*Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a series—lucky you! Follow Tzeli to get notified when the next article is available to read. And check out Toxic Myth #2 here.
“How could you abandon me when I needed you the most?!”
I screamed at the top of my lungs to my partner and walked out of the bar where I was dancing with my sister and childhood friend a few minutes prior.
Ironically, we were dancing to the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime.”
As David Byrne sings, I lived most of my life “in another part of the world, in a big house, behind the wheel of a large automobile, often wondering, how did I get here?”
But that night was an exception.
I was back home in Greece with my sister, friend, and partner by my side. He had left his work, life, family, and friends to hold my hand through the painful experience of my mom’s funeral.
For once, I was surrounded by love and support after living as a nomad in three different countries, mainly feeling alone. You could say that night was a “once in a lifetime” experience for me.
So, what on earth could have happened that turned me into a little monster?
If you think this would have been a good time to “get out of my own way,” I don’t blame you.
But I want to share a different perspective on emotional reactivity that justifies placing this limiting belief in the list of toxic myths that burn us out.
Because (spoiler alert!), the only way out of emotional reactivity is to get in the way of the default: how our brain has been wired to reflexively react when something happening now is perceived as a threat based on past painful memories.
Why Getting out of our own Way Doesn’t Work
Let’s first define what “getting out of our own way” means. And let’s be fair, your definition may be well-intended.
And I understand that this phrase is an idiom that may (or may not) imply overcoming your actual or perceived limitations.
But the problem with this conventionally held belief is that:
>> It sends the wrong message to the big guy—your brain! It implies that you’re the problem. Your brain perceives self-judgment as a threat to your self-concept, a direct activator of your fight-or-flight mode.
>> It misdirects our attention from the real problem. When we’re in fight-or-flight mode, we no longer control our behavior. We’re reacting out of survival patterns—the reflexive reactions that have worked for us based on our past experiences.
It’s safe to say that I’m not the only person who occasionally gets triggered and acts entirely out of character (as embarrassing as it is to admit it, being the founder of my own business, myndzen).
But I do feel all alone, knowing that getting out of the way will not solve the problem of over-reactivity but will only create more problems.
As much as we all want to think that our actions result from logical and rational decisions (as neuroscience has taught me), that’s not always the case. And I’m not saying that because I want to make excuses for my poor behavior.
But when a present-moment experience rubs against an unpleasant past memory, a fear alarm in our brain shuts down our rational thinking.
What we do depends on which part of our nervous system drives our actions, which is shaped by all our past experiences, from conception to this moment.
More specifically, we do what historically has been effective in helping us meet our needs, which broadly are:
>> To stay safe from threats and avoid pain.
>> To approach rewards and get closer to pleasure.
We can only respond wisely to situations (good or bad) when we’re calm, balanced, and grounded. That’s when our nervous system is in parasympathetic mode, and our wise, evolved brain (neocortex) is in charge of our actions.
However, when something that happens now triggers a painful memory of a time when our needs were not met, the fear alarm in our brain goes off (amygdala), and we’re no longer in charge. We shift to sympathetic mode, get flooded by neurochemicals of stress, and revert to primitive automatic reactions where fear and our emotional brain (limbic) drive our behavior.
When we’re “under the spell” of our brain’s reactive mode, we temporarily lose access to its regions that support our ability to make rational decisions.
Now, this survival mechanism is invaluable; it has kept us alive for millions of years.
(It helps us avoid getting hit by a truck that cuts us off on the freeway; if we waited for the evolved (slow and methodical) part of our brain to decide what to do, we’d probably get killed.)
The problem is that our brain has a strong negative bias, which, coupled with its efficiency in identifying threats, makes it prone to mistaking innocent signals as threats.
When that happens, our brain unnecessarily launches our fight-or-flight mode and places us in a temporarily compromised state, physically, emotionally, and cognitively.
That’s why we “lose our cool” and turn into “little monsters,” not because there’s something wrong with us and “we need to get out of our own way.”
To make it more relevant, let’s talk about what (actually) happened the night of my emotional outburst.
At some point, my partner went outside the bar’s courtyard to tell the rest of our group where we were. (He did so without letting me know because my sister and I were sharing an emotional, tearful moment at the time.)
In my defense, I was emotionally drained by the grief of the loss of my mom. I barely had any adaptation energy, which usually allows me to give the benefit of the doubt to mishaps.
So, when I reached for my partner’s hand and he wasn’t there, my brain mistook his temporary absence as a threat. Within eight milliseconds, it went to my library of memories and pulled out the book entitled:
“What to do when you’re falling apart and the person you depend on disappears.”
It filled in the blank of his absence with the narrative of other times in my life when in my most vulnerable moments, who I depended on wasn’t there for me.
It then rang its fear alarm and involuntarily launched my fight-or-flight response, just like it would if I came across a mountain lion while hiking in Yosemite.
My outburst was triggered by several past experiences when I didn’t get the support and care I needed. (This was a side effect of being perceived as the person who makes lemonade out of lemons. I’ve always been the last person my friends and family worry about. As a result, I often find myself alone when I’m struggling.)
Consequently, my brain is sensitive to signs that you won’t be there for me when I fall apart. (As innocent as those signs may be).
But can you see how my brain’s efficiency inadvertently got me into trouble and led to certain consequences?
The Negative Consequences of Getting out of our own Way
Back in my research days in the lab, I realized something that surprised me about cancer.
Unlike a virus or bacteria, cancer, from a simple perspective, is a group of healthy cells that lose their ability to communicate effectively with other cells.
This miscommunication turns healthy cells from cooperative to competitive and harmful to one another.
Mistaking our emotional reactivity with a personal flaw and getting out of our own way is a similar miscommunication between our body and mind.
And as a toxicologist, I can tell you that when what triggers our stress response is a false alarm (unlike a truck cutting us off on the freeway), it can lead to prolonged exposure to the neurochemicals of stress, which are highly toxic to our body.
But to be honest with you, letting our stress response drive our actions is also toxic to every one of our relationships.
Imagine you were my partner, and after leaving your life and traveling 6,500 miles to be there for me, I screamed at you, “How could you abandon me when I needed you the most?”
How would you feel? How would you react? I’m guessing you’d take it personally and act defensive. Right?
And what follows defensiveness? Typically, futile fights that leave us feeling defeated and disconnected.
Relationship distress is one of the most dangerous consequences of getting out of our own way when we get caught in emotional reactivity.
The good news is that we can interrupt this pattern once we recognize that what’s fueling our over-reaction is the unnecessary activation of our stress response.
Our brain can then shift from reactive to responsive mode, and we can get back in the driver’s seat of our behavior.
The Way out of Emotional Reactivity
Now, think about a time when you felt stressed out and overreacted.
Maybe it was something simple, like your partner asking you why it took two hours to respond to their text, and you getting defensive and ending up fighting with them.
It’s easy to take our internal dysregulation personally, and try to get out of the way or even blame our loved ones for our distress.
But how is that working for you? Do you want to try something different?
If I were to simplify three decades of research, study, and experience into one simple sentence, it would be this:
Give your body and mind something else to do rather than what our past experiences have trained them to do—which is to worry, ruminate, catastrophize, and mobilize our fight-or-flight response.
What that looks like is pausing and remembering the acronym R.A.I.N. (adapted from Michelle McDonald’s mindfulness practice that makes it easy to remember and follow): recognize, accept, interrupt and investigate, and nurture.
>> Recognize that you’re triggered and hi-jacked by your brain’s protective reactivity.
This step involves simply recognizing that you’re stuck under the spell of your fight-or-flight mode. It has nothing to do with a personal deficiency or flaw.
>> Accept that you’re compromised temporarily by the efficiency of your brain.
Your brain has become so efficient in identifying threats that it has mobilized your systems for defense, turning you into a “little monster” (fight-or-flight mode).
But by recognizing and accepting that you’re hooked under a survival pattern, you can avoid the stress of resisting and defending and then move to the next step.
>> Interrupt the pattern.
You know how everyone’s talking about the importance of rewiring our brains in our quest to change things for the better? That mysterious process is about pausing and making minor moment-to-moment adjustments that interrupt our brains’ default wiring.
There are countless science-based ways that interrupt this survival pattern in as little as two minutes. Breathing techniques, visualizations, reframing and journaling prompts—the list is endless. The effectiveness of my Burnout Brain Reboot program is based on the great collection of such practices, organized into a framework that makes them easy to implement.
The key is to experiment with different practices and find what works for you.
But here’s something simple you can do today: Choose a phrase you can easily recall when you feel flooded, to expand the space between a trigger and your reaction.
My daughter and I use Brené Brown’s “I’m not fit for human consumption” when we feel hi-jacked and need to call a time-out.
It doesn’t matter if this time-out is 15 minutes or 12 hours (especially in the beginning). However, it helps us expand the space between a trigger and our reaction and move to the next step.
>> Investigate and nurture the vulnerability this trigger rubs against.
Once we interrupt a reactive pattern, we can investigate what this emotional trigger is trying to tell us.
These embarrassing “out of character” reactions can be incredible guideposts on what needs our attention and what we need to nurture and heal.
For example, if we experienced trauma in our past, our brain’s fear alarm will be super sensitive to perceived threats; this means we’re so much more prone to be thrown in the reins of a fight-or-flight mode and just react.
Sometimes, these reactions are trauma or P.T.S.D. responses, and getting the support of a trauma-informed therapist may be essential to unlocking our path to freedom.
However, the most significant neuroscience discovery of the last 150 years, neuroplasticity, has proved that our thoughts and experiences can change our brains for the better.
You can begin changing your mind by unsubscribing to unrealistic expectations and limiting beliefs that overwhelm you.
Next time you feel triggered, ponder this question instead:
“How can I support myself through the discomfort of what I’m feeling right now?”
This reframing question can open the door to breaking the spell of beating ourselves up for “being the problem” (trying to get out of our own way or inadvertently projecting our pain onto our loved ones.)
The night of my outburst, my partner and I had our first fight after months of making a connection between our differences beautifully.
But the next day, once we were able to unpack what happened (by recognizing, accepting, interrupting, investigating, and nurturing), we were able to find our way back to each other and perhaps even strengthen our bond.
Healing past wounds and rewiring reflexive reactions to triggers is a long journey, and it can sometimes feel intimidating and overwhelming.
And part of the journey involves normalizing slip-ups like mine.
But here’s the best part: each time we interrupt the pattern and find one new way of responding is a mini breakthrough!
Because then, every mishap, every stressor, and every trigger along the way become our building blocks to create the bridge back to our authentic selves and the fulfilling life and relationships we all want and deserve.
And how much better is that than just getting out of the way and remaining captive to our past?
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