If I don’t put my own physical and emotional health first, then I’m not really useful to any movement, to any work of art, to any creative endeavor. I have to be aware — not selfish and self-absorbed and self-obsessed — but I have to be self-aware of what my needs are and be willing to take care of my own needs.
— Kerry Washington
Happy Women’s History Month! As we celebrate the impact and influence of women throughout March, I want to help you recognize the powerful influence you have and how your leadership and executive presence set the tone.
I’ll also be sharing quotes from notable women past and present. Today’s quote from everyone’s favorite Gladiator, Kerry Washington, hits on some themes that are at the very heart of how you influence as a leader.
Now while you aren’t (I hope!) dealing with all the travails that Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, faces, I’m sure that a lot gets thrown at you as a leader. One of the most constant themes I see with my executive coaching clients is how to stay centered when things get tough. It’s a key part of your executive presence. When you’re centered, you can bring calm to chaos. When you’re not, you risk escalating stressful situations.
What Knocks Us Off Center?
I think Kerry Washington is really on to something in that quote: We have to care for ourselves to be at our best. If you’re cheating yourself on your basic physical needs, especially sleep, it leads to behaviors that amp up your stress and the stress of others. You might get grumpy or not remember what others have told you — which makes them grumpy because they think you aren’t listening.
And, as leaders, there is no shortage of people and situations that push our buttons. It’s the nature of our jobs, after all, to deal with challenging situations.
I’ve noticed that what really gets my clients off kilter is someone acting in a way that goes against the values they hold dearest at work, like respect and professionalism. I call this getting “triggered.” It’s a state beyond being annoyed or stressed, and it’s a real physical phenomenon. Recovering after you’re triggered takes at least 20 minutes. A sure sign that you’ve been triggered is a rush of negative emotions that you have trouble letting go of. And, you guessed it, when you’re run down physically, it’s easier to get triggered.
Breathing Your Way Back to Center
That’s why I always advise clients to prioritize self-care. If you’ve been skimping on sleep, what shifts can you make in your routine to get more rest? Even getting rest by taking more breaks during the day when you know you’ll be working late can help. “Powering through” is the worst thing you can do.
A great way to rest and rejuvenate even when you just have a few minutes is diaphragmatic breathing: Inhale to a count of 3, exhale to a count of 6. You should feel your belly rising when you breathe, not your chest.
Diaphragmatic breathing can help you keep calm when you sense you are starting to get triggered. Even better, practice it proactively throughout the day to head off stress.
Defusing the Trigger
Besides deep breathing, you can take other steps to avoid getting triggered in the first place.
First, it helps just to be aware that you can get triggered and what happens when you do. When you understand what happens to your body when you’re triggered and how long it takes to recover, you can be more deliberate about not going there.
Start noticing what types of people and situations trigger you and how you feel when you start to get triggered. The bad news is that the people who trigger you probably aren’t going to change. The good news is you are empowered to exercise more control in your interactions with them.
When you know you’ll have to be around someone who shows up in a way you don’t like, get really clear about how you want to show up. Regardless of how he or she behaves, how do you want to behave?
For example, let’s say you have a colleague who tends to fly off the handle in meetings, which usually goads you into sniping back and then fuming after the meeting about his behavior. Before you’re in another meeting with him, play it out in your mind. How will you react when he starts his usual angry behavior? At one point will you simply end the conversation with him? Even if you take just a few moments to mentally rehearse it when you’re on the way to the meeting, it can make a big difference. (By the way, you can also protect your own peace of mind by noticing when others are triggered and not trying to engage them then.)
This week, I encourage you to make two small shifts: 1) Pay more attention to self-care. 2) Start noticing what triggers you and how you can change your response. Both should help you start to feel more calm and centered no matter what’s going on around you. For more strategies to build your leadership, check out my WOW! Highlight AudioSM . It’s a sampling of material from the complete WOW! Women On the Way to Peak Performance ProgramSM and this month it’s $100 off.