Keeping your cool under high-stakes career situations can be challenging, but only if you let it be. Many of us professionals sometimes feel like we’re having an outburst on the inside, but kindly let it go unnoticed by our colleagues (which can be doubly frustrating for us). Worse still, when we do spin out, it can have the residual effect of torturing us emotionally in the future, as we continuously re-live the episode in our minds and “beat ourselves up” for not handling things differently. But if you’ve read my recent article Your Saving Grace: Self-Examination and The Science of Redirecting Your Emotions , you probably understand otherwise, most notably that rewiring your neuropathways through self-examination is the most effective way to avoid defaulting to your usual, predictable patterns.
With this new outlook in your arsenal, you’re ready to begin building up your “neuro muscle” by intentionally exposing yourself to difficult situations and looking fear straight in the eye. You heard correctly! If you engage in one activity or share one gesture each day, specifically one that challenges you to exert some emotional effort and pulls you out of your comfort zone, you will gain the strength, courage and confidence to transform your fears into second-nature behaviors and escape the debilitating gravity of reluctance. Examine this with me a little further.
In confronting your fears and reaching beyond your comfort zone, I’m not suggesting skydiving as the scariness bar to set for yourself. It’s important that you start small, perhaps with family and friends, who are likely to afford you tiny successes. Your mission is to then build on these successes, and thereby increase your confidence.
Starting small can also let you carve out the space to learn from your mistakes and strategize about improving yourself for the future . Consider finally engaging in that conversation you’ve been putting off with a friend who you’re angry with, or scheduling that dental surgery you’ve been avoiding. For me, it was making an eye exam appointment that prompted procrastination, since I knew it would involve that tonometer touching my eye (eek!). But by jumping in and just getting it done, I became more and more comfortable with the process to the degree that I can now touch my own eye with a finger!
Once you get more comfortable with some small challenges, go ahead and step it up by trying something in your career. Attend the next networking event with a commitment in mind to meet a great new contact. Ask your boss for a feedback session during which you’ll help her understand all the value you bring to the company. Take that one a step further and ask her to help you with getting a promotion. Regardless of the immediate results, your constitution will be strengthened, and your neuro muscle will be receiving the workout it needs to conquer the big stuff.
On the surface, it sounds counterproductive. But when you zoom out, you’ll suddenly realize the beauty in seeking out rejection . That’s right! If you want to effectively retrain your neuropathways, you should deliberately ask something of someone each day that’s almost guaranteed to get a “no”. Think about it: When you make a risk assessment, it’s not a fear of physical harm that prevents you from asking for a favor, a challenge, or a work assignment. It’s a fear of rejection.
Since we as humans crave belonging and inclusion, a “no” response hits hard at our primal nerve. Therefore, a logical solution is to get used to rejection as an exercise in self-regulation and comfort zone expansion. It also turns a challenge into a game and gives a whole new meaning to the age-old silent question, “What’s the worst that could happen?”.
The trick is to remain self-aware as you identify the moment an anxiety is triggered. Then feel yourself cross the threshold from anxiety into action. When you do this daily, you’ll notice the shift in your brain’s response to signaled anxieties, and you’ll start to take control when under stress. Write in your journal about these daily challenges and look back after 30 days to gauge your progress. You’ll be impressed to say the least!
The more you stretch beyond your fears, the more you’ll look forward to stretching further, and the less potent your body’s alert to danger will be with each subsequent interaction. When you do get to the “skydiving level” of challenge, you will naturally be on high alert, but it will be adrenaline, not cortisol, that drives your emotional responses. When joy, excitement and adoration start to replace reservation, anxiety and fear, you’ll have graduated to a whole different sphere of self-regulation.
In my follow-up article, I’ll illustrate how you can put these challenges into practice at the workplace. What you’ll discover will be invaluable to a fruitful career!