“If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,” I sometimes quote Woody Allen to my clients when I feel they’re going into distress about things not working out – either as they’d planned or anticipated or even ‘as they should’. Usually it does the trick. We exchange a little knowing smile, and the clouds clear enough for them to recentre – and then to develop or rediscover a personal strategy, a personal resource, or even to shift their mindset positively.
One client once retorted, “And he should know!” and the knowing smile turned into a shared survivor’s laugh. A safe space that opened up our coaching dialogue. Enough for us to look aside, beneath and beyond the direction of the goal. Enough to notice what was taking her energy away – and to uncover and add a previously hidden personal resource.
Embracing the feeling of not fully knowing. Letting go of the need to know every little detail before deciding or acting are powerful personal strategies. They can prepare us for today and other days like this. Increase our resilience. Which, as it turns out, has to be exercised, like a muscle; practiced, like an instrument; strengthened, like an immune system.
Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan, till someone punches you in the face.” We should have been prepared for the financial, work and emotional impact of coronavirus. But you know what? Knowledge is only a distant melody if it’s not in the body.
Knowing about something; knowing what to do and how to do it, are necessary, but they don’t always get you to act, get you to reach for that outcome you tell yourself (or others) that you want so much.
Hearing a beautiful distant melody is good; playing it is better; being it is you becoming unstoppable; you at your best. Sometimes you can even become a whole symphony. Below we’re going to look at how you can do that.
Here are some practical steps you can take when you start to feel too much fear, too much anxiety, too much anger, too much numbness or shutdown in response to this tough time. Especially if you have to face it physically alone.
• Do you speak in your head to yourself or to someone – or even to something – a little more intensely than you should?
• Does it feel like you can’t seem to turn it off?
• Do worst-case scenarios keep appearing as big pictures or bright videos in your head?
• Do you catch yourself breathing fast and shallow, tensing up in all the wrong places, adopting wonky postures?
You might be experiencing too much zoom-in.
‘Too much zoom-in’ is where you’ve put the problem so in your face – made it so close and so big – that you can’t see around it or beyond it. And too much zoom-in is the gateway to overwhelm. That’s why it’s so useful to go through a little internal ‘me check’ from time to time. Body, heart (feelings), thoughts.
If you feel like it, try it right now.
When you have to stay inside and apart for long periods, you go inside.
I hope by now you may be feeling or thinking or sensing that when you go inside, there are two possible paths to take:
1. One that pushes you towards overwhelm
2. Another that will empower you to manage and, eventually, master it.
‘Door number two’ means that instead of it controlling you, you’ll be the boss of it. And if you are the boss of it, you’re the boss of you. Most of us have already done both things – even if sometimes we aren’t aware that we have.
Have you done a quick internal ‘me-check’ since the pandemic started? If you haven’t, why not do it now? (and if you don’t want to, that’s okay too).
To see the situation as it is, it’s important to start where you’re at.
If you did your ‘me check’ and it gave you a feeling or thought or sense of a life choice; then you’ve already taken steps on the positive path of managing or mastering much more than overwhelm.
If you noticed that you brought the things happening in your body, heart and mind into your conscious awareness by deliberately directing your attention to them, then that distant beautiful melody is now right in your ear, waiting to be played.
First things first though. A little spring cleaning and an exercise, just to limber up. If you noticed during your ‘me check’ that you’re in too much zoom-in, then it’s time to take charge and clean house a bit.
You can do that by focusing on the things you can change and making your peace with those you can’t.
Which is which? Well, you can’t really change other people, other people tend to change themselves. You definitely can change your reaction to them. You can change some situations by changing how you act and react within them. And contrary to good part of what they keep telling us, you can change systems, just open any modern history book, but it often takes many decades and you need to rope in or join with hundreds, thousands, sometimes millions of others. So, your control over that process is very small.
There is one person you can definitely change, sometimes more quickly than you imagined. There is one person where your control is almost at 100 %.
That person is you.
Let’s start there.
Do all of this exercise for two minutes. One minute for reading through while applying what you’ve read – and the other to keep it going. Some people like to set a timer at three minutes.
If you want, connect positively with your body by sitting up straight while keeping loose and relaxed. Rest your hands on your legs. Breathe in from your tummy – and slow it down a bit.
Ever so gently, direct your attention to your feet and to the breath coming in through your nose. Just those two points.
Your feet may be in your socks, and those socks in shoes or slippers; feel the floor through your socks, through your shoes or slippers, adjusting your posture to be more stable and relaxed if your body feels you should; getting more balanced, hips and spine well supported, feeling your feet more grounded perhaps.
Direct your listening to your breath, as it goes in and comes out, comes in slowly and gently into your tummy and goes out. Fix your attention on the sensation of your breathing.
If your mind starts wondering, problem solving, that’s okay, that’s it’s job.
Every time you catch yourself doing that, allow your mind to do its thing while bringing your attention gently back to your breathing and to your feet. To your breathing and to your feet. Breath coming in slowly and gently – and going back out.
Energy flows where attention goes.
To pace yourself out evenly, you can say slowly and softly to yourself in your head, “Breathe in, one…two, breathe out; breathe in, one…two, breathe out; breathe in, one…two, breathe out…”.
If your eyes want to close, let them close.
If you’re reading this, then your eyes are fully opened. Come back completely.
Hopefully you felt a slight change. Hopefully it was positive. A lot of people say things like, ‘I felt a bit more relaxed.’ ‘A little calmer.’ ‘Some of my tenseness went out of me.’ ‘My mind felt a little quieter.’ And so on.
How do I know this? I test it on myself almost weekly and fortnightly with trainees and coachees. For fifteen years. It seems to work for most people.
What change, however slight, did you feel?
If you felt nothing at all, read the next two paragraphs and try it again if you want. And if you don’t want to, that’s okay too.
For some of you, this will be familiar territory and maybe you’ve advanced way beyond this short modest exercise. For others who haven’t done this sort of thing before, it might seem weird at first. If you like to think things out, you might be asking, ‘What’s the point?’
The main point is for you to experience it directly, so you know it’s real. So that you have direct proof that you can change your state of mind at will – because you’ve just tested on it on yourself. And if you can do it, however slightly, in just two minutes, how much more could you do if you spent longer at it and went deeper?
The feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness, like overwhelm, only have power over you if you tell yourself over and over – or silently give great conviction to the belief – that what you feel and think and the way you act are out of your understanding and control.
Paradoxically, by telling yourself that, you are directing your attention to the belief that you’re powerless to direct your attention – or that it’s pointless to do so. And your energy flows in that negative direction, the one reinforcing the other.
The conscious and unconscious thus join in a powerful partnership to forge a negative downward spiral so effective that you experience it as ‘life’ ‘reality’ ‘the world’ ‘the real me’. You might have heard people you know say these things: ‘Life is b*** and then you die.’ ‘I’m on a losing streak’ ‘Some people have all the luck’ ‘It’s the way of the world’ ‘Can’t trust anybody.’ ‘I’m such a loser’ ‘I totally suck at…’ and so on. That’s not to say that you can do anything and everything incredibly well, but just this:
You don’t really know till you really have a go. Till you’ve tested it without judgement or assumptions.
For instance, what if you could do the reverse of the negative pattern? What if you could get your conscious and unconscious to join in a powerful partnership to forge a positive upward spiral?
If you have the personal skill and know-how to create this negative pattern, surely, you can also create a positive pattern with your personal skills and know-how.
Which you can then exercise, practice, strengthen. To create a readiness for the tough times that life will inevitably throw your way. To create resilience.
It all starts with opening yourself to the belief that you can. And by directing your intention and attention to making it happen.
With apologies to Einstein, E=MC2 is also the formula for awareness, the body and emotion:
Energy = Motion x Consciousness2
Hopefully, we might already be on the same page.
We all experience our bodies having sudden sensations; and occasionally get strong feelings quickly about something or someone out there or in our heads. We occasionally remember dreaming while we slept.
We thus know, intuitively or intellectually, that there’s a thing called the unconscious. Something that’s not registering in my deliberate and deliberating mind. We also know that there are some things we do ‘on automatic’. Some things we’re not consciously directing – or even aware of – but we seem do them quite well anyway.
We also know that when we’re too emotional, especially with emotions like too much fear, anxiety or anger, we can’t always think straight – and seem to have greater difficulty solving problems or dealing with tricky situations or challenging people.
The way you deal with a situation depends on your state of mind.
And if we can open a channel of communication between our conscious and unconscious, then we can have a lot of influence over this.
I just Googled ‘How many times does your heart beat a day?’
On average, your heart beats about 4,800 times per hour. That’s 115,200 times per day. That’s about 42,048,000 times a year. Imagine that you live till you’re 80. For the majority of that time, even though you’re not aware of it, your heart executes all this with clockwork efficiency – if you live healthily, didn’t damage it in an accident or there isn’t a genetic fault in it.
Think about how often things that teams of hundreds of very smart expert professionals helped by the most advanced AI – like a NASA space rocket – make big disastrous mistakes.
By contrast, the amazing feat of beating efficiently goes on for millions of healthy hearts, for tens of thousands of years. In recent human history, it’s billions of healthy hearts. Without making big disastrous mistakes.
Think of breathing. Over the course of one day, you take 17,000 to 30,000 breaths, depending on whether you’ve been sitting at a screen or watching one – or walking, running, dancing and/or climbing stairs a lot.
As we speak your body is busy cleaning itself through the lymphatic system, your kidneys, your lungs, your skin and your intestines. As we speak, your immune system is using the same lymphatic system to patrol your body, countering threats from billions of known bacteria, viruses and toxins. Which is why the itchy red bump from a mosquito bite is a sign that your system has done a great job. Although, granted, the whole mosquito experience can be pretty annoying.
You’re a kind of a miracle. It’s taken millions of years of mistakes to perfect you.
How often do we celebrate that?
A lot of that miracle is happening in your unconscious, which is in your body. As are your emotions. And they’re all linked. If you’re stressed out or depressed, if you’re not getting enough sleep, if you’re doing more physical or mental work than you can handle, it’s easier for you to get sick. Just look at the stats on numbers of sick days taken.
One of the ways you express distress, fear, anxiety and other such emotions is the negative chats you have in your head with yourself, with others or even with something. If you have them in a loop and intensify them, then they’re no longer expressions but an escalation of that distress, fear or anxiety.
The good news is, even though you sometimes feel you can’t turn it off, you can. One of the ways is to step back from it. Philosophy and psychology call it ‘disassociation’. NLP calls it ‘third position’ or ‘metaposition’. The Harvard School of Negotiation calls it ‘going to the gallery’. Journalists and writers might call it ‘a bird’s eye view’. Many people call it ‘fly on the wall’. A lot of us have already noticed the power of shifting our perceptual position in a moment of crisis.
The medicine for too much zoom-in is zoom-out.
Take your mind back to the ‘mindful moment exercise’ where you repeated to yourself in your head, “Breathe in, one…two, breathe out,” and had a slight positive physical and emotional reaction. I hope you experienced how you can direct your internal dialogue to coach yourself into relaxing and untensing a bit.
If that experience gave you a feeling or thought or sense of a skill you already have that can help you or hurt you, then you’ve already taken more steps on the positive path of mastering much more than too much zoom-in or overwhelm.
Self-empowerment isn’t just some idea to debate about, it’s the real internal talent to create a positive resourceful state of mind. And to do so quite quickly.
To go deeper and stronger, you can also reframe. A negative internal dialogue is often looped into a victim/persecutor frame which makes you ask yourself unproductive questions, digging yourself deeper into the hole. “How could this happen to me? Whose fault is it? What did I do to deserve this? Why me? Why should this ever end/be different?”
Zoom out. Reframe.
Go to an outcome frame, for instance. Ask yourself these questions:
• What do I need to/want to go for?
• What resources have I already got?
• How can I get there?
• When, where and with whom?
And the strong:
• How can this become an opportunity?
• What’s the hidden benefit?
• Is there an opportunity/benefit here that I’m not seeing?
And the powerful and liberating ones:
• What’s the positive intention of this negative state?
• What’s it trying to get for me?
• How can I get these things in a more constructive way?
Going back to the big pictures and bright videos of worse case scenarios, the same rule applies. If you make the problem big it makes you small. Where’s the power gone to in that scenario?
Make the negative pictures smaller, drain the videos of brightness and colour. Stop them. Turn them off. (These are just a small part of the many ways you can mess with them). Reverse the power balance. Game the frame. Make yourself the boss of it.
Replace them with a remembered or imagined image or video of yourself doing it well. Re-vision. Remember, if you’re the boss of your state of mind, you’re the boss of you.
Do the two-minute exercise. Make it a habit. Expand it. Explore other ways more advanced ways.
Finally, regularly set your intention to direct your attention holistically.
Do the positive body, internal dialogue and visualisation frame shifts all at the same time; this can be a powerful recipe not only for managing a negative state of mind but for mastering it. Moving to a peak state of mind at will, to you at your best.
The way to get out of the hole, is to get into the whole.
Where positive energy flows, connections grow.
Pick up your imaginary instrument because you’re now ready to play that beautiful melody. Internalise your positive visualisation because your now ready to ‘dance’ it. And if you can play it and dance it, you can be it.
Do it often.
If you’re in a resourceful, empowered state of mind, you can reach out to people you care about and check in with them, support them in this time of crisis. Create a positive counter-ripple.
Millions of us throughout the world are standing at the same local hour every evening by our open windows and on our balconies, clapping, cheering and whistling for the carers. Connecting with each other through an international language – our positive body gestures.
Think of the impact of that massive global wave of acknowledgment, support, affection and respect on the carers. On our often overworked, underpaid, unsung heroes.
Love yourself to better love others. Love others to better love yourself. Two sides of the same coin.
Not in contradiction, but in reciprocal balance.
Gus is an Oxford Certified Coach and Master Practioner in NLP. He is an international executive coach/life coach/online coach.