How to calm your fearful ‘lizard brain’ and live life to the fullest

There’s a part of our brain at the stem that’s concerned with the three F’s: food, fear, and reproduction (the bad F word). Tell that part that it’s safe.

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Heather Hansen is an acclaimed trial lawyer, keynote speaker, and Next Big Idea Club member whose latest book is The Elegant Warrior: How to Win Life’s Trials Without Losing Yourself. Heather recently sat down with Next Big Idea Club Marketing Director Marquina Iliev-Piselli to discuss why fear is so persuasive, and what it means to become a truly elegant warrior.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click the link here.


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Marquina: How did you come about writing The Elegant Warrior?

Heather: I defend doctors in medical malpractice cases, and I was having a difficult time standing up for myself, setting boundaries, and using my voice in my real life. But I was so good at it in the courtroom, so I realized that if I used the tools from the courtroom in real life, it would be a whole lot easier. Once that clicked for me, I felt that it would be of service if I shared it with other people.

Marquina: [The book] follows your career trajectory, and I like how instead of “Fake it ’til you make it,” you say, “Show it ’til you grow it.” You’re the embodiment of that.

Heather: So often we hear “Fake it ’til you make it.” And I know from counseling clients on how to testify that if they’re being fake, the jury knows it immediately. Then you’ve lost credibility, and you’ve lost your case.

But if you can find that little piece inside of you that you aspire to be—whether it’s confidence, or kindness, or happiness when you’re feeling blue, or the ability to speak in front of a crowd—when you find that little piece and you show it, it does tend to feed off the oxygen you give it, and then it is allowed to grow.

Marquina: Could you talk about what you mean when you say that we are the elegant warrior in our lives?

Heather: The word “elegance” comes from a Latin root that means “to choose.” I think that we choose our elegance, and the definition is a little bit different for everyone. For me, it’s the ability to be true to yourself, both who you are now and who you feel destined to be—and to do that, no matter what you’re facing.

“The word ‘elegance’ comes from a Latin root that means ‘to choose.’”

As a trial lawyer, I know that trials get very heated. And during times of trial, it’s tempting to be all warrior and lose the elegance, or go for elegance and not fight the war. Finding that balance is a constant struggle for me, but if I can stay true to who I am, then I know that I can look myself in the mirror at the end of a trial, no matter whether I win or lose the case.

Marquina: You also talk about how you respect the other council, even though you don’t agree, and they’re quite irritating at times.

Heather: Yeah, that is so important to me—and not just the other council, but also the other party, because we all have different versions of a story. Studies show that within minutes of being told a story, you and I will have different versions of that story. So at trial, I feel that I can argue with their truth without taking their dignity. When I cross-examine someone, I might want the jury to think that their version of the story is not the correct one, but I don’t have to disrespect them, or make them look bad, or make them feel bad. I work really hard not to do that.

Sometimes the party themselves will realize, “Oh, maybe I was wrong.” But most of the time, it’s up to the jury. It’s such a good lesson to see that I have a story, opposing council has a different story, and ultimately the jury chooses what’s true. It shows that the stories we tell ourselves—whether it’s in your own head or in your relationships—are not always true. There’s often a different perspective to look at, and that’s been really helpful when I’m feeling down, or frustrated, or like a failure. There’s always a different version of the story that you can tell yourself.

Marquina: You have three chapters on objections: learning to object, overcoming objections, and when we should stop looking for objections. You focus on that [last one] the most—is there a reason behind that?

Heather: Yeah, because it’s such a big part of life, especially for women. We women are really good at advocating for others in our lives, but not so good at advocating for ourselves. Learning that we can object without getting permission, and not looking for validation, but just because we’re uncomfortable with something, is imperative.

“Learning that we can object without getting permission, and not looking for validation, but just because we’re uncomfortable with something, is imperative.”

Sometimes other people are going to say, “You’re too young, you’re too old, you’re too female, you’re too black, you’re too anything.” And [then there’s] the most damaging of all—your own inner objections that say, “You’re not smart enough, you’re not old enough, you’re not experienced enough.” Those are the things that hold us back the most.

Don’t spend your life looking for objections. I’ve been on Fox, MSNBC, and CNN, so I see both sides of political arguments, and I think that we’re often looking for reasons to be offended. If you’re looking for objections, you’re going to find them—but if you do it every chance you get, you might miss out on some fun, and some laughter, and some connection. So it’s about finding that balance between setting your boundaries and knowing when you need to object.

Marquina: Absolutely. There’s a chapter [about] the curse of knowledge. Could you tell me what that means?

Heather: I read about a Stanford study where [participants] tapped a tune with a pencil, and saw whether or not a listener could guess what the tune was. Most of the time, they can’t—but the person tapping, who knows the song, gets frustrated because the listener doesn’t know it. The person who’s tapping has the curse of knowledge—they know the song so well that it’s hard to remember what it’s like not to know it.

I have defended hospital doctors for 20 years, so I’ve seen firsthand how doctors have the curse of knowledge. They talk about vascular doctors instead of blood doctors, or they talk about total knee arthroplasty instead of a total knee replacement—that curse of knowledge really gets in the way of communication.

“The best way to overcome the curse of knowledge is to ask questions.”

And we all have it. We have it about our own thoughts and our own bodies—we just assume that other people know things. I would do that all the time with my boyfriend—you assume that he knows you’ve had a bad day, or that you want a certain gift. But there’s a study showing that trial lawyers need to say things seven times in seven ways before the jury really gets it. And it’s true in your personal life too—when your [boyfriend or] husband is not getting it, you’ve just got to say it again in a different way.

The best way to overcome the curse of knowledge is to ask questions. I don’t get to ask my jury, “Is this making sense to you? Do you understand this? Do you have questions?” But in real life, you do get to do that.

Marquina: One of the last chapters is about managing your lizard brain. Can you talk about that a bit?

Heather: It’s fascinating—when I was a younger attorney, a book came out for attorneys who sue, and it’s [about how] you should get the jurors thinking about their own survival. Whether it’s a dangerous product or a dangerous doctor, you want the jury to think, “Oh my gosh, I have to protect myself and my family from this thing!” That’s feeding the lizard brain.

There are some people that believe there’s a part of our brain at the brain stem that’s concerned with what they call the three F’s: food, fear, and reproduction (the bad F word). And that’s the part of the brain that needs to be put to rest—you’ve got to tell it that it’s safe.

It’s sort of like how in Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about how if her fear was in the car with her, it wouldn’t be allowed to drive the car. It wouldn’t be allowed to give the directions, it wouldn’t even be allowed to control the radio. But it’s still allowed in the car—it just has to sit in the back seat.

That’s how I think about the lizard brain—let it sit out in the sun. [Once it knows that] it’s safe, you can go on to creativity and love and connection and laughter and joy and all of the things that we’re meant to be doing.

This article originally appeared on Heleo. 


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