Escaping Enemy Mode by Dr. Jim Wilder and Ray Woolridge

Jim Wilder, Ray Woolridge

Explores how our brain's defensive reactions (termed "enemy mode") impact relationships and society. Three types include: simple, stupid, and intelligent. Goes into the neuroscience and steps to shift toward a more relational mode.

Summary by:
Dr. Marcel Lanahan
Brain in enemy mode with right brain circuits tied up in knots

How Our Brains Unite or Divide Us


"Enemy Mode" = brain sees others as adversaries/threats, not humans

Happens in daily life, not just extreme situations

"Once I became aware of enemy mode, I saw it everywhere in my life. I discovered that even though I had thought I was physically and spiritually mature, I was emotionally and relationally still a child in some areas." - Ray Woolridge, retired Brigadier General

Enemy mode can feel like an asset when you are a leader, entrepreneur, ambitious pastor/minister, etc.

Book discusses:

  • Poisoning of family relationships
  • Separation of friends
  • Breaking apart communities

Leads to: social stress, business failure, divorce, alienation, domestic violence, crime, racism, international violence

Enemy Mode origin: brain's instinctual response, primal defense

- triggered by perceived threats to well-being, beliefs, values

Misfires lead to viewing non-threats as enemies

Social media + polarized discourse amplify misperceptions

Explore brain's role in uniting/dividing us:

3 Types of Enemy Mode

Simple Enemy Mode -

  • Basic form, feels like others aren't on our side, causing unease.
  • Develops from missed/ignored/mistrusted/fear of relational signals.
  • Leads to feelings of isolation, misunderstanding.
  • Example: You are trying to get a work project done. Someone knocks at the door offering to take a break and get a snack. You get annoyed at the disturbance and tell them to stop bothering you.

Stupid Enemy Mode -

  • Marked by 'hot' anger, impulsive reactions, potential for relationship damage.
  • Actions often regretted after realizing the attacked wasn't an enemy.
  • Example: In a heated argument with a colleague, you impulsively insult them, damaging your working relationship. Later, you regret your outburst, realizing the disagreement wasn't as significant as your reaction made it seem.
Manager standing over desktop worker shouting and cursing
Stupid Enemy Mode

Intelligent Enemy Mode -

  • Features 'cold' anger, involves calculated resentment, revenge plans.
  • Unlike simple or stupid modes, it's deliberate, not impulsive.
  • Example: getting some work project accomplished without staying relationally connected, alienating project team members deemed incompetent
  • Other example: after a dispute with a neighbor over property boundaries, you spend weeks plotting subtle ways to annoy them, such as playing loud music at night or deliberately blocking their driveway, all planned to cause them maximum inconvenience without overt confrontation.

Key Concepts in Escaping Enemy Mode

The book gets into the brain science behind our reactions and behaviors. Central to this is the concept of state-dependent learning and the contrasting brain states of enemy mode versus relational joy.

"The brain is a prediction machine." Dr. Jim Wilder

State-Dependent Learning

This concept explains how our brain learns and reacts in different emotional states. Our reactions and decisions are heavily influenced by the state our brain is in at the moment. For instance, when we are in a state of fear or anger (common in enemy mode), our brain learns and responds differently than when we are in a state of joy or peace. Our knee-jerk reactions get 'wired in' with repetition over time, and can become more of a default response to certain conditions in our life.

Brain States in Enemy Mode:

  • In enemy mode, our brain operates in a defensive, reactive state. Characterized by heightened alertness to threats, narrowed focus on perceived enemies, and reduced capacity for empathy and rational thinking. It's a state more attuned to survival instincts, often bypassing our higher reasoning faculties.

Brain States in Relational Joy

  • Contrasting with enemy mode, the brain state of relational joy is rooted in connection, empathy, and understanding. Here, the brain is more open to positive interactions, collaboration, and rational thinking. This state grows a sense of safety and belonging, getting us to engage more constructively with others.

Understanding these brain states helps in recognizing why we react the way we do in certain situations and how we can consciously shift from a defensive enemy mode to a more relational and joyful state.

The Actual Brain science behind Enemy Mode and Relational Joy

Dr. Wilder draws upon the work of Dr. Allan Schore, a professor from UCLA and a pioneer of interpersonal neurobiology. Dr. Schore has written and lectured extensively on how the right hemisphere of the brain is central in our emotional and self regulation. (Attachment traumas disrupt these circuits.)

Right brain circuit - four level emotional control center. Like four work stations in office.

Bottom two levels (subcortical) need to communicate with top two levels (cortical).

The right brain relational circuit is the first to develop in the infant brain

- operates as a “separate brain” until around age 4, when it has to learn how to get along with the verbal brain.

Right Brain Circuits involved in Relational Joy vs Enemy Mode

Lower levels

Level 1 - Attachment

The attachment center - governs how we securely or insecurely attach to others.

Location - thalamus and nucleus accumbens

Level 2 - Assessment

The guardian part of our brain where we assess whether to approach and connect, or to avoid out of fear. Connects to implicit memory of associations - what we have deemed good, bad, or scary to us in the past.

Survival circuit - can engage fight-flight-freeze response

Location - Amygdala and Hippocampus

Higher levels

Level 3 - Attunement

The emotional regulator where we stay connected in high energy joy states and coast to low-energy quiet states. Here we use the correct amount of energy to maintain our interactions. The cingulate processes huge amounts of relational data, but can become "cramped" with strong emotions, and block processing. Also connected to implicit memories of the past.

The memories of the past can put us into enemy mode, even when there is no enemy in sight.

Location - Cingulate cortex

Level 4 - Action

The brain’s “captain” - that organizes our activity according to the best of our personality and values. When level 4 is running we stay creative, resourceful, purposeful, goal-directed, and reflective. We can stay connected to our best selves.

Location - Prefrontal cortex

Getting more practical:

Enemy Mode Example: I am writing this article on escaping enemy mode and getting into relational joy, when my wife interrupts me to do something for one of the kids. I say, go away! Can’t you see I’m trying to get this out before tomorrow? Stop bothering me. That is simple enemy mode.

What’s happening in the brain?

Our brain is a prediction machine. According to state-dependent learning, our brain learns rules/scripts for behavior for different environments. For example, we have different rules of behavior for church vs. school vs. being in the library, vs. being at a concert.

Our brain is constantly trying to pick up on current conditions, and predicts how we need to respond. What this means for relationships:

When we see someone coming, our brain can sense/judge: Is this someone who is important to me? Then we can light up, our eyes sparkle, smile and greet, etc.

But in Enemy Mode, there is no personal connection signal….nothing going, “oh! Here’s an opportunity for some joy!”

Left Brain’s job is to focus in on the detail. A lot of time we park our right brain in a task. The problem is our brain gets overly focused and we forget why or for who.

Practically…we need to remember why we are doing things…and for who(m).

More on the Left Brain vs Right Brain

Shows X principle separating dimensions of left from right, vertical from lower
Summary of what happens to brain processes in enemy mode


Right Brain: constantly answers questions: who am I, and what is important to me?

Left Brain: focus on solving details of problems before us.

Interestingly: the right brain process (that supports our subconscious sense of self) updates 6 cycles per second, while the left brain cycle updates 5 cycles per second. The subconscious process is faster than the conscious process, so that we don’t have to stop to ask ourselves, “who am I again?”

The right brain has to figure out who I am and what do I do right now?

To do that it has to go faster than consciousness. Otherwise we will end up in a situation and forget who we are. But our right brain circuits can be compromised if we’re in the wrong emotional state. The lower right brain circuits can be disconnected from the higher circuits, and we can easily forget who we are and then the left brain just focuses in on whatever’s in front of it, saying, “oh! this must be what I’m supposed to take care of right now!” And we can do things that we regret or that damage relationships.

Enemy mode is this prediction: people simply interfere with my getting my results. Because of state dependent learning, your brain is conditioned to operate according to the following script:

I’ve just got a job to get done, and when I’ve got a job to get done people don’t matter.

If we are in the “doing mode” or “simple enemy mode” too much, we need to learn how to check ourselves:

Is this person important to me? Why am I doing this? And…Whoops! I got into enemy mode again. Need to reset. The brain actually develops around joy. Joy for the brain means someone’s glad to be with me. Think about it…it’s what we actually crave, we want these kind of experiences. And we need to spend more time seeking out and savoring these experiences.

“The left brain runs at the speed of words; the right brain runs at the speed of joy.” Dr. Jim Wilder

If we can do things while staying relational, then our brain achieves a different learning pattern. Practically, we need to balance doing things and paying attention to our bodily feelings/states so that, by regulating our emotional states (rather than succumbing to getting triggered or overly focused) we can stay connected to our best selves and what is important to us, our values for relationships.

Shows two axes in cross formation, with higher and lower on vertical, and left and right on horizontal
Relational mode requires a balance of left brain and right brain processing, lower and higher levels

More on the Four Levels of the Right Brain Circuits and Three Enemy Modes

In the context of the four brain levels — Attachment, Assessment, Attunement, and Action — here's how each type of enemy mode (Simple, Stupid, and Intelligent) operates:

Simple Enemy Mode

Levels Primarily Involved: Attachment (Level 1) and Assessment (Level 2).

What Happens:

  • At the Attachment level, there might be a failure or insecurity in forming connections, leading to a feeling of isolation or misunderstanding.
  • The Assessment level misinterprets signals, perceiving neutral or even friendly gestures as threats, due to misjudged social cues or a heightened state of alertness from the amygdala.

Stupid Enemy Mode

Levels Primarily Involved: Assessment (Level 2) and, to some extent, Attunement (Level 3).

What Happens:

  • The Assessment level triggers a strong fight-flight-freeze response, leading to impulsive reactions driven by 'hot' anger without proper evaluation of the situation.
  • There's a failure in Attunement, where the individual cannot regulate emotional responses effectively, leading to disproportionate reactions that do not match the energy required for maintaining balanced interactions.

Intelligent Enemy Mode

Levels Primarily Involved: Action (Level 4) with underlying influences from all previous levels.

What Happens:

  • The Action level is misdirected towards organizing thoughts and behaviors around resentment, revenge, or other negative actions, driven by 'cold' anger.
  • This mode involves a deliberate misuse of our best qualities and values, planning against perceived threats with all the brain's capacities, especially those related to problem-solving and future planning located in the prefrontal cortex.

In Simple Enemy Mode, the brain misreads social cues and we feel isolated due to insecure attachments and misassessments. Stupid Enemy Mode sees an overreaction to perceived threats, with a lack of emotional regulation leading to 'hot' anger and impulsive behavior. Intelligent Enemy Mode involves a calculated response, using the brain's higher functions to plan revenge or hold resentments, showcasing a sophisticated yet misdirected use of the brain's capabilities for understanding and interaction. This is not just for psychopaths. We can do this in business, sales, ministry, etc.

More Practical Steps for Escaping Enemy Mode

  1. Self-awareness: Pay attention to signs of discomfort, anger, or even resentment that indicate you're viewing someone as annoyance/obstacle/enemy.
  2. Understand Triggers. What are the specific triggers of your enemy mode.. behaviors in others, certain situations, perceived threats.
  3. Pause and Reflect....Before reacting, take a moment. Ask if the perceived threat is real or if you are misinterpreting the situation.
  4. Empathy Practice: What's their perspective? Empathy humanizes the adversary.
  5. Positive Engagement: Small acts of kindness or attempts to understand their point of view can break down barriers.
  6. Seek Common Ground Look for areas of agreement or common interests that can serve as a foundation for a more positive relationship.
  7. Mindfulness and Stress Reduction: Lower overall stress means less likelihood of slipping into enemy mode.
  8. Healthy Boundaries: Set and maintain healthy boundaries. Knowing your limits preserves your well-being and respects others.
  9. Seek Support: If you're struggling to escape enemy mode, consider seeking support from a therapist or counselor who can provide guidance and strategies tailored to your situation.
  10. Continuous Learning: View the process of escaping enemy mode as a journey of continuous learning and growth. Be open to new insights about yourself and others.
"When you understand enemy mode and learn to recognize when you are in it, then you can start practicing how to avoid it. On the street I have often found myself in a rapidly deteriorating exchange with a suspect. One of my best techniques, if I catch things early, is to say, 'Wait, let's start over.'" Dr. Jim Wilder

For more info about staying in relational joy, see the content guide for Chris Coursey's The Joy Switch.