Anger and fear: the limbic highjack

This rumination is brought to you by my reading the book Emotional Intelligence by Dan Goleman. Prompted by a series of situations that have left me completely bewildered as to what the hell to do, I jumped on this book and Defusing Angry People by Kevin Faeteux. Both may well influence me as I write the final phases of my book Divorcing a Real Witch.

Emotional Intelligence identifies the scripts behind our emotions, and how those scripts that lurk in the background prompt our decisions. It explains why bipolar people refuse help in an upswing, how depressed people are different from the merely sad and gives even more insight into exactly how anger and fear both feed the halo effect I refer to in a prior entry. Since most of us are taught that smart people isolate thoughts from emotions in a way that treats emotions as utterly inconsequential, we end up bearing out negative consequences since we train ourselves to ignore not just our feelings but the feelings of others. Feelings, after all, are not facts – and this is true. Unfortunately, since emotions usually come with their own set of thoughts and scripts lurking in the background, we ignore  and dismiss them at our peril.

Unfortunately, most professional situations that do acknowledge emotion do it wrong. My experience has been with a “perception first” type of management that a)completely failed to encourage empathy in its upper-level management that left the labor completely vulnerable to the whim of any sociopath, flake or depressive and b)created a “feeling” scenario that did not, in any way, lead to stronger teams or better production. It did succeed in creating a lot of confusion and discontent at the labor level, though.

One of the key things that both Goleman and Fateaux identified was the limbic hijack: while some types of anger (and fear) can be managed by active listening and ascertaining the real cause of the fear or anger, there are certain situations and specific personalities that either let the anger take them over, or have learned to use both their own anger and the anger of others as a means of manipulating an outcome. In those situations, all you can do is try to get away as quickly as possible, and hope that you’re dealing with someone who is aware that anger especially repeats a series of negative scripts that often make us think a situation or affront is far worse than it is.

While I can only think of three times in my life that I got so angry I went into limbic hijack – two of them in response to actions taken by my sister, one prompted by my history with my entire family and in part prompted by grief –  most of the time I run an edge. As one friend lovingly expressed, “I love your combination of rage and joy.”

While I have mellowed considerably, I recognize that anger is still a big part of my persona. I also recognize that anxiety has already done a lot of terrible things to my health, and while my anger doesn’t overtake me in the same way, it also has the potential to make me vulnerable to ailments just as bad as the anxiety has – and may in fact be part of what compromises my immune system already.

It’s pointed out by Goleman that anger/negative emotions send stress hormones surging through the body, causing heart disease, increasing risk for cancer and making a person kind of suck to be around. He states after a series of studies about the negative impact of anger on health, “These findings do not mean that people should try to suppress anger when it is appropriate. Indeed, there is evidence that trying to completely suppress agitation in the heat of the moment actually results in magnifying the body’s agitation.” Therein lies my problem – I am a survivor of an upbringing best described as “Fucked up Victorianism.” (Perhaps just “Victorian” but with a dash more hypocrisy.)  My first reaction is to suppress my anger, which makes it worse. I also expect the person who doesn’t know I’m angry to be impressed at how reasonable I am (normally I don’t care if a person is impressed with me, so there’s something going on beneath THAT script, since it’s in the anger package) and then, eventually, I don’t explode…but I do mete out my anger in a tensely delivered diatribe. The less swear words I use, the angrier I am.

Here are the problems with anger (and fear), that I knew already but that Goleman has given clarity to:

When something makes you angry, especially if you suppress it, you begin to justify that anger. I guess my best counter to that is, “You already felt the anger, so you don’t need a further reason for it.”

Anger gives you a high. It can be good in that it makes you notice problems, but then it becomes that employee or volunteer who points out something you really needed to see and then unpleasantly takes over the whole carnival, often making things tense and worse where they don’t need to be.  Since the anger makes you feel powerful (even as you undermine the hell out of yourself) you’re disinclined to let the next emotion come in.

The feeling behind anger is usually something that encourages inaction, like sadness, shame or simple hurt. It definitely makes me want to take the high, instead. The anger high means I’m still active, and that I have the illusion of power – even as the anger is draining my battery.

Again, just knowing about the scripts is a start at stopping them. But the techniques recommended to manage them go against my instilled habits of 35 years.

  1. First, when I feel anger, I need to acknowledge the problem. Thank you for the report, Anger.
  2. Second, I need to send Anger back to its desk before I address the problem. According to Goleman, distracting myself with something that has nothing to do with the anger will help. I’m a Scorpio, I’m born to obsess, so this will be VERY difficult, but I’m also aware as a Scorpio I have the capacity to achieve attitude and behavior change in myself unknown to other mortals.
  3. Third, I need to examine the problem – and ask for the feelings about it of the person who has angered me – before I address or solve it.

My father was fond of the distraction method. It worked, especially on the multiple occasions my mother went into limbic hijack mode with me as her target. Unfortunately, his follow-up was terrible: he would listen to what I had to say, but his response was to always take my mother’s side, even insisting she had the right to be emotionally abusive since she wasn’t physically abusive in a way that he was programmed to recognize. It never occurred to him that I needed to know my mother had actually heard what I had to say, and that I needed to see some demonstration of empathy from her on par with the empathy that she freely demanded from me. The end result is that now, my relationship with my mother is so damaged that I do not actually think of her as family.

We all have our scripts and negative programming – and since I don’t want my hair to fall out from stress again, this is the attempt I’m making this time. After all, I’d rather be remembered for the way I brought myself happiness than for how entertaining I get when I’m pissed off. I’ll be around to be remembered longer – and maybe catch less colds – if I go the joy route.

Fear is just as difficult to manage as anger, possibly moreso. It often comes in an anger package since “fight or flight” often involves reaching for a weapon or for that adrenaline energy pack. It is also designed to be instinctive; that means that out of all the emotional experiences it is the one designed to resist reason or analysis. Saying “stop” to fear will get a physiological reaction, and unchecked can escalate absolutely anything that happens to be in front of you into a perceived threat.

For some reason, narcotic inebriants such as alcohol seem to make this worse, which is weird as those same depressants are the most popular palliatives for fear and anxiety.

Unless a person is using anger in an act of conscious manipulation – and is therefore not in limbic override most of the time unless anger is also a drug to that person  –  usually you can get to a reason behind the anger, and by listening you can hear the script feeding the anger and address it with a reframing of the situation that makes the angry person set aside that fuel for another time.

But when fear is behind the anger, that’s different because fear doesn’t want to be addressed, and in fact hijacking you is how fear works because it truly believes it’s keeping you alive. Since in Western life most threats are purely perceptive nowadays, this means that fear latches on and feeds from concepts in the imagination – it pulls up worry and anxiety scripts and makes you think that being afraid will prevent the bad thing from happening when in fact the fear itself too easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’m thinking now of looking into NLP and how cults do their manipulation work – it seems to me that the entire process of clearing used in Scientology is based on the art of the limbic hijack. I’m not satisfied that there’s no way around it when these situations happen, and I think if I understand it better I can deal with other human beings better.