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What is a Kill Switch?

According to Wikipedia, a kill switch, also known as an emergency stop (E-stop), emergency off (EMO) and as an emergency power off (EPO), is a safety mechanism used to shut off machinery in an emergency, when it cannot be shut down in the usual manner. While the definition is geared towards machinery, I have observed a similar safety feature in myself and others.

A kill switch is only to be used in the case of an emergency and I believe that we all have innate and learned behaviors that kick in when we feel emotionally charged or overwhelmed. A kill switch is an individual’s default response to quickly stop a person from continuing a behavior that is pushing one beyond his or her ability to manage discomfort or frustration.

The switch is different for each of us and can show up as yelling and screaming, crying, total shutdown and withdrawal or walking away. You activate your kill switch when your fight, flight or freeze response has been triggered. This response is due to a perceived danger which causes your brain to signal you with a warning. In response to that signal, you: (1) defend yourself, (2) are unable to respond, (3) run away from the danger or (4) de-escalate the situation.

For the purposes of this conversation (please comment and make it a conversation), we are putting physical danger aside and are looking strictly at the kill switch or panic button in response to emotional danger or overload.

What Is My Kill Switch Telling Me?

In whatever the scenario, you have had enough and are having a visceral response to what is being said or done to you. You reach your boiling point and must do what is necessary to make the situation end. When we examine our kill switch, we also have another way to measure our emotional intelligence (EQ). I describe EQ as an understanding of and an ability to communicate your emotional state, control your responses and consider the emotions and well-being of others. You can read my previous article on EQ here.

Your kill switch is tied to your EQ in that it can inform you of how well you are able to regulate your emotions in stressful situations. It can also highlight areas where you may have unhealed trauma, faulty reasoning, or areas where you have not clearly defined and enforced boundaries. Our insight is found in examining what is happening and how we respond before we flip the switch.

Ask yourself:

  1. What about this situation is causing me so much discomfort?
  2. Is my response level proportionate to what is happening (Am I overreacting?)
  3. Have I ever articulated my discomfort to this person?

You will notice that each of the questions trigger self-examination. I am not focused on the other person or even their behavior because the only behavior that I can control is my own. The person that is most responsible for me is me. With that mindset, I look inward, not to blame myself for someone else’s behavior, but to learn how I contributed to the situation, how I communicated and whether or not I should do something differently going forward.

Using My Kill Switch to Make Decisions

I attempt to evaluate what is the appropriate response. Do I continue this relationship? Sever ties? Should I work on the relationship with the other person by clearly setting my boundaries, sticking to them and hearing their perspective?

Only you will know the appropriate response. The right response will become clear to you if you are tuned into your internal voice, clearly communicating your needs and making space for the other person to respond. Making spacing and noticing the other person’s response is important. If you have clearly communicated your needs and the behavior does not change, it may not be a healthy relationship. If you observe an attempt to hear your concerns and meet your needs, you may be in a relationship that will grow and work for both of you.

The important thing to remember is that you are in control and can determine how things unfold. When we are emotionally charged, we sometimes forget that we can determine how engaged we remain in the situation. Take a breath and control your focus. Where the focus goes, energy flows. If you only focus on the situation, it is all that you can see. Instead, we should focus on the solution and put our energy into creating a healthy situation for each person involved.

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Learning from Our Kill Switches

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