“Never forget that your unconscious is smarter than you, faster than you, and more powerful than you. You will never know all its secrets.”
~ Cordelia Fine in “A Mind of its Own”
Have you ever seen people at work react to something in a totally illogical way?
OK, I know that’s a dumb question but it is rhetorical!
It is interesting to look at this in connection with our emotional memories. The role that emotional memory plays in our everyday interactions and reactions is profound. Not only do our emotional memories cause us to react to perceptions of physical threat but also to certain people and events as well.
The emotional memory function is part of our brain’s emotional centre, the limbic system. As you know, that is also where the amygdala is, the part of the brain that is responsible for our instant emotional responses, our ‘wasn’t thinking’ reactions.
We subconsciously use our emotional memories to help us recognise threats to our survival. I sometimes think of these memories as stored in our brain’s ‘database of nasty things’. Emotional memories are made up of experiences, events, thoughts and feelings shaped and defined throughout our lives. When we form these memories in our childhood, we often do so with limited and inaccurate perception and then these distorted memories may come back to haunt us in our adult lives.
When a situation or a person triggers an emotional memory of a threat, our brain goes into overdrive to protect us. Often this reaction is outdated, over the top and not even related to the present circumstances. It’s what I call The Almond Effect ®.
Her new boss reminded her of her brother
Take this work scenario: Kylie had just been promoted. She had done such a great job in her time with the company that she was asked to train and manage a group of new staff. This meant a move in offices and a new manager. Kylie had heard great things about her new boss and was eager to impress.
Kylie arrived at the new office and was greeted by her new manager. At first, she was a little unsure of what to make of him. She was instantly intimidated which was unusual for Kylie, she even felt a little scared. She found it hard to communicate and was lost for words several times in their first meeting.
This was her emotional memory connecting the past to the present. Her new boss reminded Kylie of her eldest brother who throughout her childhood was dominating and physically abusive.
Kylie was petrified of her brother and those feelings flooded her brain when she met her new manager. This kind of emotional response is the brain’s way of recognising and reacting to a perceived threat. The problem is that this threat though real once is not relevant to the present situation.
Sadly, after a few weeks, Kylie left the office emotionally shaken and convinced she could not work for her manager. She turned down the promotion and went back to her old job. The Almond Effect ® had taken its toll and it wasn’t until sometime afterwards that Kylie realised what had happened. Even then, knowing how her brain had sabotaged her, Kylie said she would still feel uncomfortable if she had to work for the new manager in the future.
Don’t let past memories sabotage the present
Can you relate to Kylie’s experience? I can. I recently worked for a client and I thought it quite odd that I found it difficult to make ‘small talk’ face to face with him. It was really weird because we had been exchanging emails and having phone conversations quite successfully for many months before we actually met.
I couldn’t work it out so I simply reminded myself that sometimes you have to work with a person who for no obvious reason you don’t really connect with on a personal level, but that’s life and you get on with the work, professionally.
It was only when we were having coffee one day and the client moved in a particular way that I ‘saw’ the image of a person from my childhood. The penny dropped and the reasons for my feelings became clear. He reminded me of someone who also had caused me great distress when I was much younger.
When I shared this in a workshop one day, one of the participants also had an ‘ah ha’ moment and said: “I hadn’t even thought of it before. I hate the fact that because of the recent re-structure, I had to change workstations and now I don’t have a window. And in a CLM (career limiting move), I kicked up a real fuss. I’ve just realised that when I was at school…” and then she told us about an emotional memory to do with sitting by a window, that she realised must have been subconsciously at work, in theory to protect her but in fact causing great unhappiness.
Fascinating isn’t it? Think about situations or people who might be irritating you. I wonder if they are triggering an emotional memory buried deep in your limbic system? It might also be happening in your relationships outside of work.
Now you know, let it go
Becoming aware of what you are remembering and the feelings associated with that memory is the big first step to take back control over The Almond Effect ®. Take time to revisit the memory and ask yourself whether it is appropriate that the memory still controls you. It’s unlikely so take time to tell your limbic system, thanks but no thanks for the future. Retrain your amygdala that this situation or person is no longer a threat. Get your logical, rational thinking brain working.
One final word – sometimes that ‘gut feel’ or intuition that you can’t put your finger on, may be coming from an emotional memory. If no amount of logical self-talk gets you past your concerns, they may be real. So talk to someone else and seek assistance to work out where the concerns are coming from. Then you’ll take the appropriate action for the situation.