“Stay Home”

Day one of at least four weeks of “at home”/self-isolation, and I am aware of a variety of feelings. I feel anxious for my loved ones who are, because of age and/or health vulnerability, facing high risk should they be exposed to the COVID-19 virus. My father, in England, has been diagnosed with terminal colon cancer, and my coping strategy is to pragmatically recognise he won’t be around much longer, nor will I be going to his funeral. Whether it is COVID-19 or something else, there will be death in my family. Under that matter-of-fact exterior, my fabrication to avoid the true nature and significance of his diagnosis, and the risk to others in my family, is an anxious, vigilant system. My gut is tense, in a knot. My chest is tight, a physical indicator of some degree of panic. When I allow myself to soften into my body and acknowledge anxiety and panic, I am aware of a general sense of discombobulation, and a deep sadness. I had a video encounter with a friend and realised I was angry and judgmental of someone else. In noting and acknowledging that reactive behaviour, tension in me dissolved and I was able to reclaim my power and drop the unproductive behaviour.

View from COVID-19 isolation
Sunset of Day 1 of COVID-19 Isolation

I am also deeply grateful. I live in New Zealand where the government has enacted a very clear isolation policy. No mealy-mouthed politicking here. No pandering to lobbyists that may want relief that serves their self-interests. The simple message: unless you are an essential service provider, STAY HOME! The job of all is to save lives. With COVID-19 infection numbers rising, community spread becoming more apparent, our job is “STAY HOME to SAVE LIVES”. I am grateful to live in a country where all parties have seemingly united in a single, unified approach, and that life matters more than fiscal or economic factors. We certainly have rescue packages for people and business, but saving lives is a humane desire, and provides us with valuable work and purpose. New Zealand is focused on doing what it takes to save lives. For most of us, that is STAY HOME! What a fabulously simple, clear, purpose-filled message. As I drove home from food shopping yesterday, an electronic motorway sign flashed “Keep Calm, Be Kind”, and I felt grateful to be in a country where those simple words did not feel out of place as a road sign. Pretty cool really. There are people in charge of nations on this planet that seem to lack any sense of kindness, empathy or concern for others, not leaders in any true sense of the word, but in charge, nevertheless. I do live in a land with leadership. It is wonderful to see consistent, unifying, purposeful messaging everywhere. I feel grateful to be queuing at a supermarket, waiting 2 metres from those either side, with diversity of age, ethnicity and culture so apparent, with so much generosity and kindness, patience and consideration, visible. I am aware of other places where impatience, anxiety and panic create different outcomes. I am grateful that has not been my experience.

It does bring me to the point of this piece. As much as I may be a jumble of emotions, shaken and stirred by events around me, and by future negative impacts on those I love, I remain responsible for my actions. We each remain responsible for our actions. Survival reactions (FIGHT, FLIGHT, FREEZE and FABRICATE) are so easy to fall into because there is plenty to encourage such behaviour. The Thrive responses (ASSERT, ATTEND, ACT and AUTHENTICATE) are available to us by maintaining awareness of ourselves and making conscious choices of how we will be with ourselves and others. Thrive responses are a manifestation of our personal power. If ever there was a time to truly stay in our personal power and create positive outcomes for ourselves and others, now is surely such a time.

Today I noticed my emotions bubbling up and trying to get the better of me, and I chose to intervene on myself, and offer myself space to self-sooth. What strategies will you use to own and tame your inner world and be emotionally intelligent in how you function? What purpose gives you energy and supports you make choices based on thriving rather than surviving? Even if you are not blessed to be in a country like mine, not perfect, but working hard to be humane in this challenging time, what good are you going to create for yourself? For your family? For your community? I wish the best for all of you, knowing full well that it cannot be the best outcome for all. I wish it all the same.

Reclaiming Self, Again

Dark, dreary and forlorn
When all seems dark and dreary… how do I find and reclaim myself?

The world seems dark, closing in around me. My vision has dimmed. My inner emotional and mental turmoil grows. Dense, dark clouds of desperation choke me. I feel like I am losing myself, my grip on reality, and wonder how or why I should carry on. And only moments ago I felt okay. What changed? Why am I pitching and tossing as though I am in a tiny boat on a raging ocean storm? Where is my virtue? Why has my positive sense of self vanished? Why do I feel abandoned and alone? Is there a way out of this seemingly impenetrable darkness? Why can’t light flood in as easily as the darkness? What am I to do?

Ever known moments or periods like that? I have. It can seem like goodness has evaporated and darkness is all that is available. What causes such experiences? How can such moments/periods be overcome? Answering questions such as these was part of the motivation behind my book, Appreciate the fog: embrace change with power and purpose. I continue to experience and learn.

Many things can create the loss of light, disconnection from what feels positive and good, and plunge us into chaos, confusion, and uncertainty. Trauma certainly can. New trauma messes with our sense of safety and trust. Events may remind us of past trauma and return us emotionally and mentally to old states. Loss, and the accompanying grief, is another trigger. Losing someone through death, capability through illness or accident, a job through retrenchment, or any number of other sources, can cause us to question life, purpose, and our place in the scheme of things. Shame can trigger the downward spiral or dramatic plunge, as the case may be. It could be through returning to an old habit, one we thought we had beaten, or being reminded of something we have done that we regret. Shame can also accentuate the downward process initiated by other causes. This one has a fabulous ally in the descent into darkness, our inner critic, who, through shame, has received a package of evidence of our uselessness as an individual. We may have a massive job disentangling ourselves from our critic’s habitual negative messages before we can even consider climbing out of the pit. The critic is such a potent voice, and if we attack the critic for being critical, it only serves to strengthen the critic and deepen the hole we are in. There are many other triggers that can take us down.

With the brain surgery I had several years ago came a raft of such roller-coaster experiences. It was traumatic in the extreme, far more so than it actually seemed to be. One moment I was fine. The next I learned I had a life threatening tumour, and had life-saving and life-changing surgery with loss of physical function and capability. It is all invisible disability, but I know it is there. So does my critic. Every now and then I find myself back in the negative soup, needing to yet again extricate myself. In response to the trauma, I found myself plunged back into unproductive patterns I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager where I had little trust that I would be okay. For all the miraculous outcome of the surgical intervention, a brain tumour does highlight safety concerns, and I found myself working with very old patterns and attitudes: isolation, distrust of others and life in general, and a generally bleak mental outlook. “There goes 30+ years of personal work down the toilet” was one of my evaluative internal comments. “Hey, I have written a book about this stuff. How could I get caught in this trap?” Pretty easily actually. The brain never drops old wiring. We may manage to create new pathways and implement new habits, including mental and emotional responses, that are useful and forward moving. In some ways trauma can unearth disused paths and bring them back into use. The difference this time however is that I have worked my way through and out before.  I am armed with that knowledge and capacity. This whole process became another chance to bed down the restorative processes, and heal past old hurts at a deeper level.

So, how can we reclaim ourselves at such times? This is the equivalent of redeeming ourselves from hell, the turmoil created within one’s psyche by mental and emotional processes gone awry. Some examples of methods for reclaiming self include:

Implement new positive routines. These have the effect of reminding ourselves we matter and provide positive feedback and self-care. For me, something as simple as stopping each hour to do a few stretches that break up my day of sitting and working on the computer makes a massive difference to my sense of self and my outlook.

Inventory the qualities and virtues you seem to have lost, and reclaim them. When I hit these sorts of dark places I tend to lose playfulness, trust, hope, delight, innocence, many other child-like qualities. The world seems to be too big, bad and unsafe, so they get stowed for a brighter day. Without them the brighter day doesn’t actually happen. Check in on what you don’t seem to have access to, because you have hidden them away, and reclaim them. Bring them back into active use. For me I metaphorically throw my items into a sack I carry on my back. To reclaim them I go through a process of recognising that has happened, and mentally opening and exploring my sack to find the qualities I want back. Sometimes I use a physical bag full of items and enact the process to strengthen my mental and emotional connection to reclaiming myself. That has a great effect in opening my awareness, establishing the importance of the qualities I am reclaiming, and reasserting them as valuable and available in my life. The world gets brighter in that moment.

Practice loving and accepting yourself. A simple way of doing this is to say: “I love myself and I accept myself, even though I don’t understand myself… and I forgive myself.” You could even list the things you find difficult to understand about yourself. This phrase asserts love and acceptance without judging yourself as good or bad . You can up the experience by standing at a mirror, taking up your own gaze, and then saying it. Do this multiple times and notice your inner response to yourself saying such a simple statement. I find this is an invaluable feedback mechanism. Any difficulty I have when holding my own gaze and saying this statement quickly informs me how strongly judgemental and unaccepting I am of myself in that moment. Staying with myself, when it is difficult, and finding a way back to loving and accepting myself, is a powerful, valuable, and often challenging, investment in self.

Phone a friend. Reaching out can be an incredibly difficult action when surrounded by your judgement of how pathetic you are. A real friend loves and accepts you even when you don’t know how to. It is a great lifeline to have and call on when the moment requires it. If you don’t have a friend available in the moment of crisis, call a helpline or see a counsellor. All these options are positive steps that say “I want and deserve better for myself.”

Gratitude. Find and name a few things for which you are truly grateful. If you can’t find anything, ask yourself what you could be grateful for, and then be grateful for that, and for asking the question. If you have done any of the previous actions, or anything else that works for you, express gratitude to yourself for doing them, for investing in yourself. Work with whatever small sliver you can find, and build on it.

Practice while the going is good. Build up your capacity to reclaim yourself when you don’t need to. It is easier to hit those negative experiences if you are already resourced. As challenging as my process of working through my surgery and aftermath has been, it has been much easier for having already established mechanisms for reclaiming myself. There have been times when, regardless of all I know, I wondered what the point was, but underneath I have known there is a point, and I that I could find my way back.

These are by no means all you can do. What are ways that work when you need to reclaim yourself?

Refer to “Reclaiming Self” for an earlier article on the same subject.

Isolation to Connection: A Challenge For Any High Performing Team

Team productively connected and engaging with each other.
Team connecting productively with each other

I have always been a people watcher, and in the last half of my life have worked to improve my capacity to connect with others. I can easily play the hermit and go into isolation, be there for days without concern. I did a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, one of the most challenging things I have done in my life, but it was a physical challenge for me whereas many others reported silence, not talking and not connecting with others, as really difficult. I could have maintained the silence and my own space much longer. Yet, I do like people. It takes me time to engage with others. So I write this piece with a strong understanding of the enjoyment and importance, for some, of having and maintaining personal space.

For some time I have held a heightened awareness of the generally isolationist ways of people travelling to work on buses, ferries, or walking, and the different sense of what is going on for them. Of course, much of this is my fantasy of what is happening, albeit tempered by a lifetime of experience.

I am sitting near the front of the morning commuter bus, facing the back, and I notice the steely expressionless faces of my fellow passengers. Some stare ahead, eyes fixed, blank, hardly a movement. Others have ear pieces and are likely listening to something, eyes closed. One or two may catch my gaze as I look around the bus. Eyes may meet but there is rarely acknowledgement or warmth.

I am walking along the sidewalk as people pass me going the other way to catch the ferry. I greet with a friendly (in my world) “Hello” or “Gidday”. Many maintain their disconnection, their minds somewhere else, or at least refusing to be where I am. Some appear wary of, even annoyed at, the stranger intruding on their space. There are a few that respond, some even warmly.

I liked the movie “Patch Adams” from the moment I first watched it. One of my favourite parts is where Patch is performing a social experiment, finding novel and exuberant ways of inserting himself into the space of others, all with the intent of eliciting a smile and some warmth and connection. I am not attempting to emulate Patch. His experiment does highlight what is a fairly significant aspect of the human condition, the isolating and detached way we spend much of our time.

Imagine how different the world would be if connection and warmth were the norm. Trust would be the underpinning basis when meeting others. Warmth and generosity of soul would be abundant. Perhaps you have noticed that when you truly connect with someone else there is joy, satisfaction and a sense of fulfilment. It would be fantastic living in a world where such richness were more readily available.

Irrespective of your reaction to the above “wondering”, this isolationist phenomena has real impact on how we work and function in different social settings, including within teams. Whenever a group comes together there is a necessary process of “warming up” individually and as a group, to enable us to become available to ourselves and those around us. There is a necessary unpacking of the distrusts or intrusions we experience as we engage with others, unwrapping our protections. It is as this process is addressed that the real work of being together advances. In fact, the “real work” of the group often is about establishing and working in meaningful connection. Attending to the culture or way of being together as a group assists the capacity of the group to come together effectively. Common understanding of the way in which decisions are made, conflict will be resolved, specific responsibilities, all assist ongoing capacity of the group to come together as a team. The more fully the culture is addressed and consistently honoured, the easier it is for those within the team to arrive and engage, trust they will be safe and allow themselves to express themselves and contribute fully.

In my work as a group facilitator I know I must address the warm up of the group so the intended work can move forward. As a project manager I know my team will coalesce and function more effectively if they collectively understand and adopt a team culture that makes sense to them, and they see it lived and honoured. As a team coach, this is one of the areas I look for as part of ensuring a team is able to be high performing.

The challenge is to transform all these people on buses, ferries, private cars and however else they travel in isolation into connected, trusting and generous group participants and team members, ready and able to contribute fully. This includes ourselves. Are you up for that challenge?