The Still Space Podcast Episode #14 - Your Still Space, Executive Presence, and Mindful Daily Practices
By Mary Lee Gannon, ACC, CAE
Finding your still space gives you power. In this episode you will find that in your still space you gain control over runaway thoughts before they hijack your efficacy and likability. Mindful daily practices help you build your awareness to notice the still space window before it closes and you’ve missed the opportunity and said or done something you regret.
We all overthink. It brings anxiety. It derails progress and introduces perfectionism as a safety net from taking risks. This almost always results in self sabotage. It makes us feel helpless and victim to racing thoughts and turbulent emotions that don’t serve us.
Perfectionism is about trying to avoid risk so as to earn approval. It is a self-destructive belief that fuels the thought…If I look and do everything perfectly I can avoid shame, judgment and blame. We trick ourselves into thinking it is action when it is actually inaction.
Perfectionism shows up when we feel unsafe in our vulnerability. This is a patterned response to anxiety as is judgment, fear of failure, blame and shame. We may even have good intention. Intention without action is denial.
Who is in charge? The thinker or the thought? When we overthink, the thought is definitely in charge. It swooshes us along like the tide and we become a boat without oars completely at the liberty of the elements.
There are those who say, “Just be positive” or “Be grateful” whereby, though these statements are our true north, there is little research to prove these strategies produce a sustainable shift. Then you just end up feeling worse because you can’t maintain them. Self-defeating thoughts such as, “Why can’t I stop thinking this way?” only make things worse. Much of what is recommended in the mainstream when it comes to shifting perspective doesn’t work for everyone. I hear this form my clients who have tried everything – self-help books, conferences, leadership trainings, mentors, therapists, more degrees and certifications,
When you say, “Just be positive” to someone who is struggling it is like salt on a wound. Of course, they want to be positive, but wishing it so isn’t likely enough for someone with a difficult boss, spouse, family or past to feel better.
Behind judgment of self and others can be regret which at its worst brings guilt – another debilitating feeling. One of the most misunderstood aspects of guilt is that guilt is not about you or another person being bad or doing something bad – it is basically about separation from love. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not accepting love.
Guilt and the resulting fear are not about feeling "bad about oneself." They are basically about being separated from love. If people know they are loved, they are not afraid of their perceived "badness." They feel accepted and safe. They do not have to feel "good" about themselves to be safe. Love does that. Love is everything.
The opposite of "bad" is not "good.” It is love. So, if people are feeling badly about themselves, the answer is never to get them to feel better about themselves. Forced positivity is a dead end. It is in authentic. It feels phony. The answer is to help people feel connected to love. If they feel connected and accepted, they do not have to feel good about themselves. They are good.
In fact, when people feel accepted they stop being so concerned about themselves altogether and get into love instead. Feelings of badness are not something to be overcome. They are another symptom of the basic problem of our disconnection from love. Don't fall into the trap of trying to make a person with "bad" feelings develop "positive" feelings. That is not the answer. Getting loved is.
It’s ok to not always be positive right away in the face of adversity.
It’s wise to admit when we feel vulnerable.
It’s savvy to have mindful daily practices that build your awareness of how the thinker is in charge, not the thought.
It’s important to name the feeling that persists, even if it hurts, so you can own and move past it.
It’s realistic to see advice such as “tomorrow is another day” and “you’re better off without that job” as nothing more than clichés, not edicts, judgments, truths or expectations.
It’s strategic to realize that to authentically feel that we deserve happiness we have to know what to release that is in its way.
Here’s how increased self-regulation plays at work. Jason was anxious about not fitting in on the project team. He couldn’t sleep, withdrew and was afraid to speak up at meetings. It was getting worse every day. He noticed that at the root of his fear was a recollection of being made fun of in junior high for bad skin. It made him play small so as not to be noticed which undermined his efficacy and executive presence.
Jason started to pay specific attention to what happened in his body when he felt like shutting down. He noticed his chest felt tight, his breathing was shallow and his heart was racing. He began meditating in the evenings after work to become more aware of how to control his breathing and build his mind power.
Now when he notices a tense situation arising he immediately takes a very deep breath and asks himself what’s really going on. He taught himself to get curious about what he was feeling. To welcome it in and not be avoidant. In this space he unravels assumptions from the truth and realizes that he does have something to offer. He tells himself, “That’s just me being anxious. I’ve got this.” He focuses the anxious energy on what he has to say.
He draws on his courage and contributes. It’s a little scary at first but he knows he is competent. People may not notice him at first. He will give them time. He is patient and gentle with himself. He remains true to his good character. He eventually is met with nods and smiles.
It feels really nice to be included for who he is and what he brings. There will always be challenges. He now has a practice and a mindset he can rely on. Life and work are fulfilling because her has something to contribute.
I’ve studied the topic of mindset intensively because limiting perceptions plagues most of my clients. Research points to the fact that resilience comes from staying in the moment and taking action - not fast forwarding to a perceived doomed outcome. This is mindfulness.
Resilience builds by realizing that flawed narratives point to assumptions we need to challenge. In that moment where we challenge the assumption with curiosity, not turn away from it in hurt and judgment, we allow the thought to flow through us, not get stuck there. Mindful practices such as deep breathing that we execute in the fire of a critical instant of doubt allow the assumption to move on, opening the door to wonder.
What are more of these mindful practices? They start with noticing your thoughts and observing the triggers that bring on negativity. This noticing prepares you to not take the bait of doubtful thought. You will learn many mindful practices here.
The routines we establish create the structure around the life we want – around a life by design. Set up a structure around what you will honor in your practices of self-care and you will preserve it. You can establish any or all of the following as part of a morning or evening routine.
Mindful daily practices ground us and build our self-awareness such that when we need to self-regulate our ego, temper, or doubt we have a go-to practice to do so. These practices can be as simple as reading a two-minute passage each day or more involved such as a 20-minnute meditation session. Either way, establish them and keep to them to build your executive and personal presence. Think of the people you admire. They have a sense of calm and good reason about them. These practices build that calm. They keep your good reason from being hijacked by stress and doubt as you grow your self-control.
Below are examples of what I call Flow on the Go – the process of visiting simple concepts each day as you grow your presence. You can write these down in a very special notebook you leave on your nightstand or desk. Have fun with it.
My clients and I have been tracking Flow on the Go for years. When I feel discord in my life I make sure to spend ample time on these concepts. They got me through the darkest hours.
Mantra — A mantra is a word or powerful phrase that is repeated to affirm its meaning and change our thought process. Your focus is on repeating it like you might a prayer or song throughout the week to cement a new belief. Examples are: “Action conquers fear.” “Be the change you wish to see.” “Om” (sacred Hindu mantra where the entire universe is bound by the same stabilizing vibration), “Excellence does not require perfection. “Get it right not be right.”
Daily Intention — An intention is a promise to yourself. Before you start your day each morning set an oath to ‘be’ the best person you can be in one specific area where you struggle. “I will listen before I speak.” “I will not judge.” “I will be positive.” “I will be patient.” “I will draw on (X) strength.” “I will pause before acting.” You might use the same one all week.
Mindful Daily Routines — These are routines you do each day to keep you in the moment. Examples include: physical activity, meditation, prayer, a mindful walk (notice what you see not what you are thinking), a hobby, enjoying a cup of tea (notice the smell, taste, temperature not your thoughts), pet time, a call to a parent or child, yoga, journaling. Please don’t reach for your phone in the morning before you finish your routines.
Daily Goals — These relate to your big picture vision – not your work calendar. Set your daily goals the night before and allow your subconscious mind to create strategies for them. Then when you awake you are ready for a productive day instead of trying to figure out where to start. When you write down your goals by hand it is a formal commitment to yourself and far more likely to happen. We don’t like to let ourselves down, or witness what we did not accomplish. Goals may be related to work, home, relationships, life. If you don’t achieve one, move it to the next day. No judgment.
Daily Noticing — Write down how you are valuable every day. Doodle, or write down something new you are noticing. Flow involves mind, body and spirit. You may notice stress in a particular part of your body. You may keep track of meals or healthy snacks here. It is your sacred space for you. Keep track of what is changing for you here. Then look back at your transformation.
Daily Gratitude — Evening reflections are a way for us to remind ourselves of what is going right in our lives. Write down one thing you are grateful for each day. This diffuses the trap of anger, resentment, fear, & anxiety.
Daily Feeling Check-In — Do this at the end of each day. Name your feelings. The feelings we run from chase us down the rest of our lives. Get comfortable naming discomfort. It disarms its power. Sad, hurt, angry, afraid — are all ok feelings. As are capable and energized. Better to feel them and know exactly what you are most angry or sad about, or fearful of than to have it manifest as bad behavior. Joy and happiness are the reward!
Viktor Frankl, a Jewish Austrian neurologist, psychologist and Holocaust survivor of four concentration camps said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
I call this space The Still Space.
Dr. Frankl knew a lot about oppression and living in an anxious situation with no relief in sight. His triumph over tragedy was no accident. His mindset shift was key to his survival. It kept him from being constantly overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness and victimization and delivered him the power of survival and freedom.
In 1941 Dr. Frankl married Tilly Grosser, who was a station nurse at Rothschild Hospital. Soon after they were married, Tilly became pregnant, but the Nazis forced them to abort the child. In 1942, just nine months after marrying his wife, Dr. Frankl and his family who were living in Vienna were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. His father died there of starvation and pneumonia in 1943. His sister, Stella, escaped to Australia.
In 1944, Frankl and the surviving members of his family were taken to Auschwitz, where his mother and brother were gassed. His wife died later of typhus in Bergen-Belsen. Frankl himself spent a total of three years in four different concentration camps.
Dr. Frankly married Eleonore "Elly" Katharina Schwindt in 1947. She was a practicing Catholic, and the couple respected each other's religious backgrounds, going to both church and synagogue, and celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah. They had one daughter, Gabriele, who went on to become a child psychologist.
Think of how many times Dr. Frankl faced The Still Space – that moment where in the wink of an eye he could have lashed out, fled in fear or withdrew into self-pity. He likely did all of these and more until he realized the consequences and how to manage his fear. Until he realized and accepted that there was a choice to be made that must be made before thoughts take over good reason and behavior. You have this same choice every day – to choose to challenge your assumptions or fall prey to them. To self-regulate.
The Still Space is the tipping point. In the moment that you notice a negative debilitating assumption you have a wink’s time to decide how to handle yourself before the primitive brain takes over. You can lash out, run or withdraw. Or you can pause. Just pause. Take a deep breath. Be still. Notice that fear is just your imagination. Set an intention. Choose how you will respond. You have power here. You are not a victim.
Your goal is to narrow the time it takes you to notice The Still Space so that you may act on it in real time before fear and your ego take over.
You might even use the action of winking, snapping your fingers, whistling, or taking a deep breath to remind yourself of the power in your choice to pause. This physical act is a commitment to action. It is a pledge to be the thinker not the thought. Action builds confidence. The wink interrupts the fight-flight-freeze pattern. If we miss the opportunity of choice in The Still Space, the space closes and we are sucked into despair or reaction that is not intentional. Think repeated arguments that don’t go anywhere, repetitive depressive thoughts, frustration.
Watch for triggers because they ignite the overthinking and doubt that prompt despair. If being alone triggers overthinking, acknowledge that, interrupt the pattern with a deep breath to make space for creativity - call a friend, journal, meditate, listen to music, read. If you notice you are already overthinking, get curious. What’s the worst that could happen? What is this thought trying to teach you? What are you afraid of and is it inevitable in the next week? If not, how do you wish to spend that week?
You wouldn’t get into a boat without a nautical map, binoculars or oars. If you do notice are in a stuck situation, wink, metaphorically step out with emotional agility that is grounded in choice. This is executive presence. Respected leaders don’t get emotional, show resentment, or pout. These are signs of a needy ego. They learn how to find The Still Space before it’s too late.