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How to Keep People From Bringing Out the Worst in You

Stay in the adult brain and don’t react to a jerk like a jerk.

Source: sakkmesterke/Shutterstock

Emotional reactivity is an automatic, usually unconscious response to specific events, situations, or people. Sometimes this is a great thing. While falling in love, the mere presence of the beloved fills us with fascination and joy. We thrill at the smiles of our infants and revel in the excitement of new friends. But under stress, emotional reactivity is almost entirely negative. The environment seems more threatening or fraught with uncertainty. Our “buttons get pushed” more easily. We’re more likely to lash out or, if we hold it in, emotionally shut down. In families afflicted with high emotional reactivity, a negative feeling in one causes chaos or withdrawal in the others.

All animals are subject to high emotional reactivity when the environment is perceived to be dangerous. The hair-trigger response that shoots adrenalin and cortisol into their bloodstreams keeps them ever prepared for flight or fight. The problem with fight or flight reactions for modern humans living in much safer environments than our ancestors is that the brain is a better-safe-than-sorry system. It would rather be wrong 999 times thinking your spouse is a saber-tooth tiger than be wrong once thinking a saber-tooth tiger is your spouse.

Just about anyone or anything can stimulate painful emotional reactions when stress triggers a habit of retreating to the toddler brain—the alarm-driven limbic system. Then the only certainty we can have is saying, “No!” or “Mine!” In the worst case, we can turn into reactaholics, feeling that we have to react negatively to others to maintain a sense of self. Toddler brain reactaholism is the number one addiction of our times. The others tend to start as attempts to ease the chronic powerlessness and frequent ill feelings of reactaholism.

The aspect of emotional reactivity that makes it difficult to see, let alone change, is its illusion of free will. We think that we're acting of our own volition, when we’re merely reacting to someone else’s negativity. We’ve all uttered (or at least thought) the most ironic of all statements, “You’re not going to bring me down!” As long as we’re in the toddler brain, we’re already down, reacting to negativity with negativity.

A quick way to tell if you’re a reactaholic is to notice how you approach a workplace meeting. You may well be a reactaholic if you don’t know what you will do until someone else gives you something to which you can react in a definite (usually ego-defensive) way. I witnessed such a circumstance just the other day while giving a lecture to a group of managers about resentment in the workplace. Many of the participants were not sure why the presentation was on the agenda. While most were open to whatever new ideas might be put forth, there were a couple of reactaholics in the room. In his introduction of me, the owner of the company made an ironic joke about having never heard of resentment in the workplace.

“We don’t have resentment in my division,” one of the supervisors said dismissively. I had been observing the body language and facial expressions of the participants during the opening remarks. This guy was one of those who had no opinion about the topic, until he misconstrued his boss’ joke to be a criticism of the HR manager who had engaged me. Then he became convinced that my presentation would be a waste of time. Reacting to him, the other participant whose body language was indecisive about the presentation became just as convinced that his colleague was wrong.

“You sound awfully resentful in saying that,” he said to his colleague, only half-joking. “You’re living proof that we need this material.”

The next time you go into any kind of meeting, at work or in the community, note how you feel about the issues on the agenda and then see if they change or become more intense in reaction to someone at the meeting.

Here’s another little test of reactaholism:

Are you concerned about getting your buttons pushed? _____

Do you ever worry about how you’re going to react at work or home? _____

Do you brace yourself before you walk in the house, or, when you’re home, do you tense up when you hear your partner close the front door? _____

Do you tense up when you get near certain people at work? _____

Do you not bring up certain things because you don’t want to think about the response you might get? _____

Do you find it hard to think about the future? _____

The only way to triumph over toddler brain reactivity is to hold onto self-value under stress, so you don't feel devalued by the behavior or attitudes of other people. That requires switching into the adult brain when you most need to do it. It’s a skill that anyone can learn and that everyone must master to have any chance at a consistently happy life.

Copyright, Steven Stosny, 2014. See the course: Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain Under Any Kind of Stress.