Do you feel undervalued? We mammals feel that way a lot because our brain is designed to make social comparisons.
Social animals needed a way to reduce conflict, and evolved a brain that does this by comparing itself to others. The mammal brain alarms you with the bad feeling of cortisol when it sees itself in the weaker position, and rewards you with the good feeling of serotonin when it sees itself in a position of strength. This neurochemical operating system motivates a mammal to assert itself to meet survival needs, but withdraw when necessary to avoid harm.
You don’t consciously think this, but beneath your big cortex you have the same tiny brain structures as all other mammals. They motivate you to compare yourself to others because serotonin makes it feel good.
But serotonin is quickly metabolized and you have to do more to get more. This is harder than you expect because the brain habituates to the rewards it has. Something new is needed to enjoy a nice serotonin spurt. The result is a frustrating quest that’s easy to see in people you don’t like. It’s not easy being a mammal!
You may reject the idea that animals jockey for social position, and insist that “our society is the problem.” But 50 million years ago, monkeys had the same social frustrations that you have—the females as well as the males.
To make matters worse, cortisol is not metabolized quickly. It lingers in your system, doing its job by making you feel that your survival is threatened. The survival of your genes is what matters to the brain built by natural selection, which is why we have life-or-death responses to relatively small social disappointments.
To complicate things further, your “rational” human cortex gets marching orders from your mammalian limbic system more than you realize. For example, if a mammal smells a predator, it has to determine where the predator is before it can run to save its life. We gather and analyze the information that our neurochemicals tag as urgently relevant to survival. In short, a cortisol surge sends you looking for evidence of threat, and you’re good at finding evidence when you look.
You can easily see evidence that you’re undervalued. Hard facts have triggered your cortisol, you insist, and you can’t imagine it the other way around. But when someone you don’t like sifts facts to justify their emotions, you notice.
What’s a big-brained mammal to do?
If you let your mammal brain do its thing, you will end up feeling bad a lot. But telling yourself you are above all this doesn’t work because your inner mammal does not process language. The only solution is to train your inner mammal to feel safe in the way it understands: by seeing yourself in a position of strength. This does not mean striving endlessly for social dominance, which would just lead to frustrating peaks and valleys. It means teaching your inner mammal to feel its strength in each moment. That may sound cocky or unfair or even dangerous. I am not saying you should lose touch with reality. I am saying you must balance your natural sense of oppression with a natural sense of empowerment.
Here’s a simple example: Imagine you’re in a restaurant and you feel like you’ve been seated at “the bad table.” Your cortisol surges and your meal is ruined. But every table has strengths and weaknesses, and if you were seated at a different table, your cortisol pathways would zoom in on the weaknesses of that table. As long as you look at the world through the lens of that “other-people-get-the-good-stuff-and-I-don’t” circuit, you don’t see a choice.
You do have a choice. You can consciously look for the pluses of whatever table you’re at. Tell yourself “I got the good table” and look for facts you would have missed. Do this twice a day and you will wire your inner mammal to feel good instead of defaulting to the bad.
What other situations can you use for this new twice-a-day positive habit? People, things, or successes at work? Look around and start dissolving that negative feeling.
Loretta Breuning is the Founder of Inner Mammal Institute and is the author of I, Mammal: How to Make Peace With the Animal Urge for Social Power.
I’m Nancy F. Clark the curator of Forbes WomensMedia. I develop business and fulfillment programs for corporations. Along with my talented team, we bring you the latest research-backed information.