Fight or Flight? How about a Third Option?

 
Photo by  Warren Wong

Photo by Warren Wong

My skin crawled, and my heartbeat accelerated as I stood in my bedroom with two men I had met just a couple of hours before. One was standing next to me smiling, while the other pounded on the bathroom door and screamed profanities at my wife, Jen, and our two kids, who were locked in the bathroom.

I was surprised by how completely helpless and unprepared I was for this situation. It was eye-opening to me just how scary things can get when your family’s safety is on the line. 

I wanted this moment to end immediately.

Just when I was about to break, the scenario was over, and Jen had done everything her instructors wanted her to do. The man doing all of the shouting transformed back into the friendly guy who was high-fiving and joking with the kids.

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For my 38th birthday, Jen had hired a local security-training firm in town to come to our house for home-invasion training. In just a few hours, we learned all kinds of basic safety and protection skills. The most important skill wasn’t some fancy karate move or how to shoot a gun: it was how to think about and avoid dangerous situations.

One of the most helpful ideas for when you find yourself in a bad situation is to realize that you have three options:

1. Run

2. Fight

3. Comply temporarily

The run and fight options make perfect sense to me because they fit the natural fight-or-flight response the pop-science books I enjoy reading talk about all the time. It was the third option that I found most interesting and one that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. 

Complying Temporarily

Complying temporarily sounds a lot like surrender which means “to cease resistance to an enemy,” but the twist here is the word temporarily. You only cease resisting until it makes more sense to fight or flight. What’s important here is that you maintain control of your response to the situation, and you choose when to comply and when to stop complying. 

I’ve found this idea to be helpful in all kinds of situations beyond the scary ones presented in the home invasion course because the resistance I experience most often is internal and self-generated. It’s the voice in my head or the physical sensations I feel when I perceive risk. It’s the run-of-the-mill doubts that keep me from showing up the way I want and doing the things that I want to do.

I’m not alone here when it comes to internal resistance. There are numerous books on the subject, from how to be grittier or mentally tough to meditating to clear the mind. I see it in my coaching clients too. They reach out to me for help on what they perceive as an external challenge, and what we learn in the process is it’s an internal and emotional barrier that must be overcome instead.

Conventional wisdom teaches us to overcome resistance with greater resistance, which means suiting up in your armor and charging ahead to slay the dragon. But what if there was a third option?

What if we complied temporarily? What would happen if we sat with the uncomfortable feeling and became more familiar with it? Abraham Lincoln summed it up nicely when he wrote, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” What would happen if we got to know the feeling better? Perhaps we might learn to embrace the feeling, and rather than running from it, we might run toward it.

Listen to what your body tells you.

Scientists believe homo sapiens have been around for 200,000 years. That means that we might be on the 10,000th generation of the human body, which makes it much more advanced than our AI or self-driving cars. It’s silly to think of our bodies as nothing more than something to carry around our brains.

Perhaps those uncomfortable feelings and emotions are your body’s way of communicating with you. Maybe your body has an intelligence you don’t yet understand. When we choose the third option, we allow ourselves an opportunity to listen. Rather than running or fighting the sensations, we can sit and analyze them. Maybe if we were a bit more curious, we could better understand and appreciate the message.

Admittedly, this is a high bar for most people. The thought of surrendering to a feeling we don’t like temporarily can feel unnatural and be unsettling at first. It’s something I’ve been working on myself and with my coaching clients, and it can be transformative.

There are two scenarios where complying temporarily may be helpful for you. 

Anxiety

I’m a planner and a maximizer, so I struggle when things aren’t certain or if I perceive that I might be wasting time. The anxious feelings start to come up when I don’t have a clear objective or the next steps on a project or an activity. I’m generally a very resourceful person, so when the anxiety hits me, it can be paralyzing. I begin wasting time dwelling on wasted time.

I’ve spent a lot of time resisting anxious feelings and discovered that the more I resist, the more the feelings insist, but recently I decided to sit down with a journal and ask myself, “Why do I feel this way?” After a few minutes of stream-of-consciousness writing, the feelings begin to dissipate. Often, what I learn is that sitting with the feeling and accepting it takes away its power over me, and I can get back to work.

Season of Yes

I have a lot of interests and hobbies, and that leads to my starting lots of projects. I’ve had a podcast, taken improv classes, started a coffee company, a facilitation and coaching company, and a CrossFit gym, competed in triathlons, marathons, Tough Mudders, given a talk to 1,500 people, and climbed naked into a sensory deprivation tank in the basement of some guy I met online. Currently I’m learning how to write a rehearsal-ready keynote speech, video lighting and production, and how to screen-print t-shirts and posters.

You might think of me as a pretty confident and adventurous person, but truth be told, the reason behind the things I do is to push myself to learn more about myself. The most rewarding and memorable moments are those when I surrender to an uncomfortable situation. My friend Ryan and I coined a term for this temporary compliance: The Season of Yes. It’s our way of giving ourselves permission to take risks and try things that push us out of our comfort zones.

The beauty is that it’s a season rather than a lifetime commitment, which provides a degree of control as you surrender to a teacher, a coach, or an experience that will help you grow. It’s a way of dealing with the discomfort in the short term while pursuing the growth in the long term because you know that you can go back to a season of no when you need to focus your energy to get things done.

How do you know whether a Season of Yes might be right for you?

  • You feel stuck or bored in your professional or personal life.

  • You have some ideas but don’t know where to start.

  • You feel safe and comfortable in the little life that you’ve built for yourself. 

Ten simple ways to prepare for your own Season of Yes:

  • Ask someone else to pick the restaurant and your meal

  • Take a cold shower*

  • Give away all of the money in your wallet to the next person who asks*

  • Write an article or record a video and post it on LinkedIn

  • Invite someone outside your circle to coffee

  • Get up before 5 AM

  • Don’t eat for 24 hours

  • Spend a few hours alone with no devices

  • Leave the house without your phone

  • Strike up a conversation with a stranger

The next step is to just start saying yes to whatever comes your way, and then start seeking ways to explore the outer reaches of your comfort zone. Think stand up comedy might be fun? Sign up for a class. Wondered if you might enjoy photography? Buy a camera and start shooting pictures. Considering a new career? Start exploring what people in that career say about it by inviting them for coffee. 

Final Thought

Everyone faces some form of internal resistance as they reach the outer edges of their comfort zone. It’s easy to think that the people who do the things we wish we could with grace and skill have some rare talent or extreme mental toughness, and in doing so, we can conveniently let us off the hook when it comes to chasing our dreams. I’m starting to believe that they are the ones who surrender to the feelings, listen to the message, and humbly go about do the work to realize those dreams.  

*- Taking a cold shower and giving money to the first person to who asks was inspired by the book titled The Flinch, by Julian Smith. This book should be required reading for anyone who breathes.

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Jeff Shannon