Standing on what felt like a knife edge, with an almost sheer drop either side of where we stood, was not something we were expecting on our hike in the Swiss mountains last weekend. The Swiss have an interesting interpretation of ‘health and safety’ – despite following a clearly signposted path, there was not a safety harness in sight. I must confess that an element of fear did rush through my mind and body, as I stared downwards towards what would have been near certain death, had I slipped or fallen.
It took a minute (or two) for me to compose myself and refocus on the objective ahead: climb down the mountain (preferably alive and in one piece) and enjoy myself in the process. When you have a rush of negative emotions pulsing through your veins – making you want to cling to the mountain top for dear life, like a child clings to their favourite teddy bear - it can seem overwhelming and certainly not something you should ignore.
Emotions aren't a foolproof survival guide
I can think back to countless occasions in the past where those same emotions have hindered my growth and performance; whether it was sitting my viva for my Masters’ thesis at university, sitting in an interview, delivering a presentation or attempting to socialise at a networking event - a sense of fear and anxiety rushed through me each time. If it doesn’t feel good emotionally, then it must be bad and we should avoid doing it in the future; certainly, we should not enjoy it. Either we're naturally good at something or we're not. Only, what if that school of thought is wrong?
You have no doubt heard about our evolutionary survival instincts. Those instincts are driven by emotions. It is those emotions that inform us to either to do it again (if it aids survival) or to avoid something altogether (if it might lead to an untimely death). It has served us well for millennia, so why question it? The problem with not questioning it, is that we end up in an ever-shrinking box of self-limiting beliefs and behaviours, our true potential thwarted.
I wonder how many of us avoid situations, fail to put our hand up to ask a question for fear of looking stupid or fail to take action because we mistakenly believe that our emotions are a foolproof survival guide that should never be called into question? We make up excuses for ourselves that appear rational and coherent, but are ultimately driven by a fear of challenging those underlying negative emotions. Until as recently as 6 months ago, I used to be one of those people.
Our brain's operating system makes mistakes
What my parents, teachers, university lecturers, mentors and esteemed friends and colleagues failed to tell me (or I failed comprehend) is that just because we feel a particular way about something doesn’t make it true. It only ever becomes true if we believe it is true. Throughout our childhood (and our lifetime) our brain is busy assimilating information to make sense of the world around us. If we have a bad experience, we learn from it. The problem is, we don’t always learn the right lessons - our brain's operating system makes mistakes. If we trust our emotions implicitly without question, we undoubtedly limit our potential.
When we believe something to be bad, we essentially programme our brain to trigger a negative emotion the next time we encounter a similar situation. If anyone has ever suffered from a phobia, they will be familiar with the debilitating fear inducing emotions they experience. The problem is that every time we allow ourselves to be swept away with our emotions, every time we believe what those emotions signal, we consolidate the programming in our brain. We are telling our brain that the chemicals it has just produced are the correct response to that situation. If those emotions drive self-limiting behaviours that hinder our growth, we should question whether those emotions have actually got our best interests at heart.
If you don't like it, change it
The other piece of the puzzle that no one ever told me, is that if we don’t like the way we feel about something, we can change it. Having been through a period of stress induced anxiety several years ago, I learnt first-hand how emotions can latch themselves onto things which defy logic and impact our ability to thrive (for me, it was the feeling of someone crushing my wind pipe whenever I attempted to go for a run – the last time I checked, running was good for me). It is thanks to that experience that I started to pick at the thread that had been holding together the self-limiting box I found myself in.
So how do you reprogram your brain? Ask yourself this: why would your brain reprogram itself if you are not telling it that it has got the programming wrong in the first place? If you don’t want to find yourself in an ever-shrinking self-limiting box, you have to make a conscious choice to laugh in the face of ‘danger’ and not get drawn in by the emotion(s). It takes persistent effort and a solid belief, but over time, you will succeed.
Adopt the right mindset
At a networking event last week, I adopted the positive mindset that I have been working on for several months, which saw me work the room like a pro (at least, that is what I tell myself). I was complemented by almost everyone I met on how happy and well I looked (they were likely just being nice, but it was a good feeling). Historically, networking was something I dreaded – no more. I thoroughly enjoyed chatting to everyone there and enjoyed the experience, something I previously never believed possible.
Back on the mountain, after a handful of nuts and a deep breath, I embraced the challenge ahead and it was exhilarating. If you have ever wondered how you become an adrenaline junky, adopting the right mindset is the first step. Be brave, be bold, be fearless in the face of self-limiting emotions. It may feel like an internal battle (like two rams fighting one another on the edge of a precipice) that you are destined to lose, but if you believe in the impossible, you can achieve the impossible. Belief is a key step to unlocking your true potential.
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