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Identifying emotional triggers may lead to better reactions

You are more than what you are feeling at this moment.

I broke a phone. I actually was angry enough at my boss that I smacked my iPhone off of the corner of my desk until the screen cracked.

I look back on that and think how ridiculous that sounds. Even typing it I am shaking my head. What was I thinking? Not only did I not accomplish what I wanted with my boss, I also now had to deal with a phone that sliced my finger every time I swiped up.

I see now I wasn’t thinking, I was all feeling – pure full-bodied emotion! I felt powerful in all my righteous anger.

How did I get to that point? Usually, I operate on a pretty even keel but every time I had to interact with this person, I went to that place. Every single time. I spent a lot of time blaming this person, and to be honest he was a hard person to deal with. I think he even delighted in unmooring the people he worked with. But that had nothing to do with my reaction to him, other than to help justify my feelings of anger.

What I have come to realize about this situation and the many like it, was that I was my own worst enemy. I allowed my emotions to take over in a place where I needed to be accessing logic and reason.

I didn’t realize that his personality was a personal trigger for me. I didn’t realize that most of my interactions with him triggered my stress response, that on some level I perceived him as a threat and I kicked in to Fight, Flight, or Freeze.

Terry Real, of the Relational Life Institute refers to this as the whoosh- the triggered stress response that is accompanied by certain physical sensations, like a flush of your neck and face, a drop in the stomach, dry mouth or sometimes (I hate this one) inexplicable tears. With my clients, I work on gaining self-awareness about the whoosh and knowing your personal triggers and your particular body sensations.

Why spend time on this? So what? Yeah, you’re mad. You’re scared. You want to get the heck out of there. Why? Because physiology matters. It influences the way we think.

In that whoosh moment your thinking changes, as much as you think that you’re thinking rationally, you aren’t. Your thought actually kicks back to a more primitive part of your brain that is associated with survival, hence the Fight, Flight, or Freeze. It is also a place in your brain that brings back old memories of prior situations like the one you are in. So you’re not only reacting to the current situation, you are reacting to all of the situations like it that have happened in the past.

What are some ways this can get in your way at work (besides breaking a phone that will cost you $200 to replace with insurance)? It’s not just anger or flying off the handle, it’s:

  • Having a really good idea that you want to share at a meeting but you aren’t able to speak up.
  • Not having the words to say in the moment, but later your mind comes up with great response or solution.
  • Not hearing valuable feedback or developmental criticism because as soon as you heard something negative you shut down and got righteous.

Emotions are good, even the bad ones are good. We need to allow ourselves to feel them. Let them happen. Let them come and go the way they are designed to do.

Too often, we completely step into the emotion and start living from that feeling, making decisions that may not be balanced, basing our next steps on the assumptions and judgments that are only suited to that moment, not to the big picture.

Recognizing the whoosh is the first step in finding that balance. We need to know ourselves enough to know that we need time to get back to a place of rational thought, that our reaction is not a personal failing, but rather a result of the body’s natural response system – a system needs time to reset, to cool down.

unsplash-logoAgê Barros

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