Little by little...

Little by little...

Monday, December 7, 2015

Strong Emotional Reaction

Now you listen…I don’t want to hear you say another word. You’re not allowed to talk anymore."
What? Did the instructor just say that to me? The instructor continues talking to the circle of thirty students, but I hear nothing. Our entire interaction preceding that comment took less than 4 minutes, yet I am swirling with emotions and cannot regain focus. After several minutes, I exit the room.

The sun is blazing on the hotel in the high desert where I’ve traveled a great distance to learn from one of the “greats.” Thankful for the shade of the entry drive, I pace in front of the hotel. In my hasty exit, I left my room key & purse in the classroom. F#ck!

I’m angry, disappointed, confused, hurt, and getting more pissed off since I’m starting to get hungry.  My body is a roulette wheel of emotions and every minute I’m losing bets. Why am I reacting so strongly to this relatively small event?

I think we are all susceptible to this...have you ever had a strong response that was disproportionate to the trigger? I think it’s important to dig a little when we have such intense reactions. A psychologist friend of mine would say there’s gold in those moments. This event happened many months ago, and I’m finally taking the time to dissect my reactions.

My anger started because I was appalled that an instructor would shut down any student in front of a class. As an occasional trainer myself, I have an unspoken “code” about how to treat students. Scolding them and quieting them in front of their peers is certainly on the “don’t ever do” side of the code.  

My disappointment was fairly logical because I had spent a lot of money for this class based on rave reviews by previous attendees. After hearing how “life-changing” the week could be, I had high expectations. By day three, I was still waiting for the ‘wow’. I debated whether I could sit through the rest of the week after I’d lost all respect for the instructor.

My confusion stemmed from why he chose those words. The class had been debriefing the previous day’s exercise. We were reviewing a transcript of a conversation in which I was involved and he announced that I was a bottleneck for information. I spoke up and pointed to the transcript, which showed me communicating the required information to the appropriate person. But he pushed on. So I pushed back. We polled the class on a key point…still no support for his interpretation.

But he would not let up. So I questioned the basis of his opinion. The snarky side of me thought that he must not be used to having his opinion questioned. I wanted to know why he was labeling me with no data to support it. But his motivation didn’t really matter.

Because if you know me, and any of my story, my hurt reaction will make the most sense. Being the youngest of three sisters, I was told to “be quiet” a lot. Being the outspoken daughter of a traditional, Polish, single mom, I was told to “stop being difficult” even more frequently. I was always too loud, too opinionated, too much.

As I got older and my world expanded beyond my family, I found people who asked to hear my ideas and friends who welcomed my rebellious energy. My life changed as others accepted me. I became more and more confident and more and more open to the world – and the people in it.

Because when we are accepted, we start to believe that we can add value to the world. We start to un-learn the patterns of self-doubt and defensiveness. This is a long process, but over time we can gain a new confidence in ourselves and in our contributions. This new confidence encourages us to open our stance, expose our thoughts, share our true passions.

The tricky part is that feeling valuable is a temporary condition. Finishing my first successful year as an independent, I was feeling fairly confident when I arrived for class. But as my contributions were dismissed and I became bored throughout the week, my irritation and impatience grew. My old habits of defensiveness and aggression kicked into high gear. I started fighting for acceptance, fighting to be heard again.

Many of us have old habits. Maybe yours involve self-loathing and retreating. Or maybe you criticize everyone else to make yourself feel better. Regardless, old habits can get in the way of our current progress, whether it’s collaborating with your team, acing a job interview, or learning more from a class. It can be very helpful to identify your pattern so you can spot it & seek alternative paths when appropriate.

For example, retrospecting on this specific encounter, I see that while I fiercely defended my perspective, my field of vision for options was greatly reduced. These “blinders” prevented me from finding a creative solution to the impasse that was created by our opposing views.

For instance, I could have facilitated a discussion about the definition of the word ‘bottleneck.’ Or I could have asked for volunteers to recreate the scene in question. I also could have calmly stated that I was confused by his accusation. Basically, I could have done anything other than take his words personally.

Even more importantly, my tunnel vision kept me from exploring alternatives to leaving. Upon hearing the instructor’s rebuke, I immediately shut down. How much fun would it have been if I would’ve quacked like a duck until he acknowledged my ‘voice’? Or stood up and wrote my comments on flip chart paper since I wasn’t allowed to speak? I could have made myself a scarlet letter to wear - “Q” for questioning? At the very least, I could have pointed out that I was offended by being told to be quiet.

But none of those things happened. Instead I reacted in my default pattern of defensiveness because I didn’t see that I had other options. It’s ok. The experience opened my eyes to one of my patterns. Now I do my best to notice my emotional state if situations escalate. And while I may not have the perfect response, I am better prepared to see creative solutions.

So does this outcome excuse this instructor’s behavior? I don’t think so. Am I better off now? Yes. Because with most unpleasant people and situations, I try to find the silver lining aka the learning opportunity. Fortunately, that is one of my good habits.

What about you? What is one of your old habits? What kicks in when you have a strong emotional reaction?

*Note: I want to call out the professionalism and kindness of the other instructor. When I left the classroom, she immediately came searching for me. She patiently allowed me to vent, taking the brunt of what I wanted to say to the offensive instructor. Without invalidating my feelings, she offered a useful perspective that helped me decide to finish out the week.


  1. Great self-reflection. My old habit? Not taking a serious enough stance when it truly calls for it. Perhaps the opposite. I tend to take a jovial approach to everything and there are absolutely times when that can cause more harm than good. There is a time and place for everything (as the saying goes) and its just a matter of finding the right mix of "appropriateness" I guess. Nice post, thanks for sharing.

    1. I understand. "Appropriateness" can be a challenge. :)

      Since you acknowledge that you tend toward jovial at times, have you ever stopped to wonder why? and in what circumstances? I have found peers & friends who have been invaluable in encouraging me to dig a little deeper. So as you're friend, I'm giving you a nudge. :)

  2. I too have had those moments - reacting in a most unexpected way. My worst time was running out of a room in tears from being asked to do something (repeatedly) that I felt uncomfortable with. It is amazing to look back at those times and learn something from them - each and every time.
    Thank you for sharing. It will make me look at what I say as an instructor as well, and how people react to what I say.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Janet! My whole life, I have struggled with what to express and how, especially as a woman. I don't want to be perceived as "weak." I've learned that my awareness of my emotions - and, in turn, those of others - is an asset and not a liability. I view empathy as a skill that can help me be a better instructor, coach and PERSON! :) I appreciate the comment.