How to Stop Self-sabotage by Understanding Your 3 Brains [Illustrated]

Are you frustrated with not again going through with your new year’s resolutions?
Do you often get stressed and wonder what is sabotaging your own decisions?

3 brains in 1 head! 

“No way! Are you serious?”

I know, right? No wonder it’s so noisy up there!

In the course of human evolution, our brain got additional layers of complexity. This highly organized operational system is composed of three main multi-layered compartments with unique programs running in our head:

  • Reptilian brain ―> Reacting
  • Mammalian brain ―> Feeling
  • Cognitive brain ―> Thinking

Imagine three highly opinionated general, each one with a unique agenda and a different definition of happiness. And the lack of integration between these brains results in much confusion and noise in our head.

I’m sure we can all recall personal experiences where we were indecisive between the varying messages popping up in our head. For instance, we decide to stick to a certain diet, until we see a mouth-watering dish and these generals start sending orders:

“Oh yeah! I want that tasty dish! It’s good for me.” [Reptilian brain]

“Don’t do that! Have you already forgotten about your decision? Your commitment?” [Cognitive brain]

“Gimme a break! Only this time! It will feel so good.” [Mammalian brain]

Let’s say we choose to indulge in pleasure and soon enough we hear this message:

“I knew it! I knew it! You did it AGAIN! Shame on you! How could you?!” [Cognitive brain]

Sounds familiar?

We cannot trust our own decisions at times; one brain pats on the shoulder while the other scolds vigorously. This inner conflict is the cause of much frustration, stress, negative self-talk, and can weaken our willpower. Each brain is trying to take on the leadership and the frequent winner among these brains gradually shapes our dominant mindset and personality, our future decisions and ultimately our life.

So the first step is to better understand these three brains, in a clear language. Paul MacLean bases the distinction between these brains in his famous “Triune brain” theory.

Page Contents

Reptilian Brain ―> Reacting

This brain is located right in the center of your head and consists of the brain stem and cerebellum. It is our most primitive brain and we share it with reptiles and birds.

Its fundamental responsibility is to assure our physical survival. So it is fair to think of it as our “personal bodyguard”, that attentively checks our breathing, blood circulation, reproduction system, hunger, and defense mechanism. It reacts to fear and pain.

An interesting quality of this brain is that it has no ability to differentiate between reality and imagination. So the habit of speculating and worrying about imaginary threats, that may or may not happen in future, creates a similar stress and anxiety response as it would if these threats were real.

Additionally, this brain cannot clearly differentiate between the past, present and future events. That is why getting reminded of a past traumatic event will activate this brain to take action and protect you, and at times results in panic attacks, as it thinks there is a real survival threat right now, right here.

The Reptilian brain’s decision-making criteria:

Will it eat me?

Shall I eat it?

Shall I go for it?

Or I better avoid it?

Purpose: Reassure physical safety and survival!

It is hard to believe that this old brain still manages most of our daily functions. When we don’t remember what we ate, what we said, or whether we brushed our teeth or not, it is mostly because we were functioning on autopilot.

The way to hack this brain is by clarifying and affirming your perception of danger, and what is needed for survival. For instance, if you are aware of the life hazards of eating junk food on a regular basis, you will be setting a new criterion for your Reptilian brain what to watch out and avoid junk food as it would avoid walking in the predator’s field.

I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened. ― Mark Twain

Mammalian Brain ―> Feeling

This brain is also called the Limbic system and is wrapped around the Reptilian brain. It includes amygdala and hippocampus and we share this brain with other mammals such as horses, dogs, cats, and mice. The impact this upgrade has on our life is noticeable by simply comparing the array of emotions and memory formation shown by a cat or a dog compared to a lizard or a croc.

This brain’s fundamental responsibility is to seek pleasure and avoids pain or discomfort. Events and objetcs are colored emotionally as pleasant or painful, white or black.

This brain also does not have a clear notion of time, nor it can differentiate between reality and imagination. Simply imagine a pleasurable outcome and this brain gets into action, convinced that you need to experience the pleasure or your life is spent in vain! It creates this false notion that what feels good in the moment is ultimately good for you. This is the very brain that encourages a person with heart conditions to indulge in the pleasure of fatty foods and cigarettes while at the same time terrifies him from the pain and discomfort of a good walk.

The Reptilian and Mammalian brains function largely on a subconscious level and refer to memory and past data. So if the stored information and memories are largely negative, due to exposure to frequent trauma, lack of emotional support, and above all our negative mental coloring, life can be perceived as a fearful event by itself which then results in lack of motivation and depression, stress and anxiety responses.

The Mammalian brain’s decision-making criteria:

Will it feel good and pleasurable?

Or will it cause me pain and discomfort?

Shall I go for it?

Or I better avoid it?

Purpose: Reassure emotional well-being at the present moment!

This is often the main brain that gets in the way of building new habits!

The way to hack this brain is by clarifying and affirming your perception of what is ultimately good and pleasurable versus what only feels good and pleasurable in the moment. Coming back to the example of dieting, if you learn to enjoy the many benefits of a more healthy diet, and find soda disgusting, this brain will work in your favor. Get creative!

It is in the pursuit of happiness and pleasure that we often create our own misery. ― Sepi Tajima

Cognitive Brain ―> Thinking

This outermost layer wrapped around the Mammalian brain is the latest upgrade to our brain. It is present in all primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees, as well as dolphins. Yet the one in humans is a more developed and unique version.

This brain is all about logic and reasoning, information processing, language and speech, reading and writing, forward planning and goal setting. It helps us make sense of the information received by our senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste), to strategically plan ahead and choose a more complex interaction.

This brain enjoys problem-solving and can meet new challenges creatively. What is unique about this brain is that it does not necessarily need to refer to past memories and stored data to process the present information. It can choose to use the stored data, yet can completely disregard the past information in favor of trying out a new approach.

The Cognitive brain’s decision-making criteria:

Will it be good in the long run?

Or will it cause me pain in the long run?

Shall I go for it?

Or I better avoid it?

Purpose: Reassure well-being for a better future!

Opposite to the Reptilian and the Mammalian brain, the Cognitive brain largely operates on a conscious level and covers over 80% of our brain mass. The most surprising fact is that even though we like to think of our species as a highly conscious, mindful and evolved creatures, some say that only 10 to 15 percent of our behavior is actually conscious. That leaves us with 85 to 90 percent of subconscious and unconscious driven choices and behaviors. Something worthy of reflection!

Therefore, despite most authors and self-help gurus who refer to this brain as the decision-maker, I think it is more appropriate to consider it a decision-influencer. Its vote is often overpowered by the older voices (such as that of the untamed inner reptile or the emotional mammal) and the other subconscious patterns. In the Yoga Psychology, the first two brains are referred to as the “lower mind” (manas), while the cognitive brain is considered as the “higher mind” or the intellect (buddhi).

The Cognitive brain is the one encouraging you to hit the gym or choose a healthier diet, despite the initial resistance and discomfort. It tells you to stop munching junk food and get out of the couch – while the emotional brain suggests the opposite. It brings to your attention that there is a huge difference between what is good versus what feels good.

Willpower is the ability to choose what is good over what feels good – over and over again! ― Sepi Tajima

Building the Mental Muscle

This was a short explanation of your three brains and how they interact. Hopefully, this illustration helps you better understand why you do what you do and to become more mindful before taking actions that you may eventually regret.

three Brains

It is as though we have three lawyers inside our head; each claiming to have your best of interests in mind and each gets to meddle in every little decision.

The funny thing is that each one strongly believes that it represent you while you are the ultimate judge!

Without a mindful and alert judge, these three lawyers create havoc, lots of noise, restlessly wasting your energy without progressing much.

Your ability to see clearly what is going on inside your mind, attending mindfully, and making wise decisions according to what is important to you is the judge exercising its power. An empowered judge who knows his position can keep the lawyers working harmoniously for your benefit.

Remember, the difference between what feels good versus what is good!

There is a place for these three voices in your life, but if you give into the Reptilian or Mammalian brain every single time, then your self-esteem and self-confidence will suffer as you end up not achieving what you set to do.

Short-lived gratifications do feel good; blindly being carried away with bouts of emotion is definitely the path of least resistance. In a heated-up discussion, it’s easier to react and shout instead of sitting down and really listening to understand what is going on. It is easier to blame the other rather than look for solutions.

Resisting these impulses from the Reptilian and the Mammalian brain is not easy in the beginning but it is possible. Just like exercising any muscle, initially there are sweat and tears, but the results will benefit not only your life but also the life of your loved ones who get to reap your wise choices and decisions on a day-to-day basis.

A skilled counselor or coach can support you to understand and break through these negative patterns, allowing you to live a more satisfying life. Practicing meditation and mindfulness can be powerful tools to improve your filtering ability and emptying your cup. I will gradually post other tools and techniques to better equip you for your journey.

The conscious mind determines the actions; the unconscious mind determines the reactions. ― E. Stanley Jones

Guiding Questions

Life unfolds only in moments. Choose mindfully and more consciously moment after moment. Take the control of your three 3 brains rather than being controlled by whichever speaks louder.

This gradual transformation takes both mindfulness and being aware of what is going on in your head as well as willpower.

In any case, the first step is to clearly understand how your mind works and have the strong intention to sit as the judge and coordinate the three lawyers interaction more harmoniously.

So the next time you find yourself in a challenging situation, with your three brains busy creating stories and noise, remember to pause before launching into action and ask yourself:

#1 Is the threat real or imagined?

#2 Is my decision based on what feels good, or what is truly good?

#3 What may be the future costs of my present choice?

#4 Which brain is speaking louder right now? Where is the judge?

=> You can download the free PDF for easy reference at your own convenience.

=> This is the 4th post of a series. It is an invitation to look at your life and well-being from a refreshed perspective. My commitment is to be with you on your journey, in your struggles, in your pain and sorrow. My goal is to clarify complex topics and make them more digestible. So stay tuned.

=> Previous post: The power of belief and how it can cause stress [llustrated]

Final Words

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