There’s a reason why many of us struggle to eat right or exercise or stay sober or simply floss our teeth, and it’s not lack of information. In fact, many behavior specialists use a “two brain” metaphor to describe the driving forces behind how and why we do the things we do.
One of the brains is Thinking Brain, which makes logical decisions based on facts. Thinking Brain predicts how long it will take your two-year-old to brush her four teeth (a surprisingly complex math problem). Thinking Brain draws neat columns of pro’s and con’s to evaluate which daycare to enroll your child. Thinking Brain packs a daily diaper bag with enough provisions to keep your baby alive on a desert island for 4-6 weeks, because Thinking Brain knows it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Our other brain is Feeling Brain, which makes irrational decisions based on emotions. Feeling Brain howls, whines, throws hissy fits, and hosts pitty parties. It also shimmies in happy dances, and launches impromptu cartwheels that will strain your lower back. But that pain will be later, and who cares about later?!? Feeling Brain is all about NOW.
In other words, Thinking Brain is like the helpful (if somewhat stodgy) parent, while Feeling Brain is the spirited (if somewhat defiant) three-year-old. And as Mountain Home’s Clinical Director often coaches us:
Never get into a power struggle with a three-year-old. They have nothing else to do.
Research suggests that our feelings determine our behaviors way more than we’d ever like to admit. In fact, sometimes Thinking Brain actually spins a narrative to justify a decision that Feeling Brain actually already made. Feeling Brain might decide to skip the parenting class you signed up for, because it’s feeling lazy, perhaps, or maybe it’s scared of meeting new people. Then, after you’ve settled back onto the couch, Thinking Brain chimes in. “Yeah, teachers are usually jerks. My parents never went to parenting classes. Plus, I really need to rewatch Game of Thrones in its entirety now that I know how it all ends.”
So, how do you get Thinking Brain to take charge of Feeling Brain?
Because you can’t.
And you wouldn’t want to even if you could.
Sure, some people are very good at ignoring their feelings, but that actually just makes them more likely to erupt in unpredictable and inconvenient ways. Other people try to subdue Feeling Brain with hoards of data, but that doesn’t really work either, because Feeling Brain DOES NOT GIVE TWO TOOTS about your facts.
And anyway, you actually need Feeling Brain because this is where your motivation is stored. You simply won’t get out of bed in the morning if all you have are facts and flow charts. You need hope. You need love. You may even need anger or fear. For better or worse, feelings are the fuel for life.
That’s why we ideally aim to form a healthy relationship between our two brains. Thinking Brain can prompt Feeling Brain to perhaps look at a situation from a different angle, while Feeling Brain can convince Thinking Brain to sing in the shower, just for the fun of it.
Ironically, Thinking Brain will often need to influence Feeling Brain using…feelings. “That is scary to imagine meeting new people in a parenting class. But think about how you might feel afterward if you make a new friend.” Sometimes even feeling-based bribery can work. “If you go to the parenting class, then you can come home and take a long bath. Won’t that feel good?”
Creating harmony between the two brains can be exhausting. Many of us need to recruit friends and/or professionals to help. (As well, the new Mark Manson book Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope, has a great chapter the two-brain idea if you’d like to read more.)
Still, you have a secret power Strong Mom: you already do this all the time. Every day you are figuring out how to work with a little being who is mostly Feeling Brain. You adore that little being. When that little being conks out in your lap, you kiss that sweaty forehead and your eyes fill with tears because it’s so hard and because it’s all worth it.
If you do one thing today, Strong Mom, do this: give yourself—both of your brains—a little of that love as well.
You’ve got this.