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Wiggle your toes to calm your mind

Recently, I wrote about “Breaking the grip of self-judgment.” This week, I discovered some tools that can help.

In Positive Intelligence Shirzad Chamine writes that we all have a judge. It ain’t just me. That judge, in turn, sub-contracts part of his work to a merry band of saboteurs custom-matched to our personalities. All it takes to send them out is a triggering incident, often a conflict. For example,

  • You’re in a team meeting, and a colleague has started “mansplaining,” with no acknowledgment, a comment that you made five minutes earlier.
  • You appear to be on interminable-hold waiting for a hapless COMCAST service agent, who will eventually tell you that COMCAST just discovered that they can’t give you the service they promised you two months ago.
  • You heard the anti-vaxxer Governor of XXX declare that no one in his state will be required to wear a mask or get vaccinated, because “No one should tell you what to do with your body.” (Unless, of course, you’re a woman.)

Now, the fun starts. 1) Smoke exits your ears; 2) Serious thoughts of vengeance cross your mind; 3) You start composing expletive-filled rants; 4) Your thoughtful brain is lost in space.

Or at least, that’s what can happen to me.

I’ve trained people in communication skills. I know better. But tell that to me when I’m super-triggered and my saboteurs have taken over.

A nine-pack of saboteurs

Chamine names nine types of saboteurs. We each have our favorites.

  1. Stickler–Methodical, perfectionistic, thinks “there is one right way and I know it.”
  2. Pleaser–Wants and needs to be liked even at the expense of self; can become resentful.
  3. Hyper-achiever–Thinks self-respect depends on performance and high achievement; focuses on external success; can be workaholic and competitive.
  4. Victim–Obsessed with internal feelings, particularly the painful ones. If criticized or misunderstood tends to sulk, pout, and withdraw. (One of mine, alas.)
  5. Hyper-rational–Wants to rationally process everything, including relationships. Can come across as cold and distant.
  6. Hyper-vigilant–Focuses on what could go wrong; never lets down on vigilance and anxiety
  7. Restless–Constantly busy in search of the next excitement or activity; easily distractable.
  8. Controller–Needs to take charge and control situations; high anxiety and impatience with others.
  9. Avoider–Focuses on the pleasant and avoids conflict as well as difficult or unpleasant tasks; has a hard time saying no.

It helps to know how our personal saboteurs will try and get us through their logical-sounding, albeit crazy, thoughts. 

(You can take a free assessment to discover the profile of the primary saboteurs that plague you.)

Back to our example

When we move into reactivity, triggered by situations like the ones above, things aren’t likely to improve quickly.

The ship is going down. As the astronauts of Apollo 13 relayed, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Emotions have been triggered. We are no longer present.

If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to spot a saboteur at the helm.  But maybe not. Our main challenge is to come back to earth safely and soon.

This isn’t the time to be philosophical or resolve to do a long meditation six hours from now. (Not a bad idea, though.)

We need to take control of the ship now.

Returning to earth

The good news is that there are some very simple things we can do to ground ourselves and become present when our brain’s amygdala (fight, flight, freeze) has taken over our brain’s executive functions.

We need to literally come to our senses.

Chamine suggests pausing at least 100 times a day to reconnect to our senses. We can:

1) Wiggle our toes in our shoes, feeling the leather or cloth and the ground underneath us.
2) Rub two fingers together, trying to notice the ridges within our fingerprints.
3) Breathe more deeply and pay attention to our breath.
4) Focus on any of our senses and notice what we discover. Sure, that smell of pizza coming from the microwave that our co-worker failed to clean is not attractive. But focusing on scent could bring us back to ourselves.

Once we reconnect with our senses, we become more present. It’s not that “the situation” has been resolved, but we’ve rescued our brains from some of its reactiveness.

Chamine also describes an internal think-tank, known as the Sage, which can help us take positive action using empathy, curiosity, innovation, connection to our values, and planning.

But before we can tap the Sage, we have to return to planet earth.

Giving the ideas a test run

I decided to test Chamine’s ideas by practicing when my thinking felt sabotaged. Not surprisingly, an opportunity immediately popped up, with a disturbance that was neither earth-shattering nor particularly significant. (I suggest not starting your experiment with anything deeply upsetting.)

Troubling thought: I was overcharged for a service. Even though this thought was trivial, the idea, “I was overcharged” burrowed rapidly into my brain, hijacking my thinking at the start of my day. Shock, disappointment, and anger rode along as if on a wave. 

Here’s a partial script of what followed.

Angry thought jumps in. Take three deep breaths. Angry thought. Feel my butt sitting on the bed. Rub fingers together. Angry thought. Angry thought. Feel head against cool wall. Wiggle toes. Angry thought. Listen to ears ringing/sounds in the quiet of the room. Angry thought. Feel heels on bed. Feel the weight in my butt. Angry thought. Try to smell (no good with a cold). Feel sniffle inside the nose. Angry thought.

Think of a pleasant image, a beach. Linger there five seconds. Breathe. Feel breath rise and fall. Angry thought begins to settle. Feel toes. Return to pleasant image. Angry thought becomes lighter. Feel inside my cheekbones. listen to sounds. Angry thought-light. Return to pleasant scene. Rub fingers together. Angry thought lighter-light. Make an intention to let this go. Return to breath. Ten deep, still breaths. Wiggle toes. Check in. Thought almost gone. End session.

Wow. That was a lot of work for one insignificant thought. At least  I kept the angry thought from catching fire in my brain.

I clocked at least twenty reset-come-back-into-my-senses pauses I could apply towards Chamine’s recommended daily hundred. I also added a technique from the HeartMath organization to use a pleasant image to help my heart relax. I threw in an intention as well. 

It helped. The situation may require a conversation, but at least I’m feeling calmer and my brain is capable of kind and empathic thoughts. 

I might try to notice which of my saboteurs was in charge of this attack.

A clear mind is a beautiful thing to waste. Obviously, I need to put mine into training, one toe wiggle at a time.

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