McEnroe vs. Williams: His brain made him do it!

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Serena Williams & John McEnroe

Formal international model turned serial entrepreneur, Alicia Dunams is the founder of BestsellerinaWeekend.comTheBookFunnel.com, and corporate training company, Authoring Leadership.

I woke to see the headline, Serena Williams Would Rank ‘No. 700’ if She Played Against Men, Says John McEnroe. I filed this article with the stacks of ‘p-ssy-grabbing’ and otherwise sexist crazy talk that has been propagating the media in the last 12 months or so.

When I hear sexist comments, the first thing I do is consider the source. I thought, John McEnroe, who the British media called “Superbrat” during his hey day, pleeeezzz, Serena Williams could easily whoop your butt any day.

The second thing I do is look at cognitive psychology, a.k.a brain science.

From an evolutionally perspective, when people feel threatened, we react from the part of our brain called the amygdala, what I term the “critter brain.” When we are in flight, fight, or freeze mode – or get the feeling there is a proverbial “lion behind the bush,”—our critter brain is ignited. Our tribal identity, which leads to unconscious bias as a means of survival, is triggered from the amygdala. We identify our tribes by sameness, who is like us?, so tribes can be formed in various ways, by race, language, stature, and gender.

Additionally, a 2015 Japanese study published in Scientific Reports showed that “lower scores on the Sex Role Egalitarianism (SRE) scale (that is, holding more sexist or gender-discriminating beliefs) tended to correlate, in men and women, with having more dense gray matter in the posterior cingulate cortex, an area in the brain associated with processing things like anger, fear, and pain; and with reduced gray-matter density in the right amygdala, another brain area that’s very important to emotions, especially fear. In terms of their broader psychological profile, people who espoused sexist beliefs tended to score higher in their anger, depression-proneness, and competitiveness, which fits previously published research into the personality correlates of sexism.” New York Magazine

I share this basic background of cognitive psychology to show that when our brain feels we are under attack, we are ready to counter attack. (Transparently speaking, my first reaction that Serena Williams could easily whoop McEnroe’s butt was made when I was in “attack mode,” protecting a member of my tribe, another woman of color, from her “attacker.” This was my first gut reaction, showing I was operating from my “lower” brain regions.)

Speaking openly, I specifically chose the title of this op-ed piece to prove my point about the power of the unconscious mind. By writing a controversial title, I was explicitly confronting your critter brain. Having been an Internet marketer for over 10 years, I know marketers are masters at selling to the “critter brain.” Cosmopolitan magazine does a stellar job at this on the cover of their monthly magazines. They market to women with headlines like, 75 Sex Moves Men CraveLook Leaner Naked, and Your Breasts Called… and they are feeling neglected – How to Pamper Them) These types of headlines – which are real, by the way – trigger the critter brain in all women – and switch on our survival instincts, including finding a mate and procreation.

Here’s where emotional intelligence comes in. This is when people’s actions move from their amygdala or “critter brain” to the pre-frontal cortex, what I call our “emotionally intelligent brain.” When we respond to experiences and circumstances with possibility, connection, compassion, and enlightenment, we are operating from our “higher” brain regions.

When a man spouts sexist remarks, he is operating from his amygdala. Subconsciously, he is feeling threatened, inferior, and under attack. Overcompensation becomes a survival tool. Tribal instincts set in; he operates in “us versus them.” His brain says, in an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent, “Let’s PUMP YOU UP!” I hate to say his amygdala made him do it, but his amygdala made him do it!

As women, we can continually be offended and victimized by sexist remarks, and distracted from our purpose, or they can activate us. I choose activation.

But first, I invite women to feel compassion. I know that might make you want to bite your lip—you might even be cursing under your breath—but trust me, it works. Feeling compassion toward instigators is one of the most powerful and graceful tools we can use. Just like Nelson Mandela stated, resentment is drinking poison and thinking it will harm the other person.

I also invite you to feel neutral about sexist remarks. You may have to sit in the experience and share your feelings with a close friend or in your blog and Twitter feed, but meditate a bit and let the hurt and anger sweep through you like clouds in the sky. Do not give sexism your power. The world needs you to use your power for more righteous causes.

Let’s rise above sexism and see this as an opportunity to activate women far and wide. What happens when women expand compassionately on one hand, and feel inspired and activated on the other? I see armies of empowered women writing books, running for political office, and, as we saw the weekend after Trump’s inauguration, millions of women uniting for gender equality.

The best way to counter sexism is to operate in the emotionally intelligent brain.

And folks like John McEnroe make that muscle even stronger for us.

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