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November 2021

The elegance of evolution: code reuse in the human brain

Humans are social animals. As such, we are wired by evolution to want to help others in our tribe.

But rather than having separate circuits in the brain for how to treat others vs. how to treat oneself, nature proved to be elegant and efficient: how we treat ourselves is how we end up treating others, and vice versa.

 The work of Dr. Kristin Neff and Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education shows that if we can be gentle and compassionate with ourselves when we are struggling, we are more likely to exhibit these traits with others. This is a foundational concept in Buddhism—to help alleviate suffering in the world. And one of the tools they use is the loving-kindness meditation.

It is common to look upon self-care as selfish. But if done in a mindful, empathetic way—where you consider the impact your actions have on others—it helps you show up as a better person in all of your relationships.

Jim Rohn said it quite eloquently:

The greatest gift you can give to somebody is your own personal development. I used to say, “If you will take care of me, I will take care of you.” Now I say, “I will take care of me for you, if you will take care of you for me.”

Finite vs infinite games and how they affect your happiness

James Carse published the book Finite and Infinite Games in 2006. It begins:

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

Life is an infinite game. It might seem that death would make it finite. However any individual's death is just another event in the continuum of the infinite game of life. As Anne Lamott observed: “A hundred years from now? All new people.”

50,000 years ago, our ancestors lived in tribes with the same set of people for their entire lives. Of course new people were born and grew up, and older ones died, and there was the occasional inter-tribe swap for marriage and genetic diversity. But overall, you lived side by side with the same people year after year.

We now have a society where it's more possible than to have finite relationships. Went out on some dates but don't want to see them again? Ghost 'em. Get in a fight with a friend? Fine, I'll invest in these other friendships. Not getting along with your family? Withdraw, and see them once or twice a year at holidays, if at all.

Freedom to choose seems powerful on the surface but it's insidious—it allows us to avoid feeling difficult feelings and working out disagreements with others. In tribal times, there wasn't really another option. You had to work things out, get to forgiveness and move on. No doubt there were cases where one person was killed, or banished, or the tribe split, but those were rare.

Our society makes it easier than ever to avoid difficult conversations. And it's no surprise that given the choice, many people are choosing the easy way out. But that is making us less resilient than ever, and it is a root cause of our mental health and well-being crisis.

All of our emotions exist because evolution selected for them. They help keep the tribe together. They enable us to manage and repair conflicts. That doesn't mean it's an easy or pleasant process. But it's how we are coded to work.

The meta meta-narrative: I need to be a certain way to be worthy of love and belonging

In my coaching course, we've learned the value of narratives (or archetypes) in helping people see things from a fresh perspective. And we learned about 3 common “meta-narratives” in our culture: performativity, the inner critic, and the island where it all works out. Looking more deeply at the commonalities, there is a theme behind these three—the meta meta-narrative if you will.

At the root of all of these is the fear that I won't be worthy of love and belonging. We all need positive, healthy relationships to thrive, and we are hard-coded to want to be a part of a tribe, so much so that we will do whatever we believe we have to in order to "earn our place” in the tribe.

But this ultimately is a fallacy. Any healthy tribe loves, appreciates and welcomes you fundamentally. Unless you are a complete sociopath (and thankfully those are actually quite rare) you are already worthy of love and belonging exactly as you are.

Of course some of us grow up in "tribes" where this worthiness is not communicated clearly, if at all. That's ok. That's just not your tribe. You can—and will!—find another. You just need to be vulnerable and trust that it is possible. Once you find a healthy, compassionate person that you can connect with and open up to, you are on your way.

So if you feel like you need to do some activity, or achieve some goal or perform some role just to be worthy of human connection, let me assure you that is not the case. Be who you are. And the healthy people will love a celebrate you for it.