Fight, Flight, Freeze - Thrive
When you find yourself in a challenging situation—one where it’s hard to see your way out of, over, or through—it’s natural to feel too embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help. So you may isolate yourself in attempt to contain the problem, instead of asking for help.
But the isolation doesn’t make the problem go away, get you the support you need, or the assistance to address what’s going on. You’ve just boxed yourself into a corner.
This is the time when you need support the most because you are not thinking clearly.
In these situations, your brain goes into ‘fight-flight-freeze’, which means your pre-frontal cortex—the logical, solution oriented, business-thinking part of your brain—shuts off. That’s right, the part you need the most stops function. Simultaneously, your limbic brain kicks in, flooding your system with adrenaline.
None of this is based upon how smart you are, how many hours you’ve meditated, or how fast you think. You are a bio-chemical factory, and this response is what’s happening automatically in your system.
I had a super talented client, Rene, who led product development. She was crushing her current role, getting industry-wide attention as well as kudos from her executive suite. Naturally, she was feeling pretty good.
She was asked to take on some additional responsibilities, including representing her company at three global conferences. This stretched her outside her comfort zone. Like many people, public speaking wasn’t in Rene’s ‘top-ten favorite things to do’. Her technical mastery and market savvy made her leadership and insight valuable. It did not make her a compelling speaker.
She took this part of her work on like any other part: she did her homework, sought expertise, took feedback and applied herself. She worked with coaches, teachers, storytellers, and she practiced—a lot.
She started out speaking at a few larger meetings inside her company, but outside of her area, to build her skills. She practiced and applied breathing through her nervousness, how to engage the audience, and how to tell stories that created meaning—instead of just sharing information.
Rene then went on give presentations to audiences outside the company, where she had to provide some background on herself, and get comfortable sharing more of her own story.
She learned and improved at every presentation. She had grown her skills and her confidence in the past six months, and she felt ready for the next level. Finally Rene was in Singapore for her first international conference.
She lost the audience in the first three minutes and lost herself seconds after that.
This piece is not about public speaking, it’s about the depths of emotion we drop into in desperate moments… when we can’t think of another reality than: Fear, Shame, and Anger. Shame is just Fear and Anger turned inside.
In those moments, remember your biology is working against you, searching for an escape path. That’s when you need assistance to reset your body from Fight-Flight-Freeze to Rest & Digest.
First, take 10 slow, deep breaths. Activating your diaphragm will help reset your nervous system. Then apply this 3-step-solution that never fails:
1) Reach out to someone you trust; someone you feel completely safe with and be completely honest. Hold nothing back.
2) Ask that person to help you think through what the bigger picture is. At this point, you are quite familiar with the messed up details. But, what does this situation looks like 6-months, 24-months, or 5-years down the road? That will put things in perspective, so your nervous system can calm down, and you can start thinking more clearly about solutions instead of playing disaster scenarios over and over in your head.
3) Have compassion for yourself. You are in a valuable growth spurt… only it won’t feel like for a bit. Until that reality sinks in, just keep practicing your slow deep breathing with the phrase: everything is going to be ok, it all works out in the long run.
It’s never easy to feel like you’ve failed. And it can be so difficult to reach out for help or a shoulder to lean upon; especially in the corporate world, where a tender heart is not typically valued. This story can be applied not only to business, but to many life situations—where you feel like you’re ready: you’ve prepared, you’ve studied, you’ve practiced and applied, and yet still… things do not go “as planned.” Earth School can be hard. Never forget that you’re not alone, especially when you feel isolated. Your vulnerability is your Beauty. Your perseverance is one of your greatest strengths. Whether it be in work, relationships, home matters, or areas of study—every time you put yourself out there, you grow. Every moment of growth makes you stronger. You cannot watch a tree root or a flower bloom. But one day you look up, and you see how magnificent that tree has become. You glance over and are stunned by a blooms beauty. You find yourself in awe of life, and all its wonders.
We are all connected. We all have moments of deep Fear and Shame. Never be afraid to take on a challenge. Do not fear failure. Reach out (stretch those roots, stimulate that growth), then breathe and remember: You are as strong as that tree. You are as magnificent and unique as that bloom. Your winter will turn to spring. Soon, you’ll see how you’re greatest growth happened during the most challenging of times.
*Curious what happened to Rene? She followed the steps above. She re-grouped, got more support, and kept presenting even though her ego wanted to stop. Her professional dedication to the larger picture kept her going. By the time the second conference came around, she felt stronger and more grateful for her "Singapore tank" than ashamed. It fueled her hesitation to connect with an audience in a deeper, more ‘human’ way—a way that no successful inaugural presentation could ever have.