Previously published on Forbes.com
Superman could lose his mojo in an instant as soon as he came in contact with kryptonite. Not good. And if you read my previous article on super powers, you will know that you, too, have them. The next challenge you face as a budding super hero is to stay away from your version of kryptonite.
So, what is your kryptonite?
Have you ever been in a situation at work where you felt like you lost your cool? Maybe not in that wildly out of control way, but enough to where you felt bad about what you said or did. The kind of situation where you think about it on the drive home and wish you had handled yourself differently? I wonder if former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick felt bad about yelling at one of his drivers last year?
This is your kryptonite and it causes you to be an everyday Joe. Not a super cool super hero.
Your kryptonite undoes your super power. This happens anytime you get hooked, or upset, and before you know it, you are doing something that you wouldn’t necessarily do if you were in your right mind. It’s kind of like your super power gets hijacked. It is what happens when something unexpected comes at you that is upsetting. You know you have been hijacked if you’re pissed off, frustrated or angry. Your body will inform you as your heart races, your gut clenches, or you get a sudden headache.
When you are hijacked, you go on automatic and revert to some unconscious behaviors and actions to help you “survive” the upset. We call these actions your “self-protective strategies” – they are the opposite of super powers.
Odds are that you learned your self-protective strategies when you were very young. Research tells us that by the age of six, these patterns are firmly in place. We learn from the important adults in our world, soaking up their behaviors like a sponge. What did mom do when she was upset? Did she withdraw from the action or become a martyr and just handle it? How about dad? Did he get sarcastic and a little mean? This is how you learned what to do when you get upset or hijacked, both at home and at work.
Let’s look at the ten self-protective strategies we see most frequently used at work:
- “I’ll do it myself”: This is the classic martyr. The internal dialogue might sound something like, “It’s all up to me,” or “I’m the only one who really cares about doing this the right way.” Martyrs often suffer, though not always silently. If you find yourself doing it yourself and feeling resentful, if it’s hard for you to say “no,” and you’re often overwhelmed, this might be your self-protective strategy.
- Self-Righteousness: When you are upset, do you look for someone or something to blame, condemn, or criticize? Do you often think your way is the right way? Do you ever hear yourself saying, “Don’t you think I’m right?” If so, self-righteousness might be your self-protective strategy.
- Self-Sabotage: Are you ever hard on yourself? Maybe after an important presentation or meeting where you wish you hadn’t said what you said? Self-sabotage is the self-protective strategy of those who obsess over their failings.
- Acting Politically: Did your family tidy messy things up for the outside world? Some families train their children to withhold the truth: “We don’t air our dirty laundry in public.” If you grew up learning to censor your behavior and only present what’s socially acceptable, you might have developed the self-protection strategy of acting politically.
- Cynicism: People who are cynical don’t have to believe in anything, so they won’t get disappointed. They can comment from the sidelines, saying, “I knew it wouldn’t work out.” That’s certainly one way to try to protect yourself, but the challenge is that your mind and heart are closed for business.
- Sarcasm: If you use sarcastic or cutting remarks to lighten a situation or put someone in their place, this might be your self-protective strategy. It’s the one I was trained in as a kid. I had four uncles and a dad who used sarcasm like religion. With sarcasm, people are likely to think you are funny, but the laughter is always at the expense of another. The effect is disempowering.
- Intellectualization: If you have an argument for everything, if you challenge most people and ideas, this might be your self-protective strategy. Staying in the intellect and the argument keeps you from having to feel or empathize with others when you are upset.
- Domination: When you default to domination as a protective strategy, you use your position and authority to demand that people do what you tell them to do. You might even become a bully or shout or curse when you are upset. It’s not pretty.
- Coalition-Building: This unconscious strategy involves engaging a group of people around you who agree with how “right” you are. If you gossip or talk to other people about how upset you are and what another person has done to cause this, then this may be your self-protective strategy.
- Withdrawal: Withdrawal can be physical, emotional, or mental. If you disengage when you are upset—disappearing behind the remote control or the laptop when conflict is happening or refusing to talk to the people you are upset with—this may be your self-protective strategy.
Engaging your self-protective strategies will allow you to survive, but never to thrive. They may give you a sense of power, but it’s not the kind of power you want or will feel good about on your drive home.
Before you lose your cool again, take a moment and figure out what your self-protective strategies are. Notice when you’re engaging in them, and then engage some new strategies to stop yourself from getting hijacked going forward. Take a deep breath, count to ten, and step back into your super power. You will naturally find a more empowering response to what is in front of you. This is an act of leadership and self-mastery.