How to Get Unstuck From Stress and Find Solutions Inside Yourself Executive coach and author Susan S. Freeman discusses finding a healthy problem-solving mindset in her new book, 'Inner Switch: 7 Timeless Principles to Transform Modern Leadership.'
The following is an excerpt from the new book, Inner Switch: 7 Timeless Principles to Transform Modern Leadership by Susan S. Freeman, available now at Entrepreneur Bookstore, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, BAM and Apple.
Learning how to become present is one of the most critical competencies for 21st-century leaders. In a chaotic, rapidly changing world, your centered presence may be the single best gift you can give to yourself and others. Any problem you solve with a reactive mind can, at best, only make you feel and perform relatively better. But when you're present, you're absolutely better—functioning well regardless of outcomes or circumstances.
Fortunately, yogic wisdom offers us a valuable framework for understanding reality. Instead of immersing yourself in the world's distractions, this framework is an opportunity to withdraw your senses from the external world and look within yourself. Dropping into yourself— into your true being at the center of all you are—is a chance to shift your perspective. Once you have dropped in, you can easily move from seeing a problem and its solution as outside you to seeing that they lie within you.
This is important to leadership because the biggest leap we can make in engagement and productivity comes from shifting our internal awareness away from a reactive lens. Any time we try to solve a problem reactively, the solution has an external focus. But the root of the problem is never the outside world but the biased perceiver that lives within us all. Once we recognize this, we can learn to shift our perspective to become a perceiver without judgment or bias.
Cultivate Your Body's Wisdom
In the West, the prevailing view is that wisdom comes from the mind. Many of us were raised without any acknowledgment of the importance of paying attention to our bodies. We literally experience the world entirely in our heads, as if they are stuck on top of our bodies with no connection between the brain and our limbs and other body parts!
Nothing could be further from the truth. The West is increasingly receptive to revisiting ancient teachings about energy modalities, including yoga, tai chi, Jin Shin Jyutsu, Reiki, and other ancient systems from the East. Many people have found these beneficial for healing. These systems have most often been relegated to the domain of health and well-being and not integrated into business per se. It is only recently that there has been interest in their application to all aspects of Western life.
Leaders will benefit from learning to attune to their own presence while modeling it for others. To effectively influence others, they must first be present and become aware of their bodies and the energy they are emitting.
The body offers a living laboratory in which to investigate our mental and emotional states. By getting in touch with our primary bodily sensations, not our commentary on our sensations, we can explore our relationship to self and others as a gateway to presence. This is why having a somatic practice (sōma is Greek for "body") is essential. We can all feel, notice, and experience sensations in the body. When we do, we are accessing the body and its energy in pure form, without the shackles that come from thought.
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Our brains spontaneously generate thousands of thoughts per day, most of which are random. We believe we are conscious and rational, yet the vast majority of our thoughts are habitual and repetitive—not conscious. Our neural pathways are like train tracks, and we can be runaway trains, careening down a track at high speed without working brakes!
We've had our entire lifetime to build the tracks and pathways for our thoughts. They have been laid down on top of our age, family history, education, gender, religious beliefs, and geographical location, among other things. Our tracks include our past fears and memories and our worries about the future. They reliably lead us to the same stations over and over.
How to Respond vs. React for Leadership Effectiveness
Emotions are among the most important human expressions. Because they consist of energy, emotions are constantly moving and changing. If we understand this, we have the ability to choose what we do with the spontaneous emotions that arise.
Thoughts and emotions are reciprocal. A thought can trigger emotion, and emotion can trigger thought. If we allow our thoughts to spiral, soon we are going deep down a rabbit hole of whatever problem or feeling has seized our attention. In the event of one of these amygdala hijacks, we have an overwhelming emotional response. Mentally, it is as if we have left our body for a few seconds. We are unable to respond rationally because we have vacated our ability to be present to what is happening. We are unconscious while awake.
When leaders get caught in emotional reactivity, they cannot be effective.
Consider Amanda, a CEO who was having difficulty in a relationship with a partner company. Everything was going really well in the relationships with all the divisions of the company—except for one. She had received word that this one division might be challenging for her because of an individual whose goals and desires were not aligned with hers. She was upset.
She told me, "I wake up and I'm stressed. My jaw is clenched, I have insomnia, and I don't know what to do." She was clearly in a high-alert, high-reactive mode—a runaway train.
I said, "From this place that you're in right now, you will have difficulty imagining the right solution. But if you can get into a relaxed state, a range of possibilities may emerge."
When I guided her through an exercise to help her drop in, she was able to access her body's innate intelligence immediately and effortlessly. As a result of being relaxed and expansive, she discovered a way to move forward that felt solid and effective. She was confident in the appropriateness of the solution that presented itself. She became clear that she needed to have a specific conversation she had not yet had. She also appreciated the way of being she needed to bring to the conversation. When she met with her colleague in this new manner, the other individual was more open than she had imagined. Things at work began to shift. Not surprisingly, her sleep quality improved as well.
The balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic states is critical both for our well-being and for the cultivation of presence. Neither state is superior to the other. They are opposite and equal in their importance. Both are needed to dynamically maintain the homeostasis of the body. (Remember, a state of polarity is the ability to go from one state to the other in alternation, as needed.) As with any ecosystem, complementary forces are necessary to preserve harmony.
The trouble is that our regular thinking and doing in the world of business are sympathetically activating. It is not possible to use only the mind to become relaxed and restore balance to the nervous system. We need to counterbalance our SNS (sympathetic nervous system) activation through feeling and being. This is a whole new mode that many high-powered leaders are less familiar with and may not entirely trust.
The good news, however, is that when we are in a relaxed, parasympathetic state, we can access the capabilities of our higher intelligence that we need for presence and collaboration, such as visualization and spontaneous generative creativity. As we move from sympathetic to parasympathetic activation, we move from action (fight or flight) to metabolism (rest and digest), from tension to relaxation, from logic to intuition, from contraction/guardedness to expansion/ openness, from forcing to allowing, from judgment to acceptance, from programmed thought patterns to present-moment thoughts infused with inspiration, from thinking and doing to feeling and being, from ego to witness.