The Leadership Moves Podcast is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation. This presentation is on Our Relationship with Fear. The session aimed to help us better understand our human relationship to fight, flight, freeze, and fawn and show us how we can shift from being reactive to responsive and proactive leaders. Listen to the podcast here.

Understanding our own patterns around fear and anxiety is a critical element of interconnected leadership.

The leadership skills that I want to work with you today are presence and how to understand our own relationship to fear and anxiety so that we can learn how to calibrate our response.

Interconnected leadership has four intersecting  quadrants. These include self; community, systems; and, the earth.  In this session we focus on the self and we begin by understanding and finding presence.

Presence is the ability for us to be with ourselves and to be with another or with the world simultaneously.  In other words, presence means awareness of self and the external world. As leaders, many of us are externally focused and we often forget to check in with our own landscape, with our own consciousness, and with our own internal state of being. In order for us to show up as leaders and especially as leaders that the world needs right now, it’s very important to have a sense of what is happening within you so that you engage with the external world from a pace of self awareness.  Not from a reactive place, but from a proactive place, from a responsive place.

Presence also requires us to understand and become aware of our own relationship to fear and anxiety. Very often we get triggered very quickly and move into a fight-flight state.  We don’t have the ability to take a pause in between our internal state of fight-flight and the external event  that we are responding or reacting to. This reactiveness can often hinder the goal that we are trying to accomplish.

Presencing Exercise

I would invite you to get really comfortable in your chair. If you’d like to stand, you’re welcome to do that as well. If your legs are crossed, please uncross them, bring your hands down to your side and get comfortable in your chair. Close your eyes or keep them half closed, or go into a soft gaze.. Settle into your chair and just follow my voice. Let’s take  some conscious breaths together. A conscious breath is just noticing your breath.

Allow yourself to arrive.  We are here from many time zones, many countries. Maybe you’re starting your day. Maybe you’re ending your day. Let’s take one more conscious breath together.

Now let’s do a quick scan, first of our sensations in our body. Starting from your forehead, I want you to notice any sensations, tightness, tingling, temperature, numbness, moving down your head, your forehead, your nose.  Notice if your jaw is tight, if your eye sockets are tight. Notice what’s happening with your neck, your shoulders. Is it cool? Is it warm? Is there a vibration or tingling of some sort? Are you tight? Are you compressed? Are you loose down your shoulders, your arms, your hands? If your hands are tightly clasped, please see if you can just allow them to relax. Down your chest, your belly, your back, just becoming present with your body, your incredible and miraculous body. Feel your hips, hip sockets. Down your legs, those big thigh bones, those muscles, just notice the sensations.

Nothing to fix, nothing to judge, just become more aware of yourself in relationship with your own body. Your knees, what’s going on with your calves, your ankles, your feet. Can you be a witness to your whole body and have a sense of your physical presence, all of those muscles, the blood, the arteries, the veins, the organs, the glands? Can you be in a relationship with your body?

From this place, I want you to just come into relationship with your  emotions and your feelings. How are you feeling? Is there sadness? Is there  happiness? Is there curiosity, stress, grief, tension, mind running a mile a  minute, or relaxed?  What is the state of your emotional body?

Now notice  your thoughts. What are you thinking right now? Are you thinking about the next thing that you need to do? Are you thinking about food? Are you thinking 15 things at the same time? No judgment, nothing to change or shift, just becoming aware of yourself, coming into presence with you, with your being.

Self-awareness is one of the most important tools of leadership and actually I would say of citizenship. Carl Jung says, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and  you will call it fate.”

This is a moment of coming into consciousness and awareness with yourself, the miracle of you. This extraordinary being that is you with all of your history, your ancestry, your DNA, your familial experiences, your education, the things you’ve created in the world, the families you may or may not have birthed, your communities, your likes, your dislikes, your passions, your shadows, your light, all of you just coming into relationship with the miracle of who you are.

Take another breath and write down what you noticed.  What was the  experience like for you? Were you surprised by something that you noticed  about yourself? Did you find numbness? What’s your mood right now?

Interconnected leadership is about bringing  the quadrants of self, community, systems, and the planet, this earth together and asking who do you want to be? And how would you want to be? These are some of the key elements of self and community of interconnected leadership: Presence, connection, your relationship to fear and anxiety, generative conflict and deep listening.

Navigating Fear and Anxiety

As humans, we live in a constant state of fear and anxiety in the world  that we’ve created. The habitual reaction, the instinctive reaction to fight or flight, to fear and anxiety is very normal and it is what keeps us safe. If there’s a car barreling towards you on the street, your adrenaline kicks in, you get a sugar rush that propels you to move yourself out of the way so that you can protect yourself.  The adrenaline rush will give you the energy that your  body needs to move into fight or flight.  Fighting, running away, fleeing or freezing can often be exactly what you need to do in a moment of danger. Sometimes you might need to fawn or what I call  appease somebody, because that might be your best path to safety at that moment. These reactions in the course of one’s physiological, normal, natural life are completely normal.

It’s important for you to understand your habitual reactions to fear so that you can find some spaciousness in your body and enable your own leadership and presence to move out of a patterned response.  Physiologically, when the adrenaline starts to move in our body, and the sugar starts to pump to give us the energy to make the move that we need to make, we have a normal way, like most animals do, of regulating ourselves so that we can calm our bodies down and get out of whatever trigger it was that put us in that place. Our body self-regulates, moves out of the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system and we can calm down. What has happened to most of us and certainly for those of us who are leaders dealing with social justice issues where the levels of challenge, stress and anxiety are through the roof is that our bodies get stuck in fight-flight response as our habitual reaction to everything that comes our way.  The pandemic has only exacerbated this pattern.

The physiological impact of that is rising cortisol levels in our body begin affecting everything – our physical and mental health and our relationships to our families, our work colleagues, to everything around us. We lose our ability to self-regulate and can stay stuck in a place of continuous fear and anxiety.  We become hypervigilant and stay in a constant state of alertness.  I have to make sure that I am safe, my family is safe, my organization is safe, my colleagues are safe, my communities are safe.  We are constantly scanning the world around us to make sure that we can be safe.

When we are stuck in this place of hypervigilance, we lose our ability to discern the seriousness of particular problems or conflicts.  We can become reactive to situations and conversations and often make the situation worse.  We are not acting as responsive or proactive leaders.

Let’s try and understand our habitual fight-flight patterns to create more self-awareness.

Response Activity

The Fight Response

I want you to feel what “fight” is like as a response in your body. I want you to pick up one of your fists and compress it really tightly and have it move towards your other fist and bring your fists together. Let them meet with a bang.

Just feel that in your body and feel if that feels habitual to you. Does that feel like, Oh, that’s my go-to place around when I’m feeling confronted, when I’m feeling fearful or anxious. Do that and feel that in your body a couple of times and just notice what happens, notice whether you get excited, notice whether there’s constriction, expansion.

Sometimes as leaders, when we’re constantly in fight mode, these are the ways in which we might start expressing this energy in our families and in our organizations and in our work. Temper tantrums, angry outbursts, aggressive behavior, bullying, controlling or overly dominating behaviour, perfectionism, power over, controlling, always wanting to be in charge, winning a discussion or debate, always wanting to be right, judgemental, overly critical –  all these are ways the fight response can play out in our leadership. It’s important to understand these dimensions of how “fight” as a survival mechanism, which can be a good mechanism for our safety and survival, can get stuck into patterns that are not helpful.

The Flight Response

“Flight” patterns occur when you check out or when you’re not really present with what’s going on. It can take many different kinds of behaviors.

I want you to pick up your fist again and this time when you’re coming towards this hand, I want you to push the other hand away. It’s almost like you’re checking out, you are going away. Try that a couple of times – bring your fist in and then move the other fist away. This is another way that we deal with fear and anxiety. High anxiety levels, business, hyperactive, overly analytical, overachieving, workaholism, constant worrying – these are ways in which the flight response can play out in our leadership. Notice what resonates and what doesn’t as move on to tracking the freeze response.

I want to emphasize that none of these responses are intrinsically bad. They are physiological responses that keep us alive in the world. When they get stuck or habitual, that’s when we need to make a shift.

The Freeze Response

Again hold your fist up, bring it towards you, have your other hand up and as this is coming towards you, just stay in one place. Feel that in your body.   Dissociation, checking out, becoming disembodied, amnesia, forgetfulness, depression, isolation, lifelessness, struggling with decision-making – these are ways in which the freeze response can play out in your leadership.   You are physically present but checked out. .

Some of these fight flight freeze responses come from deep trauma in our own lives. They can also be a result of trauma from society  and the environment around us. We are all working on social justice issues. We are being impacted by the structures of hierarchy, exploitation, discrimination. Some of us are experiencing them on the basis of our gender, our race, our sexual orientation, our ethnicity, and different aspects of our identity. All of these things, along with our individual experiences, can conspire to lock some of these responses into our bodies.

The Fawn or Appease Response

The fourth response to fear and anxiety is to fawn or to try to appease or please somebody. Again, bring your fist up and have your other fist coming towards you. While the other hand is coming, you start to appease whatever it is that’s coming. Oh, let me take care of you. I’m so sorry. What do you need? How can I be there for you?  Feel that in  your body a couple of times, feel the fist coming towards you and then feel what it means to get into appeasement or fawning mode. Lack of boundaries, trying to take care of other people, not wanting to deal with conflict, deferring to others to make decisions, not being able to really stand up for yourself, an inability to say no – these are all aspects of how fawn or appeasement can play out in your leadership.

Different responses to fear and anxiety can be present in different contexts. In addition to having a dominant response in the fight-flight mode, you might also notice that you may respond to people that you see in the hierarchy as dominant in a particular way and in the hierarchy as more marginalized than you in a certain way.

You can also notice that there might be cultural patterns in your organizations.

There may be organizational fight-flight responses. You may be a part of an argumentative organization where everybody’s constantly butting up against one another or in an organization that has a super high level of work, work, work all the time. This is a very common pattern for those of us who are in the social justice world.

You may relate to several combinations and they may correspond to different spheres of your life. A conflict that you might be having with your child might play itself out very differently than a conflict with one of your funders or your boss or your partner.  Your fight flight response may also be different when when you’re out there in the world and dealing with an identity that might have certain dimensions of oppression or discrimination or privilege attached to it.

Your ability to be aware and conscious of your patterns and be in a deeper relationship with your fear and anxiety allows for choice.  That ability to make a choice makes you a better leader, a more responsive and responsible leader.  Now let’s explore some tools to move out of fight flight responses.

Deregulating from Habitual Patterns

I want to really emphasize that we are not to castigate ourselves when we notice these patterns. We are learning how to be present with ourselves in order to accept our response, learn how to take a breath, and then move into choicefulness.

It can be easy, even in a meeting,, even under a table, you can make a fist and just allow your hand to hold your fist. Or you can move into a dance move when you’re in a combative state. You can do this in your mind. You can even wiggle as if you’re dancing in your chair if you’re already in the context of a situation that you’re trying to shift from.

First though, you must decide if the fight, flight, freeze, appease, reaction to the current circumstances is appropriate to the situation. And it might absolutely be the best move to ensure your safety or the safety of others.

For a fight response that you decide to shift, use the energy to move into a dance move.  It can be a subtle tapping out of a rhythm if you are in a public meeting.

For a flight response, take a breath and perhaps step into a yoga warrior pose. Or expand your chest and take up a little more space. Step into a stance that feels powerful to you.

If your tendency is to freeze and dissociate, find that breath. If you’re frozen, something as little as wiggling your toes, opening your eyes wider or licking your lips can bring some sensation back into your body. Sometimes you might need to be frozen. Sometimes you may need to just protect yourself by not being present with whatever is going on. It’s the choice that we are learning to make that is everything about leadership.

If you notice yourself in the appease or fawn mode, where you are people pleasing and you lose your boundaries, again, let that come at you, hold it, take that breath and then just hug yourself. Appease yourself first, find that place where you just take care of yourself.

These are really quick and easy ways to deregulate from falling into habitual patterns of fight-flight to fear and anxiety where you’re then just doing things because your physiological system has kicked into gear, but your mind is not  being able to make a choice.

Helper’s High

Helper’s high is a very common phenomenon amongst those who do social justice work. If you experience helper’s high you might get high on always taking care of other people. Taking care of other people becomes the thing that gives you meaning, that gives you your rush, that gives you your sense of purpose in the world. While it’s very important to have purpose and to be in service, it is also important to understand when it becomes almost like an addiction to such an extent that you’re not taking care of yourself. This is what leads to burnout.  This is what leads to obsession with power and control. This is what leads to some of the more challenging dimensions of Founder’s syndrome. Or Saviour syndrome. This plays out in our social justice community in so many different ways. Some people experience burnout and some people fall sick. People get physically unwell, people die, people really hurt and harm themselves from the addiction to helper’s high.

It’s important to HALT and learn how to take care of yourself.

I love this acronym – HALT.  Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.  In other words, learn to become self aware and ask if you are any of these things.  And if you are, then halt.  Stop and practice some self-care.  Start learning to break the helper’s high compulsion.

H stands for hunger.  We often don’t feed or nurture ourselves when we are caught up in our work or some urgent crisis that is happening in the world or that we have  to work with people across multiple time zones or we’ve got to take care of the kids or the partner or whoever else. We don’t nourish ourselves. We don’t exercise that self care that we need for our own nourishment.

Hungry means actual food, but it’s also a metaphor for nourishment, like how do you nourish yourself? What are you hungry for? Is it for a nap? Is it for a walk? Is it for just five moments of gazing out into the sunset? Is it for a plate of food? Is it for a snack? A hug?

A is for anger.  Are you feeling angry, resentful for whatever reason? Is there rage running through your body? Do you want to scream, punch someone? Are you swallowing your rage?  Do you need to call a friend and vent?  Find a way to express your rage by thumping a pillow?  Going for a walk or a run? Take some breaths?

H is lonely..  Are you feeling like you’re all  alone in this world? Feeling the weight of the world on your back? Longing for someone to take care of you?  Feeling a lack of connection?  Do you need to connect with a friend or a family member?  Ask for what you need at that moment?  Have a good cry?  Hug a tree?

T is for tired.  Are you just plain exhausted mentally, emotionally, physically or spiritually? Are you experiencing fatigue? Are your adrenals needing some attention? Can you take a moment to rest? Find relaxation? Get a massage?

Use the presencing exercise that we did at the beginning to locate what is happening with you.  And if you are hungry, angry, lonely and/or tired, give yourself a break.  Continuing to soldier on when you are not nurturing yourself can lead to bad outcomes for your own health as well as the wellbeing of family members, colleagues and the organization.  It affects the whole movement.

All of us are in the enterprise of creating a world that is more just, a world where all of us can thrive, a world where the wellbeing of everyone is at the core and at the center of the policies and the structures and the systems and the values that we create. If we are unable to find pathways to live in that way ourselves, how can we then create the pathways for the world that we are all  dreaming about? Instead of seeing this as selfish or “I don’t have the time” or “I have to take care of everyone,” see this as an experiment. Can I actually embody the vision of the world I desire to create? Can you make that the North Star that you use? If you embody it, then your  colleagues can embody it, your family members can embody it and maybe our  movement can start embodying it as opposed to the current place that we find ourselves. A place where there is so much stress, anxiety, harm, hurt, and disease. How do we live our vision?

I want to teach you a breathing exercise. It is an easy one to do. When your exhale is longer than your inhale, your body starts to reset out of the sympathetic fight-flight mode, survival mode to the parasympathetic rest, generate, create mode.

Take an inhale. When you get to the top of the inhale, pause, hold your breath and then inhale a little bit more and hold again. Then exhale through your mouth as slowly as you can with a sigh or sound. Let’s do this again. 

Inhale, hold it and now top it up a little bit more and then exhale as slowly as you can with your mouth open. Let’s do it one more time. Inhale, hold, inhale a little bit more. Last time together. Hold, top it up. 

If you don’t have the time to do this, you can even do a three count inhale and a five count exhale.

Learning to be in relationship to your breath and becoming in charge of how you’re breathing can help you respond to triggered states.  Just take one long inhale and exhale. Coming back to your breath is like coming back to  your life force energy. This is what animates you. This is what gives you life. We are all breathing this air. And your breath is portable, always with you.

Our breath connects us to all beings on this glorious, beautiful planet that we walk on, that we all care so deeply about. Interconnected leadership is about stepping into how we can create this new world as the old world disintegrates around us. When we are all in a state of hyper anxiety, then our ability to actually create what we vision and we dream about is hindered. How much can we create from a place of pleasure? Can you imagine creating a pleasurable world? Wouldn’t that just be so, so delicious?