Personality is not destiny but it has a strong influence on our experiences, reactions, preferences and behavior. Personality traits are long-term and enduring patterns of behavior that affect us consistently over time, and consistently in a wide range of circumstances. Our traits are our factory settings. They’re difficult or impossible to change, but we can modify how we respond, how we deal with new situations and how we choose to conduct our lives. We all can grow, develop and build skills to help us deal better with life.
Of the five major personality traits, the factor of Emotional Reactivity is most closely associated with psychological health and well-being. People on the low end of this spectrum are inclined to be calm, relaxed, even-keeled and stress tolerant. Most of us reside somewhere in the middle, experiencing occasional frustrations and anxieties but typically not reacting too strongly. However, people of high emotional reactivity tend to be hot reactors. That is, they express their irritations, insecurities, emotional states and general intensity directly and sometimes forcefully. This can obviously have negative consequences for career progression and life success in general if not managed effectively.
Think of the hot reactor process as a circuit with two switches. The first switch is thrown automatically as a reaction to something that upsets us. That normally leads to flipping in the second switch, which closes the loop and produces the behavioral response to the frustrating event. Hot reactors have a short fuse and respond quickly to triggering events. As people get better at understanding why they respond as they do, they can extend the time between the trigger and the response. Think of it as building “yellow flag” pause-and-reflect skills.
One of the most effective tools to help build resilience and develop skills and insights to manage hot reactor tendencies is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). With the knowledge and techniques that can result from coaching or therapeutic interventions, and with the energy from consistent work and self-discipline, people can become more effective managing their triggers and patterns of counterproductive behavior.
Another way to understand the emotional reactivity process is to use the A-B-C framework:
Point A is the activating event (for example, a recent company reorganization).
Point B is the filter of the belief system. There are rational beliefs that help us to respond appropriately (for instance, “this reorganization is inconvenient for me but I can adapt and work smarter”). But we also have irrational beliefs (e.g., “This shouldn’t have happened… It’s unfair to me… I must be incompetent”, etc.). Irrational beliefs are unverifiable, unmeasurable and arbitrary. They lead to self-defeating behavior and inappropriate emotions and responses.
The consequences are Point C. From the rational beliefs, they might take such forms as “I don’t like it. I wish it were different. I want to change it. This is painful, unfortunate and inconvenient. So I need to do something to make things better.” However, the irrational beliefs lead to such consequences as “I’m unmotivated. I can’t get with the program. I’m depressed. There’s no use trying. I want to get even.”
Point D involves actively disputing the irrational beliefs. With constant and persistent challenging of irrational beliefs, one can eventually minimize or eliminate them. We can learn to kill the ANTs (automatic negative thoughts). This will lead to healthier and more productive responses to challenging situations and temper the inappropriate hot reaction.
Here are some other common-sense ideas:
Practice seeing the "yellow flag" more quickly when you experience the initial rush of any activating event. Use it as an opportunity to take a little more time before you respond, and to challenge your automatic negative thoughts and irrational beliefs.
Remember that you’re probably misreading things. People high on the reactivity scale tend to take things personally and respond too quickly when they feel upset. Practice empathy and active listening. Most of the time, the event isn’t about you.
Review some of the times you’ve felt particularly anxious, threatened or tense. Think about what may have triggered the negative feelings, and anticipate similar situations in the future. Setbacks are learning opportunities. Negative situations and failures teach us more than smooth successes.
Make sure you have healthy and effective ways to relax, let off steam and chill, especially during times of tension and strain. Do things you enjoy. Take whatever steps you can to focus on the positive aspects of your life and the potential opportunities presented by the current issues or problems you may face.
You can’t change the past, so don’t waste time stewing about it. Look at the present and figure out what you can do to make a better future.
You, and only you, are responsible for your feelings and responses. And the universe is disinterested. It doesn’t care about you.
It’s hard to change ingrained behavioral and emotional patterns. But with the right strategies and motivation, people can get better at dealing with the complexities and frustrations of life. A useful re-frame for change is to remember your purpose. You don’t have to do a deep dive into the philosophical or spiritual here. No matter your situation or circumstances, this is what you need to keep saying to yourself: My purpose is to make things better, not worse.