Don’t Let Your Emotions Control You

By Shari Frisinger

You hurriedly walk into your office at 9:30 in the morning. You told your boss yesterday that you had to stop by a client’s office first thing, and assured him you would definitely meet your noon deadline. He was ok with it. All you need is one uninterrupted hour to complete your report. You poke your head in your boss’ office to tell him you are in and are still on track to meet the deadline. Instead of a simple acknowledgement, he immediately explodes - yelling and berating you for once again being late and not caring about deadlines, the company’s reputation and the department’s bottom line. He continues with the bad position you have put him in because now he has to explain to his boss why you came in late and missed the hard deadline that had been set for months. He then proceeds to project what will happen to him, and subsequently to you, after he gets chewed out by his boss.

What just happened? Your boss just lost control of his sanity and let his emotions totally take over. He gave permission for his reactions to bypass his logical, rational mind. His brain put him into a ”fight or flight” mindset and took the rest of his body with it. Physically his heart rate increased, his breathing became faster and shallower, and cortisol rushed through his brain as adrenaline shot through his body. Because his focus became very narrow, he reverted to actions he had taken in the past when confronted with similar situations, whether these actions were successful or not. And, after he calms down, he will regret his words and his actions - and you can expect an apology - again.

So why do we allow this to happen? Let’s step inside the human mind to dissect the situation. We feel before we think - our emotions and our intuition precede our thoughts. Our rational thoughts can be manipulated by memories of past events --- especially when those memories bring up emotional reactions.   The more emotional the memory, the stronger and faster we are affected by it.

The front part of your brain is your rational brain. This is where your logic, consciousness and abstract thoughts reside. It encompasses approximately two-thirds of your brain’s total size. “Inside” your rational brain is your emotional brain. This part houses your emotions, and where your pre-conscious memory begins. These two merge to label experiences as positive or negative, enjoyable or painful. The part of your emotional brain that generates emotions is your amygdala.

When our emotions take a strong hold on us and we react to the current situation, our amygdala, becomes hijacked. The brain positions the body and thought processes to fight the intruder or to flee and live another day. This narrow focus lasts for up to 20 minutes, and the toxins released into the body remain for four hours.

Your mind has the ability and capacity to change your reality - at least your perception of reality. The rational, thinking part of the process doesn’t stand a chance to emerge until emotions are exhausted and the person is spent. It is at this time when the rational brain activity kicks in and the person realizes they have made a complete fool of themselves. They then regret their actions, feel embarrassed or guilty, and remorse causes them to apologize and eat crow.

However in that split nanosecond before we consciously feel, we tell ourselves a story. This story is based upon our past, something that deeply affected us emotionally. This story can set our amygdala into a frantic state, a hijack. What type of stories do you tell yourself? Depending on what you value and how you perceive yourself, it can range from “your work is not accurate” to “you are not liked by your colleagues” to “you are not good enough”.

In the opening example, the “stories” that may have run through the boss’ mind might be something like this:  “Last time I missed a deadline my boss called me ineffective and didn’t give me any important projects for nearly a year - my colleagues stayed away from me - my team lost respect for me - if I do it again my reputation will be ruined - I will never be promoted - I won’t be given any additional responsibilities - I may lose my job!”  The brain remembers past experiences and perceives this as another ‘fight or flight’ situation. All this can occur in nanoseconds and without the boss himself realizing it.    

There are two ways to stop this “hijack” from occurring:

  • Know what your hot buttons are and why they set you off. If certain words, or a certain tone of voice immediately makes you defensive, think about what that reminds you of … Parents? Teachers? Ex-friend? And how did that make you feel? Work through this in your mind by telling yourself “that was then, this is now ... This situation is different.”

  • How do you react, and how do others perceive your reactions? You may think you have a poker face, yet others can see the daggers coming from your eyes. Does the smile on your face appear genuine, or strained, or more like a sneer?

If the “hijack” situation still occurs, there are ways to handle it:

  • Sincerely apologize for your reactions, and explain what set you off. Sometimes simply explaining what else is going on in your environment and in your mind will shed a light on your reactions. “I apologize for blowing up on you. The boss had just given me unrealistic deadlines, and unfortunately I took it out on you” or “I am sorry for how I reacted. With the stress of work, and home, your news was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

  • Now that you are calmer, ask if you can revisit their conversation? “I have taken care of that crisis, and would like to hear your perspective on … Do you have time now to present it?” “Now that I have mentally adjusted my attitude, I am in a better frame of mind to hear what you came in to tell me. Is now a good time for you?”

  • Stay open to what he or she tells you. By doing that, you will reinforce his value to you and the company. You will also unconsciously remind him that you are the boss that he thought you were. As your mind can only focus on one attention-getting activity, this will help get your mind off whatever set you off and on to a more productive task.

Being aware of what causes you to react, and harness those strong emotions, can help make you more productive. It can also reiterate the values and worthiness of your team members. And who would not want to work for a manager that inspires you to grow and succeed!

Read other articles and learn more about Shari Frisinger.

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