As we approach summer, I’m reminded of the family road trip. The kind with screaming kids, barking dogs and parents hoping they don’t harm one of those screaming kids. The family road trip seems an apt analogy to end this month’s theme of preserving your mental health with emotional detriggering.
When our emotional triggers drive our behavior it can feel like we’ve handed the wheel to our wayward, angst-prone teenager. We find ourself in a chaotic swirl of stress, anxiety, anger, worry, and frustration. It feels like we’re holding on for dear life while we undermine our leadership and relationships.
Do you ever wonder what or who is driving your emotions?
The answer, it turns out, unlocks the door to personal freedom, productivity and success.
Years ago, after an emotion-driven and ineffective attempt at leading a team, I committed to fixing my mistakes. I was ashamed of my leadership and no longer wanted to experience frustration or micromanage.
I thus became a student of human potential, neuroscience, leadership and psychology. I studied human behavior. What I saw is that everything we humans do, we do because it serves us. Whether it’s working long hours, skipping lunch or snapping at our team lead, we get a payoff.
Why do we do this even when it doesn’t work?
We Do It To Survive.
Or at least that’s what the walnut sized part of our brain called the amygdala tells us. This amygdala drives our survival instinct. Yet survival needs have changed over the millennium. With no saber tooth tigers to gobble us up, the amgydala’s job has shifted from physical to emotional survival.
Our amygdala catalogs our feelings about past events to determine what will be dangerous today and in the future. The results are volumes of stories we have collected and compiled into a belief system. These stories drive our thoughts, bypass logic and yield our “instinctive,” belief-driven emotional reactions to events, creating emotional triggers to help “protect” us. I call this automatic process the hamster wheel and these stories, which fall into one of four chapters, the Four Horseman Of The Hamster Wheel.
Like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Horsemen of the Hamster Wheel are harbingers of destruction and the product of our fears. They inhibit peace, prosperity, leadership, love, affection, connection and success. They’re the spark that ignites our stress in the name of survival.
We all have these Four Horsemen in the family van of our brain. Yet we each have a favorite Horsemen; the one our amygdala most often puts in our emotional driver’s seat. As you read about each Horseman, be on the look out for your primary driver.
The Four Horsemen of the Hamster Wheel are Hey Good Lookin’, Mr./Mrs. Right, Control Freak, Comfort Zone. Let’s look at each in turn.
“Hey Good Lookin,”
We are hard-wired to want to be liked. In primitive times, not being liked meant being cast out of the tribe and a likely saber tooth death. Community or companionship equals survival in the “Hey Good Lookin” story.
While we won’t die if we botch the presentation, “Hey Good Lookin” leads us to believe we will. When “Hey Good Lookin” is driving, we will go great lengths to fit in and look good.
We see the “Hey Good Lookin” conversation when we work late to impress our boss. Or when we say yes to a project we don’t have time for. Leaving “Hey Good Lookin” in the driver’s seat too long leads to burnout. It also undermines our trustworthiness and judgment.
In primitive times, being wrong could lead to death. In the modern world, unless we’re a pilot or lion keeper, this is rarely true. Yet we haven’t lost our survival instinct to be right. Today we equate being right with money, rewards, and success. We must be right. Welcome to the “Mr./Mrs. Right” conversation.
“Mr./Mrs. Right” is the most pervasive of the Four Horseman. It can also be the single most powerful barrier to success. It creates unnecessary arguments. “Mr./Mrs. Right” can make others perceive us as difficult to work with. It can create blind spots in our judgment. It can prevent us from learning from our mistakes.
We also use “Mr./Mrs. Right” to turbo charge the other Horsemen. Let’s say I have a “Hey Good Lookin” conversation that says staying late will impress my boss and get me promoted. Eventually I get tired of working late nights and head home at 5 p.m. A few months later, I’m passed over for a promotion. “Mr./Mrs. Right” takes over the wheel with an emphatic “see I told you so, I’m right.” And now I’m back to working 60-hours a week because I must be right about my “Hey Good Lookin” conversation.
The “Control Freak”.
Human beings want to control our environment, others and ourselves. We want to control stoplights, the weather, bosses, baristas, children, politicians, plumbing, the price of gas and our feelings. We are “Control Freaks.”
The irony is we control little in our lives. Despite this reality, we strive for control only about every minute or so of our lives. When we aren’t in control we can get angry, sad, frustrated, overwhelmed and even depressed. The Control Freak keeps us from delegating, growing our people and leading.
Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s CEO tells a story of a burnt out employee at Google. The woman was burnt out, as Marissa describes it, because she resented her job’s interference with seeing her child’s soccer game. But why did she react with resentment? I suspect the soccer mom felt resentful because she believed she didn’t have control over her schedule. Instead of speaking up, she stuffed down her feelings until they transformed into resentment.
The “Comfort Zone”.
Beyond ensuring our physical safety, we’re concerned with avoiding emotional harm. We don’t risk vulnerability for fear of rejection or guilt. We don’t risk action for fear of failure and shame. It’s safer to stay in our “Comfort Zone.”
The chief trigger to the “Comfort Zone” conversation is change. Whether its a new job or relationship, change pushes us outside our comfort zone. It’s there where we risk unfathomable pain, hurt, and disappointment. The “Comfort Zone” says stay where you are and do the same thing in the same way. This conversation keeps us stagnate, inhibits innovation and promotes disengagement through boredom.
While I easily slipped into all these conversations, “Control Freak” was my primary driver. In my third attempt at leading a team of people, I’ve learned to evict the “Control Freak” and his companions from my car. Based on my team’s results and two 360 evaluations in the last 18 months, I think I’ve done a good job. But I couldn’t have done it without first being aware of the Horsemen.
So which Horseman is your go-to?
This article is adapted from Laurie’s upcoming book: Exiting The Hamster Wheel. You can download a preview at www.LaurieErdman.com