Is Your Limbic Brain Showing?

Caught in the Limbic Brain by D. Wilson

Caught in the Limbic Brain by D. Wilson

Have you ever had a boss or been a boss for whom everything was an emotional issue?

As a leadership coach, one major pattern I often see that gets leaders in trouble has to do with brain function. I'll make this simple. Different parts of the brain do different things. Operating from different locations, particularly the Limbic Brain or Prefrontal Cortex, can help or hurt our goals. 

The Limbic Brain

The Limbic Brain is located deep inside the skull and is connected to the brain stem. It is often referred to as the emotional center, although it includes other brain systems basic to life like memory, breathing and temperature regulation. Think early brain and in evolution, going from animals that behave reflexively to humans who can reason before reacting. But we all can get stuck in reactive mode – the Limbic Brain -- especially when life has been hard and we’re under stress.

In the Limbic Brain, our emotional memories contribute to an ingrained way of seeing things (someone hurt me) and rule how we see everything thereafter. It houses the hurts, resentments, grudges and blinding biases we can all have.

When the Limbic Brain dominates, the purely rational business issues get lost. Instead the emotional story or drama takes the lime light. Our energy is sucked up into reviewing fears, resentments, or how much we don’t like someone because of a real or perceived misdeed. 

This makes it hard to consider the implications of our behavior on ourselves, others, and the business. We are motivated to protect ourselves, like a lizard who doesn't want to get stepped on. We are blinded by issues that are barely beneath the surface and can be easily triggered by even the smallest bump in the road. 

The Prefrontal Cortex

Higher up in brain function is the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC). That's where the executive functions of planning, decision making and perspective taking reside. We are much less ruled by the emotional issues in the PFC. We can identify how we feel but have much broader clarity and perspective.

That can result in taking The High Road.

Ideally, we can access our emotions but also remain steady and be realistic, focus and be present as issues and potential conflicts loom. It’s like a pilot navigating a thunderstorm at 35,000 feet. They’re steady and focused and like business leaders, they have people counting on them.

How do we move our energy out of  the Limbic Brain to get more perspective and a grip on our emotions? It’s not that hard. A few steps:

1.  Pause, take a deep breath and notice what's going on. Am I focusing on the key issues? No judging yourself, just observe your focus.

2.  Take slow, steady breaths; feel your chest and midsection go up and down with each breath.

3.  Count to 30, One. Number. At. A. Time.

Alternatively, try this Brain Shift.  Ask yourself:

-     What am I learning? What's the most important thing here? Am I trying to win, get them back or do the right thing? Am I being the kind of person I wanted to be when I grew up? How will I feel about my actions later?

Questions like these pull us into the perspective-taking PFC.

Staying in the threatened, victim and fear-oriented Limbic Brain too long rarely produces good outcomes. That’s the bad news. The good news is that with a little coaching and practice, you can learn to shift out of that mode before people around you are running for the exits.

And everyone wins when that happens.

Special thanks to my new Apple iPad Pro and the Genius Bar for helping me with illustrations and Lisa Files for her editing review.  :) 

Diane Wilson, LCPC, BCN is a leadership and career coach, psychotherapist and neurofeedback specialist.