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!)