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It was mid-morning and I was bustling around the house while my toddler ambled about when five large pieces of metal were thrown from the apartment two stories above us.
In that moment, I lost it. This had been a problem for years, people thinking it was ok to toss things off their balconies, right above the main entrance to the building. But this was the first time someone was throwing something so obviously dangerous.
What if my toddler had run outside at that very moment and been hit in the head?
Even though I rushed upstairs and effectively expressed my safety concerns, I still couldn't shake my anger. After that, anytime I saw something that appeared to be tossed from the balconies above, I reacted with gusto. Even if it was just a leaf falling, I would remain fired up.
This is just one example of the type of situations and behaviors that get under my skin.
And if I let myself, I can always justify my reaction. There was an obvious threat to the safety of others. Of course, I should strive to protect myself, my family, and my neighbors. If I didn't say anything, they would have continued tossing metal off the balcony (there was much more that needed to be discarded).
Not only can I justify my reaction, but I can let myself get high on my horse of self-righteous indignation. "The nerve of some people. They just don't care about the welfare of others. Everyone is out for themselves. They're so lazy they'd rather hurt someone else than carry things downstairs. How dare they?"
All of these thoughts - the justification, the judgment, the blame - don't serve me. They just keep my irritation inflamed.
Everyone has similar experiences. A person, a situation, a word, that just gets under your skin. And like any irritant, you are inclined to pick at it. To right the wrong. To fight the good fight. To forcefully eradicate the problem.
Unfortunately, staying fired up and maintaining a position of self-righteous indignation usually backfires.
There are more constructive ways to respond to an irritant. And doing so starts with stepping back and gaining some composure.
You need to regain your composure because inherently when something gets under your skin, it's triggering a patterned threat response - fight, flight, freeze or appease. In my case, the response was to fight. And while I may have saved someone from unnecessary harm in that moment, staying vigilantly fired up not only drained my energy levels but also eroded the sense of community.
By regaining composure, we re-engage our executive brain. We are able to shift from an us versus them mentality because are capable of taking other perspectives into consideration. As a result, we have the capacity to explore alternative solutions that everyone willingly commits to following.
Whereas staying fired up leads to positional thinking. It's about being right, and the satisfaction of vindication. And while we might taste sweet victory for a moment, there's a lack of follow-through from all involved because there isn't genuine agreement on the solution. While they stopped tossing metal that day, the problem of people throwing things of their balcony persisted until we moved.
Whenever something gets under our skin, it's an invitation to lean in. If we stick with our biological reactions, we are no longer genuinely pursuing a resolution to the issue at hand. Instead, we are solely striving to elevate our own ego and sense of self-worth by getting others to admit we are right.
It takes being able to step back. Separating the fact from fiction. And self-regulating your neurochemistry to get beyond your patterned threat response in order to find a viable solution collectively. And this is no easy feat, your ego will fight you tooth and nail. Your ego has you convinced that your go-to reaction is legitimate, right, possibly even valiant.
Despite all that, navigating situations that get under your skin is a necessary skill for leaders to develop. These situations are bound to happen. If we don't deal with our inner drama, we can never expect others to effectively manage such challenges together. If we stay stuck in a patterned threat response we run the risk of conflict escalating and alienating people, when it could have been a source of personal and collective transformation.
I no longer live in that building. While I was able to move away from that one problem, I still experience things getting under my skin. I have to work extra hard to see the invitation to lean in rather than react when those stressors appear.
Turning to the pages of my journal is a great way for me to process my thoughts, feelings, and reactions so I may show up with intention and integrity. The effect is noticeable, it's the difference between incessantly scratching irritated skin versus putting on a soothing balm.
By staying grounded and composed when navigating these challenges I am able to work with the other people involved to co-create a solution together. And because they were a part of solving the problem, they're more vested in following through. The solution not only sticks, it usually turns out better than my initial idea.
How will you choose to respond the next time someone (or something) gets under your skin? Below are some journaling prompts to help you lean-in to this opportunity to level-up your leadership.
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Four things you can do to constructively navigate those times something gets under your SKIN
Stressor - What's the situation, behavior or phrase (the stressor) that's gotten under your skin?
Kinesthetic - What physiological changes does the stressor create in your body?
Inner drama - What thoughts of blame, judgment, shame or justification do you have?
Navigate with compassion - How might you navigate this moment with compassion for yourself and others?