Last week we talked about a terrible, awful thing called the Contractive Cycle. Being in a contractive state is the number one cause of being miserable at work.
But happily, there’s also something called an Expansive Cycle. It looks something like this:
When we’re in an expansive state, we’re grounded in core values, but open to new ideas, situations and people. From here, we experience heightened creativity, energy and joy.
Excellent. It’s time to rumble with our needs for certainty and significance. Let’s do this.
Make Friends With Fear
The first think we need to know about certainty is that our need for it largely comes from a primitive part of our brain, the neo-mammalian part, also known as the limbic system. It’s where our emotions reside. And fear is the emotion it likes best.
The limbic system is often called “reptilian”, but really, it’s more monkey-like. When people who are into meditation talk about taming their monkey brains, they’re talking about the limbic system. Your limbic system is constantly on the lookout for danger. The problem is, it can’t tell the difference between the danger of a cougar about to leap out of the forest, and the danger of giving a business presentation tomorrow morning. We experience both at the same level.
That’s why our fight or flight response can kick in when public speaking – leaving us with a pounding heart and dry mouth. The primitive part of our brain literally thinks we might die at any moment.
The way to tame your need for certainty is to get curious about your fear. Be vulnerable and talk to trusted people in your life about it. They’ll give perspective, be your fears valid or not.
Next, and this is key, stop identifying with the fear. When you feel afraid, simply tell yourself, “there is fear”, not, “I’m afraid”. Now there’s some space between you and your emotions. It’s just a feeling. It’s not necessarily reality.
Now we’re ready to tackle our need for significance.
Get Clear on Values and Purpose
Luckily, it’s fairly easy to wrestle our need for significance to the ground. All we have to do is channel it into positive things. I mentioned earlier that significance can drive us to do big things. Just be sure those big things are also great things. And to do that, you have to get very clear on what your values are. Values are the qualities of life, character and situation that are most important to you, so important, they’re core to who you are as a person. Once you’re clear on what you value, be certain that you are living them every day. Yup, this is the only form of certainty that matters. What are your values? Well, the clues are everywhere. They’re in the things you like to do, the way you were as a kid, the times you find yourself in a state of flow and the things you’re most successful at. You can find a sample list of values here.
Next, get clear on your purpose. People get a little squeamish when I mention purpose because it sounds new-agey, and it can be a bit obnoxious to run around telling people what your divinely bestowed life purpose is. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Aristotle said that each of us has a duty to promote human flourishing. Start there. Ask yourself, “are the things I’m doing at work and in life promoting human flourishing, or not?”. And then get to work.
Now you’re in authentic alignment with your true self.
Stop Your Navel Gazing
When we’re in a contractive state and our focus is turned inward, we fail to understand what’s going on around us – at work, in our relationships, and in life in general. Constantly using ourselves and our own experiences as our reference points, we fail to gain comparative input from other people. Our need to prioritize our own personal comfort over the truth can also create some gaping blind spots. This makes us susceptible to red herrings and faulty predictions.
So pick your head up, and look around you, even if that means seeing things that you don’t want to see.
That means understanding the people around us. You can learn more about that here. (6 human needs and leadership style)
And understanding the systems at play around us. You can learn more about that here.
Now we’re ready to take informed action.
Once you’ve gained clarity through authentic alignment with your true self and listening to and observing what’s going on around you, you’re ready to let go of what’s not working in your life.
This is the moment we become truly expansive in nature. It’s the moment we become truly unstuck.
What do you need to let go of? The big three are stability, being right and that which is ending.
Things that are stable have a way of becoming ridged. Things that are ridged are fragile. And they break. If we trade stability for resilience though, a whole new world opens up. In her book Mindset, The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck defines the difference between rigidity and resilience (which I sometimes call “wateriness”) this way:
“In one world – the world of fixed traits – success is about proving you’re smart of talented. Validating yourself. In the other world – the world of changing qualities – it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.”
From this central idea, it falls naturally that we should let go of being right. And to do that, we need to change ego for curiosity. And from that, it falls naturally that we should trade grasping for the past for accepting the emerging future before us.
Letting go of these patterns of belief allows us to become “watery”. When interviewing people for The Unstuck Project, I found wateriness to be a dominant quality in people who rarely, if ever get stuck. Wateriness allows them to adapt and flow and to become expansive in nature.
If you take only one thing away from this post, it should be this: Stop trying to do everything yourself.
I know of where I speak, because I have a terrible pattern of trying to do everything myself. It’s taken me years to learn to leave room for collaboration, and even now, especially when stressed, I still find myself hunkered down, overthinking a problem, trying to see all the angles, attempting to control everything, and ultimately arriving at inferior solutions. Collaboration is critical because the truth is, individually, our imaginations are far too limited to dream of everything that’s possible for us. We need help. Reach out to your friends and family, your colleagues, and specialized professionals such as doctors, trainers, and yup, coaches.
This one simple lesson is life changing.
Expansiveness isn’t a specific form of action, or a title or even a state of being. It’s a practice. Just as we might have a meditation practice or a professional practice or perhaps a spiritual practice, the practice of expansiveness puts us in a constant state of learning and improvement.
Our practice won’t make us perfect. We’ll get things wrong from time to time. God knows I’ve gotten it wrong many times. But with each mistake or glitch or imperfection, we learn and commit to doing better next time. And that commitment requires us to say yes. Yes to growth. Yes to change. Yes to responsibility. Yes to our true selves, and yes to what’s emerging around us.
Committed practice is hard. And that’s because your life will most definitely not go to plan. Change is constant, and sometimes you won’t like what it brings forth. That’s just life. So I’m going to leave you with a quote from the lovely Maya Angelou:
“Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because it allows you to
practice the others with consistency.”
Now go get ‘em.
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