When I went through life coach training with Martha Beck, one of my assignments was to get in touch with my “inner lizard” and give it a name. Up until that point, I didn’t even know I had an inner lizard. But I do. And you have one too.
What Martha Beck terms the “inner lizard” is our reptilian brain. It’s the part of our brain that is purely interested in our physical survival. It’s a really helpful mechanism — when our physical survival is actually at stake. If Krusty the Klown is chasing me down an alley wielding a giant knife (because this is the world I live in), my inner lizard is a wonderful asset: it says, Run! You’re going to die! Krusty wants to kill you! And I do run, because, see, Krusty wants to kill me.
The problem is that our inner lizards react as though our survival is at stake ALL THE TIME, because that’s what they do. But most of the time, my survival is not actually at stake. If I listen to my lizard in these instances, I can quickly turn into an adrenaline-soaked, sleep-deprived sugar junkie (which is where I personally go when I listen to my lizard — you might go to a completely different place, and I hope it’s a happier place than mine. But if you’re listening to your lizard when you don’t need to, it’s probably not.)
When I got acquainted with my inner lizard, I discovered a raging, shaking, lime-green creature about the size of a squirrel. He sat on my shoulder, breathed his filmy lizard breath into my ear and and threw his little lizard arms up a lot (yes, in my world my lizard has arms). He said things like, “If you don’t return that person’s call right away, they are going to hate you, and then they are going to reject you, and then you are going to be all alone! And then you’re going to die … alone!”
He said things like: “If you don’t get a good night’s sleep tonight, you’re going to be too tired to get through the day! And then you won’t be able to get anything done! And then you’ll never make any money! And then you’ll be on the street! And then you’ll die … alone!”
I named my lizard Garcia (there was this great pizza place called Garcia’s I hung out at more than twenty years ago at Indiana University. They had an ice cream concoction with whipped cream on the top called a Lizard. I had way too many of those. So Garcia seemed like a fittingly nostalgic name for my lizard). Just naming the little guy caused me to feel much more tenderly toward him. I mean, geez, look how scared he is all the time. I’ve learned to talk very tenderly and soothingly to him. When he freaks out, I say things like, “Well, sweetie, let’s see. Is what you’re freaking out about really true? Will we really end up on the street if we don’t get a good night’s sleep tonight? Let’s take a look.”
Sometimes, I say to Garcia, “Your concerns are noted, and I’m going to get back to you later. Now have a very nice nap while I go on with my day.”
And sometimes, many times, I totally buy into what Garcia is telling me. “Oh my God, Garcia, you’re right! We are going to be friendless and homeless if we aren’t extra-nice to the neighbor we don’t like!” “Oh, Garcia, you have a point! If we don’t go to that baby shower we really don’t want to go to, we are going to be shunned, and we’ll end up on the street!”
I’ve come to realize that a lot of what underlies my perfectionistic tendencies are survival fears. Garcia and my inner perfectionist have a pretty tight relationship. My inner perfectionist believes that if I’m always doing more, it means I am good, I am productive, I am needed, I am valued. And this pleases Garcia very much (though he’s never really pleased), because he translates this as “survival”. But is it really true that if I am not good, productive, needed and valued, my survival is at stake?
If I can allow Garcia and my inner perfectionist to go off and take a nap together, I can get calm enough to access the part of me that knows that, right in this moment, my survival is not being threatened. I can then go to a place of choosing. I can choose to be good, productive, needed and valued (whatever those things mean to me), if I really want to. Or I can choose not to be. Either way, I am here, breathing. Knife-wielding Krusty is nowhere in sight. If the neighbor shuns me, if my money runs low, I have choices. And I can pat Garcia on his scaly little head and listen to him snore.