The Systems Check: How to stay grounded when the world around you isn’t.

If you’d rather listen than read, find this on Sound Insight, Season 2, episode 1.

As I write this, my community is recovering from Hurricane Fiona. Some are still without power and crews are cleaning up trees and debris.

Meteorologists are calling the storm’s impact on Atlantic Canada historic. But many here are feeling grateful. As I saw the devastation in Puerto Rico, and then closer to home in other parts of Nova Scotia, PEI, and Newfoundland, I realized how much worse it could have been.

The thing about hurricanes is that you can see them coming. To some extent, you can prepare and if necessary, evacuate. But you can’t stop them. You can’t really control much about either the experience or the damage they cause. So, the hours leading up to landfall are not fun. Neither is the experience itself, or the aftermath.

It’s a lot like life that way.

We often find ourselves in the path of major life events or difficult circumstances beyond our control. We either feel at the mercy of whatever is coming at us, or we try to control the uncontrollable. It can feel daunting, and sometimes terrifying.

But we often forget the most important variable in our experience. It is the one thing over which we can actually exert some influence – our internal conditions or the state we bring to our circumstances.

At times like this, our greatest opportunity for influence is not in focusing on how to change our circumstances but in focusing on what we bring to those circumstances.

There’s a famous statement attributed to Viktor Frankl, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”

Most of the time, we simply react. That hair trigger reaction is wired into our DNA. It is a deeply embedded survival mechanism and sometimes it serves us and keeps us safe. But reaction is unconscious, instinctive, automatic. There is no distance or space between what happens to us and what we think or do next. As a result, there is no choice. 

We can train ourselves to manage this reactivity by paying attention to the workings of our own minds. When we learn to observe our own thinking, we can create a space to choose. We can respond, rather than react. And as a result, we can influence the nature of our experience and reduce our suffering.

This awareness is at the heart of lasting well-being.

This is not easy.

It’s not about looking on the bright side or putting a positive spin on things. It’s not about controlling or suppressing our feelings or punishing ourselves because we can’t make ourselves feel better. Instead, it’s about observing and working with our own minds and hearts and the content of our experience.  

You are here.

It begins with knowing where we are.

I was hiking with friends this summer. After following the trail for awhile, we started to wonder if we were going the wrong way. We kept on the path until we came across one of those large wooden trail maps. It had a legend indicating that the “you are here” spot would be signified with a gold star.

The problem was, there was no gold star anywhere on the map. Either the map designers had forgotten this one tiny detail, or the gold star had somehow worn off. As a result, the map was completely useless to us.

Now this was more embarrassing than dangerous. We weren’t exactly in the Amazon Rain Forest or the wilds of Nepal, this was a small urban park. And the greatest risk in this situation was that we’d be late for a dinner reservation.

The rest of the hike was a lot of trial and error, arguing about which way to go, doubling back, and laughing at our collective incompetence.

Still, it was shocking to me how this tiny missing detail – the understanding of where you are, can have such a detrimental effect on your sense of orientation and your ability to navigate.

When you’re feeling lost, disoriented, or overwhelmed by your circumstances, it can be helpful to pause and figure out where you are.

So much of the time, we are operating on auto-pilot with no thought to where we are. We’re just coping or not coping, trying to fix things or avoid things or wishing things were different than they are.

Your physical, mental, and emotional state have a massive impact on your performance and your ability to handle stress and challenge.

When you are not conscious of your state, you are at the mercy of it.

Sometimes it helps to pause and do a quick internal systems-check, like you would in an aircraft that is about to take off. It’s not a time for deep reflection, just a moment to ensure all systems are operating as they should.

A systems-check is like locating the “you are here” indicator.

You do it by reflecting on four internal systems that work in concert to influence your response in any given situation.

System 1: The Body: The Energy System.

Ask yourself:

  1. What is my energy level?
  2. What is filling me up and what is draining my energy?
  3. What does my body need to respond?

If all is not well in your body, the three most obvious places to look will not surprise you – they are sleep, exercise, and nutrition. They also seem to be the very things we let go of when we are facing a tough situation. And sometimes, like in the recent hurricane, we couldn’t sleep, we couldn’t heat up food because we had no power, and we couldn’t go out to exercise because it wasn’t safe.

But there are subtler drains on your energy that you may not be fully aware of. Maybe your shoulders are clenched up around your ears and you are braced for impact. Maybe a few deep breaths might help you relax. Or maybe those storm chips aren’t going to provide the comfort you think they are. (I know, I’m going after some sacred, ‘ride out the hurricane’ coping mechanisms here. Sorry.)

System 2: Mind: The Executive System.

Ask yourself:

  1. What is my current perspective on my situation and is it helping or hurting me?

We tend to mistake our perspectives or stories as the truth. None of us has a lock on the truth. There is experience and there is what we think about experience. They are not the same. Our perception of reality is colored by the lenses we use. They dictate what we pay attention to and have an enormous influence on the quality of our experience.

Your perspective on any given situation can be helpful and empowering or unhelpful and debilitating.

The tricky thing is your prevailing perspective may be outside of your conscious awareness. The first sign that you may have a perspective problem is the feeling of being stuck or stressed beyond what the circumstances warrant. Here’s a quick way to reveal a mindset that may be running you in the background.

Pay attention to how you are describing your situation – what metaphors are you using?

I recently hosted several members of my extended family for my brother’s wedding. It had been four years since I had seen two of my brothers and their families and I had missed them and was excited to see them. But as the event drew closer, I noticed I was unusually stressed about the food and the logistics of hosting. It wasn’t until I jokingly described their arrival to a friend as “Onslaught 2022” that I realized I had a perspective problem. Describing the arrival of my family as if it were some form of invasion was not helpful.  So, I renamed the event, also jokingly, ‘BIG LUV 2022’ in honor of the wedding. I still stressed way too much about food and logistics, but the new theme helped remind me it’s not about the food; it’s about being with family.

Any perspective we hold, whether we think of it as positive or negative, has costs and benefits. The question is not is this a good or bad perspective but “how useful is it?” Is my current perspective helping or hurting me? And is there another perspective that is also true that might be more helpful.

System 3: Heart: The Emotional System.

Ask yourself:

            What is my prevailing mood?

Unfortunately, we don’t choose our emotions, they are more like weather systems, moving through us and creating calm or chaos depending on what they are.  So, if you are beating yourself up for feeling bad, stop, please!

Like perspectives, emotions can fuel and inspire us; they can also be a drag on our internal operating system in the same way too many apps running in the background of a computer can impede its performance.

You can’t and shouldn’t try to stop yourself from feeling the full range of emotions that are available to you, but you can learn to work with them.

In his book, Search Inside Yourself former Google engineer and mindfulness expert, Chade-Meng Tan says “Self-regulation is not about never having certain emotions, it’s about becoming very skillful with them.”

First, emotions are transient, they literally move through us. The metaphor of the weather system lets me know that as bad as I feel in this moment, this feeling will pass. I have found that it passes more readily when I acknowledge what I am feeling and allow it to move through me.

Second, pay attention to and work with triggers. Strong emotions can be triggered by everything from a big event to a snide comment. They can be triggered by subtle things like a smell or what we eat or drink, a walk in nature or a piece of music. Understanding these triggers gives you an opportunity to more effectively manage them. For example, if you know drinking red wine triggers anxiety, you can choose something else. Or if you know that a piece of music lifts your spirits, you can play it.

System 4: Spirit: The Integrity System.

Ask yourself:

  • When I think about this situation, decision, or action, do I feel a sense of resonance or dissonance? Peace or discomfort?

At its essence, the spirit check is about assessing whether the direction you are taking is in keeping with your values or your sense of what is right. This is the system that holds the deeper questions, what matters most and am I being true to myself and others?

This system is about integrity in the very foundational meaning of that word.  The word integrity evolved from the Latin adjective integer, meaning whole or complete.

When I begin any coaching relationship, generally within the first few sessions, we will explore the client’s values. Understanding and being able to articulate your values offers a pathway to deeper self-awareness and a guide for decision-making.

Dissonance occurs when you are out of integrity. Having an attack of conscience or guilt can be a form of dissonance, but dissonance can also show up as anxiety and churn over a tough decision or the nagging sense that you are on the wrong path. You may experience it as a sense of outrage or aversion. You may try to justify or rationalize your actions and behavior. Or you may become self-righteous.

Resonance, on the other hand, is a sense of wholeness and peace. The feeling that all the parts of you are working in harmony and moving forward in a coherent direction.

The best way to do a spirit check is to get still. To sit quietly. To listen deeply. Some do this with meditation; others with prayer; you can do it by pausing for a few deep breaths or taking a walk in nature.

I use the feelings of resonance and dissonance as guides.

If I  feel that sense of profound peace, a kind of ‘being at home’ feeling then the spirit system is blinking green.

If I feel a sense of dissonance, a strong feeling of self-righteousness or a strong physical sensation of aversion, it is time to stop and get curious.

Finding Ground.

In our leadership development program, we talk about ‘finding ground’ as a critical leadership skill. It is returning to that state where your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual selves are aligned. You feel healthy and full of energy. Your over-riding perspective is a conscious one and is useful. You are aware of and can exercise influence over your emotional state. You are operating in integrity, aligning what you say and do to what you believe is right.

In other words, all systems are go.

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    Cathy Jacob

    I'm Cathy Jacob. I am a writer, coach and co-founder of Fire Inside Leadership. After two decades of coaching leaders on how to inspire while navigating the challenges of demanding careers and lives, I’ve created this site to share the best of what I’ve learned from my courageous clients and leaders in the fields of psychology, leadership, philosophy and neuroscience on what it takes to live an inspired life.

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