We’ve all heard of the fight or flight response, and we get it. We see a grizzly in the woods and our instinct is to run screaming. Makes total sense (though it will get you killed, so don’t do it).
What most of us don’t realize is that we also have this same response to intense emotional situations. Feelings of shame and betrayal hijack our limbic system the same way that spying a King Cobra would.
According to Psychologist Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly:
“When shame descends, we almost always are hijacked by the limbic system. In other words, the prefrontal cortex, where we do all our thinking and analyzing and strategizing, gives way to the primitive fight-or-flight part of our brain.”
That instinct you have to run and hide after you’ve said or done something incredibly stupid? Yep, that’s the fight or flight response too. In his book Icognito, neuroscientist David Eagleman describes the brain as a “team of rivals.” In other words, in these emotional interactions, it is quite literally a battle between the heart (or our emotional selves) and our minds. That disparity between what we know in our heads and what we feel is a real battle, and whichever wins is going to call the shots in terms of our behavior.
Eagleman puts it this way:
“There is an ongoing conversation among the different factions in your brain, each competing to control the single output channel of your behavior…the rational system is the one that cares about analysis of things in the outside world, while the emotional system monitors the internal state and worries whether things are good or bad.”
Our response to these emotional confrontations isn’t that much different from the one with the grizzly. In classical psychology terms, Karen Horney’s theory that we move toward, move against, or we move away explains it best.
According to Dr. Linda Hartling’s research while at the Stone Center at Wellesley, in these types of situations, we tend to move away by withdrawing, hiding, and keeping secrets. We move toward by attempting to appease and to please. We move against by attempting to gain power over others through aggression, both verbal and physical.
The reality is, we likely do all of these in different situations with different people at different times. The important thing is to recognize it for what it is, our limbic system hijacking our reasoning.
We need to learn to spot it, take an emotional step back, and give our reason a chance to come back on line.