In his recently published TEDx Talk my teacher and mentor, Dr. Stan Tatkin, describes and compares the two major parts of the brain which are in charge of our relationships: our Ambassadors (aka our neo-cortex) and our “Primitives” (aka our limbic and reptilian brains). Dr. Tatkin explains how our Ambassadors and Primitives complement each other, and how their respective gifts also come with profound limitations. Both our Ambassadors and Primitives deeply affect how we perceive and experience the world, and the people around us, especially those who provide safety and security.
When we think Primitives, we think: 1) these are the brain structures which operate MUCH faster than our Ambassadors; 2) they works below our conscious awareness and without intentional control; 3) these unconscious brain structures are prone to generalizations, societal and familial biases; both in judgment and behaviors.
Because our Primitives paste our past experiences and prejudices onto our present, they mis-appraise our present situations and keep us trapped in our past mental and emotional states.
These errors in assessment, and the troubles that ensue often leave us in shock, scratching our heads wondering “how in hell did we get here? We were simply talking and, the next thing I know, we are at war with each other, again!”
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In other words, if something seems unpleasantly familiar; if someone looks or dresses differently than the people we see and interact with everyday; talks with a different accent; has a different skin color than ours; worships differently that we do, or doesn’t worship at all; or looks too much like the people we are taught to fear, our Primitives fire up. And they do so VERY, VERY FAST! When they reach a certain threshold of activation (aka: action potential), they flood our blood stream with powerful hormones that prepare us to fight, flee, wall off, dissociate or freeze. These biologically based reactions are intended to protect us from vulnerability, anxiety, danger or threat, and ultimately from dying. As our Primitives take charge, they shut down our Ambassadors, meaning our ability to think clearly and respond appropriately to what is really going on–in real time. A black extension cord in the dark becomes a dangerous snake, and we react as if this dangerous snake was ready to attack us. A partner making his point with intense emotional charge, becomes our parent or teacher who shamed us when we were children.
As for our Ambassadors, as Stan says, they don’t have a clue as to why we do what we do, so they make shit up. Since they are wired for “linear and logical thinking”, they tend to sound smart and convincing. So, when we are embarrassed, ashamed or humiliated, when we find ourselves out of control and react inappropriately, when we have no idea what took over us, our Ambassadors justify our actions with smart sounding arguments or righteous indignation. From our Ambassadors perspective, we are better off sounding logical and articulate–even at the cost of alienating ourselves and others–rather than to remain humble and curious, and accept that sometimes we don’t have a clue of why we react the way we do.
It is also important to keep in mind the complementary of the two hemispheres of our brain. When the left hemisphere of our neo-cortex (logical, sequential, rational, analytical, objective and element focused), is too strong and controlling, it represses and inhibits the information coming from the right hemisphere (intuitive, holistic, emotionally based, sensory and subjective). This perpetuates the illusion that the left hemisphere knows best, while in truth is that it inhibits the integration of half of who we are. Therein lies how we get in trouble with many of our relationships, especially our primary, intimate and sexual relationships; the relationships we depend most on for safety and security. While we might sound smart and self aware, and often pretend to know what guides and motivates us (left hemisphere), in truth we have no idea about half of what of our brain is feeling, sensing and saying (right hemisphere).
So, what are we to do about our Ambassadors and Primitives as they relate to our primary relationships?
When we hear ourselves rationally analyzing and explaining away our uncomfortable and messy emotions, thoughts and behaviors, let us not be fooled and charmed by our Ambassadors’ arguments: “this sounds good and logical… therefore it must be true”. While our explanations can be psychologically sharp, chances are that they are only partially true, if not totally off. The likelihood that our Ambassadors are in control increases exponentially when our focus is on what the other person did wrong. We can circumvent this dangerous pitfall by taking ownership of how our vulnerabilities, anxieties and unresolved material got activated. We can then share our experience (I felt, I thought, I believed, etc… NOT you said, you did, you made me…), mindfully with our partner, or the people with whom we experienced a glitch in communication. In most cases, this is best done once our emotional flooding has subsided. Let’s remember, we can’t think clearly and act kindly when adrenaline and cortisol are flooding our Ambassadors. Our goal is to repair and mend our misattunements; it is not to be a righteous and isolated partners.
A good rule of thumb to bypass hours or days of arguments of who did what and why, is to ask each other “What made you feel vulnerable, anxious or scared? What painful experience(s) in your past might have been activated and made you feel that you were thrown back in time?” As importantly, we can ask ourselves and our partners what do we both need–individually and from each other–to repair the hurt we both felt and caused?”
Let us remember that our ability to repair and mend our misattunements with our significant other(s) is one of the greatest gifts we can give our relationships, and therefore ourselves!
C. Nathan Bergeron, LMFT, L.Ac. ©