If you are growing as a leader, a manager, a coach, a human being, there are new behaviors that you will want to bring online and master so that you can be successful.

And yet, if you’re like most people, those new behaviors may not be easy for you to master. You might find that:

  • You’re uncomfortable
  • You hesitate
  • You resist doing the new behaviors

As an example for myself, I recognize that I am not great at delegating or asking for help. And, as an introvert, I’m not great at remembering to collaborate immediately. So those are new behaviors that I want to be able to bring online so that I can be more successful and have a greater impact on the work I do.

The Power of Your Unconscious Brain

Not surprisingly, there’s a very interesting biological-physiological reason that it can be very difficult for us to bring new behaviors online. It has to do with how our brains were wired from the time we were children. The book “What Happened To You?” explains why. It was co-authored by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry. Perry is a respected physician who has researched what happens to the brain development of a child when they’ve experienced trauma or even unpredictable home environments.

Perry cites a very fascinating yet tragic story in the book. He describes a young boy, Jesse, whom Perry met when the boy was 13. Perry describes Jesse’s tumultuous childhood. Jesse was abused by his biological father, then moved to foster care, where, horrifically, he also encountered physical and emotional abuse. In fact, an altercation with his foster father landed Jesse in the hospital in a coma. 

Perry was called in on Jesse’s case and attended to him during the time of his coma. At one point, Dr. Perry was able to obtain unwashed clothing from both Jesse’s biological father and his foster father. While Jesse was still in a coma, the unwashed clothing of Jesse’s foster father was placed near his nose. Despite being unconscious, Jesse began thrashing in his bed and his heart rate skyrocketed to 160 beats per minute — simply from the sensory cues of the smell of his foster father’s clothing. A bit later, Perry placed the unwashed clothing of Jesse’s biological father near his nose. This time, Jesse’s heart rate rose immediately but briefly, and then, surprisingly, it plummeted to 60 beats per minute. 

Perry explained that even though Jesse was unconscious, the smell of that clothing caused Jesse’s brain to default to what he was most familiar with as either a toddler or a 13-year-old. It was a fight-flight response as an older child, but a freeze response when he was a toddler. Obviously, any tiny child who is being abused cannot fight or flight when small — their adult oppressor is too big and powerful to run away from or fight. And so Jesse’s body kicked into its default mode, but did so very differently depending on whether the smell of the clothing reminded him of his toddler days or his adolescent days.

Neuroplasticity to the Rescue!

So it’s interesting food for thought, considering how your brain is wired and the unconscious behaviors we can revert to when we don’t even realize it. The great news is that neuroplasticity comes to our rescue. We can start to become more aware of the neural networks that were laid down decades ago, and begin to intentionally change them, because what served us earlier in life will often not serve as well now and as we move forward. 

For me, and my hesitancy to ask for help or collaborate, I’m finding new frames for this. For example:

  • It’s fun to get to collaborate with others! I don’t have to do this alone.
  • I’ll be smarter and have better work products with others involved.
  • I’m safer working together than siloed.

Whatever behavior you’re working with and want to bring online, cooperate with your brain! Let it encourage you to think about what new neural networks you want to bring online so that you can move forward and be safe in new ways.