For a week, I kept notes about two different columns I was thinking of writing. When I finally sat down to try to write the first one, the notes had disappeared from my computer.
My first response was astonishment, then panic, and then the odd sense that I’m sure you’ve experienced at some point: this disappearance is a message. It happened for a reason.
And then the reason occurred to me in the title I had been thinking of for the second column I was considering: whatever you feel compelled to do, don’t.
The first column was going to be about a chief executive I met last week — articulate, thoughtful and impressive — who runs a food company that makes an unhealthy but incredibly seductive product.
I felt myself climbing up on my moral high horse. The headline I had in mind was, “When Good People Do Bad Things.” One voice in my head kept saying, “Do it, do it.” A more distant, wordless instinct quietly whispered to me, “Don’t.” And then my notes disappeared. I was spared from writing about a topic I hadn’t sufficiently considered. I almost surely would have regretted writing the column.
We all have experienced a “trigger” — the feeling of being pushed into a negative emotion by something that someone says or does. For me, in this case, it was listening to this executive so seamlessly defend a product that seemed indefensible.
A trigger is actually a perceived threat, and it prompts a physiological shift that we know as “fight or flight.” Our prefrontal cortex shuts down, the limbic system, which regulates emotion, takes over, and our instinct is either to strike out aggressively to beat back the threat or to flee.
Both responses served us well many years ago when we lived on the savanna and the threat we faced was becoming lunch for a lion. Reacting without thinking had the potential to save our lives.
Today, the threats we experience are more mundane. They’re usually about feeling disrespected or devalued in one way or another. They still prompt our fight or flight response, but in the modern world, reacting without thinking rarely serves us well. Instead, taking the time to reflect gives us the opportunity to make a more considered choice about how to respond.
I am a fighter. When I feel threatened, my instinct is to become more aggressive and insistent. I say this with no pride, and some embarrassment. Thankfully, I get triggered far less frequently than I did when I was younger. Still, we each retain an infinite capacity for self-deception, and I’m no exception.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve been arguing inside my company that we should be expanding more rapidly. Several of my colleagues believe we ought to be more measured and deliberate in our growth. As I pushed my view, the story I told myself is that I was encouraging a healthy debate and that I just want to reach the best outcome.
But what I’ve finally begun to recognize is that when my anxiety rises, I instinctively lean forward, my loud voice gets still louder, my words become sharper and I push harder. Because I’m the chief executive, all this is amplified. My fight instincts can create fear and shut down real discussion.
That’s especially true because a significant number of my senior colleagues default to “flight” when they’re triggered. They tend to become quieter, and even to withdraw. Under pressure, they avoid conflict just as predictably as we fighters seek it out. Instead, they often quietly simmer. Their resentment slowly builds and eventually gets expressed passive-aggressively, or all at once, explosively, much later.
Fight and flight are equally dysfunctional the vast majority of the time.
The first key to managing triggers is to become aware, sooner, when they begin to arise. The signs are usually physical: a flushing in the face, a tightening in the chest, a rising heartbeat, the desire to strike out or withdraw.
Whichever one you’re compelled to do, don’t. If you’re a fighter, step back. If you tend to flee, stay engaged.
You can’t think logically once you’re in fight or flight, so instead focus on quieting your physiology. Take a few deep breaths, in through your nose to a count of three, out through your mouth to a count of six. Feel your feet, to ground yourself. As your body calms down, your emotions will follow suit and your mind will begin to clear.
Once I get my wits about me, I’ve found two sorts of reflection help most. The first is, “What part of this is my responsibility?” It’s very tempting to come up with a catalog of reasons that the other person is wrong, or that we’re the victims in any given situation, but that’s not generally very helpful. It’s difficult to fix other people. We can influence our own behavior.
Sometimes, of course, it’s really hard to let go of our righteous convictions about others, and their shortcomings. When I feel that, the most valuable question I’ve found to ask myself is “Who is the person I want to be in this situation?” Or even more specifically, “How would I behave here at my best?”
Choosing not to write about that food industry chief executive I met last week — at least not before I was capable of developing a more thoughtful, nuanced view — was me behaving better. Writing this column instead makes me more the person I want to be.