Is your inner lizard getting you into conflict?

Lizard photo by Bogdan SudituEveryone has an inner lizard, that part of your brain tasked with alerting you to threats in your environment and keeping you safe. Your inner lizard’s an important critter, but sometimes he’s over-involved. In conflict, you want to manage your inner lizard instead of allowing him to manage you.

Your inner lizard lives in the “reptilian” part of your brain called the amygdala, which is like an emotional tripwire and primes you for impulsive reaction, such as fleeing from danger or staying to fight off a threat. In “emotional emergencies,” such as in conflict conversations, your rational mind can get swamped by your emotional one. I think of it this way: The inner lizard wakes up, takes note of the threat, and jumps valiantly into action.

“Every person you fight with has many other people in his life with whom he gets along quite well. You cannot look at a person who seems difficult to you without also looking at yourself.” – Jeffrey Kottler

Here’s the thing about your inner lizard: The threat may or may not be real. The lizard reacts to perceived threats, too, and it becomes your job to manage him. In conflict, the threats he may perceive are closely tied to your identity and your desire to protect it. While it’s a common expression to say, “He presses my buttons,” or “She’s baiting me,” your inner lizard says more about you than it does the other person.

The Conflict Pivot
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Common lizard triggers include real or perceived threats to your competence, worth, independence, and desire to be included. While not every lizard will fall into one of these four categories, these are the most common (see Jeffrey Kottler’s Beyond Blame for more on trigger identification, as he does a superb job with it). It works like this:

  • If your biggest inner lizard is competence, he gets triggered when he perceives someone is questioning your abilities or skills. A lot of folks tell me they have competence lizards.
  • If your biggest inner lizard is autonomy, he’s triggered when someone appears to be trying to control you, run things their way, or threatening your independence.
  • If your biggest inner lizard is inclusion, he’s triggered when someone appears to be excluding you in some way (from a group, an event, a committee, etc.).
  • If your biggest lizard is worthiness, he’s triggered when he perceives a challenge to your value as a human, partner, co-worker, etc.

Everyone’s inner lizard is a little different, so what triggers me may not trigger you. This is why blaming others for angering you isn’t very effective: You waste energy expecting them to change what they’re doing, when they may have been doing nothing and tripped into your sensitive inner lizard. It’s also why you may feel anger about an event that didn’t have the same impact on others around you.

The way to manage your inner lizard is to:

  1. Identify your own special inner lizard(s) — most of us have a favorite one or two.
  2. Learn to recognize when your inner lizard is awakened and taking over. In the heat of the moment, take note of your physiological state, body language and tone of voice. A “hot face,” sweating, loud voice, shaking, tears, and clenched teeth are physiological signals that you’re feeling emotionally flooded and suggest that you’re inner lizard has been triggered.
  3. Find out if the threat you perceive is real. You’ll discover that you’re hyper-alert to certain kinds of slights and in some instances are creating conflict where there wasn’t really any to begin with.
  4. If the threat proves real after you check it out, you’ll need strategies for keeping your cool in conflict so that your inner lizard doesn’t rule your reactions.

Photo credit: Bogdan Suditu