Even though we live in modern society, we still have prehistoric brains that respond with instincts before logic and causes us to sometimes struggle to make the right choices. This is because our instincts work faster – way faster – than the thinking parts of our brains. Today, we’re talking about how to tame your instincts to make the right choices.

What exactly is an instinct? An instinct is an inherited tendency to make a specific response without thinking, usually to protect us physically. Just like lightning flashes before we hear thunder, instincts fire before rational thought.  

Translating this to practical terms – we cannot out-think our instincts, because instincts don’t originate in the thinking part of our brains. Kind of a relief, if you ask me, because then I don’t have to beat myself up when I realize a part of me wants to run away from difficult emotional situations. Every. Single. Time.

How do we resolve this dilemma, so our outdated instincts don’t trip us up? The first step is to accept that our minds filter the world through this lens of survival and protection. The second step is to tame our instincts because we’ll never fully eliminate them.

Our Instincts

Below I highlight three prehistoric instincts that are still alive in us today and an idea to tame each one if it is no longer serving you:

Instinct #1: “I cannot survive alone!” 

Humans evolved in tribes and still feel safer in a group when threatened. Perhaps this is one reason why social isolation as a result of the pandemic is so difficult on an emotional level. 

Tame it: Build a habit of staying in touch with your extended family, friends, community. Each day, connect with at least one person in your “tribe”.

Instinct #2: “There is not enough!” 

Humans evolved in a time of scarce resources. This results in a tendency towards a scarcity mindset when stressed. We’ve all read about instances at work when people act unethically to get ahead. When someone is deeply in the scarcity mindset and feeling like there’s not enough money, praise, resources to go around, instinct can take over and rational behavior can go out the window. 

Tame it: When you catch yourself feeling unsatisfied with what you have, don’t go on autopilot. Stop complaining and refer back to your “why” or your values. Focus on how you are living your truest values instead of maintaining a scarcity mindset.

Instinct #3: “React now!” 

The primitive brain prioritizes dealing with the immediate situation, not long-term growth and learning. Can you see this tendency in people who focus on transactional day-to-day tasks, but ignore longer-term planning? Or perhaps in yourself at times when you are dealing with urgent but not really important tasks? 

Tame it: At the end of each week, take some time to reflect. Look for patterns and plan for the upcoming week—not just tasks but also how you want to feel, how you want to spend your time, what will bring meaning to you in the upcoming week. 

Additionally, we are driven by some basic needs and instincts that have been hardwired into our brains. For instance, the primal drive of survival will supersede thriving or happiness any day of the week. Unlike our computer software, we cannot just change the code – not that I could change the code on any software anyway!

As I share with my coaching clients, stop fighting these basic instincts and instead use them as a stepping stone to reach your goals or change behaviors. 

I remember growing up and going to the bowling alley after school some days. No matter how hard I tried, my ball would always veer left. Eventually, I realized I could just release the ball about 6 inches to the right. Then when the ball veered left, it was right at the middle of the pins. In a similar way, you can adjust your behavior knowing your caveman tendencies.

Primal Tendencies

Below I share some of the basic primal tendencies I have learned or observed as an organizational psychologist and coach.

Survival trumps happiness

Mother Nature wants her species to survive. She doesn’t care if they are happy, just that they don’t die. If left to its default operating system, your brain will choose the option that ensures survival. In modern society you don’t really need to worry about surviving, and yet you are still not focused on thriving by default. You have to be deliberate about it.

Default mode network

This is psychologists’ term for mental chatter. You are primed to plan, worry, jump from one thought to another. That’s our default. No wonder it’s so hard to follow meditation instructions to clear your mind.

Comfort Zone

In order to feel safe, we will do and choose the same. You are wired to feel uncomfortable trying something outside of your comfort zone. Your brain is unconsciously thinking, “Hey, if we are alive now, it must have worked so let’s keep doing it.” This is why people will sometimes stay in a job they are not happy with, instead of taking the leap with a new job.

Negativity bias

Your brain will notice what is wrong. This is another survival tendency that served humanity well living on the savannah, but is not serving you in modern-day society. Negatives will stick like Velcro, and positives will slide away like Teflon. That’s just the way humans are wired. You may have had 100 things go right in your day, but one email or conversation will throw you into a tailspin. But you can intentionally focus your brain on the good by prompting yourself.

Need  Support?

Do you feel like you struggle to tame your instincts and make the right choices? Do you need some help overcoming primal instincts and tendencies? Talk to one of our relationship strategists about coaching and how working with a coach can help!

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Bijal Choksi

Hello, my name is Bijal Choksi (“BEE-juhl CHOK-see”). As a Leadership Coach with Ama La Vida, it is my honor to assist people with navigating their career in a way that is both effective and authentic. I believe that leadership is not like a poncho – one size does not fit all. Let’s end imposter syndrome.