When You Are Attacked, Why Do You Attack Back? Six Questions for Uncovering the Source of Your Negative Emotional Reactions

I was recently teaching a class on emotional intelligence when a participant proclaimed, “If you could just help me understand why I attack others when they attack me, this class would be worthwhile.” The challenge in learning to improve our emotional intelligence is twofold: First, your negative emotional reactions are only the tip of the iceberg—they are symptomatic of something that is going on in your subconscious. Second, surfacing and understanding your thinking and the past experience you may unknowingly use to support your perspective is not easy because it requires in-depth self-examination.

To become more emotionally intelligent, you must recognize your negative emotional reactions and then take deliberate steps to uncover what is hidden behind your feelings. Negative or “hot” emotional reaction usually represents the violation of a personal value—something that is important to you. It is your perception of loss that leads you to become defensive as you interact with others.

To surface causes that may be hidden from your view, formulate a few “question-answer” sentence stems. Start with what seems to be the most obvious question. After you answer that, use that answer to formulate the next question to explore your thinking more deeply.

For example, let’s say that you start with the question, “Why do I attack when I think someone is attacking me?” You might answer this question with “I attack because I am afraid of looking bad.” Then take that answer to formulate a sentence stem like this: “I am afraid of looking bad because….” Finishing this sentence as many times as you can, and you will begin to surface the thinking behind your emotion.

When doing this exercise, really push yourself to complete the sentence. I like to do this exercise by writing my answers on paper. This allows me to review what I have written later and look for any common themes. This approach also allows me to challenge the accuracy of the thinking that may be fueling my emotional reactions.

Here are a number of questions you might consider answering if you wish to explore the source of your negative emotional reactions:

1. Why do I attack back? It is human nature that when we are attacked, we instinctively feel like we need to protect ourselves. Unfortunately, attacking back does not help us to understand why the person is attacking us in the first place. Once you have sounded the thinking that is behind your own reactive behavior, you may realize that your thinking in a given situation is incomplete or inaccurate—which in turn allows you to explore the other person’s thinking and feelings by asking questions.

2. What am I trying to protect? This is a great question because it is a natural response to feel that when someone attacks you, they are trying to take something from you. A similar question might also be, “What am I afraid of losing?” Whatever question you choose to explore can help you identify your personal perception of loss. Then you can ask yourself if the loss you perceive is real or only imagined.

3. When do I not feel safe? This question allows you to identify a particular situation, perhaps with a particular person. Once you answer the question, you will need to further explore your answer by finishing the sentence stem of “I do not feel safe when.… because….” The aim here is to surface the reason behind the feeling of a lack of safety.

4. How did I get into this cycle? Sometimes our feelings are a result of interpretations we make in recurring situations. For example, if every time I sing in public, my friends laugh at me and tell me I am a lousy singer, I might formulate a negative perception of my singing ability, and a whole host of negative feelings about being ridiculed by my friends. If you can identify what events led to the negative thinking and the feelings associated with the event, you may be able to select a more positive interpretation and accompanying feeling. Please note: if you can identify one piece of data that runs contrary to what you believe about yourself or the situation, then you must be open to the possibility that your perception is inaccurate!

5. What wounds do people attack? Maybe people are not actually attacking specific wounds, but answering the question allows you to identify wounds that you may have and not be aware of. Our “wounds” are really nothing more than a perceived deficiency in ourselves. For example, if I always perceive that the things people do and say indicate that they do not respect me, then I must recognize that respect is something I value. And I just might be inaccurately seeing the actions of others as a measure of disrespect when no disrespect was intended.

Once you surface your wound, you are free to challenge your perception and the accuracy of your thinking. If you do not know whether a person is being disrespectful, then you must suspend your thinking or hold a conversation to check out the assumptions you are holding onto.

6. What negative beliefs do I hold about myself? Answering this question and then creating a sentence stem to surface what you believe is not likeable about yourself will help you to identify how others may push your “hot” buttons.

For example, let’s say that I don’t like that I am not always dependable. When I finish the sentence stem, “I am not dependable because …, I identify a number wonderful excuses—some true and some not—for why I am not dependable. When others confront my lack of dependability, I may react defensively because even though I am attempting to be more dependable their feedback reinforces that I am not what I would hope to be.

Returning to the original situation, I gave the class participant the simple sentence, “I attack when attacked because….” to finish. He came to class the next day having completed the sentence over 50 times. When I asked him what he learned, he laughed and said that he was able to not only identify the source of his own defensiveness, but also surface some very illogical and irrational conclusions that his subconscious was using to fuel his emotional reactions.

Becoming more emotionally intelligent is a worthwhile endeavor for anyone who works with or manages others. Being able to understand the source of your feelings and to challenge the accuracy of those feelings will help you to navigate your interpersonal interactions more effectively while increasing your emotional intelligence. 

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Sue | November 17, 2017 | REPLY
EI is an often overlooked component of new supervisor/manager training. When you observe respected, effective supervisors/managers in action it often comes down to their degree of EI.