Some years ago, I was enjoying a sunny day in the park with my two young children.
Suddenly, my phone sounded an alert. For the next few minutes, I was busy reading and responding to a work email. The children grew impatient, begging for me to rejoin the game. “Just a second,” I said, my eyes fixated on the phone. The children were insistent, their volume increasing with each successive call: “Daddy… Daddy… Daddy…”
Suddenly, I snapped. “I TOLD YOU TO WAIT A SECOND!” I yelled. For a brief moment, I was no longer the gentle and peaceful father my children knew. My yell inspired fear and tears. I instantly put my phone away to console the children, regretting taking it out in the first place, and swore I’d never do it again.
The next day, the episode repeated itself.
Have you ever felt you’re an unwilling slave to your emotions? As if you’ve been programmed to react a certain way to a specific set of circumstances, and there’s simply nothing you can do about it?
This example demonstrates just how difficult it can be to develop self-control, the ability to manage our thoughts, speech, and actions–especially when faced with what’s known as an emotional hijack.
What is an emotional hijack?
In 1995, psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman published a book introducing most of the world to the concept of emotional intelligence: the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions.
One of the concepts Goleman made familiar to the public was that of the emotional hijack (or hijacking).
An emotional hijack refers to a situation in which the amygdala, the part of the brain that serves as our emotional processor, hijacks or bypasses your normal reasoning process. You see, while much of your decision making takes place in other parts of the brain, scientists recognize the amygdala’s propensity to take over in certain circumstances. At times, this is a good thing: In the case of a real emergency, the amygdala can give you the courage to defend your loved ones against an attacker who’s bigger or stronger than you. But it can also move you to engage in risky, irrational, and even dangerous behavior in everyday situations.
For example, think back to my story. As soon as I heard that email alert on my phone, my focus switched. Physically, I may have still been sitting next to my children–but my mind had returned to the office. As the children grew impatient, they began their challenge: get my attention back, by any means necessary. As the intensity of the children’s pleas increased, I became more and more annoyed–until I snapped.
An unfinished email, two crying children, and severe frustration for all parties.
We might liken the amygdala’s action here to an emergency override of the mind, springing into action because I felt anxious or threatened, therefore activating my fight, flight, or freeze response. I wanted to complete the task, and the children were suddenly trying to stop me from doing so. As the amygdala interpreted this as a threat, it provoked an immediate and aggressive reaction.
So, how could I break the habit?
Escaping emotional hijacks
Simply understanding how the amygdala works is an important step in identifying and learning from your own personal emotional hijacks, as well as developing strategies to deal with them. Of course, it would be great if you could identify your triggers ahead of time, but usually it will happen the other way around: you react to some stimulus and say or do something you later regret.
Now you’re faced with a choice: You can forget what happened, move on, and react the same way the next time you’re faced with similar circumstances. Or, you can try to sort through your thoughts and feelings, like pieces of a puzzle.
As you begin to understand why you reacted the way you did, you can train your default reaction so you respond differently next time.
If you choose the second option, you can start the process by using these self-reflection questions to contemplate your behavior:
- Why did I react the way I did?
- Did my reaction help me or harm me?
- How does this situation fit into the big picture? That is, how will I feel about it in hour? A week? A year?
- What may I have misunderstood or be getting wrong, especially in the heat of the moment?
- What would I change if I could do it again?
- What could I say to myself next time that would help me think more clearly?
The goal of these questions is to get you thinking, so you’re more adept at recognizing your emotional behavior and tendencies moving forward. You can then take action to change those limiting or damaging behaviors.
Time to change
I began to feel guilty for yelling at my kids. So I turned those emotional hijacks into a catalyst for intense thought and reflection–and eventually, change.
I recognized I get easily frustrated when trying to write emails while in the company of my kids. Because of this, I decided to only respond to such messages at specific times. Nowadays, I silence the message notifications on my phone (or turn them off completely), so I’m not tempted to look at every alert. And when the time comes to check email, I prepare my children by telling them: “Daddy needs a few minutes to take care of something for work.” I then make sure the children are occupied and supervised.
Engaging in this type of contemplative thought increased my self-awareness and inspired further insights. In time, I realized pretty much any type of multitasking severely inhibited my ability to communicate effectively. I worked on becoming more focused. At work, I put away my phone so I could get more done, only checking it at specific times. I made a concentrated effort to finish a task (or at least reach a good stopping point) before beginning another one. At home, when my wife attempted to start a conversation, I asked for a minute to finish what I was doing so I could give her my full attention.
Since I made those changes some years ago, the results have been dramatic. I really enjoy my work, so the temptation to do too much is always there. It’s a struggle to find balance and continue to see the big picture. (I’m not perfect. My wife helps a lot.) But I feel more emotionally connected with my wife and children than ever. I’m more productive at work, and my focus has improved dramatically. Those simple changes have made me a better husband, father, and worker.
The moral of the story: Emotional hijacks aren’t pleasant, but they’re inevitable.
The question is, what are you going to do with them?
With some self-reflection, the right questions, and a little strategy, you can make those hijacks work for you, instead of against you.
This article is an adapted excerpt from my book, EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence.