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Dr. Suzanne Brown – From the Inside Out: Mastering the Art of Emotional Fitness

November 22, 2021


Talk transcription

Dr. Suzanne Brown:
Hello and welcome. Yes, I am Dr. Suzanne Brown, and you’ve just heard a little bit about me. For the last 14 years. I’ve been training and working in psychology. And for the last several years, I’ve had the great privilege of working with some of the greatest athletes in the UK and further afield. I’m going to share with you what I share with them about our emotional fitness, and spoiler is in the title, in that it begins from the inside out. As a clinical psychologist, I am fascinated by the human mind and body. I have come to realize we truly are embodied, the mind and body connected, but we have all of these incredible systems that happen completely outside of our awareness.

From our cardiovascular system, to our respiratory system, our immune system, to our nervous system, reproductive, and digestive, and on and on, all of these systems working together, designed for your survival and your growth. But time and time again, whenever I look into these systems, they always miss out a vital one that influences all of the rest, and that’s what we’re here to talk about today. Our emotional system has been designed through evolution. It is honed and selected to move you towards what it is that you desire and to keep you away from what’s going to cause you harm or pain.

All of these emotional systems that have been curated over millions of years really are essentially about evoking motion, that is what emotion stands for. And you can see here that it really comes from the Latin to mean to agitate, to stir up. That is what emotion does, it mobilizes us and it carries vital sources of information designed to move you towards something. But let’s be honest, because in our society and in our culture, I think this is more likely. We tell ourselves and we tell others in subtle or maybe explicit ways that we should lock up our feelings, that we should bury them deep within us, and we should definitely leave them at the door when we come to the office.

But when we do that, we prolong our suffering and we cause so much more pain, because when we do suppress our system, what I’ve seen is that humanity carries some universal truths. So either you go numb, you become detached, zombie like, meandering through life without direction, or maybe you increasingly turn to external ways to self-medicate, whether that’s alcohol, drugs, overworking, gambling, and other addictions, or maybe you explode. And that might be outward and upward, but more often than not, it’s inward, and we end up destroying ourselves from the inside out.

So many people come into my clinic and tell me that they feel lost, they don’t know where they’re headed. And I say to them, “Well, of course, when you cut off access to your feelings, you cut off the ability to know where you’re headed.” And so what do we do when we are lost? We turn to a map. A map is about movement. It tells you where you are, where you’re going, and what to avoid. So I want to let you actually have an internal navigation system. And so I created this map, which includes all of our core emotional systems, and the common ways that we end up trying to avoid them. We call these defenses. So whether that’s minimizing our feelings, whether it’s suppressing them, whether it’s just distracting ourself.

And I also created a map of anxiety because in my experience, this is so commonly misunderstood. Anxiety refers to physical manifestations of symptoms, ranging from healthy, as you can see in the green level, all the way through to paralyzing in the red. Now, these anxiety systems are really a communication to you that feelings that you have become afraid of are being stirred up inside of you. And we’re going to talk about these emotional systems together today.

We’re going to dive right in and talk about love and attachment because we have two fundamental drives that we are born with, that are there and exist within us right from birth. The first is the need to connect and belong. Often this is with our parents or our family., and then later, this forms the template for our relationships. But the other opposing need that actually doesn’t get spoken about as much is our need to be separate, our need to be an individual, to have autonomy. And when I speak to groups, most often what they tell me is that they sacrificed one for the other, either they abandon who they are and they give up their sense of individuality to make sure that they belong in the group, secure their place, or they’re so frightened about doing that that they keep people at a distance, they don’t let people get close to them.

So what is it that you can do to increase this in your life and in your company? Well, one company I’m working with offers regular paid-for volunteer community days. They encourage their employees to invest in a cause that is important to them, and it allows people to come together on a non-work related agenda. You get to find out what your colleagues are passionate about. We also know in psychology, when given the option to actually spend money on ourself or to spend money on a stranger, we actually have a longer satisfaction and higher levels of satisfaction if we spend it on the stranger.

Now, when we share these positive news stories, optimism goes up in work by 18% and anxiety comes down. It boosts morale. So that’s one way of doing it. Everybody you love will die. We will all die. No that might have got your attention. Because it is an inevitable and uncomfortable truth. And at the heart of emotional fitness, it’s about our ability to face the discomfort in order to grow. So pain and grief have been designed in order to make you stop, to pause, to turn inward, and to reflect on the thing that you have lost that is not returning.

When we block this is actually a way that we can lead to depression. So I want to tell you about the story of a man that I worked with, who came to me with anxiety, depression, and a letter. It was a letter he’d written years ago, but never sent. It was a letter to the daughter that was now 18 years old whom he hadn’t seen since she was a baby. And until he had allowed himself to face fully the pain and the grief about the lost opportunities, the lost years, he was stuck in a limbo. He was stuck wanting to reach out and reconnect to her, but paralyzed by the fear of this imagined rejection. And how would he bear that?

Now, when he did fully face those feelings, he was freed up. He could instead start to relate to reality instead of the fantasy. And on our last session, he came into my office and told me that he had posted the letter on the way. And I’m really happy to you know let that at our follow up a year later, she had reached out to him and they had reconnected. So, what can you do about this? You can actually make sure you start to prioritize the time you need to process any pain or grief that comes up, because I hate to tell you, but it’s inevitable, we all are going to face this.

Whether it’s a pitch or a promotion that you don’t get at work, whether it’s a relationship that ends, whether it’s the fact we all have to confront that we are aging and at some point we will retire and we will lose our sense of roles and our identity will change. You’re not escaping this. So whether you take that into therapy or coaching, or you journal about it, or you take a mental health day when you need it, how you cultivate the space to make space for these feelings will determine how quickly you move on when the inevitability happens.

I love talking about anger. So I want to just start off by saying anger is not a bad feeling. So often we confuse anger with what we do with anger, which is often acting out, and that’s not anger. So we get fearful about it. But anger is about setting limits with yourself so that you can set boundaries with others. It is self-protective. It allows you to say no. And it allows you to have energy and drive to go for what it is that you want. And if you don’t believe me, try saying no to a toddler. I’m having to do this all the time with my two-year-old, and he has no problem in letting me know how furious he is with me when I do that. And let’s be honest, between being a toddler and an adult, do you think it’s really likely you have less to be annoyed about?

No, you’ve just learned how to inhibit. And okay, sometimes that’s necessary, but at other times, you cut off access to the feelings that you need to feel. I often think this is why we avoid our anger because we confuse it, as I said, with what we do. So in the face of anger, some people go very compliant, passive and submissive. In a sense, they become very vulnerable and they’re prone to being walked all over. And at the other end of the spectrum, people fly off the handle, they lash out verbally or physically. But neither one of these are anger.

I want to tell you about a woman I worked with in HR. She was the head of the department. And she came to me telling me that she had difficulties because she was spreading herself too thin. She couldn’t delegate. And she was starting to get bad feedback from her superiors. Now, when we unpack it, we realized she couldn’t say no. She kept accepting in all of the request, and then she felt guilty because her team were already overburdened, which is why she wasn’t delegating. Now, after she had accepted in the work, she told me she felt resentful, she felt resentful for them for asking in the first place.

And so what she ended up doing was something we’re probably very familiar with, which was passively aggressively not doing the work, she voted with her feet in a sense. She said yes and then didn’t do it. But once we were able to unpack this, once we were able to work through that, and she was able to get in touch with her assertiveness, she could start saying to people, “You know what, I don’t think this is the right thing for our team to take on, and here’s why.” Or she could be flexible and say, “Yes, I’m willing to help you out, but for three weeks, and this is why.” So it’s not an all on nothing.

Anger come with the boundaries that flex based on who we’re with. But what is it that she was doing? She was setting limits. And so often, I work with teams where unnecessary frustrations bubble up because they haven’t gotten on the same page at the start. This is a tool that I invite people to use. It’s a very simple tool. And we would use this all the time before a big project. So you get everybody in the room and you sit down and you talk about what’s completely outside of your control. And then you move on over to what it is that you can control.

And then you revisit what’s our outside of your control, and you have an honest look about, is it actually something you could influence? And you can do the same for your competitors. What are is it that they’re doing that’s completely outside of your control? But what is it that you can still influence? Prevention is better than cure. The more that you can get your teams on the same page before a big work project, the more likely it is to lead a success.

How could I talk about our core emotional systems without talking about sexual desire? And don’t worry, it’s going to stay PG 13-ish, but it is one of our most core needs. And we don’t just have sex for reproduction alone, we do it for pleasure. In desire, there is potency, there is passion, you are alive. And inevitably, when it’s blocked, what I’ve also found is that your creativity is blocked. They spring forth from the same well,. So how can you bring this into the workplace? Well, I’m not about to suggest a HR nightmare, but you can start to get really passionate about your performance.

And I want to talk you through something that I used to do every month with my manager at Arsenal. And we had a motto, which was, no movement, no improvement. So you’ll see, this is actually what I did, on a monthly basis, I would go in and I would say, “This is where my next 10% is. If I was performing at this level, this is what my colleagues would see, this is what the people I was supporting would say about me, and this is what I think it looks like.” And then I would have an honest look at the reality, what was happening internally and externally that was getting in the way? And that’s wonderful because now you’ve created a gap, and that’s where the no movement, no improvement comes in, because everybody in a high performance environment should have a performance gap and they should be looking to close it and redefine it on a regular basis.

And then I would commit to what I was going to keep doing, stop doing, and start doing in order to close that gap. And I would commit to taking an action within the first 48 hours, because we know if you write it down and you commit to that, you’re more likely to do it. And again, taking it from the medical terms, I really encourage people to see one, do one, teach one. It’s the best way that you learn how to do this. When you want to level up and you are ready to push your comfort zone with this. I started to do these in front of the teams that I was supporting. So I was telling them what it is that I thought I wasn’t doing, and then I started to invite in very candid feedback about what they thought I should keep, stop and start doing.

And I have to say it felt risky, but it also gave them permission to be vulnerable too, and it had a great ripple effect. I would like to imagine that I don’t need to tell you how essential play and joy is, but we know that we are a society of play-deprived adults. So play increases, trust and likability, it removes people from their social hierarchy. It’s a great leveler. And it also releases things like oxytocin, which are chemicals that act as like a social glue in a group, it binds you together and it makes the team more cohesive. It improves your memory, creativity and learning. But let’s not just talk about it, let’s play a game.

So in a moment, I’m going to invite you to turn to the person next to you, whether you know them or not, and you’re going to share that if you knew me, you’d know that I love to… But before you do it, I just want to let you know that research says that we tend overestimate how awkward this is going to be. So all of you that are sat there going, “This is going to be so awkward,” it’s actually not going to be as bad as you think it is. And we also tend to underestimate how interested the other person is in deep and meaningful information about us. So the people that stayed at a shallow level versus the people that had a deeper, meaningful conversation, well, the ones who had the deeper, meaningful conversation ripple higher levels of happiness and connectedness.

So it might be something like this, if you really knew me, you’d know that I love to invest in my own self-development and I’ve been in my own therapy for the last three and a half years. And then somebody might say, “Well, if you really knew me, you’d know I’m obsessed with the moon, and when I first started driving, I ran a red light because I was distracted by it.” Both are true. So I’m going to give you about 45 seconds, take it in turns and turn to the person next to you and share.

Okay, I’m going to bring you back. See, you get afraid to start and then you don’t want to stop. Thank you for being willing to play. I’m seeing a lot more smiles around the room. So of course, there are lots of ways that you can integrate play at work and they range from icebreakers to team away days. But I think this is really important for you to know too, because there is a difference in you, and if you’re a manager or a founder in your employees about whether they play to win or whether they play to not lose. So imagine somebody saying to you, out of the next five goals that you attempt you cannot miss more than two. That would be somebody who plays to not lose.

Versus being told, you just have to score three out of the next five. Somebody who plays to win. So people who play to win are inspired by stories that are motivational, their role models that have gone before them. They work quickly, they think in terms of big ideas, and they’re really motivated by praise. That acts as a reinforcement, they need that, versus the people who play to not lose, they’re more cautionary. So they’re more inspired by tales about things that have gone wrong. They work more slowly and meticulously. They don’t do so well with the hard deadlines. And they also don’t like the praise in a public way. Now, to me, what this comes down to is self-awareness.

So the more that you know this, and the more that you can communicate this, the more likely you are to get your needs met. And I have to say, the difference between people that tend to get their needs met versus those that don’t, are the ones that ask for it. We have this idea that we shouldn’t ask for it or that people should be able to read our mind. They can’t, so you need to tell them. To me, this is one of the most painful and difficult feelings that humans experience. And I don’t just mean the kind of guilt that you’re conscious about, I mean the type of guilt that operates completely outside of your awareness, that leads to very self-defeating and self-sabotaging behaviours.

And I’ll give you an example of this to bring it to life. I worked with a man who was incredibly bright, he had immigrated to this country and very quickly found himself getting very successful in his field, which also brought with it financial reward and recognition. This was a big mismatch between how he felt inside versus the external praise, what we would maybe refer to as imposter phenomenon. So he started to overwork, he was headed for burnout, and he was miserable in his work. When we started to work together, we were able to uncover that actually he held a lot of guilt towards his father. He had in many ways, superseded what his father was ever going to be capable of.

His father had never been given the opportunities that he had for just based on where he lived. So when we were able to uncover this, we were able to really work through it. He no longer had to, in a sense, punish himself by overworking and heading towards burnout. But what is guilt? Because if it’s so painful, why is it then that we would have this feeling? Guilt is really about letting you know when you’ve gone off course, when you have transgressed or violated a boundary or a moral to you, and essentially, that you’ve hurt or damaged a relationship. So guilt encourages you to reach out and repair.

It’s very different to shame, which says you are bad. Guilt is about, I did something bad. So what can we do? Because going into a cycle of guilt where we just shame ourselves really just adds insult to injury. It’s great if you can say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you and I want to repair it,” but often we get defensive and we pull up instead of getting vulnerable. So psychologists use this tool called The Land of And, and it looks like this. The next time you make a mistake, I want to encourage you to be able to hold the complexity of both that, yes, you’ve made a mistake and you’re trying your best.

The next time you shout at your children, yes I feel like a crap parent and I love them and I’m doing my best. We have a tendency to really split in psychology, all good and all bad with all good, often being inside of us and all bad outside. So whenever something happens that stirs up both feelings, it’s really hard for us to bear that, but the more that we can integrate them, the more healthier you are. Finally, we come to pride. Now, in an age of social media where it has never been more important about what you post and how you portray yourself with such scrutiny and pressure, I think so many people are missing the opportunity to celebrate their success for a fear of looking arrogant or narcissistic.

But when you miss the opportunity to celebrate the small wins, then you cut off the opportunity for them to accumulate into bigger wins. And we know that they create virtuous cycles, one good leading to the next, leading to the next. So you can start to savor this. And what do we mean by that? Well, in sport, we would literally create a highlights wheel. Now, I don’t imagine anyone’s following you around with cameras like they do in sport, so you can’t probably put together a video montage of all your wins and your best bits, but you can start to seek it out and you can start to make a note of it yourself.

You can make it conscious and you can put it in jar, or you can have a file that refers to all of those times that you did leave work on time to make it to the family event, or you spoke up in the meeting and it went really well. That’s on you to begin to do that, because the Stoics would probably have us believe that a great leader is one that is rational and logical, but I have to say the most effective leaders that I’ve come across recognize it’s the integration between the head and the heart, and it’s their capacity to do that that gives them the secret source to great effective leadership. They really are emotion-led leaders, not emotionless.

Now’s the time to get your camera out if you haven’t already, so just for you at Turing Fest, I’ve put together a package of resources where I will send out both of the maps to you so you can begin to mark your own journey. I will send you a workbook that will show you how to do the Create The Gap, and you’ll get discounts on memberships and programs. And then finally, what can you do? I’ll just go back because I can see some of you are still taking that. Okay. So three things that you can do this week to actually start to bring this to life. Well, you can play If You Knew Me With a Friend. We tend to think we know a lot about the people closest to us, but you’d be amazed at what you’ll discover if you play something like this.

You can reframe a mistake with an and so the next time that mistake happens, try landing in the and. And you can do something for a stranger. So I know that most recently, the best £30 I spent was on the person’s petrol when they forgot their card at the garage local to me. I didn’t know this person and I did this about three months ago, and it still brings me joy when I think about this. I can’t think of what I would’ve spent £30 on that would bring that same amount of joy. Thank you very much, and I hope you have a great rest of your Turing Fest.

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