Why We Often React in Ways We Regret (and How to Stop)

“By practicing self-awareness and pausing before reacting, we can help create a world with less pain and more love.” ~Lori Deschene

It happens to the best of us. We find ourselves in a challenging situation or stressful environment and we get overcome—by an emotion, an impulse—and we act in a way that makes things worse.

It might be exploding at our spouse in response to a simple request. Or freezing during a difficult meeting at work. For me, this often happens when I receive negative feedback or constructive criticism. Something “takes us over” and we act in a way that doesn’t feel like us.

Sound familiar?

We’re Hardwired for Fight-or-Flight

There’s actually a very simple, biological explanation for these seemingly mysterious responses. We all have a little lizard inside of us.

It’s true. The “reptilian” brains evolved to keep us safe in the often dangerous and harsh environments of our biological ancestors.

When our brains perceive a threat—whether a physical threat like a bear or a more subtle social threat like an angry co-worker—our reptilian functions kick in to help protect us; and we’re compelled toward “fight or flight.”

Most Threats Today Are (Mostly) In Our Heads

Our inner lizard is awesome when we need them—and it has certainly served (and continues to serve) our reptilian ancestors quite well. The problem is that many of us today don’t live in a world where our lives are actually threatened.

We may feel threatened by things like interpersonal conflicts, overwhelm, busyness, and other aspects of our increasingly complex world; but our lives are not actually in danger.

The problem is that our brains still react as if we are, and when we feel threatened, our reptilian brain takes over.

These are the mysterious outbursts we see in ourselves and others. When this happens, our higher level capacities, which live in our pre-frontal cortex are disabled. These include things like empathy, creativity, flexibility, and the ability to see new possibilities.

This area of our brains, and its associated capacities, developed much later in our evolutionary journey; and are therefore less entrenched than our more ancient reptilian impulses.

So when we feel threatened, a battle ensues between our reptilian brain and our pre-frontal cortex—a battle that our inner lizards usually win.

My own inner lizard loves to rear its head when I’m confronted with any situation that makes me look bad, or not perfect.

I’ve worked very hard to look good. It’s pretty wired into me. I don’t mean so much the way I look physically. Rather, what I do, what I produce, and what I create needs to look good. It needs to be good, to be exemplary. So when I receive any less than stellar feedback, my inner lizard tends to kick in. Even the slightest feedback can become devastating. One raised eyebrow can send me into the toilet.

If I were a soldier fighting in a battle, of course, “not being good” could be very life threatening. But in my world, that’s really not the case. In my world, things like transparency, vulnerability, and being willing to admit my imperfections go a long way. But my inner lizard hates it!

The Good News

At this point you might be feeling a little overwhelmed or even fatalistic. You might be assuming that we’re no match for our inner lizards and we’re doomed to react in unhealthy ways when we feel trapped, or stressed, or overwhelmed—and there’s nothing we can do about it. That’s how I often feel as well.

But there’s good news. I’ve found that with a little introspection, intention to improve, and effort, it’s possible to learn to recognize and embrace my inner lizard, releasing my higher human capacities in the process.

Here’s how you do it.

Observe and understand.

Get to know the various ways in which the inner lizard is showing up in yourself, and those around you. This is not about blaming or shaming, this is about humble recognition. Our lizards many different “styles” in which they show up (you can learn more about these on my website), but the four main categories are:

  • Fight: Aggression in its many forms
  • Flight: Withdrawal or escape
  • Freeze: Shutting down
  • Fawn: Becoming eager to please

My desire to be good, for instance, is an example of a “freeze” style. The way it shows up for me is that while I’m doing everything I can to look good on the outside, on the inside I’m like a deer in the headlights. My inner lizard likes it when things are in control and looking successful. When I feel exposed, it can be a whole different story.

These reptilian reactions are wired into us by design—they are not flaws. They are human safety features. The question is whether reactions that served our ancestors still serve us now, particularly in a work or relational context.

Get and stay connected.

Shame, blame, complaining, explaining, justifying, defending, and denying are indicators of disconnection—from ourselves and others.

Many of us learned to disconnect as children, and these indicators—this disconnection—may seem so normal, so usual, that they are hard to see as an indicator of anything. Yet, as adults, we need the capacities that come with being connected. If we are going to face stressful environments with the capacity to navigate them effectively, connection is required.

If getting and staying connected feels like a big ask, for a start, you might play with simply noticing when you find yourself shaming, blaming, complaining, explaining, justifying, defending, or denying.

Don’t try to do something differently. Just notice what is happening for you, and what the situation or context is. If you are up for it, you can share with a trusted friend or journal on what you notice.

What we resist persists.

For some of us, our reptilian reactions are so “business as usual” that it may be hard to recognize as a contributing factor to the very issues that you want to address. And we may find it much easier to simply ignore our reptilian tendencies and the impacts they have on ourselves and those around us. But we do so at our own peril. The more we ignore them, the greater a hold they have on us!

Embrace your inner lizard.

Compassion is central to loosening the grip our inner lizards have on us when the going gets tough. If you blame yourself or others for how they react, the safety styles—the reactive patterns—become more entrenched and cleverer. Their job is protection. They do it well.

By learning to see and get to know your own and other’s lizard-like tendencies, and by appreciating that they were created for a reason, they can begin to relax.

Sometimes just noticing begins to shift patterns, other times we require outside support to be able to see and recognize what is happening. This has been my experience. I’ve learned to see my desire to appear perfect for what it is, which gives me a chance to express something different, to be vulnerable and transparent.

When you do this, you’re making it possible for more of the pre-frontal cortex to come online, and you’ll allow your higher human capacities expand so you can be more effective in your interactions with others.

About Martha Hamilton

Martha Hamilton is a coach, facilitator, consultant, and author of Going Reptile: How Engaging Your Inner Lizard Leads to More Fulfilling Work & Personal Relationships. With 30+ years experience as a consultant in the business, management, and healthcare sectors, Martha works with individuals and groups to help them unearth dormant capacities that lead to more fulfilling work and personal relationships.

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