The Upset CEO (Book Snippet 17)

In snippet 12 ‘The Past is a Creation of the Present’, we learned that in many ways, our present is a function of our past; the red flag raised looks just like Dad before he got sarcastic and critical of me!, which prompts our amygdala to hit the panic button immediately. While this happens, our neocortex also begins to process the data it received from the thalamus. By comparing the current situation to past events, our neocortex could confirm our suspicion or it could come to the conclusion that there is not enough overlap with sarcastic dad to justify a full-blown panic.

If our neocortex decides that the CEO is unlikely to be upset with us and that he might actually just really need to pee (which leads him to appear agitated, wrinkle his forehead, and clench his jaw), the de-escalation sequence is initiated. In this case, our neocortex signals stand down: false alarm to our amygdala. In turn, this prompts our amygdala to stop hitting the panic button, and the release of chemicals in our bloodstream is interrupted, making it possible for us to calm down. However, since the pathway leading directly to the amygdala (the thalamic pathway) is much faster than the pathway leading through the neocortex (the cortical pathway), our amygdala has already hit the panic button ten times before our neocortex even had a chance to issue the stand down memo. By the time we come to our senses, the damage has already been done.

Our reactive survival response patterns are obviously quite useful in the face of genuine danger such as when we step on a snake, the tail of a lion, or the ego of an angry drunk wielding a gun. Yet, under normal circumstances, our reactive amygdala-driven response is most often only marginally constructive — given how unlikely it is that our boss will really punch us in the face, we will get excluded from our organization for giving one bad presentation, our partner will actually attempt to eat us, everyone will laugh at our presentation, or that an angry sibling will push us over a cliff.

Thankfully, by the time we have grown up, most of us have learned to manage our amygdala-driven response in a more or less socially acceptable manner.

Even if our amygdala has been triggered, we respond in a way that is not immediately identifiable as a survival response to the outside observer. Instead of tackling the CEO (fight response), running out of the conference room (flight response), or playing dead under the conference table (freeze response), we might defensively challenge the CEO to share his view (fight response), back down from our position while deferring to the strongest opinion in the room (flight response), or proceed to give our presentation in autopilot mode (freeze response). But often, even if our outside appearance may be calm, internally we are still experiencing a state of emergency.

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