Watch Out For The Hook

“Have you been able to rebuild your acupuncture practice?”

I can feel my jaw clench just a smidge. Now, I’ve just had a conversation with this woman about my business and how I’ve been writing, speaking, and coaching on emotional resilience for about two years now. Yet, following her question, I see her looking at me with sympathetic eyes…they look patronizing.  Again I say, “I stopped practicing acupuncture about a year ago and my coaching is—“

“That must be just so tough just starting a new business right now…such a struggle!” she says, cutting me off.

I can literally feel my face start to tingle. I know if I looked in the mirror I’d be seeing that nice rosey red!  My next words come out a little chewed on since I’m almost grinding my teeth at this point.  “My online coaching practice has been going extraordinarily well. It’s the keynote speaking that–”

“Well, if you or your family need anything,” she says over her shoulder as she gets back into her BMW, “please don’t be too proud to ask!  Let everyone know they’re in my prayers!” 

To be honest, I really don’t know if she said anything after the proud comment.  My seething anger was creating so much of its own dialogue at this point, I couldn’t have heard God in a fire truck.

My mind is racing: “Can you believe this?! Who the hell does she think she is? Obviously she’s completely unaware and oblivious to other people’s feelings. Driving around in her high and mighty car [I don’t know what that means], with a checkbook to ‘help out’ anybody she perceives is in a lower financial situation than her… Truly! I mean, it just doesn’t make any sense. How does she know me so well that she knows just where to hit me? She must have been up for quite some time thinking of ways to ‘hook me’…  She would have had to know when she’d run into me too, though? Hmmm…

I remember similar thoughts (or panic) in my head when I started boxing.  Fighters would come out and just exploit every weakness that I possibly had. This was amateur fighting, so there’s no “watching the film of the opponent” the night before.  They would just know in “real time” after a few minutes in the ring where to hit me, repeatedly, to hurt me the most.  Many new fighters wear their “tells” on their sleeves, and a good boxer can easily learn how to exploit a new boxer’s weaknesses.  The problem is that this was an old woman in her late 70’s, and my guess is that she is not a really good boxer.  In fact, I would have sincere doubts that she ever really boxed (this is an assumption, but I feel it’s a relatively safe one).  So, if that is the case, I have to wonder how this elderly (but spry) woman was able to “lay me out” by hooking me emotionally in the center of the grocery store parking lot without really even knowing me!?  The answer is simple:

I was hooking myself.

Here’s the thing: emotions (energy in motion) are created inside of us.  How we think, feel, our behaviors, even our biochemistry (that 3rd slice of pizza you ate) all play a part in the creation of the energy called emotions within our body.  If this seventy-plus year old fly weight is triggering something inside me (the way I feel or think about a particular situation in my life), the only person who has any control over whether or not I get or continue to be “hooked” by this is me.   

Think about it: if she had asked me about my running, I wouldn’t have had even the slightest of problems.  If she asked me how my son was doing in college, I would’ve told her about how difficult it was for him and anyone else who had to be home from college because of COVID, otherwise nada on the “emotion scale”.  On top of that, I would have chalked her mentioning it up to being motivated by real concern.   Say something that was new for me or something I was already a bit anxious about?  My thoughts immediately go to: “She’s the grim reaper trying to get at my soul!”  And I create different emotions running through my body.

Even though my coaching business is going very well, I’m nervous about how my speaking engagements will go in the future because it’s an “unknown”.  I made the tough decision to leave my very good acupuncture practice and, after a fantastic 2019 speaking year, I have been uncertain how I will be able to shift to making real connections through virtual workshops and presentations.  So, in reality, she was unknowingly throwing darts 🎯 at my emotions board and hit MY emotional bullseye.

We all get hooked at times.  The trouble is, we often don’t see it as our issue.  It usually feels like the other person is attacking us or trying to get us riled up in some way…or just plain being insensitive.  But, when we take the time to step back into our corner (that quiet place in our heads where we can really examine what is going on for us), we are able to discover that it is our own fear, anxiety, or self-doubt that just got triggered.  Moreover, the other person is typically blithely unaware that they have even hooked us!  

What You Can Control

It hurts!  I’ve had a leg injury for about two months now.  It’s not as though I am not familiar with the aches and pains that come with increasing my running mileage and talking myself through it.  I have intimate knowledge that making long runs, well…longer, over the weeks of training causes a good amount of physical and mental discomfort.  But there’s something else.  Something a little more insidious lingering around me at the moment causing an unfamiliar anxiousness.  You see, I’m signed up to attempt a hundred-mile race come November (not naming it, because I don’t want to jinx it :), and, for the first time doing any of these races, I’m uncertain about whether or not the race will actually take place. 

I realize with everything that’s been happening with COVID-19 we all are all experiencing more than our fair share of the new anxiety-fueled game called ‘wait and see’.  I also know that, for many, the stakes are much higher than a race date. Their anxiety could be around whether or not they have a job for another month. For some kids it’s whether or not their schools are going to open and if they’re going to get to see their friends.  For others who may have a cold for two or three days, it could be waiting to see if it’s actually something worse.  Regardless of the ‘why’, this uncertainty causes a feeling of powerlessness in our lives. 

Powerlessness causes fear.   

When we know what our target is, it’s much easier to find the motivation to pick up your bow, draw back your string, and fire.  I believe a lot of runners would tell you that, without a race to shoot for, it’s definitely harder to lace up their shoes for a 30- or 40-mile run and head out the door.  I know I feel this in just about every area in my life, and, when I’m at my best, I remember to check in with myself and see what it is that I actually can control.  

When I’m talking about control I’m not talking about some kind of militant way of making things outside of us bend to our will.  I’m talking about nurturing the things inside of us that can help us grow and thrive regardless of what’s going on around us.  I know I have no control over whether or not COVID gets worse or when it lets up.  I also know that I have no real say, if I’m being honest, about most things in my life that are outside of me.  What I can control is whether or not I attempt to run one hundred miles this November. 

Can I control whether it’s going to happen at the race I’ve entered?  Nope.  Wish I could.  Would it be much easier, if that’s the right word to use, to have aid stations, positive energy from crew-people, hardened runners suffering beside me while I run those last 30 miles?  Absolutely. Would the lure of a big, shiny belt buckle at the end of my slightly less-than-civil distance be motivating?  Yes (even though I’m not a huge fan of oversized belt buckles). But I do know that none of that is in my control.  But here’s what is:

How I choose to think, what I choose to focus on, and the actions I choose to take.

The things that are out of our control or just that…out of our wheelhouse of choice.  We don’t have to be happy about it.  But we don’t have to dwell on it either.  One thing we can do to keep a ‘round’ of fear from lasting longer than it should is to focus on the ways we think and behave that support our greater happiness.  Now, when I talk about happiness, I’m not talking about zoning out, shopping binges, and pounds of candy (although I do like my Jujyfruits :).  I’m talking about the true joy that comes from knowing that we have control over how we’re going to think and feel about a situation, and the actions we’re going to take.

When we give over our responsibility for the things we can control to external circumstances, we give away our power to create our lives.  The power to decide our own emotional state.  The power to choose how we’re going to motivate ourselves to take those actions that we have the power to take.  The power to stay in the present moment, focus on the task at hand, and not get caught by the ‘unknown’ that we can’t do anything about.  

So, here’s what I can control: until this leg injury let’s up, I’ll be managing my pace and terrain choosing to go a bit slower and flatter; and, if my race doesn’t happen, I’ll create three possible courses right here in my own backyard (I don’t have a hundred miles worth of backyard, but it’ll be in Vermont :).  By having these courses ‘on the ready’, I’ll have lessened my anxiety and fear when it comes time to run the one hundred miles this November…or at least give my very best effort to do so. That I can control!

Using Fear to Win Your Bout

At this point I’m pretty certain that fear is my sworn enemy.  Not a great way for an emotional resilience coach to think, I’ll grant you, but at this moment, it couldn’t ring truer.  Every time I go to design the updates for my website, well… I’m freezing up mentally.  I can barely sit in front of the computer.  I reason and reassure myself that fear can be a good thing.  I know this to be true.  Fear can be a driving force to actually get difficult tasks done.  But I also realize that I’m human, and fear doesn’t ‘feel’ particularly awesome, so I’m doing my best to not listen to a word it has to say. 

Like a cold that comes on, I’ve gone through the regular stages of denial–ducking it and just trying to ‘forge onward’.  I’ve reasoned with it (as much as anyone can talk to their fear).  Avoidance is pretty standard (I feel fine!  I’m sure I’m just tired).  The one thing that I actually could do, the thing that might get me out of the frozen state and back to productivity, is the one thing I’ve been avoiding as if my life depended on it, which is of course… 

Actually listen to it.

Why all the avoidance?  I’m ashamed. 

You see, there are so many stories that my inner critic (that inner voice that fills me with fear and self-doubt) can come up with injecting even more fear and self-doubt directly into my veins with big old neon bumper stickers (never good) like: “It’s never going to work.  You know that, right?!”, or “The project is way too big and what do you know really?!”  Or, my all time favorite, “Who are you to think you can do something like this!”

Yet, I find that when I leave my fear unacknowledged it eats my energy, destroys my hopes and dreams, and burns right through my ability to use my imagination and be creative.  So why not just admit I’m feeling fear, right?  In comes shame.  Shame is the VERY emotion that leaves everyone alone with their fear.  Shame keeps us from getting support from ourselves or others by telling us “You better not tell anyone you’re scared.  Stay silent and look self-assured.  I’m positive you’re the only one who feels fear like this, so better not to embarrass yourself and admit it to anyone…”

I remember this shame of my fear being at an all time high when I would step into the boxing ring with my good friend and mentor Aaron years ago, when we both coached boxing.  Aaron would watch me bull forward, straight at him, my arms throwing punches with my head down. For someone who didn’t know boxing I looked aggressive.  Like a strong fighter, a good fighter.  But Aaron knew better.  He could sense the lack of thinking as fear took over, the falter in my combinations, and know that I’d become predictable, more scared of how I looked than how I performed.  He would often quote a great boxing trainer named Cus D’Amato, a man who really got to know his fighters and developed real relationships and trust with them.  One of D’Amato’s best quotes about fear came when he began his relationship as a trainer for Mike Tyson:

“Every fighter that ever lived had fear. A boy comes to me and tells me that he’s not afraid, if I believed him I’d have to say there’s something wrong with him. I’d send him to a doctor to find out what the hell’s the matter with him, because this is not a normal reaction. The fighter that’s gone into the ring and hasn’t experienced fear is either a liar or a psychopath…  A fighter has to know fear.”

D’Amato believed that fear could do one of two things: it could cook your food, or burn your house down.  The shame keeping us from making the most of our fear comes from our belief that any emotion isn’t natural or useful.  Once we know this intimately and can see our fear for what it is, which is just an emotion that has kept us alive and thriving for thousands of years, we can befriend it, use it, and harness its power to motivate our actions and focus our thinking.  

I’ve decided to get back into the ‘bout’ (challenge) of updating my website.  I’ve laid down my shame and admitted what was going on for me, this has freed me up to move forward.  I know intimately that creating anything new takes courage, and that fear and courage go hand in hand.  And, if fear must be present, then I choose to use it to fuel my efforts, to focus my mind on the task at hand, to steel my resolve…to cook my food. 🙂