Have you ever found yourself wanting to live one way, yet actually doing the opposite? You want to be kind and peaceful. You have spiritual values and strive to have compassion for others; yet, when things go awry, you find yourself in a rage and want to break something or to hurt someone.
You're not alone. These internal contradictions happen to all of us, and happen often. Do I want to read a book, or to exercise? Do I want to eat a salad, or that nice, juicy hamburger? It leads to the question, if we think we know what we want, why do we experience all the internal conflict and struggles.
A Split Brain
It boils down to how our brains work. We have a split brain: right and left. While that makes us inherently adaptive, it can also create two desires in one moment and give us those internal contradictions. In early childhood, the right and left brain function relatively independent from one another. The left brain stays focused on tasks that are necessary to function in our everyday life. Under stress, the left brain stays positive, task-oriented and logical. It is the part that says, “We can do this if we take it one step at a time.”
The right brain functions under stress to help us adapt. It is braced for danger, always on the lookout for anything that signals a threat to one’s sense of self. It is ready to run, freeze or fight. Mostly, it remains frozen in fear, too afraid to ask for help or do anything but submit to the moment.
Because the sides function independently, they can also “split off” to enable us to handle emotionally charged situations and develop ways to deal with the needs of the moment. For example, if we are outside playing and we see an angry dog coming our way, the left brain yells “Danger!”, the right brain yells “Run!” As adults, most of those reactions from each side of our brain are ingrained. They also developed when we not aware of what was happening. When those unconscious, hidden triggers get activated, we do not understand ourselves and our reactions.
Ralph is a top executive for his firm. He manages a group of high powered managers in his region. His job is to confront problems and help create solutions. At times, this includes firing high level individuals. It is not a part of his job he enjoys, but he takes decisive action when necessary.
At home, it's a different story. Ralph is afraid to confront his wife over the large credit card debt she has accrued. He is highly opposed to debt if any kind, especially credit card debt. He has not been able to have a conversation with her. He is afraid she will be angry with him.
The difference is a result of our split brains. At work, he functions out of his left brain adult self. At home, he reverts to his right brain survival mode of fear. We can trace this to his childhood. Growing up, his mother expected him to do as he was told and to keep quiet. Questions were not allowed in his family. Because of the adaptability of the human brain, Ralph was able to fit into the role his family expected of him as a child. Unfortunately, as an adult, those learned behaviors interfere with his ability to deal with a serious situation in his relationship. He is confused by his feelings and behavior.
Just like Ralph, growing up we live with expectations that may not fit our temperament, personality or desires. The experiences in our family may prevent us from having our needs met and prevent us from fully developing who we are. We only allow the parts of ourselves that are acceptable to develop and we create parts that help us survive.
Being highly adaptable makes it possible for us to survive, and in some cases thrive, but it leaves us with hidden parts of ourselves that are not allowed to grow and develop. These unacceptable parts become wrapped in shame and fear. We are left with the question, “What would happen if someone saw all of me?” These hidden parts of ourselves that are wrapped in shame, these parts that we do not like and want to disown, can create internal conflicts. These parts make it possible for us to have a wide range of options for dealing with the situations that life brings our way.