Anger is a primitive opt out response, it designed to increase your strength in the face of danger, crisis or emergency but in our modern lives its not very helpful, if you can keep calm in the face of frustration and annoyance with other people, you will be able to argue better and this is why.
As your anxiety levels increase, or in other words you start getting frustrated, upset, annoyed or whatever else you like to call it, your thinking becomes more and more negative, focussing on the problems and as you do, your anxiety levels rise even further and you move from the intellectual part of your brain to the primitive part which steps in to try and help with anger which is one of the responses the primitive brain has at its disposal.
However, what is important to remember, you primitive brain is NOT your intellect, if you are having a verbal discussion with someone your intellect is actually much better equipped to deal with it than your primitive brain.
I like to think of it like this: Your intellectual brain is the place where all your boffins hang out, the clever part and your team of boffins know everything about you, they know everything you have ever learnt, they can reason, rationalise and recall information and data stored in your memories and fire this to your conscious brain at lightening speed when needed, they can also, in the moment analyse the situation and come up with responses based on a proper assessment of the situation and they are usually positive reasonable solutions.
Your primitive brain however, is more akin to a couple of Neanderthals, they are operating on a survival levels and when that involves interaction with other people, they prefer to bash seven bells out of the situation or other person than reason. Your primitive brain is only concerned with itself, it can’t set back and see the bigger picture and it can’t consider the other person’s point of view. It will apply everything to itself and thinks in terms of all or nothing, they is no grey in the middle and will get fixated on just one outcome.
Ok, so you might want to argue with your Neanderthal brain at times, especially when your nearest and dearest are involved! (joking), but realistically, which one is going to win?
Thinking of your nearest and dearest though; I’m sure you don’t, but imagine you were having an argument with your partner. The argument gets heated and you both lose intellectual control and your primitive brain steps in – you then have two people thinking and behaving in the same way:-
- Only thinking about themselves
- All or nothing/global thinking
The argument might go something like this:-
“I’m ALWAYS having to clean the bathroom, you NEVER think of me”
the other person responds with “What about me? I work 60 hrs a week to put food on the table and all you think about is yourself” “You NEVER give a thought to everything I do”
“Your NEVER here to help me with …..” “I can’t ….” “I’m always the one having to deal with YOUR family”
You can insert your own specific points, but does any of that sound familiar? Full of statements about themselves, attacking all or nothing statements, not listening or hearing the other person. Do you think there is going to be any resolution to this argument as long as they are both operating from their primitive brain? I doubt it.
However, if you can keep calm and discuss with your intellect, you can really ‘hear’ the other person and when your partner feels safe, that they are not going to be attacked, they are far more able to really talk about what is upsetting them, rationally and able to communicate much more effectively.
It just takes one person in the argument to stay calm and listen until the other person has exhausted their anger for the emotion to be diffused and you can discuss rationally.
I had a client who was frustrated with herself for losing her temper and ending up in full blown arguments with her partner and together they developed a strategy. She explained the brain to him and how the primitive brain steps in when anxiety levels are raised, especially in arguments and this primitive brain is self centred and irrational and they decided to have a signal when one of them became aware that the primitive brain had taken precedence. This signal was actually to pick up a banana – sounds silly I know, but in the moment, verbalising the awareness or distress sometimes isn’t enough to break the focus of the argument, especially if the other person is seeing red, but not saying anything but waving the equivalent of the white flag as a signal, doesn’t necessarily having to mean surrender, but can be a clear easy signal to stay ‘stop’.
Sometimes they both collapsed laughing, sometimes it was just enough to let the other person know ‘I’m not going to argue’ and one person could walk away with the other person understanding why.
When they had given each other some space and calmed down, however long that took, they could then go for a walk and discuss the problem or what led to the argument.
They discovered that the more they practiced this technique, the easier it got to stop in the heat of the moment and calm down. It improved their relationship and brought them closer.
It doesn’t necessarily need both partners to understand the brain and the reasons behind it, it just needs them both to understand and respect the boundaries of the ‘signal’ and walk away from the argument for a time.
Ultimately, if you want to resolve issues, your intellectual brain is much better at doing this than your primitive brain, so being aware can put you back in control.
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