Losing Your Temper and Don’t Know Why? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am a senior manager. I like my company, I like my job, and I like my team. I have always received good performance reviews and my boss thinks I can do no wrong. I feel lucky, all things considered—this past year was as challenging for our company as it was for others, but we are doing okay.

My problem is that lately I’ve been flying off the handle. Things will be going fine, then something will set me off and the next thing you know I’m saying things I know I’ll regret. For example, one of my employees has a whiny voice that grates on my nerves and it is everything I can do to be civil with her. This kind of thing has been happening more and more, and after each time I promise myself not to let it happen again— but then, out of nowhere, it does.

No one has said anything yet but I can tell that my team members are nervous around me now, which also puts me on edge. I have to find a way to get control of this but I don’t know where to start.

What’s wrong with me?

Flying Off the Handle

________________________________________________________

Dear Flying Off the Handle,

Something is wrong. Something is very wrong, and your brain knows it and wants you to pay attention. I want you to pay attention.

I appreciate that you have the self-awareness to notice that something is seriously out of whack and you must get to the bottom of it. Without more information, it is almost impossible for me to provide intelligent input. I started to cover all of the possibilities, but when my answer got way too long, I created a picture to sum it all up:

Here are the possibilities I see—from 1 (which should be a fairly simple fix) to 7 (which could be very serious).

1. Tolerations

A toleration is a teeny thing you are putting up with. One or two are fine—but when they start to accumulate, they can become a huge drain on your energy. Think of a toleration as a little pebble. One pebble in your pocket is not a problem. Even five would be fine. But twenty-five or more would cause a real issue.

The first step in eliminating tolerations is to name them. Write out all the things you are putting up with at work. Think of as many as you can. Write quickly. Aim for twenty-five. Start with your old laptop, your phone battery that is dying too quickly, your squeaky office chair, your cat who keeps napping on your keyboard and leaving cat fur everywhere, your outdated software that keeps reminding you to update, colleagues who don’t respond to emails, resources that get allocated to other people. Tolerations are usually things that, on their own, are not large enough to require your immediate attention—but they bug you just the same.

Next, triage and organize. Review your list and identify what you can change and what you can’t. Remember: listing what you are putting up with doesn’t make you a whiner; it’s actually the beginning of the process of eliminating the things that drain you and keep you from focusing on what is really important.

Then, take action. The power of tolerations comes from their buildup and their subsequent removal. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your state of mind is to literally change a light bulb in the hallway, clean out your email inbox, or go buy a longer phone charging cord. Dealing with tolerations has a magical way of putting a spring back in your step so you can get back to the business you most need to focus on. You can read more on Tolerations here.

2. Denial

Something has changed in your life and you’re pretending it’s OK when, in fact, it isn’t.

So what has changed? Anything? Have you moved your home? Separated from your spouse? Lost a beloved dog? Sent a kid off to college? Are you having an argument with a neighbor? Here is a link to a questionnaire to help you to assess potential changes you might be dealing with and their impact on stress levels.

If that’s not it, maybe something is going wrong at work that you’re in denial about.

What you’re describing was defined by Daniel Goleman in his groundbreaking work Emotional Intelligence as an Amygdala Hijack. Essentially, it means that your pre-frontal cortex, the seat of judgment and self-regulation in your brain, has been overwhelmed and your limbic system has taken over with a fight-or-flight response. Do you somehow feel threatened? Maybe you have an enemy at work who is bullying you. Something is shorting your brain out or something new is “triggering” you. (I am not a fan of that word, but in this case, it could be apt.) Maybe you have been letting your team get away with bad behavior and you are finally sick of it. Maybe the whiny-voiced employee is actually whining, and you need to tell her to cut it out. If nothing is coming to mind, make a quick list of everything you are putting up with at work and see if something surprises you.

3. Emotional Illiteracy

Don’t be offended—I don’t mean to insult you. If you were to diagnose yourself as being emotionally illiterate, you wouldn’t be alone. One of my many coaches, Paul Cutright, always says: “People are never upset for the reason they think they are.” Most of us vaguely know when something is upsetting us but often have no idea exactly what it is, why it is upsetting, or, for that matter, which specific unpleasant emotion we are feeling. I have a personal theory that men, in particular, interpret all unpleasant emotions as anger and that is how those emotions get expressed. But the emotion could actually be concern, fear, uncertainty, hurt feelings, umbrage, exclusion, sadness. Personally, I often have no idea I am upset until I find myself being testy with someone who has done nothing to deserve my ire. I’ll have to go for a walk or do some writing to figure it out.

Susan David has done wonderful work on what she calls Emotional Agility. Her research supports the concept that the more we do the work to both understand what we are feeling and label it accurately, the better able we will be to express it and defuse the power of it. She offers all of her talks as well as a very cool quiz on her website. I suspect this might make a difference for you.

4. Lack of Self Care

I mentioned the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) earlier. It can easily become overwhelmed and then your limbic system has to take over. All of your ability to self-regulate and choose a response, rather than simply react, is managed by your PFC. The PFC is a resource hog, it needs a constant supply of glucose, rest, sleep, exercise, and hydration. If you have too much going on, are making too many decisions, aren’t taking proper breaks, aren’t eating so your blood sugar is too low, aren’t sleeping enough, or are otherwise failing to take care of yourself, your brain will start to show the wear and tear.

Have your regular self-care routines been interrupted? Have you had to miss your regular run or workout? Have you been skipping meals? Up all night worrying about climate change? Cut it out. Nobody is winning if you are off your game.

5. Burnout

Causes of burnout are varied and there is a disagreement about what it really is. It can be hard to pinpoint. Common causes are boredom, too much responsibility without corresponding authority, lack of autonomy, or no opportunity to achieve mastery.

It sounds like you have been doing the same job for a long time. Maybe you are bored. Boredom can creep up on you—this can be subtle because most people resist the truth. The thinking goes: “Things are going great, why mess with a good thing?” When was the last time you were challenged?

Or maybe you are just exhausted. If that’s the case, you are going to have to take a big step back and engage in some seriously extreme self-care. By this I mean take a vacation. Have you used your vacation time? Have you been having any fun at all?

6. Extreme Stress

This could be a combination of denial and emotional illiteracy supported by a culture that supports keeping a stiff upper lip and not complaining when things get hard.

I once worked with a client who was feeling apathetic about pretty much everything. About two months into the coaching, he casually mentioned that his partner had passed away four months back. I was stunned. Of course, it all made sense—the poor guy was grieving! When I said as much, he said “Oh no, that can’t be it; I had known for a long time that he was going to die so it wasn’t a surprise. I’m over it.” Hmmm. No. I understand that no one wants to wallow or feel sorry for themselves, but come on. We are all human, and we all have to process a lot of thoughts and feelings about big life events. Grieving, especially, is wildly misunderstood in Western culture and can deeply affect people for years. Take this stress assessment and see whether you are, indeed, dealing with extreme stress. The crazy thing is that even really positive events like a promotion, a financial windfall, or getting married can be highly stressful.

And let us not forget that we are all living in a period of plague and civil unrest that might be affecting you more than you are admitting to yourself. 

7. Medical Issue

I Googled around (which I don’t recommend unless you need to get nervous enough to get your butt into the doctor—in which case, be my guest). It is possible that you have some kind of health problem that is subtle but is wearing you down. If none of the above possibilities resonates, it would be smart to make a doctor’s appointment and get a full physical. Best case, you’ll get a full physical and find out you are in perfect health but just have a lot of tolerations. Worst case, you’ll find out something is wrong and catch it early, which can only be good.

As you embark on this journey of self-examination and reflection, you will probably be impatient with what feels like navel gazing. But the fact is, that is what is required of you now. When you are watching yourself behave in ways you don’t condone or understand, you must figure it out before it gets worse and causes a real problem. Talk to a close friend or your partner. Take a long walk and pretend you are being interviewed about your life. Pray if that’s your thing. Write it all down if that’s better for you. Just start to express what is in your heart. I am hoping that, with the structure I’ve laid out, you will stumble over what is going on.

In the meantime, I’d recommend you talk to your whole team about this. Just get the elephant in the room right out in the open. Tell them you have noticed that you have been unusually volatile and you are working to understand why and to manage the behavior. And it isn’t personal.

I’m sorry you are going through this. Don’t put your head in the sand now—get on it and stay on it. You’ll be so glad you did.

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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