“When you’re centred, your emotions are not hijacking you.”— Ray Dalio, American billionaire and philanthropist
“I’m sick and tired of you!”
“How could you do this to me?
“Don’t you care?”
“You’re so stupid!”
“I hate you!!”
You’ve probably said some, if not all, of the above words before when you were overwhelmed with anger, particularly towards someone close to you. You would have regretted saying them. You tell yourself that these words were said in the heat of the moment and you don’t mean them. Your negative emotions were overpowering. They hijacked your rational mind. You plead temporary insanity!
I experienced a similar hijacking last weekend. My husband was stressed and upset because he couldn’t get hold of a customer service officer of the water company to discuss an issue with our water bill. He had planned to do several things that morning and this unexpected hiccup took up a lot of his time. I also had plans that morning which were put on hold because my daughters came to me for help with their homework. The agreement was that my husband would help them with their school work that morning so that I have some time to work on a presentation I was going to give the following weekend. The girls didn’t want to approach him because he was like an angry bear with a sore head. I was upset and affected by the negative energy at home. I snapped at my girls even though they didn’t do anything wrong. It was only after 15 minutes or so that I realised that I was hijacked by my own negative emotions. I told my girls to let me have some time alone, after which I took deep breaths and looked at the situation objectively. What was within my control? What could I do about it? What am I to let go off?
After I regained my composure, I told my husband I needed to have the afternoon free to work on my presentation. I asked my elder daughter to help her younger sister with her homework first and then to come to me later with her own homework. I then spent half an hour listening to a coaching related video to centre myself.
The day ended well. My husband calmed down when he was left alone to sort out the issue with the water bill. He then helped both girls finish up their homework. I finished my presentation by dinner time. My husband and I had a chat about what happened in the morning and we agreed that it was the pressure of time and unmet expectations that caused the emotional hijacking for us.
Does my story resonate with you? We’re only human and we will always experience negative emotions. The important thing is to know that we are being hijacked and to stop the hijacking before we cause emotional pain to the people around us. If I were a black belt master at managing my emotions, I would have only allowed the hijacking to occur for a second or two and not 15 minutes. I acknowledge that I am a work in progress and will be better at managing my emotions as I increase my awareness in this area.
“The moment of emotional hijacking is apparent from the heart rate … Muscles tense; it can seem hard to breathe. There is a swamp of toxic feelings, an unpleasant wash of fear and anger that seems inescapable and, subjectively, takes ‘forever’ to get over.” – Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence
What can we do to stop our emotional hijacking?
Recognise the hijack
Firstly, we must know that we are being hijacked. We often don’t realise it when we are consumed by anger, frustration, anxiety, worry or any other form of strong negative emotions. The next time you feel any negative emotion, feel it in your body. See where it shows up and if there is any pain, tension or tightness. When I had that hijacking episode, I felt an increase in my heart rate and there was tension in my shoulders and neck. Once you are familiar with the physicality of your negative emotions, it will help you recognise the emotional hijacking before you are consumed by it.
So, you know you’re hijacked and now you want to regain your composure. What do you do? For me, I find that taking deep breaths and at times, walking away from the stressful situation and finding a quiet place to calm down helps. If I cannot leave the place, I just stand still, close my eyes and take deep breaths. I have done this before when I had heated arguments with my husband and son. Another approach that has helped me is to question the cause of my negative emotion. Was it due to the act of the other person or was it my own perception of the situation? More often than not, I realised that I reacted negatively because of my own judgment of the situation and in my earlier example, because of my unmet needs and expectations.
Take time when you are relaxed to think about the ways that has worked to help you stay calm and focused. Then, decide on an approach to use when the next emotional hijacking occurs.
- Take positive actions
You’ve stopped the hijacking and you’re now feeling calm and centred. You can now decide how to handle the situation appropriately. As in my example, I chose to express what I needed from my husband, delegated what I can to my daughters and allowed myself to let go of the things that are beyond my control. I told myself to stay focused on finishing my presentation and had an open and honest discussion about the incident with my husband later that evening. Be proactive rather than reactive. Decide on taking the steps that will improve the situation. Be kind to yourself and let others know that you need their help. Be honest about your feelings and expectations in your communications with the people who matter to you.
Managing emotions is a skill. As with the mastery of any skill, it will take practice, persistence and patience. There will be days when you are fully in control of your emotions and there will be days when you drop the ball. It is fine. The important thing is you keep at it and not be disheartened.
“It is a choice. No matter how frustrating or boring or constraining or painful or oppressive our experience, we can always choose how we respond.” ― Edith Eger, American psychologist
Author: Jenny Toh, Life Coach