#18 Still Space Practices to Maintain Executive Presence in Anxious Moments by Mary Lee Gannon
Learn more at www.MaryLeeGannon.com
Have you ever been in a high-risk meeting or in a conversation where someone challenges your position, and you immediately feel threatened and that the world is closing in on you? In this space I call The Still Space, the same space Viktor Frankly described, we can execute self-regulation practices that disarm doubt before our thoughts take over and emotions rule our behavior. You are not your thoughts. You are the thinker. If you are familiar with recognizing the Still Space, you can shift your thoughts and behavior before fear creeps in. That’s power.
Your day is going well. You’ve done your research and are a maven on your project. You’re in a meeting and out of nowhere someone blindsides you with cynical innuendo, overt criticism, bureaucracy, passive aggressive posturing or their personal agenda. Your body gets stiff. Your face feels flushed. Your heart is racing. You feel threatened. A voice inside your head is screaming, ‘Danger!’ You’re panicking. And then in your own defense you do or say something you later regret.
We’ve all been there.
Oppression is not always overt. Withdrawal, exclusion, and silence are classic passive aggressive techniques of intimidation.
Some people can weather intimidation and self-judgment without losing their presence. And then there are those who need a practice to learn to do so. Others who are not self-aware keep repeating the same behavior that robs them of executive presence – defensiveness, self-criticism, freezing in place.
The difference is that some people have trained themselves to be able to notice what is happening to them, both emotionally and physiologically, lean into it with curiosity as opposed to away in fear, and allowing the immediate physiological and emotional response to subside so they can allow the perceived threat to flow by. In this space they can respond appropriately. They find The Still Space and manage their emotions in real time.
Initially, you may think you don’t have time to manage your emotions in The Still Space. Like most things, with practice and technique you will see your role is not to defend yourself with a fight-flight-freeze mindset because then you’ve lost presence and are playing the defensive game. Your job is to respond from a position of efficacy and well-being in a timely manner while maintaining your presence of mind.
These Still Space strategies help you self-regulate in the moment. Try them and find the ones that work best for you.
The Pause Cafe
When you feel anxious or aggravated, practice “The Pause Café.” It starts with a deep breath where you ask yourself, “What is going on inside me?” Invite in the tension by being curious to it, not turning away. What we run from chases us down until we heal. Some people spend their whole lives running from it. Not you.
Identify where the discord sits in your body. You might give it a color, or a smell, or a shape. Get familiar with it. In the Still Space you can own it. It doesn’t own you. There you can untangle assumptions from the truth. The world opens up in that space. Life is broader than that one constricted issue. You begin to see another perspective - opportunity. And the anxiety fades.
P – Pause and take a very deep breath.
A – Ask yourself, “What am I focusing on? What am I afraid of? Where do I feel it in my body?” NAME THE FEELING.
U – Untangle the your Assumptions from the Truth. “I will fail and embarrass myself” is an assumption. “I am prepared and those I respect support me” is the truth.
S – Step back and allow the constricted pinhole view of your world to open. Allow the negative feeling to flow by like a leaf on a river.
E – Extend compassion to yourself. Put your hand to your heart and say, “May I be gentle with myself in this moment.” Then extend compassion to others. Imagine if you were them. Get curious about their behavior. Name it. “I sense that you are frustrated. How can I help?”
I used the Pause Café recently when someone overtly challenged my position at a meeting. Initially, I had hoped a large bolder would appear out of the sky and drop right on his head – like in the cartoons. Then I laughed, realizing that was anger and not a strategy, so I better try something that would keep my presence yet get him to back down. As I took a deep breath, I noticed my heart racing and my chest felt tight. In that Pause Café Still Space moment I decided this wasn’t personal. It was just him wanting to be heard so I decided to validate him. Instead of reacting I asked him questions that disarmed his vehemence and made the conversation productive. “I want to better understand. What do you really want?” I asked.
It takes practice. It takes lassoing your own ego. Sometimes it works better than others but cumulatively your composure improves as you consistently work to eradicate your fight-flight-freeze response with this mindful strategy. The mind is like a muscle. It builds with practice.
Perfection is not the goal. Peace, efficacy, and mastery are far more important. No judgment of yourself or others. Everyone is doing the best they can.
Just Me Feeling…
1. When you feel an intense emotion remind yourself, “This is just me feeling _________ (judged and afraid that I might lose my job). Lean in and name the feeling to disarm its power. Feelings are not permanent unless we allow them to take hold.) Or attach humor to the situation and think of a character in a movie or cartoon that reminds you of the feeling. This is just me being ________ (the Cowardly Lion, the X-Men Wolverine when he has to fly, Chicken Little, etc.).
2. Think of the many people in the world who must be feeling this same feeling at this very moment. Imagine being connected to each other in support of each other.
3. Turn toward the discomfort instead of away. Hold that for 90 seconds while repeating…”This is just me feeling __________.” In that time the intensity of the feeling will pass – flow by.
The De-Stress Practice
1. Notice how stress shows up in your:
a. Body = ________________________________________________
b. Feelings = _________________________________________________
c. Thoughts = ___________________________________________________
2. Welcome stress. Get curious about it. The body, mind and thoughts are designed to heighten how we deal with stress. Disarm fear by answering…
a. I am stressed about __________________________________ (WHAT?)
b. Dig deeper. Ask yourself WHY? 5 times:
i. Why is that important to me? ________________________________________
ii. Why is that important to me? ________________________________________
iii. Why is that important to me? ________________________________________
iv. Why is that important to me? ________________________________________
v. Why is that important to me? ________________________________________
3. Go back to the 5 Whys in #2b and focus your stress toward THAT instead of fear - toward your purpose.
1. Understand that things come and go.
2. Emotions come and go.
3. The important thing is to accept them all.
4. To embrace them all.
5. Then you can choose to do with them what you want.
6. Versus being controlled by emotion.
7. When you are consumed by fear to the point where you’re telling yourself, “Nah, it’s not good to feel fear. I shouldn’t be (X – nervous, anxious, angry, etc)” it does nothing but grow.
8. Versus stepping back and saying, “Yeah I’m nervous. I’m afraid. What am I afraid of?” And unpacking it.
9. This gives you the ability to look at it for what it really is which is nothing more than your imagination running its course.
This Is Happening Because.....This is teaching me…..
The more we run from difficulty the greater distance to the solution. When really problematic challenges arise completing this practice helps us make sense of what the situation is trying to teach us and allows us to bring purpose to it.
1. I’m sad that my mother passed away. This is happening because…all human beings die at some point. This is teaching me to accept the cycle of life.
2. I’m disappointed that I didn’t get the job. This is happening because I didn’t come across as the best person for the role. This is teaching me patience and to re-examine what I may want to change in my next application process and if this role is even what I really want to do.
3. I’m angry that she doesn’t want me in her life anymore. This is happening because she doesn’t value me. This is teaching me to accept what is outside of my control and to rethink my behavior, how I want to show up and who I want to be moving forward.
I Don’t Mind What Happens
This is a powerful tool for anxiety and with practice can change your life. No matter what you are doing or where you are if you focus on this mantra you will learn to let go of the need to control:
“I don’t mind what happens.”
Here, you are essentially saying that no matter what arises in your life, you are ready. You have no expectations and need not control the outcome. This is not to say you are a passive player or will sit back and allow egregious or abusive behavior. Not at all. You always have a choice to remove yourself from any situation. Somethings may occur. You need not enable or allow it. You always have the power to step away.
This mantra helps with anxiety. It helps us remain calm when the demons of fear and uncertainty rise up to scare us into fight-flight-freeze. In this space we notice the demons are not OUR demons or hang-ups or anxiety or fears but simply THE demons or hang-ups or anxiety or fears. They are just there – not controlling us. You don’t own them. They just appear and can disappear just as quickly with mindful intention.
As the tension settles follow this mantra with open vulnerability:
“I don’t mind what happens.
I feel ________________.
It makes me uncomfortable.
I can be with that discomfort because it is just my imagination. It will pass.”
What – So What – What Now?
When you feel overwhelmed, asking these three questions will help to slow you down and break down the anxiety.
1. What exactly is happening? Be specific? Who is there. How do you feel?
2. So what? Answer this. So what if this happened. Is what you fear likely to happen? If it does, so what? What happens then? (Likely your imagination has made the situation far worse than it is.)
3. What now? After you’ve processed the two questions above, what do you want to do now?
Name It – Tame It
1. Name the feeling that you are struggling with. Here are a few emotions: happy, embarrassed, scared, nervous, goofy, surprised, quiet, annoyed, cool, sad, tired, excited, bored, sick, frustrated, angry, funny, proud.
2. What is it like to be with that feeling?
3. What is the worst that could happen?
4. What is the best that could happen?
5. Be with that feeling for 5 minutes even with all of your discomfort. You will feel empowered not to be run by your emotions. They are your imagination.