I posted recently on the dangers of leaving your body language to chance. I’m going to continue on this subject for a couple more blog posts.

Your unconscious mind is busy 24-7 running your body, freeing up your conscious mind to think about things like the temperature of your latte and your Spotify playlist. That’s all good. But the unconscious mind also makes decisions for you and determines how confident or not you show up at your next speech. That’s not so handy for us modern humans.

And there’s more going awry than that – because you’ve got not one, not two, but three brains going all the time. There’s another one in your gut approximately the size of the brain of a common cat. And in fact there are neurons spread throughout your body, if you really want to know the ugly truth.

What we’re learning is that the human body is an assemblage of systems that have a surprising degree of autonomy from one another, and that are all busy managing various aspects of your mental and physical lives. Nonetheless, they do communicate with one another, and that’s why the human assemblage works pretty well most of the time.

Except when we’re trying to do something difficult, like start a new job, demanding all sorts of skills and abilities that we’ve only partly tried out before.

Or we’re standing in front of an audience getting ready to give a speech to a group of concerned stakeholders in our organization.

Or we’re trying to persuade the executive team to go in a new, relatively untried direction, betting the company on the hope of success.

Or, perhaps, we’re in the middle of a job interview for a position we’ve been scheming to get for several years, one that would allow us to try out the vision we have for the future of our industry.

In those instances, the polyglot nature of our bodies betrays us as often as it propels us to victory. The little cat brain in our gut may disable us by sending messages of abject terror shooting up to our big brains, causing embarrassing physical symptoms that become impossible for us—and the others in the room—to ignore. Or the big brain may make a mess of things by going blank at a key moment, causing us to fail to close the deal or wow the crowd when the chance comes.

The bottom line is that if you’re only working on your brain to send signals down to your gut, you’re doing less than half the job necessary for success. And that perhaps is why most efforts to control nerves in that way are so ineffectual.

Instead, you want to start a new, more sophisticated dialogue, not just between brain and body, but between big brain, unconscious and conscious brains, little brain, and body. You want to ensure that your gut is supporting your big brain and body, and the other way around. You want to get all the systems working together to ensure that you’re operating at peak efficiency at those moments when you need to be at the top of your game.

At the moment, what’s going on? The dialogue you currently have is mostly unmanaged and is a collection of old thoughts, both conscious and unconscious (mostly unconscious) fears, compulsive behavior, things that worked well once upon a time, and so on.

It’s a mishmash.

To make matters worse, it’s an unconscious mishmash. Things your parents told you in moments of fatigue and pique, things that you’ve forgotten, shape your thinking along with lessons your body has learned about all the stimuli it has received since the womb. Things you’ve heard, stupid jokes your friends told you when you were eight, movies you’ve seen, books you’ve read, memories of being lost in the dunes during that summer on Nantucket, and so on, all jumble together in your unconscious mind, random data that it has assembled from everything that it has seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt.

The unconscious brain apparently never forgets. Everything it has experienced is set somewhere in the 100 billion or so cells that make up our vast internal universe. But the way the mind works is that things that are repeated are strengthened, making stronger and more numerous synapses, so that the memory becomes more and more important to our overall patterns of thinking. We attach emotions to events to create memories. The more intense and more frequent an event is—as it strikes us—the more it looms large in our mental attic.

So, for example, if your brain links together the experience of choosing up sides in sports encounters in grade school with your popularity in later years, the social dynamics of your relationships with your colleagues at work, and your divorce, you may have a significant and largely unconscious set of beliefs about your ability to manage a team that kick into place when you get that new promotion. You may find yourself self-sabotaging without knowing why.

Thanks to the usual unavailability of the unconscious sources of most of our attitudes and beliefs, we may have very strongly held feelings that hold us back without knowing the reason. If we knew the reason, we might be surprised or even appalled.

The reality is that your conscious mind is beset by essentially random directives from your unconscious mind, some of which help you succeed in your larger purposes in life and most of which don’t.

Next time I’ll talk about what to do about this lamentable fact.

Parts of this blog series are adapted from my recent book, Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact. You can find it here.

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