Are you operating from your past or your potential?

by | Oct 17, 2023 | Articles

Have you ever had something like this happen? 

You’re introduced to someone you’ve never met before and know nothing about.  For reasons you can’t explain, you quickly get a feeling of subtle uneasiness or strong dislike for the person.  You’re not sure why, until later in the day you remember they bear a striking resemblance to your 8th grade algebra teacher whom you despised.

Or, you notice that when you interact with a particular co-worker you seem to always feel “off”.  Upon reflection, you realize this person has a tone of voice that sounds like a critical former boss, parent, sibling or other adult in your past.

In our Emotional Intelligence learning programs we teach how powerful and dominant the brain’s “emotional memory” system is, and teach practical tools to improve regulation of responses.

► Everything we take in through our senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste) is first processed through the amygdala, located in the brain’s limbic system, where it is “scanned” for any emotional meaning or significance.  Emotional meaning is sometimes determined by emotional memory – the “data” that recorded the feelings and emotions associated with certain events when they occurred in the past.

► When the amygdala finds a “match” of emotional significance between something occurring in the present and something upsetting that occurred in the past, a distress signal and protective “fight or flight or freeze” response is triggered,  inhibiting access to better-regulated responses from the goal-oriented executive brain located in the pre-frontal cortex.

► All of this happens in milliseconds subconsciously.

► While our most intense reactions are sometimes rooted in the imprint of emotional memory from many years ago, they don’t have to be.  They can be linked to something more recent that carried “emotional significance” of some kind.

Subconsciously we can be operating from limiting, often fear-based, references to the past that are informing, steering, or driving our perceptions and decisions in the present – and limiting our ability to achieve our potential in some way.

Example: When you were 8 years old your sibling accidentally knocked over a valued glass vase and it was shattered.  Your sibling blamed it on you, but you were not even home at the time.  You were blamed, reprimanded, and punished.  You felt misunderstood, untrusted, hurt, betrayed, and angry.  The truth of your innocence was never established.  Life went on and you put the incident behind you.

Now, at 40 years old, a peer-level co-worker or an executive is questioning you about why the team has not delivered or responded as expected.  You delivered your part on time and fully participated cross-functionally to assist the team in every way possible.  There is one team member who is pointing fingers at you and diverting attention from their failed response.

This would be troubling and frustrating to some degree for anyone.  It would require clear, authentic, calm, and tactful communication.  However, you are instantly feeling intense waves of betrayal and anger that fuels a defensive response attacking the other team member – a response that is disproportionate to the present circumstance.

The emotional memory imprint from your experience as an 8 year old (sibling’s false accusation) has flooded your perception of the present circumstance (team member’s false accusation), sent a distress signal to your autonomic nervous system releasing a surge of adrenaline, fueling increased intensity and agitation, drowning out your capacity to respond and influence effectively (your potential).

Although you are not to blame for the other team member’s behavior, you ARE now accountable for your emotionally intense reaction, which might now become a larger concern to management than the initial matter.

While we may not be able to completely remove the influence from the imprint of an emotional memory, we can consciously step back and assess to what degree the emotional energy we are experiencing in our current circumstance truly belongs to the present and adjust accordingly – to operate from our potential.

Potential in a given moment could mean:

  • the potential to see more options, or access a “bigger picture” or more strategic perspective
  • the potential to choose actions beyond a limited perspective influenced only by our own conditioning
  • the potential to empathize
  • the potential to access and exhibit more optimism
  • the capacity to see the potential in another person

► Application: Reflect on a current situation where this article’s topic might apply.
Ask yourself: Am I coming from my past or my potential?

Coming from your potential would involve:

1. Self-awareness of triggering issues and emotions and how they are influencing your thinking in the present – in particular, how they are creating a limitation of some kind.

Ask yourself: what emotions am I feeling in this situation that feel similar to an event or circumstance in the past?
How is this influencing my perceptions, thinking, behaviors, and actions in the present?

2. Emotional self-regulation to interrupt the process and identify how it might be limiting current potentials (with people, processes, decisions, goals, actions).

Learn how to discern whether the current response you are having is proportionate to the present situation, or is the “emotional charge” or energy you are feeling fueled by something from the past?

Consciously choose to step out of limiting behavioral or perceptual patterns from the past to move into more effective potential for outcomes that are higher-value, healthier, creative, progressive, or even transformational.

Ask yourself:

  • What does it look like when I’m coming from my past?
  • What would it look like if I was coming from my potential in this situation?
  • What would it feel like to step forward with energy of potential instead of the energy of the past?
  • What action(s) should I take, or not take, to create this?
  • What will be the likely consequence to the relationship(s) involved if I come from my past?  If I come from my potential?

Teams can also ask themselves:

  • Are we operating from our past or our potential?
  • What does it look like when we are operating from our past?
    – are there grudges, unresolved interpersonal issues between team members, or us vs. them attitudes about other teams or departments?
  • What would it look like if we were operating from our potential?
  • What would it feel like to step forward with energy of potential instead of the energy of the past?
  • What action(s) should we take, or not take, to create this?
  • What will be the likely consequence to the relationship(s) involved if we come from our past?  If we come from our potential?

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself,
but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.
– Marcus Aurelius

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