Remember the last time you pushed the “send” button for an email and then instantly regretted it? Or snapped at someone in a moment of frustration?
It’s easy to recite the litany of all we do wrong in our lives — eat and drink too much, exercise and sleep too little, spend too much on things we don’t need and run up too much debt, judge others too quickly and embrace them too conditionally, profligately consume resources and spend too much time obsessing about our own needs and too little focused on the needs of others.
We know better. We’re capable of better. So why exactly do we make so many short-sighted destructive choices?
Let me suggest a very basic answer: Unbeknownst to most of us, we each have at least two very distinct selves. They don’t know very much about one another. If you have any doubt this is so, think for a moment of what you’re like at your best, and what you’re like at your worst. Which one is the real you? The answer, of course, is both. Two selves — both you.
Under ordinary circumstances, our parasympathetic nervous system and our prefrontal cortex are running the show. We’re capable of thinking clearly, calmly and logically. In our work at The Energy Project, we call this the “Performance Zone.” It’s here that we’re capable of operating at our best.
In the face of a perceived threat, however, our sympathetic nervous system and amygdala take over and our second self steps up. A flood of stress hormones is released. Our pre-frontal cortex shuts down, we become narrow and more myopic in our vision, and we react more primitively and instinctively.
The physiology of fight or flight mobilizes us to attack, or run like hell. Think of this as the “Survival Zone.” It’s a great place to be if there’s a lion coming at you.
It isn’t great in situations where thinking is an asset. The problem is that our bodies respond to any perceived threat — say, a critical comment from a colleague or a boss — by fueling the fight or flight response. We lose our capacity for rationality and reflectiveness, and we mostly don’t realize we’ve lost it.
Consider a classic question you’ve surely asked someone — or been asked yourself: “What were you thinking when you did that?”
More often than not, you weren’t thinking anything at all. You were just reacting.
Once stress hormones stop circulating through your body, the capacity to think logically returns. But that doesn’t mean we take responsibility for our bad behaviors. Instead, many of us use our prefrontal cortex to rationalize what we’ve just done without thinking. We seek to justify, or minimize, or deny our responsibility for behaviors that were in fact hurtful and destructive to others.
We misuse the gift of our cognition.
Think of all the bankers who made irrational, sub-prime loans that were sure to eventually fail, but have yet to take any responsibility for their self-serving misdeeds — or been held accountable.
So what’s the antidote to behaving reactively — and badly — when we feel under threat?
The first step is to become more aware of when your emotions begin to turn negative. That may mean noticing your heart beating faster, or tightness in your chest, jaw, or forehead.
The next step, when you sense you’re getting frustrated or anxious, is to apply “The Golden Rules of Triggers.” It’s very simple: Whatever you feel compelled to do, don’t. Compulsions are not choices, and they rarely lead to positive outcomes.
The moment you feel yourself moving into the Survival Zone, label it: “Ah, there I go.” Take a deep breath. Inhale through your nose to a count of 3, and exhale slowly to a count of six. That will quiet your body.
Finally, feel your feet, to get out of your head and ground yourself in the reality of the present moment.
You’ve just bought time. Now you should be able to ask yourself “How would I behave here at my best?” and make a conscious choice about how to respond.