What can we learn from past experiences?

The way we act and react in situations today, is often the result of years of hardwiring.

This week, a client related how powerless she felt to voice her opinion to senior peers, even though she was the project lead and had to offer her advice and guidance.

She didn’t want to speak her mind because she didn’t want to seem disrespectful. As a child, her mother told her she should hold her superiors in high regard.

If you have a strong memory of an experience, you may have hardwired a response in your brain.

My client was hardwired ‘not to challenge’ and to ‘act respectfully around her superiors’, albeit that she disagreed with them and knew her advice was sound.

In instances like this, our amygdala is getting in our way. The amygdala is our fight, flight or freeze mechanism. I like to call it our ‘caveman brain’. Anytime the caveman sees danger, it will sound the alarm in your brain, to make sure that you defend yourself; whether that means saying nothing (flight or freeze) or becoming defensive (fight).

The caveman chooses to protect us in situations that seem familiar or that it considers risky. The problem with the amygdala, is that it often bases its reaction on past experiences that are not relevant to our current situation.

My client was confusing hierarchy with the nature of her role and whilst she has no reason to fear her peers, her caveman (the amygdala) was ‘forcing her’ to always react in the same way she always does i.e. acting respectfully and avoiding any form of possible conflict.

Often just acknowledging the ‘caveman’s presence’ is enough. It’s like saying, ‘Hey there caveman. I hear you, but this is not a scary situation. I can handle this!’

Next time, she will remember to breathe and to act in the way that she intended i.e. being respectful whilst challenging her peers, offering sound advice and hammering out the best solution for their mutual client.

Becoming aware of where your emotions, thoughts and feelings stem from and challenging them, is a good start to understanding why you may act and react the way that you do.

Why, what is how

Have you ever done something really awful and asked yourself ‘Why?’

Have you ever been asked ‘Why did you do that?’ and felt attacked by the question, making it difficult for you to answer?

I was part of the ‘why tribe’. Awake at 3am, asking myself, why I’d messed up in a meeting? Why I had, or hadn’t said something? Beating myself up and getting nowhere with answering the question, other than further down a rabbit hole…which at 3am, is a very dark space.

Asking yourself ‘why’, can force you on an emotional rollercoaster, as you can come up with a million subjective answers.

Asking someone else ‘why’, can feel like a personal attack or criticism; putting them on the defensive.

So how can we do things differently?

Slow your brain, take a mental step back and ask ‘What’ happened?

Keep to the facts! We learn best when we feel safe.

Think about who said, or did ‘what’. ‘What’ was said; who was there, etc?

Once you’ve gathered the facts, ask, ‘How’ you could have done things differently? Not better, because this too is subjective. Better in whose eyes.

Once we have answered ‘What and How’, we may even be capable of answering, ‘Why’.

New behaviours, which lead to a positive result, are learned quickly by the brain, so the next time you are in a similar situation, you will know what you should do differently to achieve a different result.

Helen Martin has an MSc in Coaching and Behavioural change and focuses on developing self-awareness and reflection with her clients.