Reacting Like a Wild Beast



It’s easy to think that when others do things we don’t like or say things that hurt, they “know” what they are doing and why. We can imagine that they do awful things purposefully, and that want us to feel badly afterwards. But bad behavior, mistakes, and missteps don’t always spring from purposeful action. 

This idea is on my mind the morning after the second 2016 debate, after watching people venomously lash out at one another on social media. Some of those lashing out, calling names, losing control are people I know personally. They are kind and decent in every day life. But in this election, they are upset. I recall a depressed man telling me during the last presidential election cycle that he felt grief as his family members argued about politics over holiday dinners. 

Too often we underestimate the role of the reactions, the split second, emotionally laden responses to strong emotions. People respond to intense emotions with snap judgments and they react on impulse.
    You insult my beliefs, I strike out.
    I fear my wife is cheating on me, so I threaten her.
    I can’t cope with the situation, so I run away. 
    I can’t tolerate my emotions, so I act to escape them by drinking too much alcohol, or working long hours. 

When it comes to human behavior, we underestimate the role of these moments of reacting without thinking. When someone commits a hurtful act, we assume that person believes his crime is okay- that his behavior is in line with his personal values. When someone is disloyal, we think she believes that loyalty is unimportant. 

But many human mistakes and missteps of behavior stem from automatic reactions. Strong feelings bring behavior without thought. We succumb to our animal nature, and engage in fight or flight responses. 

When I have spoken with people who made big mistakes, the teenager who shoplifted, the parent who lashed out at a child in frustration, or the child who knowingly violated the rules, if I ask, “Why?” the answer is often, “I don’t know.” 

We don’t know why we act in ways that make life harder. We don’t know why we overreact. That’s because some behavior bypasses the reasoning areas in the brain and works more like a reflex. Some actions are automatic. 

There’s a way to slow down and think: a psychological skill called “mentalizing” which means holding the mind in mind. Being aware of your feelings, and how those feelings affect your thoughts can give you time to stop and think. Holding in mind the feelings and thoughts of others (or at least imagining what those are) creates empathy, and decreases the risk of lashing out. 

The answer to reacting without thinking is making an effort to keep thinking, even when it is difficult to do so. We cannot succumb to our uncivilized nature. Perhaps lets all make the effort when we talk about politics in 2016. 

Posted on October 10, 2016 .