Listen to Your Lizard Brain

“We were in the middle of dinner and he lost his temper,” a women shared with her ESD class during a conversation about boundary setting. “I'd never seen him lose his temper before, but somehow I wasn’t surprised. I knew, without question that I needed to get up and leave.”

Which is exactly what she did.

Even though she knew on an intellectual level that she’d done the right thing, her decision to leave had been sudden and impulsive. When she questioned it, her friends told her she'd “listened to her gut.”

And it’s a good thing she had. A few days after the breakup, she found out that her boyfriend of over five months had lost his job and lied about it. He’d yelled at her over the phone and sent a bunch angry emails.

Listening to her intuition - or lizard brain - had allowed her to remove herself from a threatening situation.

We all have a “lizard brain.”

“In the middle of the night

Miss Clavel turned on the light

and said, “Something is not right!"

And afraid of a disaster

Miss Clavei ran fast

and faster. . .”

~ Ludwig Bemelmans, Madeline

Our intuition doesn’t lie.

And there is actual scientific evidence to back that up. The limbic system, a network of parts located just above the brainstem, controls our fight, flight, and fear responses. Its structure is primitive yet powerful, and is often referred to as “lizard brain” because a lizard’s brain is nothing more than a limbic system.

​​Have you ever felt the hairs on the back of your neck stand up? Have you suddenly felt hot or cold? Has your heart skipped a beat or sped up?

Those are all sensations that some ESD instructors refer to as “Miss Clavel feelings,” and they’re all examples of your limbic system at work.

Self-defense classes, especially when they’re adrenaline-based like IMPACT, help wire our limbic systems by recognizing patterns and making certain responses, like fighting back, automatic.

An added bonus: It’s been scientifically proven that women have superior intuition. It’s a gift from our prehistoric ancestors, who needed strong intuition to keep their offspring alive.

Why do we sometimes ignore our intuition?

“. . . we often don’t speak up because we don’t want to appear rude, or make the other person uncomfortable, or be seen as someone who causes trouble, or someone who has no ‘sense of humor’ or whatever lame societal excuses we use.”

~ The Safety Godmothers, Ellen Snortland & Lisa Gaeta

There’s an empty seat next to you on the bus. Somebody sits down right next to you. But there are plenty of other empty seats. You want to get up and move, but you don’t, even though something feels very off.

You’re invited to a party. But something inside you is telling you it would be better to stay home.

You’re on a date. You have a bad feeling. But you don’t cut the date short.


From the time we’re born, we receive messages about the importance of kindness. Our classrooms are decorated with signs with sayings like, “Spread kindness like confetti.” We’re told to share. We’re told not to hurt anyone’s feelings.

Kindness is a wonderful trait. But what most of us aren’t taught is that setting boundaries is not the same as being rude or unkind, and that there is such a thing as tactful and polite boundary setting. It’s called being assertive.

You are important. Your feelings and comfort matter. You don’t need to sacrifice your comfort for the sake of someone else’s. Especially if that “someone else” isn’t respecting you and your boundaries.

(And yes, we are well aware that there are plenty of ways to rudely handle the situations we mentioned above. That’s what we call being aggressive. Here’s the difference.)

Go with your instincts. But back them up with logic and reason.

“Intuition is always right in at least two important ways; It is always in response to something.

It always has your best interest at heart.”

~ Gavin De Becker, The Gift of Fear

Here’s another story, shared with us by a high school student, about a walk home from school:

She was on a quiet street, with nobody else around, when she suddenly got the sense that somebody was behind her.

Hoping she was wrong and not wanting to make a scene, she kept walking. Finally, the sensation she was being followed was so strong she gasped and spun around.

As she was turning, she heard a woman say, “I’m so sorry I scared you. I didn’t see you there and when I was coming out of my house I ended up right behind you.”

The embarrassed woman crossed the street and gave the girl her space.

Did she overreact? Did she hurt the woman’s feelings? Maybe. But that’s okay.

Her intuition hadn't been wrong. In fact, it had served her well. There hadn’t been a threat, but there had been somebody behind her.

Many of the intuition-building activities we do in our classes involve somebody approaching from behind. But because of situations like this, instructors insist that students look over their shoulders before they strike so they can make informed choices.

Your entire brain is your ultimate self-defense tool.

"We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world."

~ Buddha

Unlike lizards, whose brains consist only of a limbic system, human limbic systems work in unison with the rest of the brain, making it the ultimate self-defense tool. So treat it well, and feed it good thoughts.

We mention self-defense tools all the time, often prefaced by “one of your most valuable.” But every tool we’ve ever mentioned (voice, breath, confidence, etc.) is controlled by your brain.

Your brain is there to help you make effective decisions, provide you with adrenaline when needed, and help your body move with precision and skill.

What can you do for your brain in return?

1. Spend time analyzing and practicing physical moves you’ve learned in your ESD classes.

2. Visualize various scenarios in which you might have to use your verbal, emotional, and physical self-defense tools.

3. Take care of yourself emotionally and physically (get enough sleep, get proper nutrition, take breaks even on busy days).

4. Remind your brain, regularly, that you sincerely believe that you are capable of defending yourself, and more importantly, that you are absolutely worth defending.

Go with what feels right.

“I gotta go with what feels right

Don't always need a reason why

What's the problem?

Compared to the weight of the world

Quit trying to please every man, woman, boy and girl.”

~ Selena Gomez, Intuition

Next time you have a "Miss Clavel" feeling, go with it. Remember that your “lizard brain” is there for you.

Trust it. Trust yourself. And trust that you’re worth defending.


* We would love to hear stories about how you’ve used your “lizard brain” / intuition!

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