Are you tired of the polarizing messages flooding our media, social media, friendship circles, places of employment, and even schools? Do you want to have meaningful discussions with people who may have different experiences or opinions than you but are afraid to say the wrong thing? Or have your words be misconstrued and held against you? Do you want to be a bridge but need additional skills and resources to give you confidence and language? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are not alone.
Every day I encounter people, sometimes whole groups of people in organizations or communities, who want to speak up, speak out, ask questions, lend a hand. They are fearful, though, that they might not get it “just right”. So day in and day out they hold their tongues.
If this is you, I want to suggest an alternative. Change your focus.
Focus on a compelling vision
Change focus from the polarizing messages and actions that surround us to instead imagining what we want—the relationships, communities, and world we want to live in. It requires that we have vision. A vision is a vivid and compelling end state—an aspired-for destination.
Vivid means that you should be able to close your eyes and see the vision in detail, including seeing yourself in it. A compelling vision is one that is so enticing that you cannot help but act in a way that brings it into being, even mustering up the courage sometimes needed to speak up, speak up.
In the absence of a compelling vision people tend to focus primarily on fear—the “what if’s” associated with not having a clear sense of the future. The energy used is called distress, or negative emotional stress. Stressful energy is what we use to worry. We worry about not getting it “just right” the first time. As you know, this kind of energy is emotionally exhausting and often paralyzes us from acting in ways that are consistent with our values.
The effects of distress, or negative emotional stress
The human brain is wired so that when we feel fear manifested in forms such as stress, worry, threat or embarrassment, a part of the brain called the amygdala triggers a cortisol release into our bloodstream. The cortisol then redirects resources from the analytical, problem-solving, thinking part of the brain to the extremities—our arms and hands, legs and feet. It puts us into the primal “fight, flight or flee” mode, which is the survival-oriented wiring humans have had for thousands of years.
Fight, flight or flee were viable options when humans were running from bears or warring clans, but it’s much less appropriate in modern times when running from a stressful or embarrassing situation is typically the least useful response.
Nowadays, having access to the analytical, problem-solving, thinking part of our brain, particularly in fear-filled situations, would be much more helpful.
Think of the last time you had a disagreement with your boss, or colleague, or spouse. Do you remember how you felt? If you had an argument, think of what you said at the time, then what you wish you had said after having some time to reflect on the exchange. Isn’t that how it goes—two days later you’re standing in the shower and exactly the right words come to your mind? That’s because the immediate threat has been removed. Your emotional state then levels out and the fullest resources go back to feeding the rational, creative, problem-solving part of your brain.
It is important to understand this cortisol release in response to input that elicits fear because we are bombarded daily by stimuli that can trigger our amygdala.
Think back again to the argument you had in your mind a few sentences ago. What happened directly after that argument? What did you do next? Did you have another unpleasant experience? It’s likely you did.
Do you know why? Because the cortisol that was released in your body from the first argument takes two to three hours to wear off. In the meantime, your amygdala is a hair trigger. The next minor infraction is just adding proverbial fuel to the fire emotionally speaking.
It’s important to remember that humans are wired to have emotional responses. Emotion is not a bad thing, it just is.
In fact, we have emotional responses to stimuli before we have rational ones. This is why marketing specialists focus on which colors or scents elicit an increased propensity for buying and what kind of background music playing in a store is most likely to lessen the inhibition to spend money.
The power of emotions
Emotions are powerful—in either direction. Emotions that focus on fear are powerfully able to cause distress. Emotions that focus on vision are powerfully able to stimulate eustress—creativity, openness, the energy needed to bring something new into being.
Close your eyes and think about something you have created in the past. It can be anything at all—a quilt, a website, a business, a family. Now, remember the process of bringing that new thing into being. Was it challenging? Painful at times? Did you stretch beyond your comfort zone? Were you in constant learner mode?
Now think about the outcome of your efforts. When you look at your creation, how do you feel? How do others feel about it? How do others feel about you after witnessing the effort and the outcome? My expectation is that those of you who actually thought about a personal creation and the outcomes associated with it are feeling a bit of a tingle right now.
The emotions you are feeling are so powerful that they can be activated by merely remembering something we did that made us proud.
I think about my son. Whew, that was some work! Sure, I recall sleepless nights that were my constant reality during his first two years. I think about the temper tantrums and emergency room visits. But those memories are far from prevalent in my mind. Every day I look into his face with the greatest feeling of satisfaction and love possible.
I have grown as a person, feeling the fullest range of human emotions—fear, anxiety, impatience, gratitude, pride, extraordinary love—because I had a vision of being a great mother. That vision is still so compelling that I jump out of bed every day and do anything necessary to contribute to its sustenance. That’s eustress.
Eustress—the energy used to fuel pursuit of a vision
Eustress is the kind of stress that produces positive feelings and a sense of fulfillment. The feeling is not associated with the stressor itself, rather how the stressor is perceived, which changes depending on positive feelings such as control or healthy challenge. Eustress allows us to feel satisfaction, hope or meaning as a result of our effort.
Harness the power of your own eustress
This next step may be a huge risk for you, or feel like one, at least. You probably can continue to go along following the news, from one tragic event to another without taking any major action. You can shake your head in the privacy of your own home, discretely lend financial support to politicians who represent your views or organizations that are giving back to communities about which you care.
Not rocking the boat has worked for you. You have avoided great reward, but you’ve also, and perhaps smartly, mitigated risk. On the other hand, is that really the most you want to demand of yourself? I hope not.
As for me, I need you as my ally.
I think this world needs all the allies we can get—people who have a vision for what we have the potential to become and can join together in active ways that help us move in the direction of our shared vision.
I believe that there are more of us wanting to create meaningful relationships across differences than those who are leading Alt Right rallies in Charlottesville. Together, can make anything happen.