At this very moment, there’s a stream of negative thought going through your mind. Here’s what mine often sounds like: “Peter, why would anyone care what you have to say?” Or this doozy, “You used to be relevant but now you’re just old.” And the classic, “Sure you could make something happen —if you only had the time.”
What’s the point of these negative tape loops playing in our heads? It’s hard to imagine that they have any positive function, but I believe there is one. There’s a very primitive part of the brain that deals primarily with emotions, it’s called the amygdala, or the limbic brain, and it definitely has a life-saving function. For example, if you were swimming laps in a Florida swamp and a large alligator were to suddenly appear, it would be the responses from your amygdala that would cause you to swim faster than you’d ever swam before. It would be your amygdala that sent the adrenaline coursing through your blood, all in an effort to save you from becoming human tartare.
But unfortunately, that same part of your brain intuits harmless psychological threats in the same way. This is the train of logic it follows:
- If you try something new there’s a chance you might fail.
- If you fail you will be ashamed.
- If you’re a shameful person you will be abandoned by those around you
- If you’re abandoned (think back to earliest childhood) you will die.
That’s how deftly the amygdala makes the leap from something as innocuous as failing in a drama course to your own demise. And that’s why we have such a difficult time reinventing ourselves; we see the challenge as something that involves our own mortality.We have a difficult time reinventing ourselves coz we see the challenge as involving our own… Click To Tweet
In order to humanize this limbic brain and the negative responses it sends, I’ve given it a name. I call this internal critic, Marv.
Marv is my metaphor for: Majorly Afraid of Revealing Vulnerability. I’ve also come to understand that rather than working to hinder our efforts, Marv is actually a protective force, albeit one that’s working way too hard. Unless there’s a ravenous alligator or some actual life-threatening situation, you need Marv to put his feet up and sip an iced tea, so that you can get on with that poem, or business plan, or painting, or exercise program you’ve put on hold.
It’s Marv that creates the knots in your stomach, the tension in your neck—or any of the other physiological symptoms you experience under stressful situations—but even though they seem to portend real danger, they aren’t necessarily evidence that you should curtail pursuing your ideas. It’s all about taking the first steps towards your goal, even before your fear abates. Marv is activated by our fear; he is calmed by our actions.Marv is activated by our fear; he is calmed by our actions. Click To Tweet
I’ve always wanted to fly a plane but I was worried I didn’t have the math skills (note to would-be pilots: you don’t need much math), that I would become flustered and kill myself in a crash (what would my wife and kids think of their idiot father then…?). Whenever I even thought about flying a plane, all these negative thoughts and sensations arose, and for years I put the kibosh on the idea. However once I took the tiny action steps towards my goal of flying a plane, as opposed to just fearfully ruminating about it, Marv was off doing something other than annoying me.
What do these small steps look like? As I said, they were small steps—ridiculously small. My first one was simply walking to my computer with the intention of doing a Google search for: Discovery Flight Times in Santa Monica. Once I approached the computer to type in those words, I was already taking action on my goals, and since Marv is only sending warning messages when we’re fretting over our goals—not when we’re taking some sort of action on them — he was nowhere to be found. After several such small steps, it wasn’t long until I was actually flying a Cessna 172 Skyhawk over the San Fernando Valley.Marv is only sending warning messages when we’re fretting over our goals—not when we’re taking… Click To Tweet
As with many things, shining a light on the source of a problem is the best way to begin solving it and the trick to dealing with Marv is to be able to determine if the threat he presents you with is real (actual danger) or purely imaginary (mere anxiety). From there, all you need to do is to go from a state of passive mulling to one of active doing. Even if your actions are tiny, such as my action of typing in the test flight times, you’ll find it makes all the difference in the world in terms of bringing your idea to life.
Peter Himmelman is an award-winning, Emmy and Grammy-nominated musician and the founder of Big Muse, a company that teaches creative thinking, leadership skills, and deeper levels of communication in all facets of life–from personal to professional. As Big Muse has grown in popularity over the last four years, Peter has come to share his program with thousands of individuals, including academic institutions like The Wharton School, UCLA, and The Ross School of Business, and international brands such as McDonald’s, Adobe, and Gap Inc. Peter Himmelman is author of the newly released book Let Me Out, revealing science-based techniques coupled with his own unique methods and exercises to help us break out of our comfort zones, move past our fears, and create more fearlessly.