The following article is an adapted excerpt from my new book, EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence.
Have you ever felt that you’re an unwilling slave to your emotions? As if you were programmed to react a certain way to a specific set of circumstances, and there’s simply nothing you can do about it?
One of the reasons we react in a certain way is that we’re wired to respond habitually and emotionally to certain triggers. This reaction has to do with the amygdala, the part of the brain that’s been referred to as our emotional processor.
The amygdala is a complex, almond-shaped structure found deep inside the brain (ergo the name, derived from the Greek word amygdale, meaning “almond”) that is responsible for a wide range of cognitive and emotional functions. The brain actually has two amygdalae, one in each side (or hemisphere) of the brain. These structures play a large role in the processing of memories–specifically, by attaching emotional significance to those memories. If you see a familiar face, for example, the amygdala goes to work: If it’s a close friend, you’ll feel a surge of joy. If it’s someone who rubs you the wrong way, you’ll feel the opposite.
While much of the decision-making process takes place in other parts of the brain (such as the prefrontal cortex), scientists recognize the amygdala’s propensity to take over in certain circumstances.
For example, let’s say that when driving a car, you have a tendency to get easily offended by fellow drivers. If another car comes too close or gets in your space, you take it personally. Before you know it, you’re caught up in the moment, tailgating or looking for some other type of revenge so you can let the other driver know who’s boss. Of course, because you’re caught up in the moment, your last concern is the possibility you could cause an accident or provoke a violent reaction.
This is a simple example of what emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman calls an emotional hijacking (or hijack): a situation in which emotions overrule our typical thinking processes. We might liken the amygdala’s action here to an emergency override of the mind, springing into action whenever we feel anxious or threatened and activating our fight, flight, or freeze response. As the amygdala interprets this as a threat, it provokes an immediate and aggressive reaction.
Emotional hijacks can work to our advantage or disadvantage. 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.
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 the 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:
1. Why did I react the way I did?
2. Did my reaction help me or harm me?
3. How does this situation fit into the big picture? That is, how will I feel about it in hour? A week? A year?
4. What may I have misunderstood or be getting wrong, especially in the heat of the moment?
5. What would I change if I could do it again?
6. 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 that 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.
Let’s go back to the driving scenario. Once the emotional hijack is over, you have an opportunity to cool down. You’re thankful things didn’t get out of hand, but you recognize that such behavior could get you into trouble in the future.
Using the questions on the previous page as a foundation, along with some of the tools from the previous chapter, you think over the situation. You then ask yourself the following:
- How would my opinion of a fellow driver change if I found out he or she was dealing with extenuating circumstances, like rushing a pregnant woman to the hospital or trying to get to an injured family member?
- What if the driver’s actions were unintentional? Don’t I make mistakes while driving? How would I want another person to act if I mistakenly cut them off?
- If I continue to retaliate against fellow drivers, how might they respond? How would this affect my family and me? Is it worth the risk?
- How does this incident fit into the big picture? Will I really care about a driver who cut me off an hour, week, or year later?
With these questions, your goal is to change how your brain processes these situations. If you no longer interpret fellow drivers’ behavior as a personal attack, you’ll engage the other parts of your brain when you get cut off, resulting in a more thoughtful and rational decision-making process.
Be proactive, not reactive
Another factor affecting our personal “programming” has to do with the habits we form.
“Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort,” writes Charles Duhigg, author of the bestselling book The Power of Habit. When our brains are more efficient, we don’t have to constantly think about basic behaviors like walking or talking, which allows us to use our mental energy for other tasks. (This is why we go on autopilot when, for example, we’re brushing our teeth or parallel parking.) When the brain identifies that a particular behavioral routine leads to a reward, it often gives birth to a habit.
The problem, though, is the brain can’t tell the difference between good rewards and bad ones. You enjoy staying up late watching Netflix, but this leads to chronic sleep deprivation, which adversely affects your mood. Or maybe you fool yourself into trying to knock out one more task when you should be leaving for your next appointment. This results in your racing against the clock, adding unnecessary stress to your day.
As challenging as it can be to break bad habits, the truth is that you don’t have to be at their mercy. Scientists have discovered that habits won’t simply go away on their own, but they can be replaced. That means you’re not doomed to mindlessly repeat your current routine just because it’s what you’ve done for years.
Instead, you can rewire your brain by designing your own habits.
For example, consider the work of therapist Brent Atkinson. After years of conducting weekly therapy sessions with various couples, Atkinson realized that even the romantic partners who developed profound insights regarding their behavior repeatedly fell into “the same old patterns.” He attributes this to his clients’ personal experiences.
“Brain studies suggest that across their lifetimes, people develop internal mechanisms for coping with things that are upsetting to them,” explains Atkinson. “The brain organizes these coping mechanisms into coherent, self-protective neural response programs that are highly automated. Once a neural response program forms, each time it is triggered, a predictable pattern of thoughts, urges and actions unfold. Neural response programs can dramatically bias people’s perceptions and interpretations without them realizing it . . . generating powerful inclinations to attack, defend, or retreat.”
In other words, the way you respond when you become upset is a habit your mind has created to protect itself, which it has already repeated thousands of times. (Many married couples have arguments so predictable they seem to follow a script.) The key to interrupting this cycle is to recondition the way you respond in these situations.
Atkinson and his colleagues helped clients achieve this by teaching them to think more flexibly when under stress. They instructed clients to ask their spouses to speak into a voice recorder on their smartphone whenever they felt dissatisfied with or disapproving of their partner’s behavior, “as if [they] were leaving a voice mail message for [their] partner.”
Later, those therapists would play those recordings for their clients with the goal of helping them do the following:
- Identify the internal reactions that arise as they listen to their partners’ complaints.
- Consider how they would ideally react in such moments.
- Repetitively practice a new way of thinking and responding when they become annoyed or upset.
The results were remarkable, with clients quickly learning to slow down their thinking and change the way they respond when under stress. “For many clients, this is the first time in their lives that they’ve paid close attention to what happens internally when they feel criticized,” says Atkinson.
So, how can you adapt these lessons to your personal circumstances?
To attempt to change your habitual responses, practice the following three-step method:
Atkinson points out that those who desire to change their habits must be properly motivated. “They must be convinced that their current habits are in serious need of revision and really want to change them,” he writes.
So, find your motivation. Do you want to live longer? Do better at work? Enjoy a better quality of life?
By taking time to see how your habits can help or hinder your achieving those goals, you may be able to muster up the motivation you need to make major change.
To master a new skill, you must practice it over and over until it is internalized.
You could use Atkinson’s suggestion to have your partner record a “complaining voice mail” that you play for yourself at a later time. But if you’re unlikely to do that, you could take advantage of another situation: The next time you’re reading the news or scrolling through social media, seek out comments or opinions you feel passionately about. Don’t respond to these; instead, pay attention to your internal thoughts as you listen or read. Ask yourself the six self-reflection questions mentioned above. Finally, use your imagination to review and revisualize a situation in which you previously had trouble; then, mentally rehearse how you plan to handle similar circumstances in the future.
Remember the comparison to a professional athlete. Just as these competitors practice their technique thousands of times before performing on the big stage, you can train the mental processes you need to engage before encountering the next emotionally charged moment.
Despite countless hours of practice, athletes gain invaluable experience from performing in real-world competition. It’s there–in the arena or stadium–that contestants put their skills to work.
You, too, will have plenty of opportunities to apply what you’ve practiced. Every day presents multiple emotionally charged moments–a discussion with an irate colleague or family member; an alluring temptation.
My personal experience in applying these methods is that I now encounter fewer emotional hijacks than previously. But additionally, once a hijack begins, I’m often able to identify it, step back, and prevent it from exploding into a full-blown catastrophe. In these cases, a sincere apology for my initial reaction quickly defuses the situation. It’s then much easier for me and anyone else involved to calm down, and it makes moving forward more productive and pleasant for everyone.
Don’t expect to build self-control overnight. But if you continue integrating “habits by design” every chance you get, you can proactively shape your emotional reactions. As a result, you’ll become battle-hardened and better equipped to deal with the most severe emotional challenges.
Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.
A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.