Recently I had a colleague deliver some unsolicited feedback. They said I wasn’t a very good teacher and they had no desire to learn with me or from me. They said my work “wasn’t very deep.”
And they said it all in an email.
Reading the message on my computer screen, I immediately could feel my jaw and stomach tighten and my face flush. My overlay on the person’s message tone said, “Angry,” but their words attempted to hide that possibility. This kind of mixed message is a very confusing one to respond to in meat space, let alone online. Almost anything I initially say in response is bound to be both defensive on my part, and be met with defensiveness on the other person’s part – often leading to escalation – but more importantly – providing little real chance for resolution. The medium simply isn’t robust enough. And you can’t often talk your way out of a hijacking.
Neural Fight Club
Despite my best efforts however, angry, defensive responses began to internally flood my brain Fight Center. “What work are you talking about?” “Deep compared to what?” “Well, why don’t you lead the way in showing me what deep looks like?” “Does ‘deep’ have anything to do with attacking other people and negatively judging them?”
I typed out a response in kind as fast as my fingers could hit the keys, just laying it all out there. When I was done, my state of hyperarousal had settled some – not completely, but some. Clearly, this message had exceeded my Window of Arousal limits. Soon though, a bit of the bigger picture began to emerge and the thought surfaced, “There you go, Mark, fighting with your computer again!”
And it was true. In that moment, and all the ones preceding it, no Cougar had Hold of My Leg. Yet, my window of emotional arousal had been busted through at the upper limit. I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t cold, no collection agents were dunning me for money; all was right with my world. Except for these little black symbolic representations on my computer screen called letters, forming words, forming sentences, forming paragraphs that seemed quite capable of turning me into a momentary madman. They were able to accomplish this primarily because I currently depend upon teaching for my survival. If I truly suck as a teacher, my death feels immanent – at a mostly unconscious brain level. But NOT at the bio-physical level. Neuroception is constantly scanning my world for danger, especially my electronic, digital world. Many emotional hijackings, it turns out, have death threats buried deeply at their root.
Caging the Cougar
To deliberately address my hyper-arousal state, I took a deep breath, deliberately extending the exhale. “You have a ton of strategies for working with this kind of hijacking,” I reminded myself. And so I began.
The Paced Breathing was the start. Next came physical movement: I scribbled out a quick caricature of the colleague’s face on a sheet of copy paper. Then I tacked it to an alder round out in the woodpile. Then I took the splitting axe and chopped it into six neat bits along with the firewood underneath it. Moving the body helps move the stress chemicals and I was beginning to feel much better. “In THIS moment, everything’s all right.”
Returning to the house, I took out an old-timey book, A Course in Miracles and read Lesson 5: “I am never upset for the reason I think” (they got that one in there early!). Beginning to feel a little ‘mo better.
Four Strikes and You’re Out
Then I quickly went through Byron Katie’s Four Questions. “I’m not very deep and I’m not a good teacher” – is it true? Maybe. Sometimes. ” Can I absolutely know it’s true?” Not really. Deep and good are subjective value judgments. Dumped on others, all they mostly do is make people feel unsafe; make me feel unsafe. “What happens when I believe that thought?” I feel like crap and it takes a lot of work to regulate my hyperarousal. “Who would I be without that thought?” A teacher. Teaching what I teach in ways that I myself would like to learn. The best I can. To people who are open and curious and able to learn from even a stone.
And then, the Turnaround: “I am a good teacher and I do have depth.” Well, since I have a number of students who have won professional research prizes and whose work has been presented before the Supreme Court as well as a number of professional organizations, and since I currently have students who have voluntarily elected to pay me more than my current rate, and who regularly send me notes of thanks and gratitude, the evidence for “good” and “deep” isn’t all that hard to find.
Wrestling Word Brain to the Ground
Finally, I reread Jill Bolte Taylor’s account of how Word Brain makes stuff up all the time. And how I have to pay ongoing attention lest it catch me and hijack me without warning, especially by words delivered from other people’s brains. Which I wasn’t really doing (paying sufficient attention), and which my computer did (emotionally hijack me without warning). Being reminded of how that neural process works put the last nail in the coffin of that attack.
Big outbreath. Until, of course, the next opportunity for practice comes calling.