Social disappointment feels like a survival emergency to the mammal brain. You don’t think this consciously, but your brain turns on its emergency broadcast system when your urge for recognition is disappointed. You can escape this distress when you know how your brain is creating it.
We are all born helpless and needing attention to survive. We get attention by crying, which is just a surge of cortisol. We learn other ways of getting our needs met over time, but early experience teaches your brain that attention stops the bad feeling of cortisol. We don’t learn this consciously in words. We learn it because experience connects neurons. Those connections last, so we expect attention to relieve distress.
When you reach puberty, your brain seeks attention for a new reason. Mating opportunity depends on the recognition of others. You are not trying to reproduce, but you have inherited a brain that releases happy chemicals when it sees reproductive opportunity. The hormones of puberty increase neuroplasticity, which mean teen experiences easily build neural pathways. No one consciously expects the world to resemble high school. But electricity in the brain flows the way water flows through pipes, finding the path of least resistance. You wire yourself to expect pleasure where you found it in puberty, and to find threat in whatever threatened you in puberty.
When you feel socially slighted, you can easily find evidence to “prove” it. You can point to evidence that you’ve been wronged, neglected, disrespected, undervalued, misjudged or abused, so you think you’re being objective. But our brain is designed to find what it looks for. You have ten times more neurons going into your eyes than you have coming out of them. That means you are ten times more equipped to tell your eyes what to look for than to just take things in “objectively.” You are not consciously trying to prove you’ve been slighted, but neurochemical ups and downs prompt the brain to find evidence to explain them.
You can end up in a bad loop, where neglected feelings prompt a scanning for evidence of neglect, which triggers more neglected feelings. You can escape this loop by focusing on what you are doing instead of what you think is being done to you. That’s hard to do while your emergency alarm is blasting. But it works! Anything that diverts electricity from the distress loop allows that sense of emergency to subside. Diversion works so well that many unhealthy diversions are popular. But you can find healthy ways to do it.
You can build a new neural pathway in six weeks. You can give the electricity in your brain an alternative place to flow. Every time you find yourself pondering a social disappointment, just shift your attention to another thought. A new pathway will build if you do this every day without fail for six weeks (choose your alternative thoughts carefully so you don’t wire in a new problem). You will still have social disappointments, but they will trigger less cortisol. If you don’t build a new pathway, your brain will keep finding reasons to feel slighted, wronged, neglected, disrespected, undervalued and misjudged. Your cortisol will keep surging.
Getting recognition is nice, of course. And you may think,”I deserve it, after all I’ve done.” But even when you get recognition, it does not make your mammal brain happy for long. The happy chemicals are soon metabolized and your brain seeks more recognition to stimulate more good feelings. The mammal brain keeps seeking, so disappointment is always a possibility. The neural pathway for feeling slighted will always be there, but you can keep building your alternative pathway to send electricity to your happy chemicals.
Our mammalian brain chemicals are so powerful that they have promoted survival for millions of years. But your human power of intention is even more powerful. You can shift your focus by intending to. You can focus on things that make you feel safe instead of things that make you feel threatened. This is not “objective,” you may say. But your distress is not objective either. It’s not easy being a mammal!
This article was brought to you by Psychology Today.