Note: The next three posts will focus on the power of words to emotionally impact us.
- In this post, I will look at the impact of the word “ok” on a questioner from the website Quora.com. I often contribute to this site.
- In my next post, I will discuss the difference between being “divorced” and being “single”. Both words describe a post-divorce individual but they evoke different emotions.
- Finally, I will discuss the concept of “being stuck” in the context of “How is that (project) going?”
“Why do I get mad when people say “ok” to me?”
When I was asked this question on Quora.com, I found it interesting because of what it implied about all emotions including anger and the power we give to words to impact us. I’m expanding my answer here.
There are two components in this question..
- What the emotion of anger (mad) tells us about our perception of our current situation and
- The power we give words to influence us
The Emotion of Anger (mad)
The message of anger (mad) is that ..
- you perceive the situation as a “threat” and
- you are ready to go to war to eliminate that threat.
Anger prepares you for war.
So, let’s think about this for a moment..
This writer is saying that he (or she) is ready to go to war because of the threat implied by the word “ok”.
The Power of Words
This “threat” is interesting for at least three reasons…
- The individual with whom the questioner is interacting has done nothing noticeably wrong other than to say “okay”. Hence, there is no objective or obvious threat.
- The questioner has imbued the word “okay” with tremendous power.
- That power is clearly influencing the questioner eliciting an angry reaction.
To put it another way, the word seems to have emotionally highjacked the questioner.
On the surface, this seems a bit strange. So, what is going on?
The Emotions as Tools Model dictates the steps you take regarding the emotion you are experiencing when you want to strategically master your own emotions or those with whom you interact.
The first action you need to take is to validate your emotion.
Validating the emotion involves:
Taking your emotion “at face value” and as “true” for you in the moment because it reflects your perception of the situation.
Note: this does not mean that your perception is correct or true for the situation.
Your next step is to assess the nature of the perceived threat and whether or not there actually is a threat.
So, for the author of this question, we must assume that he has placed a great deal of significance and importance on the word “ok”. As the word, “okay”d is neutral. It is an acknowledgment of a situation, a statement, or an interaction. That’s it.
So, we have to assume that the questioner is viewing the word through the lens of some prior bad experience or that the tone with which the word “ok” was said implied some negativity such as sarcasm, ridicule, belittling, or demeaning. Or both.
It is this “lens” that gives the word “okay” its power to elicit a strong emotion.
For you, my reader, think about times when you have gotten upset about either what someone said to you or the manner in which it was said.
Can you relate to my Quora questioner?
With the above as a starting point, here is how I responded on Quora…
While you will have to figure out what exactly it is about someone saying “ok” to you that elicits (not causes) your anger, I can give you some background information which should help you.
Anger is one of 6 primary emotions (mad, sad, glad, fear, disgust, and surprise) which are found in all human species and some sub-human species. With the exception of glad and surprise, all of the primary emotions are primitive threat detectors which evolved to help humans, as a species, survive in a world filled with dangerous predators (human and animal) and situations which could, and did, easily kill us.
Our emotional system consists of our senses which continuously scan our surroundings for threats, the amygdala and thalamus which unconsciously alert us to and prepare our bodies to deal with the impending threat, and, (in us as more evolved humans) the cerebral cortex. The senses and the amydala/thalamus comprise a primitive system over which we have no control. By the way, if we are facing a threat which will kill us (survival threat), we want the whole emotional process to operate (on its own) and keep us safe.
For you, however, most of the threats you face will be psychological threats. These threats include perceived “assaults” on our self-image, our self-esteem, our views of right and wrong, and so forth. A psychological threat will not kill you although it may leave you feeling vulnerable, inadequate, wronged, or attacked.
Words have power through the “meaning” we give them.
With this knowledge, you can now ask yourself what it is about “ok” which pushes your anger button.
Or, to put it another way..
You have given the word “ok” a great deal of power that it does inherently deserve.
What associations do you have with this word, from your past that gives it this power?
Is it that you feel someone is patronizing, minimizing, or marginalizing you?
Have you experienced being marginalized in the past?
Pay close attention to what you are thinking when someone says this to you and you react with anger. These thoughts should contain the information you need to understand what is eliciting your anger.
Secondly, you need to assess your relationship to the person with whom you are interacting.
Is there something about that person that may lead you to believe that they are not being direct or truthful with you regarding the current topic of discussion?
Once you have figured this out what is going on in the moment, you can engage your cerebral cortex (the thinking part of your brain) to remind yourself that there is no real threat.
- If you are responding to something that happened to you in your past rather than in the current situation and you can choose not to react.
- If you suspect that the tone of voice you are reacting to reflects a problem in your relationship with the other person, you can comment on your perception and ask for clarification.
- You then can choose how you want to respond to what is happening in the moment.
The bottom line.
The takeaway here is that you need to be aware of the power you give to certain words (or situations) to elicit (not cause) an emotional reaction in you. With this awareness, you will be able avoid being emotionally highjacked by those words/situations in the future.
In my next post, I will take about the words “divorced” and “single” in the context of a legally separated couple.