Guest Blogger: Emma Tempest – AECA VP of Communications
You and your brain = the imperfectly perfect team
There has been so much discussion lately in the world about coming together and working as a team, so I wanted to talk about how team work can sometimes involve just you – being on your side, working with your brain instead of against it, and how we show up in the world needs to be reflected in how you show up for yourself.
You have control over your own mind: your thoughts, your feelings, what actions you take and the results you create. You don’t have control over your team, but you do have some influence on them. How you show up in this moment right now is all we ever have. As Elsa so wisely sings, “The past is in the past.” You get to choose what you feed your mind with – positive or negative thoughts – on purpose by thinking new thoughts and practicing them. It’s like looking in your closet and trying on clothes – how do they fit? Do they feel good or is it time for you to donate/recycle/sell that outfit? Trying on new thoughts in our brains works the same way. The more we practice them, the more we believe them.
What you feed your mind with and how you spend time with your brain will impact the results you get in your life. Having control over the thoughts you choose to think doesn’t mean that you won’t have thoughts pop up that you don’t like. You get to be an active participant working in the pre-frontal cortex of your brain – where you make decisions, solve problems and get productive. Thinking through your thoughts as an outside observer allows us to then feel a release of the pain of the feeling – even if just for a fleeting moment. Practicing the art of being an observer of your thoughts allows you to go outside of that feeling and give you some awareness. When you don’t take a good look at your feelings, they will continue to run in the background like coding in a program. This is when they end up physically wearing you down and draining you of your energy as they begin to take toll on your body. The point of a feeling isn’t to just dismiss it and move on, they are there saying, “Pay attention to me!” for a reason. The more space you give them, the more you can sit with that feeling. If you try to put it in a box or push the feeling deep down inside of you, it fights against that small, tight space and grows in intensity instead.
When we are stressed or resistant to our realities, our oldest part of our brain (the part of our brain we share with animals such as lizards) fires up and sends signals to your body to be on high alert. These signals are what we refer to as feelings. The signals in your body send messages that produce a physical sensation. Your brain then translates that and acts accordingly. If you feel sad, you might cry. If you feel happy, you might smile. When you are stressed your brain is working perfectly fine; it is designed to keep you safe. It used to be on high alert for lions, tigers and bears (oh my!) so we could venture out from our caves safely to find food and water. Now our brains have the same reaction when we get an unexpected email from our boss or when we hear a knock on our cave’s door at an unexpected time.
Peace and calm ironically come from us being willing to give up control. When you try to struggle with things you can’t control it’s akin to being in a bear trap – the more you wriggle and try to get out of it, the more you get stuck. When we curate positive thoughts to our brain, we allow ourselves to give to others and get creative. This shifts us out of survival mode and focuses on what we can do. If you don’t give your brain something to do or focus on, then you will feel small, terrified and alone. When you think about what you can create, how you can contribute and what you actually want to do with your time then you will feel larger, connected and more in tune with your focus.
When you and your brain work as a team, you can create feelings for yourself. When you feel better by helping someone else, you can also create that feeling for yourself by thinking a thought on purpose. In these Corona times, we often feel helpless or like we aren’t doing enough. Showing up for other people – whether in person at a safe distance, or from an online space – means showing up for yourself first. Other people will think and feel however they want to think and feel based on their own thoughts that they give their own brain to gorge upon. You can choose your own thoughts to create positive feelings for yourself, so that you can be on your own team first before helping others. You can have compassion for others without being sucked into their own problems. You can feel love for someone even if they don’t love you back. You can feel gratitude for the things you have even if someone else doesn’t have any of those things.
It is hard work to look at how you and your brain are working together when you may have spent your entire life running on autopilot – living out thoughts from your childhood, from peers or from other influential people in your life – without realising that they are not your thoughts. It is important to remember to have empathy with yourself. Thinking certain thoughts does not make you a bad person. Thinking certain thoughts does not make you a good person. The time for judgement is certainly NOT now. Having empathy with yourself and leaning into your feelings is an empowering process. Plan for resistance. Plan for your brain to fire off new thoughts that go against the grain of what you are trying to think on purpose. Your brain has spent years and years sending neurons down the same old path of thinking. When we slow down, give ourselves time to feel and wonder, we are re-wiring that pathway. And every time you do this, it will get stronger and stronger.
Think about a grassy field that has a man-made path for the public to walk on, but then there’s another trodden path that over the years more and more people have chosen to take. The alternative route leads to a beautiful waterfall that you wouldn’t have known about had you followed the public path. You might have to walk through some mud, wriggle your way through some prickly bushes or move a few tree branches out of the way…but it is worth it when you get to see the beauty in the waterfall. That path is carved out by more and more people choosing to go down it, even though they don’t know exactly what lies ahead. So take that pause, that breath, that moment. Activate the part of your nervous system that lowers your stress hormone release and cools your emotional temperature down.
Life is 50/50 and it always will be. Even in a pandemic there will be new life, love, laughter and joy in the world. There will still be pain, suffering and death afterwards too. The circumstances may change, but your thoughts don’t have to. You always get to choose. Choose to play with them. There may not be an ‘i’ in ‘team’, but there is one in ‘compassion’ – and it starts with you.
Emma Tempest is The Play Coach, delivering training, coaching and well-being support from England via Northwest Arkansas.