Escalation and the Nuclear Option

When things happen in your life, how do you handle them?

We all have negative experiences in our lives. Things way outside of our control will happen, like it or not. Our feelings will get trampled upon, and likely we will inadvertently trample on people, too.

As I wrote in the Five Truths of the Self, you will:

  • Screw up
  • Fail
  • Be wrong
  • Get hurt
  • Hurt others

Some of these things will be your own doing, and some will be impacted more by outside sources. Whatever happens, all of these tend to cause an emotional reaction.

Some emotional reactions are minor and inconvenient. Some are much more debilitating. Then, when something truly hits you, there may be the nuclear option.


Let’s say that you screw up. Since it WILL happen at some point or another, you will have this experience. The question is, how do you react to the experience?

This can be parsed out in levels, but each one is an escalation from the next. As such, it is a more impactful reaction and can cause you more problems. Further, the more your reaction escalates, the more difficult it is to fix it, apologize, or take a new action afterward.

These are examples of levels of escalation you may or may not be familiar with:

  • Level one. You shrug it off. You may or may not chalk it up as a learning experience.
  • Level two. You feel mildly irked. You likely either say “huh” or otherwise express yourself. You let it go.
  • Level three. You feel irked. You’re annoyed and displeased. You berate yourself a little, but then let it go.
  • Level four. You’re pretty irked. You are displeased. You berate yourself a lot, and question why this always happens over and over.
  • Level five. You’re angry at yourself. You berate yourself a lot, say a thing like “I am such a screw-up and I always do this!” and every little thing even remotely tied into this holds onto it.
  • Level six. You’re very angry at yourself. You say awful, hurtful things about yourself, decide you are an utter f*@k up, and every little thing, associated with the screw-up or not, makes it worse.
  • Level seven. You are enraged. Life sucks, you suck, everything and everyone is awful. You are virtually inconsolable. You shout, break stuff, really lose it.

Escalation is not so straight forward

To be sure, these are examples of levels of escalation. There are nuanced bits between each of these, and they may occur out of order. I know I have gone from Level one to Level seven in a matter of seconds. It is possible to move around these, and what may begin at one level can jump or fall to another.

What’s more, this can be both internalized and externalized. For each level of escalation in my example, where it is directed at YOU it can be totally directed outside at another. What’s important to note about this is whether that anger is in fact at that other person, or with yourself.

Much of the anger we turn without is, in fact, a displacement of anger that’s within. It can be easier to have someone else to yell at rather than ourselves. To be fair, there are times other people screw up, fail, or otherwise cause an emotional reaction that you cannot help but release.

Mindfulness helps with this a lot and can be instrumental in de-escalation. But I will get into that in a bit.

The biggest problem is when you reach The Nuclear Option

The Nuclear Option

This is a phrase applicable to a number of different situations, all of which have an escalation leading up to them. Besides the literal in terms of warfare, there are other situations. For example — jobs. If you are a business owner, and you have a problematic employee you are hoping can be disciplined, there are escalatory steps you can take in the process. The nuclear option is firing the employee.

When it comes to emotional reactions, however, this takes on a different meaning. It is frequently harmful to yourself or to others, and tends to be not only a last resort but like deploying a nuclear weapon will have unintended consequences.

What would the nuclear option look like? It may be violence, either against another or yourself. It may also involve violence against inanimate objects. When I was younger, and my temper was much hotter, I broke numerous cordless phones by throwing them into walls and floors. Also, a few walls that got punched by me had to be repaired.

The nuclear option tends to be explosive, and often out-of-proportion with the reason behind the emotional reaction. The most harmful ones to the self involve self-harm, panic attacks, and even heart attacks. It is often so far above and beyond the rest of the escalation that it will leave you changed in some way or other.

Worst case scenario, it could kill you. It could also cause you to lose friends and loved ones, and in some cases spend time in prison for doing something truly stupid.

Mindfulness and the intentional Nuclear Option

Like the previous example of being a boss forced to fire someone, you would prefer not to fire, sometimes there is a nuclear option you have in place, knowing full well what the consequences will be.

For example, let’s say you have a difficult friendship or relationship with your family. It has reached the point of toxicity where they cause you more harm than good. The nuclear option, in this case, is cutting them off. When it comes to a friend, you know you may lose other friends for taking the option. Same thing applied to family — you may lose loved ones over this.

When you are mindful of this, however, and aware of what it will do, you also know that taking this action is in your best interest. You use the nuclear option for your own health and welfare because the toxicity cannot be wiped away, it has to be cut free.


When you are mindful of the fact that you will experience the Five Truths, and that you will both be and not be the cause, you can temper your response. If you know that a certain thing tends to cause you to react at Level three or four, you can be mindful of how it makes you think and feel, and de-escalate it to Level one.

Yes, this takes conscious effort and work. Becoming aware of how things cause us to feel is only a first step. Getting control of the feeling and actively working to change it is a whole other matter. But when you are practicing mindfulness of your thoughts and feelings, you gain influence and control of your reactions.

Be kinder to yourself. You are only human, and you will screw up, fail, be wrong, get hurt, and hurt others. Do what you can to avoid this, of course, but WHEN it happens, recognize how you react, and do what you can to control that.

You are worthy and deserving of all the good you desire. Forgive yourself your shortcomings, and work with mindfulness to improve everywhere that you can.

If you enjoy my work, please sign up for my mailing list for more.

I am a practitioner of mindfulness, positivity, philosophy, & conscious reality creation. I love to inspire, open minds, & entertain.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store