We can’t control our emotions. By that I mean we can’t prevent our emotions. They happen faster than we can think. We see, hear, or feel something and the incoming stimuli immediately travels through the parts of our brain that elicit emotion, well before it reaches our thinking brain, the pre-frontal cortex. So our emotions happen before we can even think about them. It’s just the way we are built. Probably helps us survive since we share this same hard wiring with many animals.
Unfortunately, this sets up a problem, because emotions aren’t just thoughts that can quickly be switched on or off. They trigger a host of chemicals and hormones in the body that take time to dissipate, cortisol, adrenaline, oxytocin, etc. Once these hit the bloodstream it takes a while to undo their effects.
I’m describing this phenomena because I want to discuss a habit or two that can help. We need help, I need help, because when fight or flight kicks in, really useful parts of the brain seem to shut down – like creativity, curiosity, empathy, and rationality. This limits our ability to think and behave in a way that is most beneficial within our complex social structures. We can do and say stupid things that we regret. Anyone? Bueller? I’m raising my hand. Guilty.
Fortunately, I know a pretty good life hack that can help. Unfortunately, knowing and doing are two different things. This is where the power of habit come in. With some practice and repetition I can build a habit of mind that will engage the more useful parts of my brain when fight or flight are inappropriate. That habit of mind is this: ask myself, “What do I really want in this situation, big picture.” Just asking this question will engage the better parts of the mind, because we are also wired to answer the questions we ask ourselves. Potentially, this can interrupt negative emotions hijacking the mind. What do I really want? Let this question allow you to take a pause. Let the blood flow back into the prefrontal cortex from the legs and arms which have been quickly flooded to manage a fight or flight. This question “what do I really want, big picture” pulls us back into a space where we can marshal enough brain power to consider complexity of the social, work, or familial situation we are in. It allows us to be strategic in the words and tone we use next, or don’t use.
It’s important to remember that being strategic and being manipulative are very different things. Being manipulative to “get what you want” is not a good strategy. Because eventually, or probably immediately, the other person is going to pick up on it. And trust will erode and things will just get worse. Which leads me to the other habit of mind that is key.
Tell the truth. In other words be honest. That’s a great habit, because if you are truthful then you are aligned with reality. And, speaking truth leads to the best possible future, whereas lies and manipulation (treating others as a means instead of an end) tend to create a future that is not good. But, be cautious. Speaking truth takes tact and courage and humility. Be tentative. Tell your story, but preface it with something like “I could be wrong” or “maybe I’m missing something here, but. . “ then explain how you arrived at the truth as you see it. If you just blurt out your opinion and the other person has no idea how you derived it, then you are not going to be very persuasive or helpful. You can ask people to test you, say “am I off base?” “how am I wrong here?” Make room for the possibility that you are wrong. Because you might be. And wouldn’t it be great if you found that out sooner than later?
By being honest and open and tactful you have a greater likelihood of either persuading others to your view, or of learning that you are wrong – both are valuable! In either case you’ve maintained your integrity, but in a respectful way. If you proceed with the words or actions of fight or flight, neither of these good outcomes can occur.
So, consider putting these habits of mind on your 365 list. When you notice a fight or flight emotion kicking in (caveat: where it’s not helpful), 1. Ask yourself “what do I really want in the big picture here?” and, 2. Speak your truth, tentatively, and explain how you arrived there, leaving room for you to be wrong. I write about these habits of mind because I need and want to ingrain them in my myself.
Ben Wagner (28)
Member 365 Commitment