Gia Storms is an executive and leadership coach and faculty with the Co-Active Training Institute. She is based in Los Angeles.
I have been looking forward to this meeting all month — a monthly gathering of colleagues to share best practices and support each other in our work. Though I have had a grueling workday and can sense my emotional energy is low, I am determined to show up energized to participate in what is always a fun and lively gathering.
But when the meeting starts, I start to withdraw almost immediately, overwhelmed by the noise and chaos of the group and struggling for my voice heard. I am dimly aware that my inability to engage is costing me a valuable chance to connect, but I feel powerfulness to intervene so I leave the meeting only having said a handful of words.
For many leaders, both extroverts and introverts, stressful and anticipated situations can trigger low-grade performance anxiety that manifests as a kind of spontaneous withdrawal. The situation — if not managed correctly — can become paralyzing and painful for the leader who may struggle to tentatively contribute, who waits to be called on to speak and who finds themselves further withdrawing from others.
With this kind of performance anxiety, the longer you wait to speak, the harder it becomes to get back in the game.
What is going on with these performance hijackings, and how — as leaders — can we take back control to predictably create the impact and experience we want?
The Science Behind Performance Anxiety
The neuroscience of performance anxiety shows that in these moments, our fear-based response moves us into a classic fight-flight-freeze triggered by overwhelm. In these moments of fight-flight-freeze, our brains start creating assumptions to make sense of the world around us. Defensive scripts such as “you don’t need this” or “get out of here” or “these are not your people” are intended to keep us safe but actually create the self-sabotaging behavior that causes withdrawal and isolation.
Moreover, when we stay silent, we lose access to the prefrontal cortex that helps us be aware of our emotions, but not hijacked by them. Scientific research indicates that being socially rejected is akin to physical pain: Brain scans show that the same part of the brain that lights up when we experience physical pain lights up when we experience the emotional pain of rejection.
So what can we do when we are legitimately well-prepared for a situation that inexplicably overwhelms us and triggers our defensive response, as what happened to me with my co-workers?
Below are some of the tools and tips for helping you stay present and interrupt your own pattern of performance anxiety.
Know Your Triggers
We all have situations, people, activities and environments where we shut down. What are yours? Find the repeat places and start to identify why: Does being dressed in a suit with a room full of executives trigger your feelings of inadequacy? Does sitting on an all-day Zoom conference call trigger feelings of fatigue and overwhelm? Get curious and notice your patterns for shutting down or withdrawing, so you can proceed with new awareness.
Develop Your Quick Tricks to Presence
What helps you (no matter what) get present and back into your seat of power? Perhaps it’s a mantra or phrase, dancing to a Beyoncé song, a special outfit, a pep talk from a best friend or a treat that reminds you of home. Strategize and envision how you will keep yourself engaged and present before, during and after the challenging situation.
Make a Relationship Connection
When you start to shut down or pull back unexpectedly or inconveniently, make a relationship connection with someone. Check in with someone privately before, during or after the meeting or event to share your fear and ask for support to help you get back into connection and grounded in the present.
Tell on Yourself Early and Often
The longer we wait to speak, the harder it becomes to interject over time. If you have something hard to say during a meeting, contribute upfront, ideally in the first few minutes, to get comfortable throwing your voice in the space so you can use it later. As a leader, you know how the importance of early check-in questions that allow every meeting participant to get their voice into the room, therefore increasing the chances of continued participation and feelings of being present.
In my case, I know that my silence impacted the room, and I know if I had dared to speak up, I would have been able to stay more engaged throughout the night. I could have simply said, “Hey all, I am happy to be here and I’ve been looking forward to this, but I’m feeling really low energy tonight, so I may be in observation mode more than usual.” This simple interjection would have allowed me to bring more of my full self throughout the meeting, and that clearly would have resulted in a better experience for all.
I now understand that when I am brave enough to speak and get engaged, I make it safe for others to do the same. This is the essence of good leadership. And isn’t life so much more interesting when we’re fully present for the experiences we have chosen?
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Gia Storms is an executive and leadership coach and faculty with the Co-Active Training Institute. She is based in Los Angeles. Read Gia Storms’ full executive profile