By Friederike Fabritius and Hans W. Hagemann
Emotional outbursts can occur at the most mind-bogglingly inappropriate times. In 2006, during the World Cup soccer final between France and Italy, close to a billion fans watched in disbelief as Zinedine Zidane, one of the most beloved players in French soccer history, seemed to implode before their very eyes.
After ninety minutes of fierce play from both sides, the score was tied at 1-1. Zidane and Italy’s feisty center fullback Marco Materazzi had accounted for the game’s only goals. What happened next was both controversial and devastating. Two-thirds of the way through extra time, as the two men jogged by each other, they both stopped briefly and Materazzi tugged at Zidane’s jersey. Although Zidane seemed at first to be walking away from the confrontation, he suddenly turned to face Materazzi and threw himself at him with full force, knocking him to the ground with a violent head butt to his chest.
Fans all over the world watched in utter disbelief. The act was so brazen and breathtakingly unsportsmanlike that officials felt they had no choice. Zinedine Zidane ousted from the match.
Deprived of its leader as well as one of its most skillful penalty shot kickers, France lost in the shootout round, and Italy emerged as the 2006 World Cup champion. Although soccer is a game of great complexity and a certain amount of luck, it could be reasonably argued that a few-second lapse in one man’s emotional regulation cost his country a world championship.
What went wrong
You may not play soccer, and we hope you’ve never have butted someone with your head, but if you’re like most of us, you can probably remember at least one emotional outburst when once you calmed down you asked yourself, “What in the world was I thinking?!” This question may sound rhetorical, but it has a simple, scientific answer.
You weren’t thinking. You were reacting. Emotional outbursts occur when the more civilized, conscious region of your brain is hijacked by a more powerful, primitive, and largely unconscious part. It’s just one more skirmish in a constant battle between your rational prefrontal cortex and your emotional limbic system. When your body perceives what it conceives as a threat, your limbic system responds so quickly that your prefrontal cortex doesn’t have a chance to convince you when it’s something that isn’t worth getting upset about. Most of us are at least vaguely aware of this battle in our brain, but few of us are capable of consistently controlling our reactions, a process known as emotional regulation.
Here’s how to make it worse
What’s the most commonly used approach to emotional regulation? Psychologists call it cognitive inhibition, but the rest of us probably know it better as suppressing your feelings or holding things back. Not only does this not work; it can actually make matters worse. Attempting to suppress your emotions pits one of the smartest but weakest parts of your brain against one of the most primitive and powerful. It’s like a wrestling match between Albert Einstein and Hulk Hogan. No one would argue over who was the most intelligent, but there’d also be no real disagreement as to who would win the bout.
The not-so-ancient art of Cognitive Jujitsu
If suppressing your emotions doesn’t work, then what does? The answer comes from an unlikely source. The Japanese martial art of jujitsu rests on a simple but powerful idea. When confronted with a stronger opponent, if you attempt to overpower him, you will almost certainly lose. But if you can find a way to neutralize your opponent’s strength or even use it against him, you have a good chance of winning. The principle of jujitsu can also be used to resolve a conflict between those two rival regions of the brain: your powerful limbic system and your weaker but wilier prefrontal cortex. If you attempt to counteract stress by fighting it directly, you will fail. Instead of attempting to suppress your stress, it’s far more efficient—and effective—to redirect it. We call this Cognitive Jujitsu.
All the right moves
Even when you understand the philosophy of jujitsu, you still need to spend time learning and practicing some moves. The same applies with Cognitive Jujitsu. If you’re facing the prospect of an impending emotional outburst, theory isn’t enough. You need to have some techniques at hand that can quickly defuse your potentially destructive response before it’s too late. Two of the best moves we know of are emotional labeling and cognitive reappraisal.
Emotional labeling is exactly what it sounds like. It means applying a name to your reaction. If you’re feeling insulted, threatened, frightened, or outraged, whatever, take time out to identify that emotion. If that suggestion sounds dumb, redundant, or even dangerous, it helps to understand what happens in the brain when you put your feelings into words. When you’re feeling over-stressed or emotional, you’re allowing your cave man brain to run the show. Labeling helps you to regain control by sapping some of your limbic system’s strength and redirecting that energy to your more sensible prefrontal cortex. In Zidane’s case, his Italian opponent allegedly made some offensive comments about the French player’s sister. Wars have started for less, so it may almost be understandable that he reacted by trying to use his head as a battering ram. But if he’d taken a moment to acknowledge to himself that he was feeling insulted, humiliated, or just plain pissed off, a colossal, internationally televised outburst could’ve been averted.
The other handy move is called cognitive reappraisal. If the name sounds unnecessarily complicated, the old saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” may help, because that’s basically what it means. By the time your brain triggers a threat response, there’s usually nothing you can do to stop it—at least not directly. What you can do is to influence how you interpret that response. If Zidane had used cognitive reappraisal, if had seen the Italian player’s trash talk as a sign of desperation or even weakness, he might’ve concluded that Materazzi was only attempting to start a war of words because he was worried about losing the battle for the ball. That simple realization might’ve been enough to calm him down and redirect the energy toward increasing his confidence instead of inflaming his anger. In short, Cognitive Jujitsu could’ve helped France to win the World Cup.
Zinedine Zidane was perhaps the greatest soccer player that France has ever known. Yet, for millions of fans, the first thing that now springs to mind whenever they think of him is that single ugly incident. Had he used emotional labeling or cognitive reappraisal instead of losing his temper, that incident might not have happened at all, and the outcome of the game could’ve been dramatically different. Ironically, the very thing that led to Zidane’s international infamy could have readily rescued him from an unwelcome emotional outburst: his head.