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Prevent Emotional Flooding

emotional flooding is when emotions run too high

❝Let's not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.❞ -Vincent van Gogh

Dennis the Menace is a 1993 movie based on the comic strip of the same name. In the movie, Dennis' neighbor is a curmudgeon named Mr. Wilson (played by Walter Matthau). In the movie, Mr. Wilson is hosting a garden party, hoping to catch a glimpse of a blooming flower. Upon learning that Mr. Wilson's house has been robbed, Dennis runs outside to notify his neighbor, causing everybody in attendance to miss the blooming flower.

In response, Mr. Wilson resorted to insulting and making fun of Dennis, calling him names. He was angry and sad that he missed his flower bloom, and he took out his aggression on Dennis.

Mr. Wilson didn't yell at Dennis as a deliberate action to try to help Dennis see his point of view. His response was automatic and angry, intending to hurt Dennis' feelings. As a result of hurting his feelings, Dennis ran away and ended up getting kidnapped. Recognizing his role in what happened, Mr. Wilson realized his words and anger caused this to happen, and he felt awful about it.

Mr. Wilson was emotionally flooded when he talked to Dennis. And as a result of communicating while emotionally flooded, he ended up with remorse and regret.

when we're emotionally flooded we're likely to say and do things that we'll regret


When was the last time you got too hot and decided to sweat? How many breaths have you decided to take today? Have you decided to pump any blood through your veins today?

These may sound like silly questions because you didn't decide to do those things. At least it didn't feel like you decided to do those things. You breathed air today, had blood circulating through you, and sweat when you were too hot.

You didn't feel like you decided to do these things because the part of you that feels like a "you" didn't decide to do those things. The subconscious part of your mind did that for you. You can think of your subconscious mind like an elephant. The elephant makes 95% of your daily decisions, and it happens underneath conscious awareness. This is automatic behavior, and it happens without conscious effort.

Sitting on top of the elephant is a rider. The rider is the conscious part of your brain that's more deliberate. This is the part of you that you associate with and identify as.

In normal times, this is a good system. Everyone works together and plays nice. However, when the elephant is afraid, the rider is no longer in control. The rider is just along for the ride. When the elephant doesn't have control, you are likely to say and do things that you regret. The elephant doesn't understand consequences or promises and doesn't understand concepts like the future.

When the elephant is in control, you are in a stress response, otherwise known as fight, flight, or freeze.

your mind has two parts - a subconscious part that is automatic and a conscious part that is deliberate


When we enter a stress response, the thinking part of our brain is no longer working. The elephant is working by itself. When one or more of our basic needs is threatened, the elephant takes over and enters a fight, flight, or freeze response. The actual response depends on what has worked in the past to get out of stressful situations.

A fight response is getting aggressive. In nature, this is when one animal attacks another animal. This is where an animal will stick up for itself. Humans do a little bit of this, too. In conversations, how this looks is being confrontational and aggressive. It is to try to get angry so that the other person sees things your way or otherwise changes their behavior.

A flight response is getting as far away from the situation as possible. In nature, this is running away. A flight response means the animal takes off. In conversations, this could mean leaving the room, but it could also mean changing the topic of conversation.

A freeze response is when we become frozen. In nature, this is when an animal plays dead. Sometimes this is considered giving up. We enter a freeze response when we feel like we've got nothing else we can do. In conversations, this is when we become detached. We're not really present in the conversation.

Stress responses get us out of the immediate situation for the most part, but they do nothing to help us in the long run. They almost always make it worse for us.

when we are stressed we enter into a stress response of fight, flight, or freeze


Once you become emotionally flooded, getting out of that state is incredibly difficult. It takes about a half hour for the flooding to go away so the rider can regain control. It's at that point that the rider learns about what happened and is often filled with regret. You may have felt this before if you've ever been in a heated argument with someone and said and done things you didn't mean. I imagine that 30 minutes later when you were no longer so upset, you felt remorse for the things you said and did.

The trick, then, is not learning how to get out of an emotionally flooded state but preventing ourselves from getting into that state in the first place. This involves becoming more aware of how you feel. With practice, you can become more aware when you start to feel your emotional level rise. If you feel your emotions getting to a five or a six on a scale of 10, it's time to call a timeout on yourself; It's time to take a break. Excuse yourself from the conversation for about 30 minutes.

if you emotional level gets too high it's time to take a break


One way to prevent emotional flooding altogether is to take a different approach to having conversations. Our default mode seems to be trying to insert our opinion into the world. A better approach is to help draw out the opinions of others. If we listen to understand rather than show how smart we are, we help the other person articulate what's on their mind. We can do this with reflective listening, which is effectively a technique where we reflect to the speaker what we thought we heard. The intent is only to ensure we understood them and not to analyze or interpret what they said. If we got it right, we know we're on the same page. We also need to get comfortable hearing a "no," meaning we didn't get it right. We can learn to be comfortable with hearing "no" because it means we didn't fully understand the speaker. If we hadn't checked in, we would have made the wrong assumptions. Resist the urge to think that hearing a "no" reflects poor listening skills. Hearing that you didn't quite understand them is a gold mine because it means it's an opportunity to get on the same page.

actively listen to understand using reflective listening

Having conversations while emotionally flooded will never end with an ideal outcome. Understanding what emotional flooding is and how it happens helps us understand how our minds work a little bit. That helps us make a conscious decision (with the rider) to do things a little differently. By tuning into how we feel when we're having conversations, we can better control our emotions and recognize when we need to step away for a little bit. Communicating with the intent to understand sets us up for more productive financial conversations.

You get one life; live intentionally.

If you know someone else who would benefit from reading this, please share it with them. Spread the word, if you think there's a word to spread.

Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Clements, Jonathan: How to Think About Money

Feldman Barrett, Lisa: How Emotions Are Made

Irvine, William: A Slap in the Face

Klontz, Brad & Ted Klontz: Mind Over Money

Miller, William: Listening Well

Miller, William & Stephen Rollnick: Motivational Interviewing

Newcomb, Sarah: Loaded

Pennebaker, James & Joshua Smyth: Opening Up by Writing It Down

Rosenberg, Marshall: Nonviolent Communication

Sofer, Oren Jay: Say What You Mean

Solin, Dan: Ask

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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