August 6, 2020

Want to Stop Making Impulsive Decisions in Uncertainty? Here’s How.

Written by Chantal Laurie BelowChantal Laurie Below

When the pandemic struck, I figured I was a goner. While I knew Clorox and Peloton could thrive in our altered reality, I didn’t see my business surviving. Undoubtedly the need for leadership coaching was amplified, but could the cost of it be justified with skyrocketing unemployment? ‘Not so much,’ my fragile nerves deduced. So, I lifted my ‘only sweets on weekends’ restriction and toasted to the good (and gone) years while preparing to disappear into oblivion.

Then, I got a barrage of workshop invitations promising to enhance my coaching skills. Was now the time to enroll in the Strozzi Institute and fine-tune my somatic awareness? When a fellow coach promoted an ‘Executive Circle’ where C-suite women could virtually convene for six sessions I wondered, ‘Should I be trademarking content for a specialized audience?’ Then, I watched clever LinkedIn videos offering practical wisdom around ‘Boundary Setting While Working from Home.’ ‘I must share bite-sized content to remain relevant!’ I concluded.

In this unpredictable environment, we’re all seeking certainty. No wonder: the absence of it requires more of our neural energy, it exhaust us and debilitates our performance. Simultaneously, we’re driven by an ego that makes us, ‘constantly seek to manage the impression others have of us.’ We’re inclined to prove our worth in the best of times; throw in the uncertainty of our life and livelihood and the inclination becomes a single-minded obsession. It’s a miracle I didn’t determine that I had to sign up for an 18-week course on perfecting Zoom facilitation and self-author a book by April to put my nerves at bay and prove my legitimacy.

So many of my clients feel the same pull to do something (anything!) to escape the discomfort of uncertainty. But often that something eases an immediate pain (feelings of inadequacy) but amplifies other pain (unhappiness or overwhelm).  Sadly, uncertainty can’t be avoided; we can’t know the unknowable or the guaranteed right answer no matter how competent we may be. So, we need to build skill to be with uncertainty and resist letting our nervous systems and egos drive our impulsive reactions.

So, what do we do?

Embrace YOUR Constraints (not others’ reality):

In April, I lamented to my husband that I had no creative energy to design, market, and execute on an innovative virtual experience like seemingly every other coach. He asked, ‘Do they all have young kids?’ I responded, ‘Uh, no.’

While my response should be fact checked for accuracy, he illuminated the danger of comparing myself to a generalized ‘other’ and activating my vulnerable ego. Comparison triggered that part of me to rage, ‘What’s wrong with you?!’ But, my husband’s nudge made me focus on other parts that craved rest, simplicity, and emotional stability for my kids.

Clearly, young children don’t preclude everyone from embarking on entrepreneurial endeavors in crisis, but they did preclude me. For others, shifting desires or competing demands might preclude them from manifesting the thing they ‘should’ be doing. Accepting the constraints of our reality, though, can calm our ego and liberate our thinking.

Connect with Your Values:

Once I accepted vs. resented my constraints (and after baking Shrinky Dinks while on homeschool duty), I created space to connect with values I hold dear. Specifically: gratitude, joy and purpose. With these in mind, I asked myself questions like:

  • Given my limited schedule, how can I contribute in ways that matter?
  • Using my unique skills, who can I meaningfully say thank you to and how?
  • Without work travel, what do I have space for now that I’ve previously neglected?
  • What would bring me delight?

My reflections led me to apply for PPP funding to calm immediate financial insecurity fears. Then, I reached out to a non-profit client focused on maternal health; I offered pro bono coaching hours to past clients to help them make sense of the pandemic’s implications and manage their own sabotaging reactions to uncertainty. And, I wrote about COVID’s impact on me and the organizations I work alongside; I blogged with a frequency I’d craved.

These actions settled my nervous system and tended to my ego, but they weren’t driven by them. The result: I engaged with a pride and groundedness that previously eluded me.

Tap Into Longings and Dreams:

A few months prior to the pandemic, I’d been experimenting with pairs coaching; two colleagues (and an uninvestigated interpersonal challenge) with me in a room together. The experience required different attention: How were differences in race, tenure, or gender showing up in the relationship? When someone is more ‘to blame’ in the dynamic, what is the path to healing vs. punishment? I found the work exhausting and invigorating.

With quarantine, pairs coaching ended; I accepted it as a minor price to pay given vast human suffering and deemed it too risky to re-create those intimate spaces virtually. I couldn’t shift my chair a few inches closer to bolster a speaker’s courage as they stopped swallowing vital feedback. My nervous system (shallow breaths just imagining Zoom facilitation) and my ego (‘It will be a bust!’) both signaled the validity of my resistance.

Nonetheless, I kept noticing a deeper longing to reconnect with that work. I missed hearing, ‘I had no idea, but now I see how I hurt you,’ and witnessing long held pain released. I began to wonder if my nervous system and ego’s vigilance was misplaced. To test, I researched workshops aimed at fine tuning my pairs coaching technique, I reconnected with organizations about trying it in this new world, and I decided to write my commitment to it here. I’ve felt newfound excitement in the process. While my nervous system and ego inhibited dreaming, dreaming was the best antidote to the havoc they wreak.

***

Uncertainty is certain, yet human evolution refuses to let us relax in its company. Our nervous system and ego will perhaps always over-protect us from it. If we want to live lives though that aren’t fraught with angst, we need to listen to guiding signals beyond them. I say this knowing that embracing constraints, grounding in values, and tending to longings might feel foolhardy or pure luxury in a time of such legitimate fear and loss. Nonetheless, in this uncertainty, I invite us all to pay attention to our discomfort, resist the urge to fix it pronto, and then imagine small steps we could take to move beyond it that sideline our ego and nervous system’s dominance. It just might be worth the risk.

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