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1 July 2020

How listening in to our bodies can make us more Fit for Complexity

Written by
Carolyn Coughlin

It feels pretty redundant to say that 2020 has been a tough year.  In the midst of the twin global pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism—both of which had been brewing long before 2020—how could it not be a tough year?  And yet, for me personally, my tough year stretches back to early 2019 when my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer just as my brother was moving into an even more advanced stage of his own then-three-year journey with stage 4 cancer.  Even though I have understood cognitively, taught about, and dare I say preached to my clients about the inherent unpredictability and uncontrollability of the world for the last 15 years, these last 15 months have pretty much finished off any remaining notion I had that I could predict or control much of anything. The silver lining, though, is that this crazy, spinning world has forced me to lean even more heavily into the one source of stability that is always (and always has been) with me.  My body.

After losing my mother in August, my mother-in-law in September, and my brother in December—all of them after long and painful illnesses that gave me, my husband, and other family members the perfect opportunity to move into Hero mode , I gave myself permission to rest and heal for the remainder of December and most of January.  Not only was I mentally and emotionally exhausted, I had truly learned what was meant by the phrase “my nerves are fried.” When I paid attention (which I often didn’t because I was in “head down just do it mode”) I could feel the tension in my body. Jaw clenched, shoulders raised, my cells literally contracted, holding on to control for dear life. In my more aware moments, I could catch myself, pause, and do something to settle my nervous system.  Take a long deep breath.  Feel my feet.  Unclench my jaw.  Lower my shoulders.  I have long known both the importance of these moves and also how to do them. On the whole, my training and my practice served me well, enabling me to stay grounded at least some of the time[1].

As my life (temporarily, as it turned out) began to return to some semblance of normal, my sense of presence and groundedness also returned.  I spent most of February in my beloved New Zealand, running a workshop I love and being involved in meetings of our little firm, during which time I felt both inspired and light.  Then, on February 28th, two days before I was to get on a plane to fly back to the US to meet my husband for the first of what I hoped to be many empty-nest getaways, our  leadership team took up the topic of how we might respond to the threat posed by the COVID-19 virus. I had been reading up on the latest COVID-19 news the previous night, and by the time we began that conversation, I was already noticing I was feeling quite distracted and even a bit anxious.  I was having a hard time keeping my attention on the very important conversation at hand and was instead thinking about how I might change my travel plans.  I could see that my reaction was a bit out of proportion, so I tried to ask myself some questions that would enable me to understand what was going on.  I told myself I was being overreactive and that I should just calm down.  But I couldn’t seem to change anything.  Then I remembered that resource that is always with me if I can just remember to listen to it.


Why listen to our bodies?

In a nutshell, because by listening, we can notice. By noticing, we can acknowledge. By acknowledging, we can resist reacting. By not reacting, we can make a conscious choice.  And by making a conscious choice, we have the chance to do something different.

Let’s start with the notion that our body’s most basic job is to keep us alive.  When we are under physical threat, it automatically moves into action to keep us safe through one of four innate responses: flee, fight, freeze, or appease.[2]  These are all well-adapted responses when our lives are in danger. In fact, if our bodies were not programmed this way, the human race would have died off long ago. The problem is that, as far as our bodies are concerned, an identity threat feels the same as physical threat. So when it’s our core sense of who we are–our fundamental “okay-ness”—rather than our actual life that’s under threat, our bodies react in much the same ways.  Except that in these cases, the automatic responses aren’t always so well-adapted to the situation.  Rather than being helpful, our bodies’ automatic responses are often anti-helpful.

I’ll illustrate this with the story I started with. I like to think of myself as being calm, present, thoughtful, and generous. These characteristics form part of the core of my identity, the person I believe myself to be.  When I feel and act in congruence with those, my nervous system is settled.  I recognize myself as myself.  There is no threat.  On February 28th, as I began to worry about COVID-19, I felt anything but calm and present.  I was agitated and afraid for my physical safety and that of my family. I felt anything but thoughtful, as we talked about our firm’s strategy and all I could think about was changing my travel plans.  I felt anything but generous, as my focus narrowed to include only how I could ensure my own and my family’s safety.  As my identity was under threat, my body was busy trying to protect me from that threat, telling me to DO something to bring me back into alignment with myself so that it could once again feel settled.  While we all have our go-to reaction to an identity threat, it’s usually some combination of our primal self-protection instincts that comes to our rescue. Here’s what it looked like for me.

  • Flee: This is the “just run for the hills!” response. I was agitated, not present, distracted, and feeling ungenerous, so if I could just get out of this current conversation, I would be okay.  If I could just get out of my upcoming commitments, including a long-anticipated holiday with my husband, and get home to safety, I would be okay. My body was telling me to run, but the actions I was taking in reaction to this impulse were only making me more agitated.
  • Fight: This is the “double-down” response. If you can’t run from it, surely you can at least control it.  I did this by desperately trying to devise the optimal plan. Which of course served only to further ramp me up, even as I tried to will myself to be calm and present.
  • Freeze: This is the “just pretend it’s not happening” response.  While it was not my immediate response in this instance, I’m generally very good at this one. If I ignore it, maybe it’ll go away.  It rarely works, but boy is it tempting.
  • Appease: This is the “just make yourself so small that no one can hurt you” response. Again, I am well-practiced at this one.  It’s easy to feel generous and calm when you’re no threat to anyone. When this one runs rampant, for me, it paradoxically ends up making me more likely to feel threatened.  A bit of a vicious cycle.

All of these reactions show up at the level of our bodies as action urges—sensations that essentially tell us to DO something, anything to make whatever dissonance we are feeling go away. If we aren’t conscious of these action urges, we are at their mercy. And as we’ve seen, identity-protecting action urges often lead us astray and are therefore not particularly fit for purpose for leader—or anyone—trying to act resourcefully in a complex world.

This is why we need to learn to listen more attentively to our bodies. By listening, we hear, and by hearing, we can acknowledge, and by acknowledging, we can make a choice about how we want to proceed.  Do we want to act from a triggered state, or do we want to shift our state so we can act from a more settled body?

But of course, listening is hard, particularly when the person (or in this case, the part of ourselves) to which we’re listening is telling us something we don’t want to hear. A body telling us to run when our mind says we must be the hero is confusing. A body telling us to engage when the thought of engaging feels unsafe or inconvenient or might get in the way of us feeling like we’re in control is a nuisance. Because it isn’t natural and isn’t even logical (as far as our life-saving body is concerned), we must learn to do this, and we have to practice. There is no other way.


How to listen in to your body:  a simple practice

At Cultivating Leadership, one of the core skills we teach leaders to support them to lead well in complexity is Listening to Learn. This is the type of listening that asks us to reach into the perspective of another person—especially when that perspective feels wrong, baffling, or threatening—and seek to truly understand it. It’s a simple idea but extremely hard to do.  We’re not wired for it precisely because it can feel so threatening to our sense of okay-ness. Our thinking goes something like this…”if I truly seek to understand a potentially threatening perspective, aren’t I just encouraging it?  And if I encourage it, don’t I increase the risk that I will lose my own position, whether that be to get what I want or influence a situation in service of one of my treasured values?” Listening to Learn requires us to not only tolerate, but actively create dissonance for ourselves.

Listening to Learn in our bodies is not all that different. Except that it’s at once potentially more threatening to our sense of well-being and also much easier to NOT do.  No one is making us listen into our bodies, as might be the case in a work or other relationship situation.

Here is a practice that we hope will make it a bit easier.

  1. Close your eyes.
  2. Bring to mind something that feels challenging for you, perhaps it’s a situation where you have felt stuck or otherwise unable to make the kind of progress you’d like to make.
  3. Now imagine yourself acting in a way other than how you usually act. So, for example, if you have been avoiding, imagine yourself leaning in.
  4. Ask yourself: where do I feel a sensation in my body? Try not to over-think this. Just go with what arises. If you still don’t notice anything, amplify the thing in #3 just a bit.
  5. Now begin to describe this thing to yourself. Where is it precisely in your body?  How big is it? What temperature is it?  What shape? What color?  If some descriptors don’t resonate, just try different ones.  Stay with this for at least 10 seconds. More is better. If you are distracted, that’s fine, just keep bringing your attention to the description of the sensation.
  6. When you are ready, imagine that there is a dial that controls the intensity of this sensation. Turn it up by 25 percent.
  7. What do you feel now? Describe it as you did in #5. Stay with it for 10-30 seconds. If it’s too intense, turn down the dial to a place that feels tolerable.
  8. Now find a place in your body that feels settled, strong, or grounded. You’re scanning for a place of stability here.  Again, try not to over-think this.  Just notice and go with it.
  9. When you find that place, describe it as you did in #5. Stay with it.  You may find it easier to stay with this one than you did with the others.
  10. Notice how you feel here. What thoughts arise from this place? What feels possible here?
  11. Thank your body.
  12. If you can help it, don’t move straight into your next task. Give yourself a few minutes to be with what just happened.

With this simple practice, you have created a deep connection to something in your body that up until now you may have been regularly ignoring, even as it has been subtly but powerfully influencing your actions and demanding a tremendous amount of your energy and resources to contain. By listening to your body, you can notice.  By noticing, you can choose to not immediately react.  By not immediately reacting, you can shift your state.  By shifting your state, you will have cultivated a set of internal conditions that are resilient and well-resourced to help you thrive in the increasing and sometimes overwhelming complexity of your world.


[1] See this Blog about Love, Loss, Grief and Resilience

[2] “Appease” is less well known than the first three.  It is illustrated in the way a wolf who is losing a fight will sometimes approach its foe with its head up to expose its neck to the apparent victor. I mention it here because many of us may recognize it as a self-protection mechanism we use when we feel under threat in the less physical sense. See The Politics of Trauma by Staci Haines.

One thought on “How listening in to our bodies can make us more Fit for Complexity”

  1. Thank you for this, all of it. I felt my shoulders go down just reading it. I had not thought about appeasing as one of the reflex-instincts. I see it in myself and many women who are also mothers and caregivers, working in health care…. beautifully said. THANK YOU.

  2. Pip Woodward says:

    A gift thank you. I so enjoyed reading this and have made so many connections with the experience you have shared. I so value this realness and opportunity to deepen my learning. Ka kite ano Pip

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