In the opening chapter of The Sniper Mind I recount a scene where an SAS veteran known as Foxy, recounting his experience of a long firefight recalls how, lying in a ditch with bullets flying overhead “…wanted to be back at home, as a kid again, with my mum.”
The mental response of a brain experiencing acute stress is often one that leads it to abdicate responsibility and seek the comfort that’s associated with being a child. Children have next to no agency. All the decisions are made for them, they are guided in their thoughts and behavior in exchange for being cared for by parental figures.
Because this is one of our first experiences of the world we may outgrow it as we get older but we don’t, apparently, grow out of it. At least not without effort. In The Sniper Mind I drew on hundreds of interviews with Special Ops soldiers and neuroscientists to better understand this phenomenon. The fact that such apparent ‘supermen’ as Special Ops soldiers and snipers experience this state of abdicated responsibility fascinated me and made me curious on what they did to overcome it.
Some would say that such a willingness and mental ability for the brain to revert to this child-like state is not beneficial and they’d be right in most contexts, a firefight being one of them and any other inherently stressful situation being another. Yet, the brain only develops and then retains skillsets that confer some evolutionary advantage. This case is no exception to the rule.
Focus, Flow and Abdicated Responsibility
A responsible brain, an adult brain, is always switched on. It is situationally aware, analytical and goal-orientated. It aims to take us from the ‘here’ of the present to the ‘there’ of the future we seek through actions that have desirable effects.
Such a brain prepares, plans, decides and acts.
We all have such a brain. But we don’t all have such a brain all the time. And there are times when in order to perform the actions necessary the brain we have needs to be free from all distractions and fears. We’ve all seen children become so absorbed in their actions that they forget where they are and, seemingly at times, who they are.
As adults we’re aware of our agency. We remember who we are. And we worry about the future. Being able to set aside these worries, to ‘forget’ what troubles us and what problems we may face in the future and simply become hyper-focused in the moment, what we usually call achieving ‘a state of flow’ requires exactly this conscious abdication of responsibility.
The Adult Brain
Not every problem we face requires a state of flow. As illustrated by my opening paragraph the brain seeks escape however by abdicating responsibility. To paraphrase a popular phrase “when the going gets tough we all revert to being a child”. That bit is normal. It’s what we do next that defines us.
Self-awareness means that we realize a normal response of temporary abdicated responsibility to an exceptional stress load needn’t be its defining moment. We have to be able to acknowledge, accept and respond. This is where adults are different from children.
Children feel helpless, incapable and often have no real sense of their own agency. They feel the same things adults do, just as intensely, but being unable to process, analyze and plan their way out of a situation they resort to tantrums, yelling and acting out. Adults who are trapped by the abdicated responsibility response essentially revert to child-like behavior. In the place of mummy and daddy coming to save them they are wait for a deux ex machina intervention from some outside agency: the divine, luck, chance, fate or the universe.
Adults who can act like adults have a deeper sense of their own agency. They understand that their fate is in their hands. Their decisions are guided by their choices and their choices determine their life. So they act differently. They:
- acknowledge the situation they are in
- understand helplessness and frustration are temporary
- analyze their options
- plan their actions
- act with consequences in mind
Granted, growing up is hard. Even as grown-ups we all want someone to take care of us, to tell us things are going to be OK, to ‘save’ us from the sense of fear and uncertainty we have. The fact is that, right now, the world around us appears more chaotic than ever and more complex than anything we’ve encountered before. It is up to us to step into the moment and behave like adults.
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