As a Somatic coach, I help people consider the impact of how they move and feel as well as of how they think. I help individuals connect with their emotions and their physiology in order to deepen their leadership capability. I am particularly interested in the impact fear has on individual and organisational behaviour. Today leaders have to be courageous if they are to inspire others under conditions of high uncertainty. I believe that developing a closer relationship with fear is crucial to becoming more courageous.
It has taken me years of hard work, in fits and starts, to get to a place where I am grateful to the fear I feel. Fear is an information system with a physiological and cognitive loop. It’s our very intelligent bodies and minds telling us to pay attention. In 2010, a very interesting study was undertaken of how individuals behave when in close proximity to snakes. (Source below). The researchers wanted to see if there was a part of the brain that could be associated with courageous action. The study examined individuals’ ability to be in close proximity to a snake and whether they could show courage to bring the snake nearer to them. The assumption is that courage is the ability to overcome a fear. The study concluded that there was indeed a part of the brain that became more active when individuals showed courage. Furthermore those who had both a cognitive fear and a physiological response could not show courage, whilst those who had only one of the elements could overcome their fear and bring the snake closer. So if we can learn to either calm the mind of fearful thoughts or learn to reduce our physiological responses we can begin to build our courage. I think we can only do this by paying attention and becoming more familiar with the different elements of our fears.
I would like to share my own understanding of fear and how I am using it to develop my own courage.
For example, physiologically, I experience fear as my heart beating faster and a sick sensation in my stomach. In the past I might have interpreted these sensations and created a belief ‘I am afraid of….’ which in turn fed into my physiology and made me more afraid. Or I might have fought the sensations with thoughts such as ‘there is nothing to be afraid of’ or I might have avoided the sensation with distraction or analysis. The problem with these strategies is that they either embed the fear or set up an inner conflict or create a bypass process. The first two seem to augment the fear and the third delays or exacerbates the consequences.
I now try to ask myself questions.
Is the fear alerting me to a real and immediate danger to life?
‘there is a hungry tiger in the room’
‘my child is about to run across a busy road’
In these situations my physiology kicks in and I instinctively react to prevent the danger: I run; I pull the child back.
Is the fear alerting me to a real and unwelcome consequence?
I am about to present something that may reduce my reputation. I am about to recruit someone that may be inappropriate. I am about to make what may be a wrong decision. A sensation associated with fear is alerting me to pay attention and ensure I have put in the most appropriate safeguards. Recently I was sending a report to a client and I could not press send because every time I went to press send, my heart started beating faster. It could of course have been excitement at having produced the report but I recognised the sensation as fear. So I examined the report, reflected and adjusted. I still could not bring myself to press send. I waited. I knew something wasn’t right and finally realised I had omitted a major acknowledgment which could have potentially offended the client. I adjusted the report and was able to press send fearlessly. Respecting my fear prevented me from offending my client.
Is the fear replaying an old story that no longer serves us?
A fear common to many is the fear of getting something wrong. It could stem from childhood and the consequence of not getting something right. This may have been quite frightening especially if the consequence, which could have been as simple as a frown, was exercised by an important person such as a parent, teacher or school friend. The conviction at a cognitive level is ‘ if you do something wrong, you will be judged or punished in some way’. As adults if we get something wrong we should have enough experience and confidence to realise that a mistake is not going to define us. If we allow the fear of a mistake to grip us, we are allowing a childhood experience to drive our feelings and behaviour as an adult. We may experience a number of different physiological sensations including a sense of paralysis which make it harder for us to rectify the mistake. So that part of the fear is no longer serving us. It is not easy to let this go but as we recognise it as an old story the fear seems to lessen so that we can deal with the mistake with clarity. I am aware that even as adults we may be judged for making mistakes and yet it is very important to be able to differentiate between todays’ reality and an old story.
Is the fear at the boundary of my development and something that I wish to overcome? i.e. Can I build my courage?
For example, although I have been practising Wing Chun for a few years I have never practised falling. I have always been scared of breaking something and hurting myself. I think the fear had validity and was protecting me. I was not ready and my fear was telling me that. I had no desire to learn to fall and I felt quite gripped by my fear. However, I now have a stronger desire to overcome my fear. At a cognitive level I can see that to really progress I need to learn how to fall. It is the next step for me. I still feel scared at a physiological level but something has happened to the fear. It no longer grips me. I am acknowledging and listening to it. The key for me is to distinguish between foolhardy bravery and considered bravery. With the first I ignore all the signals my fear is sending me and with the second I have listened to my fears and put in enough appropriate safeguards to make the leap. I believe this is a crucial distinction for courageous leadership.
The skill is in learning to differentiate the variety of messages fear is giving us. Notice the difference in sensation of when you are ‘in the grip’ or not “in the grip”. When you are “in the grip” it is very hard to access your rational thought and you respond instinctively – fight, flight or freeze. The more you become familiar with what grips you and how it feels you may notice that the grip state passes more quickly. When you are not “in the grip” you can work out what your fears are communicating and make more informed choices.
We can increase our awareness by listening to our bodies and minds. By acknowledging the sensations we feel in our bodies we learn to recognise what fear may be trying to tell us. By noticing what we think we are afraid of and being curious about where that thought comes from we may begin feeling less controlled by it.
By not seeing fear as information we are unable to develop a relationship with it. I think this stops us from developing our full capability and being the leaders we want to be.
Make fear your friend: it’s part of you.
Source: “Fear Thou Not: Activity of Frontal and Temporal Circuits in Moments of Real-Life Courage” Uri Nili, Hagar Goldberg, Abraham Weizman, Yadin Dudai, 2010
Books: Decartes’ Error by Antonio Damasio, 1994; Emotion Focused Therapy by Leslie S. Greenberg, 2002; The Leadership Dojo by Richard Strozzi-Heckler, 2007