What if our “inner demons” aren’t demons at all?

The lockdown has given a lot of us the chance to get a bit more connected to our inner worlds. Without the (sometimes comforting, sometimes not) distractions of the outer life of work/coffee/entertainment, we are spending more time with ourselves – and all those thoughts running around inside our heads.

Like most people, I’ve found it a challenging experience. 

Some of the time, especially on days I’ve followed the 24-hour news, I’ve felt angry — waking up at night, with anger that builds from a place deep inside my chest, and which leaves me feeling impotent and unable to focus.. Or else I’ve felt anxiety bordering on panic as I imagine how this all might unfold.

At other times, I’ve faced unbearable boredom. Whole afternoons where I couldn’t think of anything I really wanted to do, except to rush out and buy chocolate in the hope that a sugar hit would distract me out of the distress.

These are not new challenges for me… and perhaps not for you and your colleagues either. Jen tells me that come evenings, she wrestles with the urge to binge on popcorn to fill a sense of emptiness that arrives each sundown. I guess all of us have inner lives with their share of darkness and discomfort. 

Welcome to Club Human.

Phase changes

But this crisis has also created the possibility of crossing a threshold; a phase change. Phase changes happen when, for instance, temperatures drop low enough for water to transform to ice. Or hot enough to turn it to steam. At these points, the sustained energy stops changing the degree and instead changes the form.

I’ve been forced to meet these demons in my head so often in this hiatus that I’ve had to meet them in a different way. I don’t want to act on them – spurious shopping trips for chocolate are not on, and doomsday visions or elaborate revenge fantasies are best left to screenwriters. Equally, suppressing them isn’t an option – trying not to be angry with politicians is exhausting. 

So I’ve had to stop just reacting to them, and instead slow down and get interested. I do for myself what I often help clients to do. Take time and get curious.

When I do this, with enough patience, something interesting happens. I begin to wonder if these are demons at all. I start to ask, what sort of boredom is this? Or where exactly is this feeling called anger? What if I don’t label this feeling at three in the morning “anxiety”? What if I call it something made up, like “zagbrod” instead, and then decide what it is? 

At some point – and it can’t be controlled – I get a phase change. Sometimes when I stay connected to my anger it seems to shift, as if it drops down a gear. It changes from a kind of chaos in my chest to something more solid in my belly – where it starts to feel more like power. 

When I’ve sat with my boredom – and not bought the chocolate – after a while I notice an  unaccountable burst of creativity, or at least a fresh perspective. That anxiety starts to feel more like energy and excitement. I feel more alive, more like a flesh-and-blood creature, and less manic.

From distraction to resourcefulness

It turns out all this stuff going on in my head doesn’t need to be silenced; it can be a source of change, creativity and, on a really good day, fun.

A willingness to pay more attention to the stuff going on inside us, without despairing or leaping to action in the outside world, creates a different sense of resourcefulness. We can find more satisfaction from within ourselves. We feel less desperate for satisfaction from stuff or people in  the outside world. At the same time, we find we’re more able to relate to all the strange things happening out there.

In the conventional world of work, we’re so focussed on keeping our boss or our customers satisfied that we can lose touch with what really satisfies us. After an exhausting day of work, we easily settle for addictive habits like food, drink and television to help us relax. But these are more like stimulants then relaxants. We become addicted to stress and lose our bearings.

If we’re patient enough to out-wait those habits, we stand to recover our deeper sense of creativity and purpose. And we don’t need to wait for the solitude of lockdown to experience this. Good teams are able to share these kinds of feelings together and create support. I’ve often found in my practice of unhurried conversations that there’s great value in holding each other’s experience without a rush to move on or fix things. 

What does all this mean in the workplace?

When we’re true to ourselves and what we’re feeling, we can better accept the truth of our colleagues. We’re better able to get to the root of problems, instead of skating around on the surface trying to be overly polite or pretending that emotional undercurrents don’t exist. We all feel heard, seen and valued for who we are… which leads to deeper connections, more effective teamwork, and smoother operations. And, most importantly, more fun and ease at work. 

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