13th September, 2022

But is it a Tiger?

With Rachel Morris

Dr Rachel Morris

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On this episode

In this episode, Rachel talks about how you can distinguish the tigers in your life and better understand why we respond to them in the first place. She shares the four common immediate responses and how they often put us in a mindset for bad decisions. Whenever we meet a threat or irritation, we need to step back and ask, “is it a tiger?”

If you would like a quick tip on staying calm in the face of irritations and make better decisions even in the heat of staring down a tiger, stay tuned to this episode.

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Reasons to listen

  1. Understand the three types of threats that affect us — and which one is the tiger.
  2. Learn to distinguish what matters and understand our core boundaries.
  3. Discover how you can make better decisions independent of your reaction to tigers.

Episode highlights


What are Tigers?


The Three Types of Threats


How Tigers Affect Us


How to Distinguish Tigers


Which Tigers Matter?


Key Takeaways

Episode transcript

Rachel Morris: This is a You are Not a Frog quick dip, a tiny taster of the kinds of things we talk about on our full podcast episodes. I’ve chosen today’s topic to give you a helpful boost in the time it takes to have a cup of tea, so you can return to whatever else you’re up to feeling energised and inspired. For more tools, tips and insights to help you thrive at work, don’t forget to subscribe to You are Not a Frog wherever you get your podcasts.

Today, I want to talk about tigers, because there seems to be a lot of tigers all around. Wherever we turn, there seems to be new thing that are set to make us cross, make us angry and make us worried and anxious about things. So a few weeks ago, we went to Cambridge Folk Festival, which was wonderful. We went for one day. There were quite a few people playing that I wanted to see.

Now, there’s not a huge amount of room at Cambridge Folk Festival and everybody was squashed in on these picnic blankets. As the day went on, more and more people turned up and put their picnic blankets down with their deck chairs and everything. So, we were all sat there trying to be as good as possible, trying not to encroach on other people’s deck chairs, try not to encroach on other people’s blankets.

Now, I was there with quite a lot of people, and we were desperately trying to keep ourselves to our own picnic blanket, but one member of the party accidentally leant over onto somebody else’s picnic blanket. At this point, the person whose picnic blanket it was got really upset with them, started going on at them about how selfish they were, and can they just keep to themselves, bla bla bla bla bla.

I found myself getting really triggered, getting really angry and annoyed. Actually, I stayed angry and annoyed for the next hour or so thinking, who do they think they are, don’t they know what a festival’s like. We’ve been doing our best. Reflecting on this, I really can’t think of a reason why I got so cross and annoyed by it and ended up letting it affect me for much, much longer than it ought to.

Now, I’m sure we can all think of things that have affected us for much longer than they ought to from people pulling out in front of us on the road, complete strangers. Maybe driving a little bit selfishly, you’re getting on the horn. You’re thinking, oh, what an idiot and you feel annoyed for the next 10 minutes. Or maybe somebody at work has done something a little bit thoughtless, and we just get really irritated by it, and then it stays with us.

Or maybe it’s patients complaining about stuff that actually they shouldn’t complain about, for example, phoning them half an hour later than we should have done when actually the fact that we managed to phone them at all is a bit of a miracle looking at the on-call day that we’ve got. But, these things really, really irritate us. Now, when I look across the spectrum of these things that are really, really annoying us, one thing has become quite obvious, and that is not every irritation is created equal.

But, we don’t seem to be able to distinguish between these major irritations and things we really should get anxious and worry about and then these minor things, which actually don’t matter. So all these threats, all these irritations come at us, and we all see them as this tiger about to attack us and about to eat us. My question to you today is, is everything a tiger? Is it really a tiger? Now, why do all threats seem the same to us?

Well, we have a fairly basic threat detection system, this is your amygdala. This is the part of your brain that has kept us safe over the millennium. The amygdala detects three different types of threat. So firstly, a physical threat, so that is if you’re just about to be eaten by the tiger, you will experience a physical threat. You will go into your fight, flight or freeze response and you will try to run away.

All the blood will be diverted from your prefrontal cortex down into your big muscles, and you’ll be primed to run. So, that’s the physical threat, and that is really quite understandable. We obviously react really badly to any physical threat to our health, to our well being or physical threats to our families, to our friends. The second threat is a hierarchical threat, so the threat of being usurped by the alpha male in the tribe and we really feel quite keenly any threat to the hierarchy.

So maybe, that person’s saying to me, your party is encroaching on my picnic blanket was a bit of a hierarchical threat. We feel that hierarchical threat in the same way as we feel a physical threat. Why? Because I guess when we were living in caves, being challenged by the hierarchy might have meant that you and your family had to move away from the tribe. That brings us on to the third type of threat, and that is the group threat.

The threat that people will not like you will think badly of you. Okay. Because when we lived in caves, again, this threat was very, very serious. Because if you got kicked out of the cave, if you had to survive on your own, you’d probably die of exposure or be eaten by a lion or a tiger, or both. So, this group threat is really, really important. So, we have the physical threat, the hierarchical threat, and the group threat of upsetting people, of people not liking us.

All of these, like I said, send us into our fight, flight, or freeze zones, that is our sympathetic nervous system. Now, you will know that when you have adrenaline pumping through your body, you don’t make very good decisions. In fact, I’d say you make very bad decisions. Often, they’re very bright black and white decisions. I don’t know about you, but I can look at all those times, but I didn’t behave as well as I wanted to when I wasn’t as compassionate or as kind as I wanted to be.

It’s mainly when I was in that fight, flight or freeze zone where my sympathetic system was going. I just couldn’t access that part of me that was rational, that was kind and was compassionate. Now, that fight or flight or freeze zone is very, very helpful when there is a tiger coming at you, but the problem is most of these threats, they are not tigers.

We need to learn to distinguish between what is a tiger is genuinely going to cause us harm that we need to have an appropriate sympathetic response to, and what is something that actually would be much better if we got out of our sympathetic system into our parasympathetic system could respond logically and rationally and compassionately to. Sidenote, quite recently, I heard of another response that isn’t fight, flight or isn’t freeze.

Now, this is the fawn response, and many of us will recognize that when we feel triggered, when we are in that state, often will become overly helpful, because we’re so worried that we’ve upset somebody that will suddenly be bending over backwards and be incredibly nice to them. I can certainly recognize that in myself, and I wonder how many of you go into that fawn state as well. It’s just worth knowing about.

So, what do we do? How do we tell the tigers apart? How do we tell when it’s a big nasty tiger, it’s really going to bite you, or a little cat that’s just going to meow a bit loudly and walk off? Well, the first thing to remember is, actually, you probably care a lot more than them. That person having a go at you about being on the picnic blanket, yeah, they might be a little bit hacked off, but probably they’ll just go off and do something else.

You’ll be stewing about it for another hour, and realise you’re not wrong. You’re not wrong to have that reaction. This is a natural reaction that comes up, but it’s just not very helpful, and it doesn’t do you any good. It’s a little bit like drinking poison to kill the rat. You’re the only one that’s going to suffer here. Most people are much, much more worried about themselves than they are about other people.

They’re so busy thinking about, Well, what did they think of me, and what am I doing that they’re not really caring about you. So, these things can be really, really irritating, but most of them actually don’t matter at all. That patient complaining at you, because you’ve phone them 30 minutes late, actually, you are doing your best. It does not materially matter that they have had to wait an extra 30 minutes to get the advice that they needed.

Yes, it’s irritating for them, and you can certainly apologise, but these things in the grand scheme of things don’t matter. You need to decide which tigers matter to you, because actually, there are some things that really, really do matter. It really matters if that tiger bites my arm off, because I’m not gonna have an arm. It really, really matters if there is a physical threat to me or if there’s a severe emotional threat to me.

There are a lot of things like I said before that don’t matter, so you need to decide which tigers really matter to you. Now, I would think for most people listening to this podcast, if there was severe harm that was going to occur to a patient or a client, then that would really really matter to you. If it’s a safety issue, if somebody was really going to suffer because of your actions, that is a tiger that really, really matters.

You would then choose to take action and choose to do something different. I know for me, personally, somebody feeling unloved or feeling like they’ve been bullied or mistreated or that people had been really unkind to them, now, that really, really matters to me. But a lot of the time, it’s people just feeling a bit disgruntled that they didn’t get their own way. It’s when you’ve maybe put somebody out a little bit.

Let’s face it, every time we say no to somebody, they’re going to react a little bit badly. No one really goes, oh, thank you so much for saying no to me. I realised now that that was an unreasonable request, that just doesn’t happen. So, people do react badly. It doesn’t mean that that tiger is a dangerous tiger that you need to avoid at all cost. So, you need to decide which tigers matter to you. How do you do this?

Well, first of all, decide in advance what you’re going to accept, what you’re not going to accept, and this might be working out what your core boundaries are, and your flex boundaries are. Actually, what are the things that really matter to you that you will never, ever move on, and one of those might be anything that is going to cause patient harm, for example.

But, your flex boundaries might be something like actually, I don’t mind if somebody is a little bit disgruntled because I have had to say no to that. That could be something that you could move on. You might try your best to please everybody all the time, but you really, really aren’t going to be able to do that. So, we need to start to get better at putting up with people not being entirely pleased with me.

We’re going to be talking about that far more over the next few weeks and months, because it’s something I really think we need to get on top of. The reason I’m saying that is because I’m really bad at this myself, and so it’s a struggle I’m going through at the moment. So all of these quick tips and all of the podcast episodes are me trying to figure this out for myself as well and just sharing stuff with you as we go along.

So the one thing that you can do in the next few days and weeks that will make a huge difference when you’re coming across this issue is firstly, to press that pause button. That pause button is your friend, because when we’re in that fight, flight or freeze or fawn response, the first thing we want to do is respond and to either make it better, or to make that person know exactly what they’ve done to us.

We need to take that break, and we need to pause. Often, we need to pause for a lot longer than we think we need it for. I mean, I remember walking around with a friend one day and talking to her about something she said, gosh, Rachel, you’re really angry about this still, aren’t you? I didn’t realise. I thought I’ve completely gotten over it. Actually, I have a friend who’s a teacher.

She says that you get this sort of very typical response when a child gets sent out of class. They say, you’ve got a naughty child and they haven’t been able to control themselves. They’ve lost their temper, and then the teacher sends them out of their class. They’re set outside and they’re just starting to come down. Then, what happens? Deputy Head comes along says why are you outside class, right, come with me to the headmistress.

Suddenly, that’s fight, flight, freeze response that the inner chimp, the amygdala response is ramped up again, because they haven’t been given themselves time enough to calm down. So actually, the calming down, the pause button, you often need a lot longer than you think you do, and then you need to think really logically, actually, is it a tiger? Is this a tiger here? Does it really matter here?

So if it is a tiger, do whatever you need to do to avoid that, to sort it out. If it’s not a big, nasty tiger, the question then is what does it matter? If it really matters, you’ll go into action. But, one thing you can probably say quite a lot is it doesn’t matter so much, and this is one of the ‘F it’ mantras that I was talking about with John C. Parkin on the podcast recently, so do check out the “F it” podcast with him.

So, it doesn’t matter so much, and then you can do whatever you need to do to get yourself from your sympathetic nervous zone back into your parasympathetic, rest and digest. So now, this might be purely just distracting yourself with something different. It could be making a cup of tea. It could be chatting to a friend about it, but calm yourself down and let it go. Then, you can choose how you respond in a rational, compassionate and calm way and it will avoid you having to drink that poison to kill the rats.

So, is it a tiger? What sort of tiger is it? How do I need to respond? If you’re struggling to think about is it a tiger, then dive deep into your emotions. What are you actually feeling? I know that sometimes when I get incredibly angry, it’s not because I’m a cross nasty, angry person. It’s because I’m really worried or upset about that thing. So, getting really granular about your emotions and asking yourself what am I feeling there, and letting yourself sit with some of those feelings can actually help rather than fighting against it.

Now, this takes time and effort. In some more podcasts, we’re gonna talk about that. So, today on this really short, quick tip, we’ve been talking about tigers, about the reactions that we have when something threatens us either in a physical way, a hierarchical way, or a group threat.

We’ve talked about working out what the tigers are that you absolutely will need to respond to, such as patient harm, such as someone being bullied, for example, but there are some tigers that you can just ignore, and they will go away and it doesn’t really matter. So to get in touch, let me know what the tigers are for you. Let me know which things that you think actually you can just ignore and take that pause button.

Take that time to ask yourself, Is this a tiger and does it really matter? I will see you for the next episode. Bye.