Before we begin, as usual, let's pause and take a deep breath.
Then say to yourself, "I'm learning now."
In the previous lesson, we learned about the energizing power of cycling our attention through all our relationships, not letting ourselves feel defined by any one of them.
Earlier, we learned about the brain's threat response, and that our relationships are our supports against possible threats to our survival.
In this lesson, we're going to ask the question, "What happens when our brain senses threats from within our relationships themselves?"
For example, a slowly increasing pain in our lower back is a threat from within our own body. We might have a boss who ambiguously insults us half the time, a threat from an interpersonal relationship. Or there's the good old terror of staring at a blank page of our future screenplay, a threat caused by a goal.
There's also the case of relationships turning against each other, such as when we work for so long that we have no time for other people or to maintain our bodies, or when we don't express our true, nuanced opinion because our social justice warrior friend might shame us for it, or our Trump-supporting friend might call us a synonym for coward.
Relational threats like these lurk in the background even when they're out of sight. They're different from primitive survival threats like hunger and wild animals.
We can't just fight or escape and move on. We have to find nuanced solutions that keep the relationship intact while addressing the issues.
In the meantime, our brain is constantly scanning, asking, "Is this a threat? How much of a threat is this? Should I be thinking about this now? Should I have thought about this yesterday?"
Our brain tries to defend us against relational threats the same way it defends against snakes in our garden, with vigilance. But this vigilance causes its own problems.
Try an experiment. Close your eyes. Imagine you're in your kitchen.
On the countertop is a cutting board with yellow lemon and a knife on it.
Now imagine picking the lemon up, feeling it's leathery, rubbery skin in your hand. Now put it down, take the knife, and cut the lemon in half. See the lemony oil spraying out from the skin. Notice how it smells. Now cut one half in half again, so you have a quarter. Take the quarter, put it up to your mouth, and squeeze it. Taste the fresh lemon juice as it drips onto your tongue.
Now open your eyes and bring your attention to your mouth. Are you salivating? Why? Because you imagined you were tasting lemon juice.
The brain can't tell the difference between what it imagines, and what it's actually experiencing.
As the brain tries to defend us from relational threats, asking "what if" questions about bad things that might happen in the future, it's getting us to experience the effects of those things happening even while they're not happening.
We can even visualize ourselves into a fight or flight response, with elevated heart rate, sweat, dry mouth, and hot face.
If you recall, this shuts down our social brain networks, meaning we lose the ability to effectively interact with people.
Even in lower levels of threat response, our brain networks get fragmented, and we become more disconnected from life.
This certainly does not help us solve the problems our brain is trying to get us to solve.
It's a fact of life that we need relationships that sometimes feel like threats to us.
What really drains our life energy, however, is repeatedly visualizing negative experiences we've had in those relationships, and many that we haven't had, over and over.
There's a better way. In the next lesson, we'll talk about how to effectively solve relational problems.