Why did I do that?
How to stop your worst day from defining you.
Sometimes in life, we find ourselves, not in a good place. Events occur, things happen that put our emotions in overdrive. We find we are ranting at the phone and madly texting because someone has slighted us, angered us or hurt us. In these moments we stop thinking and just start feeling. This can lead to drawn out and highly destructive conversations and behaviours, as we madly produce a long diatribe of all the terrible things someone has done to us, how awful they are for breaking our heart, robbing us of the future we wanted, how selfish they are for not giving in to our entitled demands or giving us yet another chance.
They are not the conversations we wish we could have had or the way we would prefer to act, but as we all know, it is hard to always be true to who we should be. Occasionally that awful, unregulated version of ourselves creeps out and takes over. Without really considering what we are doing, we let our reasoning slide into the pit of bad behaviour. Our distress pulls us away from who we really are and want to be and morphs us into a nasty, unpredictable and self-absorbed wounded mass of anger and despair.
When this happens, we are experiencing emotional hijacking. Our emotions are off and running, irrationally deciding how we will act and what we will feel and say without using any of the other grey matter at our disposal. We click on send and the abusive tirade of our distress is shot off into cyberspace, instantly delivered to a human being that was simply saying I don’t want to do what you want me to do, as is my right as an individual.
Sometimes, we don’t act in a way that we’re proud of. Sometimes we lose ourselves and behave in ways so foreign to who we are, that we don’t even recognise ourselves. We are all capable of misconduct, bad behaviour or maladaptive thinking that leads us down the path of shame, guilt and even horror at what we have done. It’s like the best parts we have, steps to the side and with a grandiose gesture with the arm, waves the worst of us through. We are, in essence, saying ‘please, primeval, exaggerated and out of control feelings, take over from here.’
How did we get to this point?
The blame lies with a little almond shaped part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for detecting fear and other emotions. If left to its own primitive devices, this tiny part of our complex brain, can and does, control what we do, say and feel. Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence, called the loss of control over our emotions as the ‘amygdala hijack.’ We experience an amygdala hijack, when we have an immediate and overwhelming reaction to something, that is well out of proportion to the event itself. We are emotionally hijacked when we fail to use reason in problem solving. It happens when we tell ourselves, ‘because I feel hurt, I can cause hurt.’ In begins in the moments when we believe we have a right to express our anger, in spite of how disproportionate and inappropriate that anger is voiced and unleashed on to others. It continues when we become so overwhelmed with negative feelings, we no longer see how we are coming across to others or how unreasonable we have become.
Let’s be honest, it is never our finest hour when we let our emotions govern what we do. Not by a long shot. Here’s why:
- We are acting from a negative, primitive mindset that isn’t true to our value.
- We end up only reassuring others they’ve made the right choice in leaving us, (ending the friendship, relationship, challenging our behaviour).
- We are emotionally out of control and unreasonable.
- We confuse love with ownership or abuse when our reactions are filtered through overwhelming anger or hurt.
- We become blaming when we are overreacting to a sense of unfairness
- We project our hurt and shame onto others, without considering if it is justified.
- We leave others with a lasting image of us as an angry, blaming child throwing an irrational tantrum because we didn’t get what we wanted.
Emotional hijacking can happen to all of us. We all know how easy it is to let that sensitive section of the brain take charge and lead us off our authentic path and down some murky roads. The emotional brain is highly susceptible to over projection, becoming overwhelmed and distress intolerance. When activated and unrestrained it can hold the intellect for ransom. It is hard to negotiate with a brain that is running on feelings alone. Without filtering our emotions through our rational thinking, our feelings become destructive, to ourselves and to others. Our mental stability can be hijacked by the amygdala and when left to run amok, is able to create all kind of regrets and embarrassment, as the feeling tries to justify what we do. Particularly when these emotions are not filtered through the frontal cortex, the part of our brain built for problem solving and rationality.
Now it’s done. The negotiations failed and your out of control emotions will have to answer for their behaviour. You’ve acted in a way that devalued yourself and harmed another, often someone you cared about.
Although it is often difficult to restrain ourselves once the hijacking has occurred, it’s what we do next that can define us. Whether the relationship is over, irreparably damaged or has just been tested, what we do next will leave a lasting impression about our character and value. Once your emotions have been hijacked, you have a chance to take control back and act in a way that defines your true self. What you do next will have the power to start to make amends for your reactions.
The next step is to repair the damage. Why not act in a way that leaves you and those around you with pride, and at least, with a good memory of their time with you. If we can’t save the relationship after our behaviour, at least we can save our authenticity. You are a sum of your actions and believe me, behaviour does speak louder than words.
Remember, your worst day does not define your character, but what you do next will.
It will leave a lasting impression on those around you. It will define your real authenticity and ability to be adult and self-aware in this world. So, what do we do when our reason has been sabotaged and held hostage, and our intellect failed to negotiate on our behalf? What can we do to make things better and start acting like our true self?
Your choice is to stop letting your emotional brain continue to justify your actions and start to control your rational brain. Take charge again.
Here are some ways that can be done.
- Apologise for acting in a harmful, mean or selfish manner.
- Accept, with grace and dignity, the end of the relationship.
- Respect that they are allowed to have a choice too, even if that choice is not what you want and upsets you.
- Accept the reality of what’s happening and the right of others to choose differently to you.
- Forgive those who have triggered your intense and irrational feelings.
- Explain your behaviour and seek forgiveness.
- Take responsibility for your actions and stop blaming others for what you do in life.
- Make amends by acting with honour, pride and humanity.
- Own your mistakes and stop making excuses.
- Admit you have been out of control and unreasonable.
- Recognise, by their reactions to you, you are being emotionally hijacked and rational thinking has not been activated.
Emotional hijacking can lead us to respond to hurt by attacking, humiliating, denial or rage. Once we have acted on these untethered feelings it is hard to take them back. Our only option is to own what we have done and seek compassion from others.
Each action defines us. We can’t always act with our best behaviour and we will all make mistakes. What we do next, how we behave afterwards and the choices we make will, at the end of the day, define who we are, as a person, as a member of your tribe and as a part of the world community. All our actions have interactions and long term impact, that stretch much farther than the people we are directly involved with.
What we do next will define our true character and can re-define the acts we would like to forget.
What you do next is your choice.