Covered in a fine layer of dirt and sweat, each weighed down by a 40lb pack, my spouse and I crossed paths (literally) with a fellow backpacker in the wilderness. We were just beginning our multi-day adventure; she was just ending hers. Several things made her unique. First, she was alone. Second, her pack seemed to outweigh ours by 10lbs. Last, she was several decades older than us. In her early seventies, this woman was backpacking in the wilderness by herself. To boot, our talk consisted mainly of treks she had done that summer and those she planned to do.
This woman is the epitome of YES! This is a person who creates opportunities to affirm her life, her purpose, and her passion. Despite a society that may teach her otherwise, she said yes to being alone. Yes to wild adventures. Yes to defining her wonderful version of 70. Yes to her body, her spirit, and her mind. In the face of fear, anxiety, and societal norms, she said YES!
When we say no to opportunities because of fear, anxiety, and social norms we make our lives safe, but small. We suppress our greatness, creativity, and ability to fully experience life. When we say no, we impose self-limiting rules on how we access joy. Why is saying yes so critical to living a life that affirms our purpose and passion? Simply put, because we were not born to be small. Going out on a limb, I’d bet none of us envision our accomplishments and experiences in life being led by fear, anxiety, and social norms. Staying on that limb, I’d bet we can each name five people (perhaps, including ourselves) that live lives ruled by these three factors. It’s not uncommon.
Our brains function for one soul purpose – our survival. So, it’s no surprise that we have default brain modes that allow fear, anxiety, and social norms to command our behavior. Our amygdala, two almond shaped structures nestled deep in our brain’s limbic system, act as watchman for our survival. This guard never sleeps, takes holiday, or wavers from its duty. It is the part of the brain that dramatically pulls us from the depths of deep, drooling sleep because, “I heard a noise in the house.” As information comes into the brain the amygdala decides if it is a threat. If it is, it’s shunted to the lower brain, flooding us with stress chemicals and preparing us for fight, flight, or freeze. Those same almond shaped structures decide to send stimuli perceived as novel (as opposed to threatening) to the thinking brain (pre-frontal cortex), where we are able to consider it, pay close attention to it, and make informed decisions.
When we say no to new experiences because of fear, anxiety, and social norms, we strengthen our amygdala’s threat response. In our brains, we create dozens, if not thousands, of real and hypothesized disastrous outcomes to saying yes. We deepen our brain’s response to view new experience as life threatening. After enough of these experiences, our amygdala gets the message. It no longer needs to view this as a threat because it’s no longer even a consideration. It doesn’t need to activate the survival response because it knows what the rest of the brain is going to say – No.
- No, I won’t go on vacation because…
- No, I won’t apply for the job because…
- No, I won’t speak up because…
It becomes an automatic response. We’ve constructed a fortress of reasons why we shouldn’t and we eventually stop questioning them. We unintentionally construct a definition of who we are without honoring our purpose and passion.
AND (thank all that is holy) the opposite is true. When we begin to say YES, especially in the face of fear, anxiety, and social norms, we strengthen our brain’s ability to see what once was threatening, as novel – Something to be considered. It becomes something that, although terrifying, would support our purpose and connect us to our passion. Saying yes creates files in our brains that strengthen our case against staying small. These yes files inform our amygdala as it deciphers possible threats. The stimuli get filtered through these files, allowing it to be sent to our thinking regions. Yes to thinking!
Yes begets yes. Yes is the gateway phrase that brings our lives – our intentional, on-purpose, kick-ass lives, into focus.
Tiffany Grimes is CEO and Founder of Evolutionary Consulting.
Neuroscience for Everyday People.