Is Your Brain to Blame for Angry Outbursts?

(Note: NVC is an abbreviation for Nonviolent Communication, a fluid, ever-evolving language process created by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. It is also sometimes referred to as Compassionate Communication, and is based on universal human feelings and needs, the giving of empathy and making humble requests rather than demands.)

I’d like to take a scientific detour in this post, to help meet our need for understanding of the primitive part of the human brain, which is sometimes blamed for extremely angry outbursts and even for acts of violence intended to punish or harm others.

Deep inside the primitive part of the human brain is a tiny part of the limbic system called the amygdala. The limbic system includes portions of the brain involved in emotion, motivation, and emotional association with memory.

I’ve heard some practitioners of NVC explain angry outbursts and violent actions as a result of the amygdala being highly stimulated and overwhelmed. It almost sounds to me as if they want to blame their outbursts on this tiny almond-shaped piece of brain tissue, as if it should have been able to stretch and contain some more horror without reacting.

Scientists believe that this tiny part of the brain stores and contains extremely painful, horrifying, infuriating memories so that the person who experienced them can still function, even if just on a bare survival level. The most dramatic examples that come to mind are soldiers seeing the horrors of war, or prisoners or people who lived in concentration camps. There are also many ordinary, day-to-day situations that we find very stressful or painful. Our amygdalas manage somehow to compartmentalize these painful memories so we can go on and function in day to day life. It is each of us, however, who may choose to repress these painful experiences deeply or for a longer period of time than we can manage in a healthy, whole way.

I learned from Wikipedia that the amygdala affects motivation and is more active in extroverts and risk-takers than in people with introverted, cautious personalities. Conditions such as extreme anxiety, autism, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and phobias (all somewhat judgmental, evaluative, clinical labels and terms) are suspected of being linked to malfunctioning of the amygdala.

What does all this have to do with NVC or nonviolent communication? One of the goals of NVC is to be in a state of consciousness which observes without making moral judgments. Another goal is to take full responsibility for our own feelings, thoughts, judgments, words and actions. When we have seen some extremely painful things happen in a particular relationship, if the science is correct, they may be contained or compartmentalized in the amygdala. When we feel overwhelmed with accumulated stress, hurt, anxiety or anger, if we have repressed a lot of pain, the amygdala may overflow and we may act out, or speak in jackal language as we say in NVC.

While the amygdala part of the brain may in fact be involved, I don’t think it is a fully conscious entity in itself. The responsibility for our words and actions still, in my opinion, rests with our conscious self.

Someone who is acting out strongly may attribute it to their amygdala being overwhelmed and just letting loose. If there is no surgery which can give us a bigger, stronger replacement amygdala (like memory chips in a computer), then it seems to me that blaming its limited capacity is not in harmony with NVC values around accepting full self-responsibility.

About swpollack

I’m an independent mediator and collaborative communication coach who can help you to co-create greater ease, connection and mutual understanding in your personal and professional relationships. As a non-traditional specialist, my aim is to get concrete results for my clients in a fraction of the time usually required by traditional therapy and counseling. Please visit my business website: . The emotion-based coaching work I do is deeply therapeutic, yet I am neither a psychologist nor a psychotherapist. Instead I work with a holistic, empathic process called compassionate, nonviolent communication. I also facilitate ongoing support groups for people who want to learn this organic process of nonjudgmental communication to help build bridges of connection, harmony, collaboration and understanding. For more about my Build Compassionate Relationships meetup group, visit: . I’ve been offering these services to the public since 2000 in the greater Miami and Fort Lauderdale area, as well as by phone and through Skype conferencing. . Nonviolent Communication is a process developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. It’s based on a very pure, nonjudgmental language of feelings, needs and requests. I’ve found this to be a powerful tool in my mediation work which involves bringing two or more people together despite a painful history of conflict.
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