To be afraid of something is proof positive that it hasn’t happened.
– Gavin de Becker in The Gift of Fear
You’re freaking out. The boss wants to talk with you – out of the blue! Shit. It’s 8am and the meeting is at 3pm. You think, “I’m in trouble,” or even “I’m getting fired.” Your heart is racing, you can’t sit still, and you can’t think. It’s now 10am and your mouth has gone dry and nausea feels likes it’s about to get active. You’re afraid and nothing has happened or changed in your immediate environment.
This situation is the most prevalent form of “emotional hijacking” in our culture. Emotional hijacking occurs when our natural emotional response to a situation is artificially stimulated for an unnatural length of time, and usually for unnatural reasons.
Here is how it can play out:
Being in sudden proximity to a tiger can trigger fear.* You need focus (adrenaline), speed (dopamine), strength (testosterone), and painkillers (endorphin) to get yourself to safety. In a matter of seconds your fate will be decided – safely resting or death-by-tiger. You only need your fear reaction to operate for those seconds and, if you survive, your amygdala will have gained a conditioned response to tigers.
Suddenly being called to the boss’s office can trigger fear. You need focus (adrenaline), group glue (oxytocin), and happy juice (serotonin) to get the support and resilience you need to agilely address what your boss has to say. An indeterminate neutral zone lies between now and your eventual sense of rest and safety, depending on what you hear from your boss. You need your fear reaction to align with a group, endurance to thrive, and consciously condition your amygdala response to boss-encounters.
When you apply your “tiger” fear reaction to your boss situation, you become a victim of emotional hijacking. You treat a potential change in your current employment situation as an immediate, life-or-death threat to your existence. Metaphors aside, seeing your boss as a tiger is extremely hazardous; you pump yourself full of biochemicals and ideas that are not only inappropriate but actually counterproductive to the situation at hand.
Fear is critical to our survival. The faster and earlier we can recognize the tiger hiding in the bushes, the more likely we are to avoid “death by tiger”! The problem is that very few people have been killed by their boss. However, because it can feel pretty devastating, the fear response gets stimulated and we may start anticipating “death-by-getting-yelled-at” behind every bush.
In addition to emotional hijacking, we have also been conditioned to believe that we only have two options in the face of any fear: fight or flight. However, further studies (that included people besides young, white males) have found that we have at least four more reactions that are engaged “naturally” by humans.
Our more full range of reactions to fear include:
- Fight: overcome the source of the fear
- Flight: flee the source of the fear
- Freeze: stop to assess the source of the fear or allow it to pass by
- Fake: change appearance or sound to cause the source of the fear to stop and assess
- Care: address the perceived needs of the source of the fear
- Connect: establish a relationship with the source of the fear
The first two responses share the basic action of separating us from whatever is scaring us. The second pair both function to buy some time, if possible. The third pair both keep us engaged with what is scaring us. These additional four responses all share the potential for transforming our experience of fear and even transforming the source of our fear. The initial two, because they separate us from the source and experience of the fear, function to reinforce that the source of fear always scary and, therefore, bad.
The emotion of fear is as rich as the emotion of love and the full experience of fear includes a similar richly full range of responses. We know that when someone says “I love my car” and “I love my child” that they are not talking about the same kind of love. Somehow we don’t have that same appreciation when someone says “I fear falling from this ledge” and “I fear speaking in public.”
*I say “can trigger fear” because there are situations where the tiger or boss are known quantities and safety is not an issue.