Why do you freak out when you’re late?

October 9, 2014 by Joshua
in Awareness, Evolutionary Psychology, Nature

You’re stuck in traffic, late for an important meeting. There’s nothing you can do. Each tick of the clock reminds you of how bad this will make you look. If the meeting is important enough your palms sweat and your breathing becomes affected. Your mind keeps going around in circles about how to explain your lateness and making up excuses.

Have you ever wondered why you react this way?

You can’t do anything about it, so why the intensity of emotions?

You aren’t feeling fight-flight-or-freeze. That reaction makes sense in the face of an aggressor, even if in today’s world you have to hold yourself back from acting on them. In your ancestors’ environments before about ten thousand years ago, without law and police to enforce justice, you had to protect yourself and there hasn’t been enough been enough time for humans to evolve new reactions. Or if the aggressor was a predator you had to defend yourself or escape, but we don’t have many predators left.

But when you’re late there’s no aggressor. You don’t feel like fighting, running away, or freezing. You feel like making excuses, trying to be convincing, and explaining why you couldn’t have helped your lateness. I explored these emotions, motivations, and behaviors and finally figured out their purpose.

We feel and act this way for the other person to see—to convincingly communicate that we care about them. Have you noticed you can’t calm down all the time you’re late, but then can after you meet? Your subconscious is putting on a show to maintain your credibility.

Imagine you walked in late to a meeting with someone important and calmly said, “Sorry I’m late. I was very anxious for a while, but then realized it wasn’t so bad so now I’m calm.” You’d offend the other person for not caring about their time. Pay attention to your thoughts next time you’re late and notice the attention your mind gives to the other person and how they will react to your lateness. Show up calm and they’ll think you disrespected them. You have to show them deference by showing how frazzled you are or they’ll dislike you.

Yet it’s all an act. When you’re late to something that doesn’t involve someone waiting for you, you don’t get frazzled.

Some of you are thinking this is obvious. Others are having a-ha moments, seeing how our minds work automatically and unconsciously to respond to status and keep our place in hierarchies.

I find it fascinating. Mostly I find working out the feelings helps raise my awareness of my emotions and emotional system, which means understanding the human emotional system, which is at the center of leadership.

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