nice guys always end up getting screwed.”
“Successful people have all the luck – I just get bad breaks.”

Notice the lack and attack themes that permeate these thoughts? If you want to make progress towards your goals, you must learn to tame your inner lizard. Here are five ways, summarized from Steering by Starlight.

Step 1: Clarify how your inner lizard “thinks”

As you move through your life, are there any recurrent fears that keep popping up? Look at the list above for inspiration or choose your own. Examine the fear and see if it is primarily lack or attack based. When does it hit you? What is your reaction?

Step 2: Name your inner lizard’s top ten tunes:

We create justifications for our lizard fears in order to keep them in place. Complete these sentences with the first thing that pops into your mind. Afterward, scan the list for your personal “lack and attack” themes.

  • Oh no! I don’t have enough__________
  • If I don’t watch out, someone will__________
  • People want to take my__________
  • I can’t be perfectly happy until I get__________
  • Everybody pressures me to__________
  • You just can’t trust__________
  • People will hurt me unless I__________
  • If only I had__________
  • Someone’s always out to__________
  • I must hang onto__________

Step 3: The Name Game

Martha asks clients to name their inner lizard or even get a physical representation of them, like a pin or figurine. Her lizard is named Mo, and is fond of grapes, which she tosses to him whenever he whispers sweet lack and attack tunes in her ear.

My lizard, pictured in this post, is named Jorge and lives in the shadows of the pyramids of Chichen Itza in Mexico. Since Jorge’s home is in one of the most powerful spiritual epicenters I have ever visited, he reminds me that where a slippery lizard fear lounges, spiritual power and grace sit quietly by.

When you feel your lizard fears raise their wrinkled necks, instead of wrestling them with force, turn to them softly, call them by name and say gently “There, there Jorge, you do have a flair for the dramatic! Look — there is a ripe mango on that tree, go get it!”

Step 4: Find the Ridiculous

Nothing is funny about being deathly afraid. But once you begin to examine and debunk your lizard fears, they take on a certain hysterical quality:

  • Do you really think that you will end up alone and bitter in a cold, windowless room if you leave your marriage?
  • Are you really so incompetent as a mother that your new baby will end up underfed in need of therapy by the age of 4? (you may need to be a mom or married to one to truly get this one — new babies are the perfect storm of lizard fears, hormones, and sleeplessness-induced hysteria)
  • Or my very favorite Saturday Night Live-inspired lizard fear of all time: Will you be 35, divorced, and live in a van down by the river?

The dear departed Chris Farley from Saturday Night Live in his role of Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker brings to life one of the best, and funniest, lizard tunes I have ever heard. Since the original video was not available (legally anyway), here is a creative interpretation using kinetic typography. If you cannot see this video window, here is the direct link on YouTube.

If you can laugh till your gut busts, like I do, every time you hear this, you will loosen the grip of lizard fears on your brain.

Step 5: The “Shackles Test”

What if you should be afraid?

The question always comes up: what if my lizard fear is right? Bad things happen every day, to good people, so are we being foolish to not be afraid?

Yes and no. There is a distinction between trusting your instinct to avoid harmful situations (like stepping into an elevator in an empty building with only you and a decidedly creepy guy) and taking a risk, (like going back to school to get your Master’s degree when you are 55 years old). Both fears can feel the same until you give them the Shackles Test.

Shackles on test

One person place or thing that doesn’t serve my destiny is:____

When I let this person, place or thing fill my conscious mind, my body and mood react in the following ways: __________

This physical reaction is your “Shackles ON” feeling. Remember it.

Shackles off test

One person, place or thing that does serve my destiny is:____

When I let this person, place or thing fill my conscious mind, my body and mood react in the following ways: ____

This physical reaction is your “Shackles OFF” feeling. Remember it.

Once you become familiar with these feelings, you can use them to test your thoughts. For example:

  • Does the thought of leaving my job feel shackles on or shackles off?
  • Does breaking off my engagement feel shackles on or shackles off?
  • Does eating this entire box of Oreos feel shackles on or shackles off?
  • Does buying this pair of $300 shoes feel shackles on or shackles off?
  • Does working with this partner feel shackles on or shackles off?

These five steps don’t necessarily need to be done in sequence to be effective — experiment with tossing your pet lizard a grape, laughing hysterically at your worst fears, or using the shackles on/off test in a critical moment.

One thing is pretty certain: if you learn to decipher your lizard tunes, you won’t end up living in a van down by the river. Unless you want to, of course.

photo credit: Lewis Stewart (Pam’s Dad!)

48 replies
  1. Christine Kane
    Christine Kane says:

    My lizard looks like Suze Orman.

    I don’t mean any offense to Suze… she’s brilliant and has done lots of great stuff for millions of women. However, when I travel (which I do a lot), she’s always in my head shouting at me that if I stayed at THIS hotel instead of THAT hotel, then I could save NINETY-FIVE WHOLE DOLLARS and if invested, that would add up to $400,000 in 2023!!!

    And getting great hotel rooms on the road is seriously shackles off. I worked with a life coach for a while who came close to firing me when I toured because I was always terrified of my lizard/Suze voices – and I was often getting sick or completely burnt out.

    That is so hilarious! I have a terrible visual image of a picture of Suze’s face taped on Jorge’s body. Not pretty – sorry Suze!

    You have my vote for the $95 more hotel room — really enjoying that time will be more than made up for in the rest of your life and work.


  2. AlisonG
    AlisonG says:

    My lizard’s lack messages aren’t about money, they’re about time. As in “Oh no, you’re never going to have enough time to write. You’re going to be working on this novel when you’re ninety-two!” And of course, the more I listen to that voice, the less I am able to write when I DO have time.

    That voice almost kept me from becoming a mother, which has been an incredibly shackles-off experience. I was afraid that kids would take away even more of my time, and I would resent them. Instead, my daughter fills up my tank of creative energy.

    I’ll be on the lookout for a name or image of my lizard. I love the idea of making it concrete.

  3. Chantel
    Chantel says:

    I’m making some big changes in my life right now. I hear this lizard everywhere and have been using your advice to help me through this transition. Its working but its not easy. My Lizard’s name is Brad and Brad and I are rumbling.

  4. Peter
    Peter says:

    I must say, Pam, that was the best lizard-themed blog post I’ve read in quite some time. Great photo, too!

    I have a challenge for you. If you can get a dugong (a.k.a. manatee) reference into your next post, I’ll pay five bucks to your favourite charity. (I know $5 is pretty mean, but I’m saving for a mobile waterfront property.)

    My “lizard” is an African Blue parrot called Aldous. I’ve named him Aldous because he’s very old — he still sometimes thinks he can see a sabre-toothed tigers out of the corner of his eye — and as an oblique reference to the mynah birds in Aldous Huxley’s novel _Island_.

    (_Island_ was Aldous Huxley’s utopian counterpart to _Brave New World_. On this island, mynah birds are trained to utter uplifting messages such as, “Pay attention! Here and now, boys and girls. Here and now!”)

    Aldous lives in the giant, tropical glass-house in Kew Botanical Gardens. He can forage for himself, but he likes to be fed peanuts and sunflower-seeds. If he gets on my nerves, I throw a coconut at him. Then he takes off in a blur of blue-grey feathers and indignant squawks. Very pretty.

  5. jrose
    jrose says:

    Great post and very helpful. I’ll have to think on a name as one doesn’t come to mind, but it does have an appearance, which for me right now is money, or maybe even security. Never did I think I would be in the position to ever really have to worry about money (I felt like I had don’t everything “right”…got the education, did the planning, etc.), but in my case my worst fears actually have come true. Recent divorce, no support, car that is breaking down, health that is poor enough to keep me from a “regular 9 to 5” but not bad enough to qualify for any disability, and no money other than a small loan from family which is about to run out.

    Since I am all too familiar in the past with lizard thinking that is what I’ll call less reasonable, it is quite different from the type of fear one feels when the fears are based more so in the reality of one’s circumstances. That being said, I still think your advice has application, even when it seems things are at their bleakest…so I thank you very much for all the time and effort you put into posting this wonderful column.

  6. Kathryn
    Kathryn says:

    I’ve yet to discover my lizard’s name. He/she lives in The Old House on the Collins Estate in the 1960’s gothic soap, Dark Shadows. This lizard seems to have quite a lot to be alarmed about these days. Perhaps Dr. Hoffman could give it a sedative?

  7. Sherri
    Sherri says:

    My lizard’s name is Sally. I went to junior high with her. She was a rich kid, and I was a poor kid. When I got married, (I’m divorced now), I started buying lots of shoes that cost $30 or more. At that time, $30 was a lot of money for a pair of shoes. The only problem was, the shoes set in the closet, and I didn’t wear them. My ex asked me why I bought shoes I wouldn’t wear; and at the time, I didn’t have an answer. Then I realized my fears stemmed from a comment Sally made. There were five kids in my family, and we each got a pair of Keds at the start of each school year. These tennis shoes were worn for every occasion, including dress.
    One day Sally said, “Do you know how many pairs of shoes I have?” “Five?” She smurked and said, “I have 12 pairs of shoes,” emphatizing “TWELVE.” That remark had an impact one me for many years without realization on my part. After I remembered this, I no longer bought shoes I wouldn’t wear. Now if I can just tell Sally to get off my back about the shoes so I can get on top of submitting my writing to get it published.

  8. Becky
    Becky says:

    Wow. I actually DID live in a van down by the river. (Video is still online from the reality show that filmed it.) I confronted my “I’m going to end up a bag lady fears, quit my $50,000 a year job at age 50 right after my dad died and moved into a van – in Colorado…down by the river sometimes, but usually in a Wal-Mart parking lot the rest of the time. I shared the van with my rottweiler and a house cat. I worked – writing and doing freelance photography and working a temp job at Camping World. It sucked. But it was fun too. I have NEVER felt so free in my life and I’m constantly drawn to do it again someday – from an RV…with money. I lived in the van for a year – winter, summer, spring and fall. I won a pretty prestigious journalism award while doing it too…near the end I went back into journalism. I moved into an apartment, got another job – and am transitioning into yet another phase of my life – as a ghostwriter. I’m working with a celebrity on a fitness book and have seven or other books in the hopper for other clients. Wow. But the best part – I confronted my lizard fears that I’d end up living in my car and die in a van down by the river. I didn’t and I won’t. I proved to myself that your thoughts and fears can be confronted and changed….

    What a fantastic story Becky! Thank you so much for sharing it. It is a great example of what happens when you play out your worst case scenario — and come out stronger. Great for you, and I can’t wait to hear about this next phase of your life!

    All the best,


  9. Leah
    Leah says:

    My lizard is my year eight English teacher who told me that ‘someday you may be as good as your sister’. Anges is her name, she is a small old lady, who seemed nice until that moment. My heart sank, and I believed her for years, also thinking that everyone else thought the same thing. The result being that I unconsciously spent years trying hard not to do the same things so that people couldn’t compare us, while deep down inside feeling that I didn’t really measure up.
    Now I’m 34 years old and just beginning to realize that Anges really isn’t that nice, and I should throw some books at her (just like I wanted to when I was 15).
    My sister is very successful and I am so very proud of her, my life however is very different, not from me trying so hard, but because we are different people with different ideas, wants and needs. I now know I am ‘as good as my sister’ but truthfully, now I don’t really care, my path is set and I’m ready to follow, especially now that I finally realized who my lizard is, and what will shut her up!

  10. Barbara Saunders
    Barbara Saunders says:

    Rod Serling used this wonderful metaphor to describe the people who protested to prevent Civil Rights era desegregation of schools in the South. He said they resembled a “convocation of lizards”! I loved it – such a science fiction image in such an unexpected context.

  11. Darliss
    Darliss says:

    I have a lizard named Red. A dragon, actually. He stands about 7 ft tall in magnificent red, when he is trying to be brave, and has a wingspan that stretches to here and gone. I know he is just trying to protect me but his little lizard brain comes up with scenarios of all kinds of scary things that might lurk right around the corner that, plain and simple, scare the begeezus out of me!
    I find myself standing there under his wing, shivering with fear, until I realize that HE is the one that just scared me silly! There isn’t REALLY anyone out there trying to ‘get’ us and make sure we die miserable, penniless and alone! So I calmly reach up and stroke his cheek and with all the love and compassion I can muster for that big scared dragon I tell him, “It’s okay. We can handle anything that comes our way, you and me! We can and we will. We always do. There is always enough and more than enough, comfort, gold, love and friendship. That is just the way it is.” And with that Red settles back down to his usual burnished gold, one inch self, curls back up behind my ear and goes to sleep.

    • Hilary
      Hilary says:

      wow. I don't know why, exactly, but I love this!!! thank you for putting that imagery down in written form and sharing it. Having the distinct feeling that my lizard is a dragon from the same family… 🙂

  12. Amy
    Amy says:

    I loved this post. I was having a chat about this very topic with a friend – what’s the difference between sensible risk-taking and paranoid fear? This post helped answer my question.


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