From the Hot Button to the Hold Button – Regulating Unruly Emotions

People lose focus or are distracted for many different reasons—some external to the self, some internal. In the next several blogs, we will talk about several of the most common sources of losing focus. Today, we are going discuss a “focus derailer” that is common, potent, and seldom understood by those experiencing it.

The quickest way to lose focus in your life is when you have “knee jerk reactions” to the behaviors of certain people. “Knee jerk reactions” are negative emotional reactions that seem to come out of nowhere—that is, they are strong gut-level responses that hit swiftly but are often poorly understood.

For example, imagine you come to a meeting with your boss and peers. You have an exciting, innovative idea that you’ve been working on for weeks and you are confident that your idea will solve the problem at hand. Your boss breezes in twenty minutes late and begins talking as he enters the door. He continues talking nonstop about the problem and over the next half hour, you try several times to inject your ideas into his monologue. But he ignores you, ending the meeting by delegating actions based on his analysis of the situation. You leave feeling agitated and angry, and soon you are telling yourself that you will make only a minimal effort to deliver on your assignment.

Now, anyone with common sense would not like what happened at the meeting. But you are getting more and more riled up about the situation; days later, your feelings of resentment have grown rather than dissipated. Why are these negative feelings snowballing rather than de-escalating? Why are they causing you to lose focus in other parts of your work or life?

When your buttons have been pushed and you can’t let go of your emotional response, you may be re-experiencing emotions that originally surfaced in childhood engagements with a parent or other significant adult. Because these past emotional responses occurred repeatedly and were not resolved, they become “hot buttons”, meaning they can be triggered again and again in your current engagements, such as in interactions with your boss, causing you to lose focus, shut down, or react in other ways that are unproductive.

An individual’s day is filled with positive and negative emotional responses to situations. However, is the pervasive, uncomfortable feeling that you are experiencing now the result of an unresolved trauma from the past?  If this is the case, how do you get back on track? How do you regain your focus so that you can act productively?

Step 1: Achieve Insight Through Self-Understanding

Think for a moment of the times you have overreacted emotionally to certain people and situations. Are there any common factors or patterns in the behavior of that person that remind you of someone you had difficulties with in the past?

The trigger might go off, for example, in the presence of someone who is self-centered, bossy, paternalistic, or dismissive. What was your response beyond the normal feeling of not liking what you saw? Did you find yourself becoming passive-aggressive as in our example of the person with great ideas who decided to reduce his efforts following being ignored by his boss? Did you find yourself mulling over the encounter for too long a time? Did you become excessively compliant or oppositional? Did this individual’s behavior make you “freeze” or elicit stone silence from you? These are some of the common responses that occur but, of course, you might come up with others that better suit your personal situation.

Now, reflect on your childhood and the person who just pushed your buttons. Who in the past behaved similarly to this current individual? Some possibilities might be a dominating mother who never valued you, a narcissistic father who used you as his audience or saw you as invisible, a bullying uncle who repeatedly shamed you.

When you were a child who was relatively powerless in the face of the adults in your life, how did you respond? Are there any similarities between the way you responded in the past and your response today? If so, make note of these because they are potentially important insights.

Once you have identified the emotional connections between your past and present situation, it’s time to congratulate yourself. You have made a significant leap in raising your awareness and your understanding of yourself. Bravo! ***

Now you are ready to learn how to regulate your emotions and choose a better set of responses—responses that reflect your growing maturity and self-awareness.

Reactive or “knee-jerk” responses take you down a path that disrupts your focus, creates negative feelings, and results in nonproductive behaviors (such as reducing your effort in your work).  Thoughtful responses, based of self-awareness and self-understanding, will take you on the mature path of emotional intelligence and goal achievement without getting derailed along the way.

Before we go any further we should say that it is sometimes a difficult and uncomfortable process to delve into painful and unconscious emotions. We have to be willing to experience the original pain, admit that it is real, and connect it to some of the most important people in our lives.

It’s important to note that the purpose here is to acknowledge the truth of our experience, not to point the finger at one’s parents (or whomever). Rather, we want to learn how to stop reacting to others who simulate our past so that we can retain our focus and choose healthy, productive responses in the midst of sometimes difficult or challenging circumstances.

Step 2: Regulate your Emotional Responses: Hit the Hold Button

Your button has been pushed; now you have to find a way to stop your automatic, knee-jerk reaction by hitting the “hold” button so you can think before you react. The following steps can be helpful as you start this process:

  1. Disrupt your irrational thoughts. Negative feelings and irrational thoughts go hand in hand. In our previous example, the employee who came to the meeting with ideas and was ignored by his boss felt emotionally deflated. As he left the meeting, he was thinking: “I’m not putting out any more effort on this task because my opinions don’t matter; I’m invisible.”  That was his interpretation, based on his past, but it was not necessarily the truth. To stop this knee-jerk reaction, you can use the negative feelings as a signal to remind yourself: “This is an old drama. I’m not going to react; instead, I’m going to wait and discover what thoughts are accompanying my strong feelings.” Here, you are using the negative emotion to trigger a “wait and reflect” response instead of a “react” response. This stops the flood of bad feelings and irrational thoughts and allows you some breathing space in which to change the direction of your thinking to a rationally based approach. As you rationally examine your inner dialog, you may recognize a familiar theme emerging and recall its genesis in childhood.  Now you’ve flagged it and are ready to consider the irrationality of your thoughts head-on; in our example, “My opinions don’t matter; I’m invisible.”
  2. Question the truth of your irrational statements.  Your revised, rational dialogue, based on our example, may go something like this: “My boss did not listen to me today but that does not mean that I am disregarded by him in every instance.”  You then may remember times when your boss has valued and implemented your ideas.

 Here you are beginning to establish a new set of reality-based beliefs that are less likely to trigger irrational thoughts and negative feelings. You are also beginning to learn voluntary and conscious restraint of your previously unexamined feelings and reactions. Now you are ready to:

Step 3: Choose a Better Response Based on Rational Thinking

You have now opened the door to thinking rationally about your situation and the past that triggered it. But the negative emotions are powerful ones; remember, the most important people in your past originally triggered these emotions and you’ve been carrying them with you all your life.

Sometimes it’s helpful to put some distance between you and your emotions and the current situation that triggered your response by redirecting your attention to another activity such as a run on the beach, a yoga class, meditation, or an artistic endeavor like painting or photography. Each one of these activities has the potential to calm your emotions during the aftermath and bring you fully into the present.

Once you are fully present and no longer harboring negative feelings, you are ready to make a conscious choice to respond to others rationally and not react to their behavior as if they were figures from the past. Applying this to our example, the employee whose ideas were not heard by his boss might say to himself:

“In this instance my boss behaved badly. The fact that I did not get my ideas heard is more about him than it is about me. Thinking back over my work, there have been many instances where I was able to influence people with my ideas. In order to have more influence with my boss, I will talk to others and see if they have ideas or best practices for influencing him.”

By restructuring your thinking, you will find that you slowly develop a series of adaptive responses to the person who is currently triggering your negative thoughts and feelings. You will soon begin to discover that you are not at the mercy of your negative thinking.

Moreover, by engaging in this positive, rational approach, you will establish a new series of reality-based beliefs about yourself and others. Taking back your power is a significant growth point in the journey to full maturity. Your focus will be restored and shadow-boxing the ghosts from your past will no longer drain your energy.

***We must acknowledge that untangling emotions from the past can be a painful and complicated process. We would recommend consulting with a trained psychotherapist experienced in the terrain of the unconscious as it impacts present relationships.

This blog was written with Kristine MacKain, Ph.D. my wife and coauthor of the book “What Inspirational Leaders Do” (Kindle 2008)

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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