Dealing with my Emotionally Explosive Self.

This post by Stephen Light originally appeared in Elephant Journal on May 26, 2015.


John was sitting in the meeting, dreading agenda item three—deadline status.

Bob, his manager (that’s me), was in the meeting and John knew I was going to “explode.” That’s who I was. Tiny beads of sweat started running down the back of his neck.

John walked to the front of the room to present his status. As John opened his mouth I shouted from across the room, “Please tell me we are on track for making this deadline?” Stuttering he said, “Bbbbbob, we have ennnncountttered aaaaaaaa few prrrrrrroblems.”

I was like a Tiger onto wounded prey.

“I am sick and tired of excuses. That’s all I seem to get from you lot these days. Excuses and more excuses. When will someone get something right around here?”

The room went deadly silent….

The Workplace Bully

I was a bully…

I was a manager who was a bully to his staff, abusing my title. The way I dealt with people and situations was irrational and demeaning. I had my justifications and told myself, “This happens in nearly every work environment and at different levels. People just don’t deliver.” This was no excuse for my irrational and abusive behaviour when things didn’t go my way.

So what was really going on with me when I behaved like this and how could I counter it?

I decided to change.

My Director pointed out that I could not continue to behave like this, given that I had three grievances against me. I couldn’t afford to lose my job and decided it was time to change. I hired a coach to help me change my behaviour.

My coach worked with me around my reactive state and what was driving it. With a little help from neuroscience, I started to understand how my brain worked and what I could do to manage these types of situations better.

Neuroscience and My Brain

Through coaching I started to understand that my pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is responsible for executive functioning, namely:

Choosing what to pay attention to /focusing/making choices/problem solving/tolerating something unpleasant and overriding fear reactions from other parts of the brain.

I also discovered that my PFC has limitations, such as, it can only focus on one thing at a time, it has limited capacity, it gets tired easily and appears to be lazy. This taught me that when I felt overloaded and tired my rational brain shuts down, I lose focus and I become reactive. This is why I had been blowing up and behaving irrationally.

What then contributed to me being so tired? My coach pointed out that neuroscience reveals that our PFC needs rest, exercise and healthy foods to work at its optimum. I was on a late night streak and had been eating junk food. I had missed gym for the past six months and was living an unhealthy and unbalanced lifestyle. No wonder my PFC was so drained.

My Limbic System

When my brain was tired my limbic system took over. This part of my brain is responsible for emotional reactions. Through coaching I realised that I was “going limbic” with my people and the impact was that it was breaking down relationships and stopping people from engaging with me around issues before they became problems.

I discovered that when I became reactive my brain pumped cortisol into my body and this reduced my capacity to be focused. It also made my hair turn grey, as cortisol is known as the ageing hormone. My limbic system was causing my people to be stressed and their capacity to be focused too was limited.

Overcoming Limbic Reactions

My coach taught me a simple technique to deal with these reactive outbursts. I needed to learn self-management and the tools I practiced using discipline shifted me into a place where I was more curious versus reactive.

The steps I learned to manage my reactive state are:

1. Label: I learned to notice when I was starting to react, and then label my emotion. I would say to myself, “I am angry at the fact that another deadline is being missed.” This had the impact of shifting focus onto my PFC, which managed my emotional state.

2. Re-appraise: I practiced being curious and seeing other perspectives. I asked myself a simple question in these situations, “How can I see this differently?” This allowed me to see my colleagues and direct reports perspectives. This didn’t mean I accepted missed deadlines. It allowed me to be more controlled and effective around managing these situations.

3. Mindfulness: I learned to practice mindfulness. I started noticing my thoughts in the moment and just let them be. Over time this had the impact of growing my PFC capacity as it gave me “brain space.”

Desire to Change

I had a desire to change. Many people in the workplace don’t, and feel justified in behaving the way I did. The impact is felt by everyone. People react by going silent and switching off or being violent and lashing out. Notice these behaviours in yourself.

We cannot control others, only ourselves. The steps I learned are applicable to all of us. With self-awareness, self-management and discipline to practice the recovery steps, we can shift our reactive states and change the way we experience being bullied or being the bully.



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