Fear is not something to be taken lightly. Fear, especially for those whose jobs are in jeopardy or
Throw me a lifeline!
whose businesses are really feeling a pinch, is not something that can be brushed away like crumbs from the dinner table. Fear saps your energy and makes even basic activities a chore.
So in the cause of support, health and well-being for all of us in this challenging time, I want to hare my list of six steps that take–whenever I enter the "dread zone"!. So here they are “straight from the horse’s mouth,” as they say.
SIX STEPS TO WORKING THROUGH FEAR in Turbulent Times
Step One: Confess to Stress
Do you sometimes feel anxious? Worried? Stressed? I know I do. We like to think these are all independent “symptoms”–and sometimes they are–but more often than not they are multiple buckets in which we attempt to toss away our fear. In almost every case, fear is the real culprit. When we get caught up in anxiety, stress and worry–or feel irritable and cranky–we have a tendency to get fixated on the symptom, and ignore, or deny, the underlying issue. Like my client who says things like, “I’m very anxious about the fact that I worry all the time.” Sound familiar?
The crucial first step to releasing fear is actually a two-fer: acknowledging and sharing. Fear needs to brought out from under its cloak of stress or worry or whatever you use to cover up the deeper truth: you’re scared. Real problems arise, not so much from the fear itself, but from our tendency to avoid/deny facing it. Especially if you are a business owner or leader with responsibility for the welfare of others, you may want to “put on a face of hope” and “be the rock” for your people–your employees, your family, your customers.
Yet, if you have no place to share your own vulnerability, to acknowledge that you too, are frightened and unsure, at some point the facade may crack. In my practice, supporting senior executives and type-A entrepreneurs, the most dangerous “symptom” of all appears all too often: isolation. Feeling fear is one thing, feeling fearful…and alone...well, now you’ve entered the danger zone.
My suggestion: find a buddy. You may not be able to share your fears (at least not completely) with your organization or employees, and you may be concerned about upsetting your family–or adding to their fear. So seek out at least one close friend and confidante–a coach, a therapist, or at least a pal–and express your deepest fears. Ask for help. It may just be the most courageous and “leaderful” step you’ll ever take.
Lean on Me
Reflect, Don’t React
Once you have taken the first step, and acknowledged that fear is the driving force behind your anxiety, stress, worry and all-around bad mood (for many of us!), there is a new decision to make: how to respond. The issue here is learning how to practice being responsive rather than reactive. This may sound simple, and it should be, but in our action-oriented, results-driven culture, we are often pressured to “shoot before we aim” and many of our so-called “role models” in politics and corporate America (think Trump!) appear to be focused, driven, and decisive…anything but reflective.
Act first, think later — is a recipe for disaster, and not, in fact, the way even the most action-oriented leaders, if they are successful in business and in life, really work. Reality TV and journalistic sound bite newsreels portray leaders as always ready to make a move…but very likely, (I suppose during the commercials), those same action heroes sat quietly for long moments, and hopefully, have thought long and hard about what to do.
I call it “Minding the Gap”: create space between your reaction to something that comes at you and the action you take in response. The “gap” is crucial. Without space to breathe and reflect, you are likely to make missteps. Ask yourself these questions: how much space-time-breathing room do you give yourself before you make a big (or even small) decision? Do you wait 24 hours before hitting “send” on that angry email you’re dying to write? Do you walk around the block a couple of times before heading into the house — and careening into dinner — after a stressful day at work? Do you take time to release the toxins of fear and anxiety from your body through yoga or exercise?
The size of the gap is not what matters here. It could be two minutes, two days, or two months–if you have the luxury. What is crucial is to CREATE SPACE for reflection. As Eckhart Tolle might put it: to find your way back to NOW.
Step Three: Stay in Focus
It is a common refrain to hear that you need to “stay focused” during difficult times. This is a no-brainer. What you hear less about is WHAT to stay focused on –or how to determine if you really are staying focused. For many of my clients, staying in action “feels” like staying focused. But is it? Or perhaps even more common: focusing on fear! (I guess that’s what I’m doing right now. Ummmm). The point is this: just telling yourself, or others, to “stay focused” is not particularly helpful. We are all, always, focused on something.
I break “focus” down to a more granular level. What you really need to attend to are two fundamental dimensions of focus: internal/external and time-based (past, present, future).
In the first case, you have to become aware of whether you are overly “externally” focused –taking care of everything that is right in front of you but ignoring your own needs–or vice-versa: withdrawing into your own emotional world, becoming distracted and dis-engaged from what is going on around you. The key is balance–moving back and forth between inner/outer focus as needed (see my blog post June 2007, titled, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom for more information on this particular form of focus).
In the second case, the issue is knowing whether you are too focused on the future (living in your fantasy or vision) and ignoring the present needs of the business. Likewise, you don’t want to get caught up in ruminating about the past– bemoaning lost opportunities or lamenting the “good old days” — and again, miss the issues right before your eyes. You need to have awareness about where you are putting your attention: be in the present, but thinking of “possible futures”…be focused on others, but caring for self, etc. The key again is balance: crafting a vision for the future, but living moment-by-moment in the NOW.
For more information on the subject of focus, I highly recommend The Power of Focusing, by Ann Weiser Cornell.
Step Four: Don’t Blame, Re-frame
The issue here is that we all have a tendency to “play the victim” at times. When there are so many things that impact our businesses that appear to be out-of-our-control, it is natural to get discouraged and want to point fingers…or blame the messenger. The key to staying positive and on-track in the midst of the mine field of economic bombs being dropped on you from all directions is to remember one key principle: there is only one thing you can truly control and that is how you SEE THE EVENTS.
We are always creating a “story” — a narrative– with which we explain what happens in our business…and in our life. The key to “staying afloat” during rough seas, is to not get caught up in the negative frame, but rather to “re-frame” the story — to look below the surface of what might appear to be bad news– and find the gold. You can always re-interpret the story as one in which opportunity abounds, no matter how bleak the picture looks in the moment. As Jim Kramer says on his TV show: “there is ALWAYS a bull market somewhere…it is your job to find it.”
Step Five: Stay in Balance
This subject of this step, like focus, is something that we hear in mantra form all the time: “Get a life.” Of course, as nice as that sounds, we all would likely admit that true balance is the first thing that gets thrown out the window as soon as we find ourselves in “fear-mode”. Anxiety breeds over-activity (and less sleep), and stress breeds exhaustion and irritability. The idea that we need to maintain balance (e.g. work/life balance) is certainly not new. What is missing, however, from most of the “self-help” literature on the subject is the answer to a key question: what, exactly, do I need to keep in balance?
It is not enough to maintain a balance between work and life (in fact, the colloquialism “work/life balance” is an oxymoron: since when is work NOT life?). For most business leaders working “under the gun” of stress and fear, work becomes life, and vice versa. It is not enough to find a temporary median point on the see-saw of “life” and “work”. In order to release fear and stay energized, optimized and optimistic, there is a balance more fundamental than that between work and life: the balance between head, heart, and body.
What really matters, at the end of the day, is that you balance your “thinking” side with your “feeling” side…and that you align both with your physical well-being. If you spend all your time thinking about the business and forget to sleep or eat, well, I can predict the outcome: disaster. If you spend all your time in “emotional meltdown”–crying jags, screaming fits and the like–well, here too, I can predict the outcome: disaster, but worse, you’ll be alone. Everyone who might support you, will flee! The key to “staying in balance” is not to focus on work vs. life (not possible anyway) but to focus on keeping aligned: mentally, emotionally, and physically.
Suggestion: reflect back on a typical week (especially one when you were in “stress/fear” mode). How much time did you spend attending to your feelings? How much time did you spend doing mental gymnastics–thinking, thinking and more thinking? How much time did you spend tending to the vehicle that seemingly effortlessly carries around all those heavy thoughts and feelings–your body? What is the balance between the three?
Step Six: Watch for Blind Spots
The issue here is that when business leaders (or all of us for that matter) are in “fear-mode” they have a tendency to deny/avoid confronting the truth. As in step #1 above, it is crucial that a leader be open and honest about his/her experience of anxiety and stress. We have to remember that even as the CEO, you are a human-being…vulnerable to the same fears and stressors as the lowest person on the totem pole.
Step six, however, is not just about “confessing” and naming your fear…it is about being willing to get clear, objective and tough-love feedback from people who will tell you the truth about what you may be doing that is unproductive and hurtful, or what you may be missing (e.g. the big picture?). As the leader of an organization, of three or three thousand or more, you are not immune to the darker aspects of human nature.
Often, denied fear–or avoided stress if you prefer–shows up in the outer world as something rather unpleasant. Do you recognize any of these behaviors from a place you may have worked: raging employees,
We’ve all been there
angry bosses, nasty co-workers, arrogant customer-service agents, condescending superiors, dismissive department heads?
Ok you get the idea. We all have our “shadow” side. As Carl Jung pointed out so profoundly many years ago: “The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate.” The fear and hurt in our hearts that we would deny and push away, shows up in the world anyway, as projection. We unconsciously toss on to others what we refuse to own in ourselves.
This step may be my last (for the moment) but it is key: when in fearful mode in business, and in life, we all need to find someone–or maybe a whole community of someone’s–who will give us the hard, cold skinny on how we are behaving. Only then, with a little reflection and humility, can we bet back on track…and show up as the leader/role model that we know our best self to be.
Question to reflect upon: How often do you get real, useful feedback in your life? Do you take the risk and ask for it? Do you have someone who will tell you the truth, no holds barred?
So…there you have it. My recipe for riding out the storm of anxiety, stress, and worry–FEAR–that is likely gripping you, and me, and everyone else, at least now and again, as the economic tide of woe flows by. We all know that economic tides, just like the ones pulled by the moon, will turn and ebb and and change. We are not on the Titanic, and I, for one, don’t believe there is an iceberg ahead.
We’re all in the same boat
Times will get better. But for now, we all have to do whatever we can to keep our backs up straight, our hearts open, and our heads above water. We are all in this boat together–so please send along your additions to my list…there is plenty of room in this life raft!