Why we lose control of our emotions?
There’s a great book called “The Chimp Paradox” by Steve Peters in which he explains in simple terms why we sometimes “lose our shit.”
E.g., someone bumps into you, and you get angry and mad. You feel as if you want to punch that person to teach him a lesson.
Well, one way to explain this is that you’re living in reaction mode – your prefrontal cortex is weak. You get the impulse, and you react to the impulse without thinking rationally. I wrote about this a few days ago as well.
Peters explains the same thing from a different point of view. He says that we have the human brain – PFC and the chimp brain – the limbic system.
Because the limbic system is much older, it is therefore stronger and in situations like these, takes over.
The dots around the whole reaction mode, meditation, PFC, and limbic system should be now easily connected.
Let’s get back to the “someone bumps into you without apologizing” scenario. When this happens, most people react to this impulse – usually with anger. Their primal part of the brain has taken over because they see it as a threat. It’s a protection mechanism.
We evolved to react like this because if we would be cool and chill every time someone treated us without respect – even pushing us physically, we would not have survived. Evolution!
However, in most situations – as usual – the chimp is overreacting. And if our PFC is untrained, the chimp takes charge, and we might do things we later regret.
If you ever wrote a mean or angry email which you later regretted, it was your chimp in charge, and as your human brain regained the control, you realized what you had done. This is why they recommend waiting 10 minutes before sending out these kinds of emails.
It’s not the emotion (anger) that’s the problem. Absolutely not – all emotions are part of us, and we all experience them. It’s natural to feel anger just as it is to feel sadness or happiness.
The question is – what do you do once you feel anger?
How to remain “cool”?
This is why meditation is a really powerful tool. It trains your PFC. If your PFC is strong, the chimp stays in the cage. You’re essentially in control, not your limbic brain.
If you’re an avid meditator, you realize that the person who bumped into you most likely didn’t do it on purpose. He didn’t go out with the goal to bump someone. And even if he was careless and didn’t apologize – who cares. Maybe he had a bad day, and his chimp is in charge the moment he bumps into you.
The worse thing you can do is let your chimp take charge and have both of your chimps interact with each other. You’ve probably seen situations like these. We’ve all been there ourselves as well. I think you’d agree with me that it isn’t a pretty sight.
People later say things such as, “I don’t know what got into me – I wasn’t myself.” Now, these statements make sense, don’t they?
Next time you recognize when someone’s chimp is in charge., you’ll l also understand that they’re not exactly themselves. But how to deal with such a person? I’m glad you asked, my friend. This is what comes next!
Dealing with “chimps”
Peters recommends being assertive but not aggressive. E.g., if someone starts yelling at you, you tell her that you don’t like being yelled at, that it makes you anxious, and that you’d prefer to be spoken at in a lower volume. There are 3 parts in this: you say what you don’t like, how it makes you feel and what would you like instead.
I believe it’s really powerful because you will own the frame of the interaction. By being assertive, yet retaining your cool, you own the frame. You have more “status”.
In every interaction, the person who reacts the least has the most power. The person with the” highest status” is always at the cause while lower-status people are at the effect.
There’s a great analogy to describe this: in every interaction between 2 people, one is an oak tree while the other is the squirrel. Which one are you? Are you more of an oak tree or more of a squirrel? The oak tree is still and grounded – nothing is affecting it. The squirrel is constantly running around the tree, crawling up and down. Are you the one reacting to the other person, or are they usually reacting to you?
I may be wrong but I think the fact that animals (especially chimps) have strong systems of the hierarchy may explain why being assertive yet non-aggressive solves the problem — some food for thought.