On Venting, Tantrums and Brett Kavanaugh

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A.K.A. What makes Judge Kavanaugh tick, talk and ticked him off?

This is not a piece to bash Judge Brett Kavanaugh, but to use his public testimony at his confirmation hearing on Thursday as an instructional piece for all of us to learn from about what causes highly rational people to lose their cool and then to look foolish. For the record, what follows also applies to Senator Lindsay Graham’s display of lashing out as well on the same day Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Kavanaugh were questioned.

I am an intuitive neurobehaviorist and what I believe we all witnessed was the following sequence as Judge Kavanaugh testified.

Rigid personality → Anxiety under pressure → Brittleness → Venting to relieve tension → Confrontation by Senators → Fragile → Panic → Fearful aggression believing next blow would cause his mind to shatter → Tantrum outward to avoid shattering inward

Let me explain.

Imagine that what underlies our personality (and temperament at the moment) is how our three brains — upper/rational/human, middle/emotional/mammal, lower/fight or flight/reptile — line up with our perceived goals and reality. When our goals and three brains are perfectly aligned we are in the “zone” and experience what neuropsychologists call “flow.” It is a wonderful state where we feel empowered, emboldened and nearly invincible.

In essence our goals and perceived reality tether our three brains together, much like a bracelet holds charms together.

However, when our goals (i.e. confirmation as Supreme Court Justice as natural next goal for Judge Kavanaugh) are thwarted or in danger of being ripped away, we figuratively and neurologically become “untethered” and our three brains go from hard-wired to decoupled to disconnected. As that happens our anxiety rapidly builds and we use words such as “unglued,” “out of my mind,” “wigged out,” “out of sorts” to describe the sensation of plummeting.

Furthermore, the more rigid our personality, the more our goals and three brains are hard-wired together and the more our anxiety will turn to brittleness as we try to hold onto control. One of the ways to relieve that brittleness is to vent and “let off steam” as Judge Kavanaugh did in his opening statements on Thursday. As our goals are further threatened –plus when we are invaded by increasingly confrontational and personal and humiliating questions –the more our brittleness pushes our anxiety towards panic and we begin to feel fragile and at risk of entering the “not in control” triad that is utterly intolerable to rigid and controlling personalities.

The “not in control” triad consists of:

Not in control → Loss of control → Out of control

Out of control to rigid personalities is tantamount to feeling as if following feeling fragile the next step is shattering. At that point panic sets in and we descend into lower/fight or flight/reptile brain. This is where we exhibit fearful aggression (becoming aggressive out of fear as when show dogs growl and lose out of Best in Show… their Supreme Court appointment) and that is when we have a tantrum. It’s at the point that we lose touch with our surroundings, the consequences of our actions, and we will do anything to keep from shattering.

This is not an uncommon sequence especially in rigid and controlling personalities and how we saw Judge Kavanaugh act is not unlike how many of us act when psychologically cornered… in private.

The problem is that once it is shown in public as it was, it is tantamount to the Prosecution in the OJ Simpson criminal trial proclaiming that once the “N” word was spoken in front of a jury and the court of public opinion, “You can’t un-ring a bell.”

In other words, once a potential Supreme Court Justice, who should be the epitome of calmness under pressure, has a tantrum, you can’t un-ring that bell.

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Dr. Goulston is the inventor of Surgical Empathy, a speaker, executive coach & the author of "Just Listen" which became the top book on listening in the world.

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