Recently I’ve heard leaders speaking some version of this sentiment: “For some reason, I get angry sometimes, and I just lash out. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
If you can relate to this sentiment, I want to assure you that nothing is wrong or even strange about you. The strong burst of anger that seems to transform an ordinarily reasonable, kind, gentle person (Bruce Banner) into a single-minded destructive presence (Hulk) is relatively common human experience. It’s why we can feel sympathy for Bruce.
We all try not to go there, but anger is human. To be more accurate, anger ismammalian. You’re a mammal, so you qualify.
Some years ago, a young woman working in my office said to me, “I’d love to see you angry sometime.” I’m sure she wouldn’t.
Anger has varying degrees, so we don’t always turn into Hulk. You might be peeved, irritated, frustrated, or just generally hostile. But when your response to provocation tips into irate, livid, or furious, then we’ve got a Hulk on our hands.
In common psychological parlance, your fight response (as opposed to flight orfreeze) has been triggered. In the language of Emotional Intelligence writer Daniel Goleman, you are experiencing an amygdala hijack:
…the amygdala triggers the HPA (hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal) axis and hijacks the rational brain…. When the amygdala perceives a threat, it can lead that person to react irrationally and destructively. – (from the Wikipedia entry on Amygdala hijack)
The amygdala is part of your limbic system, which is in charge of sorting through everything you are seeing, hearing, and experiencing, and deciding if it’s something you should run away from or attack. It is part of your mammalian brain. You also have a lizard brain, which keeps you above the water and out of a fire, and you have a “human brain,” the neocortex, which can think up the Pythagorean Theorem or remember who starred in the original Jurassic Park movie.
You can see that dogs and cats and other mammals have similar anger responses. In response to a threat, there is a reaction designed to protect the organism (person or animal) from that threat. So when you are provoked, you react. You bark, you hiss, and you say that exact thing that will hurt the other person most.
So why do you do it? You’re wired that way. We all are.
Good news: This is universal experience.
More good news: You don’t have to settle for this.
What can you do if this is happening with enough regularity that it’s a problem?
Listen to where the anger is coming from.
The reason our amygdala triggers the ‘fight’ response is because something in our experience tells that part of the brain that fighting back is important. The threat is being perceived as real. So it helps to find out what is making the stimulus (situation, person) seem so threatening?
If you are experiencing frequent amygdala hijacks, you might reflect on the iceberg of conflict while considering that provoking stimulus. The iceberg helps you to “drill down” into the different drivers of conflict, and when you understand what you arereally upset about, you can make better decisions to address those issues when you aren’t upset. Here are the layers:
- issues (above the surface)
- interests, needs and desires
- self-perceptions and self-esteem
- hidden expectations
- unresolved issues from the past
Each layer down is a more powerful driver of strong emotion than what sits above. Those self-perceptions can drive a lot of my conflicts, especially if I think someone has questioned something at the heart of who I believe myself to be. Knowing that, I can take action to practice and develop confidence talking about myself and my sense of identity.
Develop your mental “muscle” so you can slow down your reaction time.
Meditation is one of the most common (and scientifically proven) practices for developing the mental strength to slow down reaction time. By developing your brain’s awareness of itself, you can notice when your amygdala has been hijacked and intervene in some way before you do damage. Counting to ten, taking deep belly breaths, or reciting the seven dwarves are all techniques that can help you to get enough distance from the stimulus that you don’t lash out. But you have to notice what’s happening, first.
If you are experiencing someone else’s amygdala hijack, the above works for you, too. Because the first thing we want to do when we are attacked is to attack back (or freeze, or flee). Take those deep breaths yourself, and count to ten while giving yourself compassion that this is a difficult situation.
Take care of yourself so you have better resilience in a challenging situation.
This might mean getting enough sleep, exercise and proper nutrition so your body is functioning properly, and taking time for yourself to play, create, and rest. Brene Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection offers lots of great practices for developing resilience.
As you build these skills, give yourself time to make the adjustment, but that doesn’t mean you sit back and wait. During that time you have to be working and investing attention in the new skills before they can take hold. Just ask this guy who managed to unlearn how to ride a bike.
If you experience an amygdala hijack (your own or someone else’s) in the coming days, take a moment to remind yourself: This is common human experience, and it takes an amazing amount of time and effort to make a change.
And that time and effort is worth it.
Career Leadership Alignment LLC offers coaching for leaders to increase their capacity for complexity and change.
Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on conscious leadership, culture, and employee engagement.
Amy works with leaders to increase their self-awareness and intervene effectively in their systems. She creates the time and space they need to reflect on and learn from their experience. Sign up for the weekly newsletter (including each week’s blog post along with related articles and other content) here. Connect with Amy on Facebook,Twitter, and learn more at the Career Leadership Alignment website.