Left to our own devices, we are hardwired for self-sabotage

Taming the Lizard

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Every so often we encounter a situation that just drips with irony. A few days ago, I had one of those moments that will likely stick with me for a looong time.

I was driving to the mall on the day before my wife’s birthday (one of the few events that will actually get me into a mall), and my attention was drawn to a gentleman coming toward me on the sidewalk. That in itself was relatively unremarkable… people tend to walk, and using the sidewalk rather than the roadway has been proven to extend one’s life expectancy. What made me look a second time was the blue/green surgical mask he was wearing over his mouth and nose.

Now, with all the hype around airborne pollutants, greenhouse gasses and even the environmental impact of flatulent cows, it’s becoming increasingly common to see folks who will don a surgical mask in an effort to filter out contaminants. For whatever reason – perhaps because our city is not known to be a particularly noxious community – I took one more glance at the masked man before I passed him by, and the irony hit.

He was smoking.

I kid you not – in his right hand was a cigarette, and he would slide the mask to the side each time he wanted a lungful of smoldering tobacco.

Now, I don’t know what it takes for you to stop and say, “Hmmm” but this did it for me. Here’s a gentleman who, presumably for health reasons, is willing to endure the curious glances that come with sporting a surgical mask in public, yet sabotages his own efforts by intentionally sucking a proven carcinogenic into his lungs.

Self-sabotage seems inherent to the fallen human condition. Most of us want to enjoy positive, fulfilling relationships, a sense of financial security for today and tomorrow, and – as with this gentleman on the sidewalk – good physical and emotional health and well-being. Yet for some reason, we self-destruct…and we are most prone to sabotage ourselves during periods where we are trying to make a deeply rooted, sustained life change.

Researchers and philosophers have been trying to get to the root of this inner conflict for millennia. Over 2000 years ago, even a very disciplined Paul of the Bible declared – and I paraphrase – “The things I want to do, I don’t do; and the very things I hate, I end up doing!” I’m certain if we explored the earlier works of Seneca or Aristotle, we would find that they, too, were left scratching their heads over the same paradox.

I’m no brain surgeon, but science is now telling us that patterns of self-destructive behaviour have their origin in the brain (duh!), and that the tension between what we know to be right and what we actually do stems from the battle being waged between two neurological systems. If we thought of our brains as the head office of any corporation, our prefrontal cortex is “marble alley”…where our executive offices are located. This part of the brain is highly rational, logical and able to understand and apply the direction required to defer gratification. Here is where we get our instructions for things like go to the gym, stop smoking, save enough of your income, be faithful to your spouse, be consistent and calm with your kids, don’t gossip about your co-workers… you get the idea.

If impulse spending is the C-4 in your self-sabotaging patterns, it’s an obstacle to you achieving some of the financial peace of mind that you are seeking.

Now, situated below your prefrontal cortex is your limbic system (the amygdala). If marble alley is the “C-Suites” offering logical, measured responses to stimuli, the limbic system is where your primal instincts get stirred into action; your fight or flight responses and the drive for instant gratification. In his book, The Wealth Barber Returns, author David Chilton refers to these respective areas of our cranium as the executive and the lizard. And these two neurological systems can often come into conflict.

Your financial blueprint is a common battleground. Our executive centre reinforces the wisdom of living beneath our means, saving for the future, investing for the long-term and preparing for the inevitable (yes, those inevitables… death, taxes, and another year of futility for fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs). However, offers of “Buy 1, Get One Free!” and “Don’t-Pay-A-Cent Events” awaken the lizard within us, driving us out of our chairs and into the big-box facilities or e-commerce sites where 40% of purchases are made on impulse.

If impulse spending is the C-4 in your self-sabotaging patterns, it’s an obstacle to you achieving some of the financial peace of mind that you are seeking. Here are some ideas to help “tame the lizard”.

1. Learn to recognize the impulse.   If we can shift our confidence from the lizard to the executive, we’ll be happier with our decisions and the money we won’t spend, and we’ll get more satisfaction from the things that we do purchase. If you’re on the verge of shifting something from the shelf to your cart, slow down and think…take a final walk around the store…or decide that if you really want to own that item 24 hours from now, you can come back and get it. It’s probably still going to be there.  By the way…identifying the voice of the lizard is usually simple.  It’s screaming at you.  The executive whispers.

2. Owning versus buying.   There’s an old adage, “when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping!” And it has been proven that there is a physiological and neurological high that comes at the time of purchase. But as buyership turns to ownership, that “buzz” dissipates…often described as “the novelty wearing off”. I love to buy books, and except for the fact that they take up shelf space until I give them away, the books from the library offer the very same value.

3. Enjoy the spontaneity of impulse purchases?   Allow yourself the freedom to make some impulse purchases, but put a cap on how much you can spend that way. Take a little bit of “fun money” with you when you go shopping, but decide in advance that when the fun money is exhausted, so are the impulse purchases.

4. Shop with cash versus credit.   It’s widely known that we will spend up to 34% more for an item if we use a credit card to pay for it rather than cash. We’ll buy the camera that’s one level more advanced than we really need; we’ll rent two videos instead of one, etc. when we don’t feel the emotional pain of parting with cash.

5. Avoid going to the mall just to “go to the mall”.   A favourite teen hangout, the mall is where kids often get their first exposure to the “latté factor”; seemingly small purchases, made often enough, accumulate into significant expenditures over the course of a week or month.

There are plenty of online resources on this topic, some methods that will work for you and others that won’t. What motivates you to meaningful and sustained financial transformation will depend on your personality, personal experience, peer group, access to retail centres, financial means and a host of other influencers. Find what works for you, and tame the lizard!

  • Michael Caldwell
    Mar 9 2012

    Great website. Fun and still very professional. Give your web designer a kiss for me.

    • Rick
      Mar 9 2012

      Thanks for the comment! BTW, for anyone raising their eyebrows on this comment, fear not… my wife, Carol, is my webdesigner 🙂