Ever feel trapped in an emotional cycle with someone at home or at work?  Do you find things coming out of your mouth that you wish you hadn’t said?  Do you walk away from situations wishing you’d said or done something differently?  You’re not alone.  It happens to us all.  You see, most of what happens and how we respond to situations is based on our emotions.

Our brain is programmed to keep us alive.  It does this by scanning the environment for threats and rewards.  Threats these days rarely come in the form of lions and tigers and bears. Today’s threats come from things that people say or do to make us feel like we don’t belong or are not worthy.  Rewards come when we feel like we belong, we feel loved, and we feel certain, and we feel good about ourselves.

But here’s the truth – our brains are five times more likely to pick up on a “perceived” threat than a reward.  We are programmed to have an unbelievably fast emotional response to something that might harm us.  You know all those times that you said something that you wouldn’t have said if you’d had the opportunity to think about it first?  That’s what I’m talking about.  You shot your mouth off in protection of yourself from a “threat”.

So how do you get yourself out of the habit of responding emotionally.  The good news is that it’s a four-step process.  However, it will take practice.  So here’s the theory:

Step 1 – Take a breath

featherThe military call it tactical breathing. Yoga instructors call it box breathing.  It doesn’t matter what it’s called – it matters that you get into the habit of following this simple breathing pattern when you feel your emotional response being triggered.  Here how it works:

  • breathe in for four counts (fill your tummy with your breath)
  • hold for four counts
  • breathe out for four counts  (empty your tummy of your breath)
  • hold for four counts

Repeat that just twice and notice what happens to your emotional response.  You may also try closing your eyes while you practice this breathing method – it will help to block out stimuli vying for your brain’s attention.  Try a third and a fourth time and see just how much calmer you now feel.  Be still.

Step 2 – Observe what’s happening

What’s really going on in this situation?  What’s been said or done that has triggered a reaction in you? How has it been said?  Who’s it coming from?  Is it related to something you are sensitive about?  Is this person saying it knowing that they’ll get a response from you?  What’s the expected response?  Is it really about you or is it more about them and their insecurities?  Have they come out their corner fighting to protect something that they feel vulnerable about?  Has something happened in their life that they are struggling to reconcile and have “taken it out” on you?  There’s always more going on than meets the eye – if we choose to pay attention to it.

Step 3 – Choose not to retaliate

If you’ve taken a few moments to breathe and run a few observational questions through your mind, you are probably already choosing not to retaliate.  In any case, the moment you swing back, bite back, and allow yourself to be sucked into the situation, you have handed your power over to them.  The moment you got contentious, judgemental, disparaging, or disrespectful is the moment you stepped away from listening to your inner voice – the one that is saying to you to choose peace, choose generosity, and self-control.

Step 4 – Make a conscious choice for an imaginative, creative, or loving response

Having breathed, observed, and chosen not to retaliate (all of which might have happened within just a few seconds!) you are now in a position to respond in a lovingly disarming manner.  It might be a witty remark, an observational comment, or an empathetic look and gesture.  You’ll know the right thing to say/do.

What Next?

While it sounds easy enough, it will take practice.  If you are a parent, you’ll be somewhat familiar with this pattern.  Tantrums at any age will trigger a response cycle from you that is similar to this.  Stroppy teenagers will trigger this too.  And what you will have learned over the years is to connect with your child in a loving way that doesn’t involve getting sucked into their negative/difficult space.

Others learn it in the playground, at work, with friends/loved ones, and in relationships.  It’s very easy to get sucked into an argument with someone and either retreat/hide, or come back at them swinging, making the situation even worse.  When that happens, there quickly follows shame or guilt at saying something you didn’t mean, or allowing yourself to be provoked in that way.

Anger will always lead to more anger.  And if not resolved, you can be at odds with someone for years without really knowing why and how it really started.  This often happens in relationships.  It’s important to both forgive and forget.  The good news is that you can fix it.  With anyone.  Follow the steps above the next time you feel triggered and see what happens.  Be curious of their response when you change the pattern.  Be prepared for them not liking that you changed the pattern.  But stick to it.  Choose love, peace and acceptance over anger and resentment.

And if you’d like to learn and understand more about what your triggers are and how to change your response, contact me and we can set up a trial coaching session to help you get started.


Photo credit: Stuti ~ via Foter.com / CC BY