Why acting "irrationally" is actually pretty rational

So you’ve found yourself in a moment where you’re overreacting to something you know you shouldn’t. Perhaps it’s an innocent email you received from your boss that sets you off and that you can’t stop thinking about, or maybe a offhand comment from a friend, or the circumstances of a personal project shift due to unrelated forces and you feel devastated. Whatever it was that set you off, you feel yourself shift into high alert. Perhaps it manifests as entering “mega-control-freak mode” where you know you probably shouldn’t, or you feel extremely hurt over something that you know wasn’t intended to be hurtful.

You want to keep it under control, but the feeling takes over you, and you can’t seem to get outside of your emotions enough to get some perspective and de-escalate.

At this point you’ve either snapped into reaction, or you’re working overtime to curb your impulses to react. Either way, all of your attention is focused on something that you know isn’t important, and is probably distracting you from your higher priorities.

What’s going on here, and what can you do?

Perhaps you’re thinking something like this: “I wish my feelings weren’t so strong. In order to stop acting irrationally, I need to learn to distance myself from these feelings.” If so, this is a totally natural reaction. You want to feel like you can trust yourself to act in your own best interest, and not get swept up so easily.

But shutting off your emotions, besides being impossible, would be a mistake. They’re trying to tell you something: something important.

The irrational actions you’re tempted to take are actually quite rational. Even though the trigger or potential situation may seem small, there is something within that trigger that is pointing to something deeper, something meaningful to you that your emotional system feels is being threatened. Did you overreact to a wording choice in a company-wide email about diversity? Perhaps it doesn’t mean that you are a control freak about grammar, but that you care deeply about people in your organization feeling respected and seen. Perhaps an off-hand question by a coworker about one of the numbers you presented left you fuming; he might have been questioning a decimal point, but it may have touched on your strongly held value of attention to detail and quality work.

Feelings don’t jump into defense mode for no reason: think of them as an early alert system; watchdogs protecting the most vulnerable, most personal inner core of who you are. Dogs bark when the postman comes up the walk, not because they hate postmen, but because they value protecting the house and its inhabitants.

The next time you find yourself having big feelings around something you know is small, pause and ask yourself: what is being threatened here?

Gillian BenAry