On today’s show, you’re going to learn how to overcome something that lurks deep down in all of us humans – fear.
I’m honored to be joined by my friend and resident brainiac, Dr. Srini Pillay.
Srini is the award-winning author of “Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear“. This show gets deep. But if you want any hope of taming your squirrel brain, you’ll want to check out this show. And, if you like bacon (and frosting), this show is definitely for you.
On this show with Srini, you’re about to learn:
- How to overcome anxiety and achieve your goals
- Why we fear success (and what to do about it)
- How to conquer fear and reframe negative thought patterns
- Why we don’t always do what we know we want
- And much more…
DR. SRINI PILLAY: CONQUERING YOUR FEARS
Abel: Dr. Srini Pillay is a certified master executive coach, brain-imaging researcher, and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He has 17 years of experience in neuroscience research and is regarded as a pioneer in the field of “neurocoaching.”
Dr. Pillay, thanks so much for stopping by.
Thanks so much for having me.
Abel: I’ve been meaning to have you on the show for a while. I just re-read your book Life Unlocked – I’d forgotten how wonderful a writer you are. I’ve read a lot of brain science books, and this one is art. You explain complex issues – that seem counterintuitive at first – in a way that makes sense.
Let’s start with the fear of success. Why would we fear something that’s inherently good for us?
In every human being there is some special capacity that is waiting to be activated. The extent to which it will be activated depends largely not just on your willingness to be the greatness that you are, but also your willingness to take a risk and have the courage to reach for what you want.
Say you want to make more money or have a better life, change jobs, or ask for a different position. A lot of people procrastinate and the fear gets in the way of acting on that decision. Fear activates the amygdala, the anxiety processing center, and because it’s connected to the thinking brain, it disrupts the way you make judgments about what you want to do.
This fear can impact your anxiety center even when you’re not aware of it. A lot of people say, “Hey, I’m not afraid of anything, I’m not afraid of success.” They want it all.
But at the back of their brains are these questions, like: “Does this mean I’m going to have to work more? Will people want more from me? I might have to fail, people will make fun of me when I do.”
These are unconscious questions that affect your fear and anxiety. And it also affects the info that’s going to your brain’s GPS. To get to your goal, it’s a bit like driving, and it uses the GPS that’s in the part of the brain called the posterior parietal cortex.
(By the way, I should mention that a lot of what I’m saying is a bit oversimplified, but it’s true and born out by the research.)
The brain collects information—like “success is possible.” Or “It doesn’t matter if I have the fear, I’m going to do it anyway.” Or “I don’t mind if people see me fail, I mind more if I don’t reach for my goals.”
When you say this, the GPS collects information and starts working on a plan to get you to your goal consciously or unconsciously.
I’m crazy about the brain, I love it. So, sometimes I personify it…
You have a brain in your skull and it picks up the phone and listens to you. You say, “I want to get at the top of my game.” The brain’s like, “Okay cool. I’m going to try to figure this out.” Then it contacts everything in the unconscious and gets a plan together to help you be successful.
But if the phone is ringing off the hook with messages like, “But what if you fail? What if people lie to you?” Eventually the brain is like, “Hold on, this may not be a good plan.” And if it’s unconscious you’re not going to know you’re sending these messages.
When you have fear of success, conscious or unconscious, these double messages confuse the brain.
Self-handicapping is when people lower the bar so they don’t have to get what they want and they don’t have to fail in the process.
HOW TO ACHIEVE SUCCESS
Successful people fail more often than unsuccessful people because they take more chances.
What’s your real goal? What’s your stretch goal? What’s your highest goal?
Is there something you really want to do to change your life? Write down your stretch goal.
Try to look at one or two things that might prevent success. Then consciously feed back to yourself: “That’s going to suck. I’m not going to like it, but I don’t care because what I really want is to make sure I stay true to my goal so I can reach it.”
There are different ways to interact with your brain’s anxiety center to calm it down.
You can reframe goals, for example. Extensive studies show that if you provide the proper reframe, your brain’s anxiety center can actually turn down. So rather than saying, “People are going to laugh at me.” You say, “Winners fail more than losers and I want to be a winner, so I expect to fail.”
Immediately, that’s a different reframe for your brain. Your amygdala doesn’t freak out!
Do we actually have scientific data to show that how you talk to yourself matters? Yes. Self talk can change brain blood flow. It can take successive brain blood flow in the anxiety center and send it back to the thinking-brain.
Studies now look at self-talk in things like, sports players saying “I’m gonna crush it.” Data now shows it’s more effective if you speak to yourself in second person out loud (“You’re going to crush it!”), you’re much more likely to destress and boost your confidence.
One potent technique to do this is to reframe some of the fears that are holding you back.
Abel: Does it have to be out loud or can you do it in meditation?
Both work. If you do it out loud you will get a specific effect in your brain. You want to practice it out loud to override and create new pathways.
Your habit pathways become the go-to circuits in your brain. And you want to change them. The more you can repeat this out loud (or in your thoughts) the more likely you are to create these new pathways.
Abel: There’s a wonderful moment in your book when you talk about advice your father gave you when you were sprinting. Even though you were fast, you kept finishing second.
One of the things he said was this: “Every time I watch you running, you’re ahead, and just before you hit the finish line you turn around to see what other people are doing.”
I realized that when he said that, what it did was it took me out of my element and out of my maximum speed.
A lot of times, to get the real orientation of where you are in the world, you can pay attention to your full power, strength and moving forward by putting all of your energy in the present, rather than looking over your shoulder to see what else is happening.
A classic thing I’ll ask people to do is look up Roger Federer in slow motion. Look at his eye when he is hitting a stroke. He’s amazing at executing shots accurately, but if you look at what he’s doing, he never looks at where he wants to hit the ball, he only looks at the ball.
When you take your eye off the goal and keep it on the moment, that’s when you succeed.
Rather than looking forward and looking back, if I was just in my full power and trusted that my brain could maintain the image of the goal, the likelihood I would have won a race would have been greater.
The more you stay grounded in yourself, the better. Your brain is capable of holding onto images of your goals. Try to be in the moment as much as you can to give yourself access to your greatest power.
Abel: What’s the psychology to make success more likely?
Internalize the image of the finish line, rather than use your brain energy. You want to let your unconscious and your practice take over. Realize the finish line is internalized and give your full power to your motor energy.
Abel: Let’s talk about the “problems of success.” You mention CEO’s feeling very lonely in their corner office. People who succeed, they realize all of a sudden that it’s lonely up there.
You’re out of shape, sick, you think all of your problems will be solved when you reach this ultimate goal, but it doesn’t always work that way.
The human brain is wired so precariously that we all want success, but we are all afraid of what it will bring. There’s a concept called schadenfreude, which is the desire to watch people fall from grace. When you’re at the top of your game, the people who compete with you or are jealous of you will threaten that feeling of being at the top of your game.
A lot of people settle for mediocrity because they’re afraid to face what success actually is.
There’s also a syndrome called the summit syndrome. CEO’s reach the top of their game, and they press on the gas and they reach the top, step on the gas and they’re accelerating, and then they press the gas and they’re not going anywhere. That fear of not having power causes them to become afraid, disorganized, and they start sabotaging everything around them.
Anyone who’s involved in peak performance will tell you it’s not one big upward movement. You go up and plateau, up and plateau. So first thing is don’t freak out at the plateau. When it is there, ask yourself if you really need to do more of the same… Or if you want to reach your greatest, is there something different you need to do?
An example is managers—they might be great at giving people tasks, but when it comes to having a vision, a mission and motivating yourself to carry out that mission, it’s very different than telling people to do xyz. And so in that case, you might think you’re trying to get the job done by telling people what to do, but in fact you need to let other people do that, and then drive the process through your vision and mission.
Abel: A lot of people don’t anticipate the plateau, and it’s tempting to stop doing what got you there. How do we improve our own habits of success?
Studies are increasingly showing that when you say, “I have a goal,” you concentrate on the goal. But studies show that in most companies only 30% of strategies are successfully executed. And of those, most are too slow. This is shown in a series of studies by Jocelyn R. Davis and colleagues in a book called Strategic Speed.
These are very smart people executing on a strategy that sounds simple, but something’s not happening. Brain science teaches us that goals are not what we think they are.
The Selfish Goal Theory: Let’s say you have a certain financial target of x. That’s represented in your brain as a neural circuit. But with that same goal are other goals. Maybe you want to: get engaged, figure out how to send your kids to college, you need a break, you want to start working out.
You have a ton of goals competing with each other.
The selfish goal theory says that because goals are just neural circuits, they just care about getting to the finish line first. So whichever goal you feed is the one that’s going to win.
When we’re not reaching our goals, ask, “Am I overfeeding one goal and not feeding the other goal? And how do I address this unconsciously?”
When it comes to motivation to reach your goal, you’re somehow pulling back or not doing what you used to be doing. It’s not a method of carrot and stick. It doesn’t do it for the brain in order to work smarter not harder. Ask yourself these questions:
- What is the value of this goal? Why am I doing this?
- How truthful am I being about this goal?
- Are there any conflicts you have that could be holding you back?
When you resolve those questions, motivation moves much more fluently.
When you say, “I want to reach my goal,” the thing that matters is not just the goal, but the “I” part.
Ask yourself, “Who am I to myself?”
And the brain’s long-term memory system, the hippocampus, has images of ourselves stored in it. When you were fatter. When you were not successful. When you were successful. The image that is most prominent in the gallery will often influence whether you get to that goal or not.
The exercise that I sometimes walk people through is called Re-curating the Pictures of the Mind. What are the three dominant pictures of myself that are probably influencing whether I get to my goal? Which ones should I throw out? Which ones should I reframe and put in a priority position?
If people could, even right now, take out a piece of paper and pen and write down, “What I think of myself.”
Be brutally honest with yourself.
It could be that breakup that was really hard and made you feel like a loser. Or that promotion you didn’t get. Or when you were around a group of friends and you realized they were really successful and you felt “less-than.”
When you pull up that less-than version of yourself, it’s unfair to expect that version is going to be able to get you to your goal.
The memories we store in our brains determine the extent that we can be integrated enough to have the most powerful identity possible, that’s real to who we are, to take us to our goals.
Abel: If you talk about this in a literal sense, often people gain a bunch of weight and then find out a way to turn that around—you CAN eat and exercise differently. You CAN change your life, you can lose a colossal amount of weight.
People will lose 80 or 100 plus pounds, and others will tell them, “You look great, you look amazing!”
But they’ll respond by saying, “But I feel the same.” Then they put all that weight back on because they haven’t changed their mental outlook.
What’s something you can do to say, “I am different. This is the new me, and I want to stay here?”
In the brain, there are two kinds of intentions that play a role.
Goal intention, which is: I want to lose weight, which is hard for the brain to grasp.
Then there’s the implementation intention, which is: “I want to lose 30 pounds in three months and want to look like this.” So your brain has a really good image of what you want.
A lot of studies now show that refined implementation intentions are much more likely to get you to your goals.
All that means is, spell it out. Write a number. Write a date. And use that as your guideline.
To get to the deep part of your question, speak honestly to yourself about the different things that are in your way.
BRATWURST AND FROSTING: HOW TO MAKE SMALL CHANGES BIG
People will often ask me, “How do you use the brain science to interact with your work?”
Well when I use it in my work in brain science, and corporate coaching, and the psychology part—it’s pretty literal. When it comes to things like working out and what you eat…
I love food. And I love a lot of food you’re not supposed to eat.
Recently I re-engaged a trainer of mine, because intuitively I felt I got the best results with him and I think it was a connection and he got something about who I was.
It helps when you work with someone you’re emotionally connected to and trust.
When I sat down with him, I was like “I just want to be able to walk properly and breathe.”
But I’m not going to be able to eat like he eats—white meat chicken and salad all day. I like bratwurst and bacon.
How am I going to integrate all this stuff? He’s like “Well, you can keep eating like that. But if your diet is bratwurst, bacon and frosting you’re probably not going to get to your goal.”
So I asked him if we could talk about this in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s such a massive shift in my identity that it’s going to threaten everything. There’s no way I could go to my friends and be like, “I’m on an all salad diet—no bratwurst for me.”
It’s not just the diet threat, it’s the social threat.
What I said was “This may take longer, but I am committed to losing weight. Now spar with me about what the options are, because I want to get real about the changes I can make.”
The best feedback you can give yourself is realizing you can actually move and breathe more effectively, that your life is coming back to you in a certain way, and when you lose that extra weight it’s not just about how you look and being healthier in theory, it’s about life opening up to you.
And I think the more deeply you can connect with that motivation, the more successful you’ll be. For different people it’s different things.
For some, it’s that they want to see their grandchildren, some want to look hot, some want greater mobility. When you connect with what you want, then you realize you can tinker with that process. Go forward, come back a little bit, maybe I can come back a little on that idea… maybe eating frosting is overdoing it.
So it’s like this: If I had to choose between frosting and bratwurst, I’m going to choose bratwurst.
The resistance is that this is going to threaten my identity. And I can speak to that because I feel like my identity revolves around eating good food and the people I eat good food with.
But the more you can talk about that, you realize everyone wants to live a little longer and everybody want to be healthy and everybody wants to do a little bit of something to get better.
So here’s the simplified version:
- Take a deep look at your identity.
- Take small steps.
- Get the help of someone you trust who understands what you’re saying.
- It’s not going to change if you don’t change anything.
For a long time I said, “I’m not going to change anything. I’m just going to workout and do more cardio.” And I’m killing myself and it’s not doing anything. Because my diet was exactly the same.
You have to change something.
Choose the things that are easiest to change first, and then gradually you’ll realize there are things you did not want to change at first that you are willing to change.
It’s a deep engagement with the real issue of why you want to lose weight, and how you’re going to do it on your own terms with the revisor that something’s got to change. You just have to figure out what’s the best change for you.
HOW TO BEAT SELF-SABOTAGE & NEGATIVE SELF-TALK
Abel: Often you see people have great success, look the best ever, and then self-sabotage kicks in and they regress.
What is that agent of self-sabotage from the perspective of brain science?
Self-sabotage is a real issue. First of all, the way you phrase your goals matter. If you tell yourself not to do something, under situations of stress your brain will do the opposite.
For example, when I was with my trainer I tried to write down everything I wasn’t going to eat for the week. It was the worst diet week ever. I ate everything I wasn’t supposed to.
If you’re framing things in the negative, your brain will rebound and you will do the opposite of what you want when under stress.
Instead of saying, “I will not eat potatoes,” say, “I will have a second helping of meat, for example.”
Second is a concept called repetition compulsion: A bunch of scientists were standing around watching how kids behaved. The child has a toy which is presumably something he wants, the child throws the toy out. Why would you throw out something you want? The second thing the child does is cry about it. You threw the toy out now you’re crying about it? Mother comes and gives it to him. Then she turns her back, and he throws it out and cries.
As adults we fall into that same pattern because the human brain is wired by default to gain mastery over disappointment rather than to seek fulfillment.
So, a lot of times we want to be really good at the fact that life sucks. Life sucks and I want to be like the best survivor in the world… rather than someone who thrives! You have to shift your brain’s flashlight to thrive rather than survive.
You can get addicted to dealing with difficulties. You can become really good at it. You see a lot of people who are resilient, but they don’t go anywhere in their lives because they’re not setting goals to thrive.
Abel: That’s interesting. Because if you think that losing weight means eating skinless chicken and salad every day, that doesn’t sound very fulfilling. It sounds like that’s at odds with the way you want to live your life.
So how do you eat your bacon and have health at the same time?
When you figure that out you let me know.
So, I think a lot of it is being willing to go overboard but also being willing to come back. I was joking earlier when people asked, “How do you manage your anxiety?”
My own feeling is there are other things that matter to you. I actually geek out about this when I’m drunk, there’s so much to discover about yourself when you’re over the edge. And someone who’s been drunk knows the shame and guilt when you’re over the edge… and the next day.
As long as you surround yourself with loving people you will begin to understand things about your own consciousness, as long as you’re not doing that every day. As long as you understand when you want to be moderate and when you don’t want to be.
Life as a constant moderation would be put me to sleep.
Sometimes I work too hard and sometimes I play too hard. The most successful people have realized that they engage life passionately, and they do mess up. And that it is correctable. And the most important thing is you can change your brain and the way you make decisions about what you eat or drink or do.
My ability to restrain certain types of foods is improving in a different way. I have an internal sense of what feels like a little too much and what feels okay. At times I am excessive and other times I pull back.
Conventional advice makes it sound all clear and simple. Do that, do this, and life will turn out perfect. That does work for a talented few that have a great deal of control over their brain.
You can always have some kind of control over your brain if you engage yourself honestly, and if you surround yourself with loving people who understand that if you mess up, there’s a way people can gently redirect each other.
Having a supportive community is essential, and having a trainer or a dietitian or someone like you that you can trust. Someone to turn to and ask, “How do I eat as much bacon as I want and not get fat?”
When you trust someone’s intrinsic sensibility, it matters a lot.
HOW TO DRINK ALCOHOL… AND BE HEALTHY
Abel: The drinking part you mentioned is something a lot of people ask about—”How can I drink and live this way?”
A martini or two can recalibrate the way your brain operates.
As a Type-A overachiever, sometimes I get sick of myself. It can be annoying and exhausting to practice so much moderation, to be so well behaved, to always achieve.
What is it about drinking – or other methods of pattern interruption – that can help us live a more fulfilling life?
From a database perspective, there’s a decent amount of evidence to show that a certain amount of red wine can be cardio-protective.
From a brain perspective, sometimes we’re so wound up that our frontal cortex is exerting too much control over our lives and as a result of that, the opposite of what we want is happening.
Alcohol can create a state of disinhibition that can help you let go so your creative juices start flowing and you feel in touch with parts of yourself that you haven’t been in touch with.
Or it’s just simply a way of relaxing and socializing. A huge part of this is identity and self-acceptance. When alcohol promotes that, it works really well. When it starts to negate that, then you have to ask: “Is it working for me or against me?”
The basic answer is that the disinhibition allows the creative juices to flow and deactivates the frontal cortex.
Abel: …Meditate during the week and martinis on the weekend? 😉
I think the fact that you and I like music, neuroscience, and bacon puts us in a particular category.
A constrained, patterned existence is not for me. I prefer to be goal oriented, and to make sure I get stuff done that needs to be done. And if I start lagging then I change my lifestyle because the goals matter to me. And if I’m on target, then it gives me permission to play.
WHERE TO FIND DR. SRINI PILLAY
My web site is www.drsrinipillay.com. I’m rebranding, so the way I present myself is likely to change.
I’d love people to engage with an e-book called Total Brain Makeover. It’s a ten minute brain exercise a week.
Then there’s The Untapped Power of You if you really want to make some deeper changes.
LEARN HOW TO DROP 20 POUNDS IN 40 DAYS WITH REAL FOOD
BEFORE YOU GO…
If you’re interested in Neuroscience, you might want to check out my first best-selling book called The Musical Brain. I’ll warn you in advance, it’s quite technical because it’s based on brain and neuroscience research I completed at Dartmouth.
But if you want to know why music exists, where it came from, and what music does to our brains, check it out.
Could taking up piano help you advance your career, lose weight, keep calm, or reach your life’s goals? Maybe. Check out my podcast about music and the brain or my best-selling book, The Musical Brain.
What strategies do you use to help you reach your goals? Share your thoughts about this interview in the comments below!