Some days people in the office act like we are in Junior High or Middle School. You know, back when the pre-frontal cortex wasn’t fully developed and our decision making was highly influenced by peers, the threat of social shaming, and what could stimulate the most adrenaline in the moment. It happens in families too. We carry our old roles and status into our adult life.
How much does our comfort or discomfort at work and adult home relate to our childhood and previous experiences — the look on a someone’s face, their tone of voice, body language, or feeling excluded?
This week we’re looking into self-regulating when we’re in a difficult or challenging situation. We’ll use an example of a work meeting, but use whatever comes to mind for you for the inquiry.
First, it helps to start off feeling steady. When we’re worried about something, this takes some intentional action. Regularly use grounding and orienting practices like these here so that you come in with a foundation of self-regulation, and so that it will occur to you to work with your breath, hold your hands, tap, or use your tools to come back into self-regulation.
While you are waiting for a meeting to start, or as you’re listening as others speak, use a continuous smooth breath — in to a count of three and out to a count of six. Soften the muscles of your forehead, and focus on letting go of worry. When you speak, talk in longer sentences or don’t breathe in between shorter ones. Look around the room for cues of safety and rest your eyes on people who are allies. This helps settle your nervous system.
Just as we assemble our files and presentations for an important meeting, we can prepare our nervous system. Think ahead to the people who will be there, and the dynamics at play. Who fawns to the boss? Who is encouraging? Who might say something to belittle or dismiss us? Who speaks up? Who shuts up? Who are the major players and how are they likely to react? People are predictable. We know who in a group will respond with a fight response, and who is likely to sink down in their chair so they’re not noticed.
Whether we’re front and center, on Zoom or in person, if we feel anxiety or dread before a meeting, a slow motion run-through before hand can let us see and work with the triggers ahead of time. We can use the predictive qualities of the brain for our benefit.
Begin with softening your back body. Let your shoulders release. Take a few deep breaths. Look around the room for cues of safety. Use some of the tools to relax.
Visualize yourself where you will be just before the meeting begins. Maybe you’re getting dressed for the Zoom call, you’re in your office, or you’re playing a game on your phone while you wait.
See yourself in the picture. By seeing ourselves in the picture, instead of looking at it out of our own eyes, it helps us remember we are looking at an image. We’re not actually there.
What changes in your body as you look at that image of yourself before the meeting? Did you start holding your breath? Tighten your shoulders or clench your teeth? Pause here and regulate — tap on your forehead, box breathing, etc.
Once you’re feeling relaxed and breathing smoothly again, visualize the next step.
You’re walking into the meeting room, or opening the Zoom link. See yourself in the picture and tune in to the dynamics that are likely to be at play. Who will be there? How do they act? Who will be fawning to the boss? Who is a threat to us? Who helps us feel safe during a meeting?
Choose one of the people who feels uncomfortable to you and see them as an image. With your eyes open, put the image in a frame on a wall on the other side of the room. Notice the space around the outside of the frame. Move your eyes around the empty space a few times in each direction, then look back at the image.
Notice changes in your body and breath. Relax your shoulders and take a few deep breaths. Pause here and regulate — tapping, stand up and shake etc.
Once you’re feeling relaxed and breathing smoothly again, bring the same image into the frame. Repeat tapping, tracing etc until your response is less intense.
Choose another one of the people who feels uncomfortable to you, and see them as an image. With your eyes open, put them in a frame on a wall on the other side of the room. Shift your focus between the image and the background several times. Tap or trace.
Notice changes in your body and breath. Relax your shoulders and take a few deep breaths. Pause here and regulate — tapping, butterfly hug, 5 4 3 2 1 senses, etc. Rehearsing with somatic mindfulness inquiry, we lessen the intensity of our responses and sharpen our neuroception so it more accurately represents the present situation without such a hangover from our past.
We use experience from the past to predict safety in the present. Some of the evidence is current history, and some is from earlier or from childhood. If we’ve experienced a demeaning boss in the past, we’ll be sensitized to the threat of it happening again. If our ideas were scorned as stupid when we were a child, we’ll be reluctant to speak up. Our system is trying to warn us to play safe.
We unconsciously and continuously assess the safety or danger in revealing who we really are in a complex interweaving of family, culture, and trauma history. We hide when we feel ashamed. I was bullied at school or home. As children, we acted to keep ourselves as safe as possible. Many people form a habit of protecting ourselves by hiding. We don’t share. We don’t trust people.
A common result of trauma is that we fear we will be overwhelmed if we open up to feeling and being fully present. At work, this dynamic keeps us in a fight/ flight/ freeze/ fawn response, and limits our success and ability to contribute.
Bringing something challenging to mind helps us to see ahead of time what might throw us off track. When we’re prepared, we won’t be as hijacked or reactive. We’re better able to stay engaged.
Our mind believes our thoughts are real, especially when we tighten up in our body and breath. When we work with images and sensations ahead of time, it helps to release us from that trance. As we experience that we can reliably come back to emotional regulation, we have more confidence. We are able to share our creative ideas and participate fully.
When you have that feeling of dread about an upcoming encounter, do a dress rehearsal ahead of time. We are adults now. We have experiences of safety we can draw on, emotional maturity, resilience & adult resources.