When we face a scary monster in life (an interview for a new role, speaking in public to a large audience or moving to a new city for instance) we have two deep-rooted, but very different, potential responses: ‘flight’ or ‘fight’.
Fight or flight
‘Flight’ means that we run away from the monster, whilst ‘fight’ means that we get right up in its face and take it on. Whichever response you choose your nervous system releases adrenaline to help you to perform at your best. If you choose ‘flight’ the adrenaline helps you run as fast as you can. If you choose ‘fight’ it gives you the courage and the strength to beat the monster.
The big difference is that when you run away from the monster those butterflies quickly vanish whilst when you fight the butterflies stay with you to help you in the fight.
And those butterflies can help you to act with enormous impact, but you have to give them a chance!
Facing your fears
In my experience too many people fear the very feeling of fear. As soon as they feel the butterflies they immediately run away to avoid that uncomfortable feeling of nerves. But the problem with choosing the ‘flight’ response is that they spend their whole lives running away from any situation that scares them. This means that they never leave their comfort zones and in my opinion comfort zones are the most dangerous thing in your life. They are certainly very appealing, they are very seductive, they feel by definition ‘comfortable’…but if you stay in your comfort zone doing the same thing month after month, never doing anything that scares you, never putting yourself in situations where you feel uncertainty, you will never change.
And if you never change how can you possibly achieve what you are capable of.
People who never leave their comfort zones never grow or develop. And without growth and development you can’t possibly achieve true success.
I learned a long time ago that accepting that feeling of butterflies was a necessary part of success in my career and my life. More recently I have moved beyond just accepting those butterflies to actually embracing them, and even to chasing them. I deliberately put myself in situations that scare me as often as I can, whether it is taking the plunge with opening a new business, entering a show-jumping competition, giving a motivational speech to a couple of hundred people, performing stand-up comedy in a dingy club in Glasgow, or competing in a rowing competition against members of Team GB. All situations where at some point I asked myself “what on earth do you think you are doing? This is nuts!”. And in each situation, it was at that precise moment that I knew for certain I had done the right thing.
I have learned to love feeling that rush of adrenaline through my body, my hands shaking, my breathing shallow, my mouth going dry, every hair on my body standing on end. I feel truly alive. I know I am well out of my comfort zone and that is forcing me to grow. I have even started to make major life and career decisions based on whether I get the butterflies or not…getting the butterflies tells me the opportunity is going to be exciting and it’s going to develop me as a person. If there aren’t any butterflies…well, where is the adventure in that?
There are a couple of simple tricks that I use to make sure that I react in the most positive way. And a lot of that is down to how I make my brain interpret the way my body feels….
I’m so excited, and I just can’t hide it
When you feel scared and nervous, it’s virtually the same physiological reaction as when you are excited…the same thing, the same anticipation, the same adrenaline. And you can fool your brain. When I get those nervous butterflies I just tell myself over and over “I am excited, I am so excited, I am sooooo excited!”. My brain then starts to interpret the nerves as excitement. It really pumps me up for what I doing. I actually do get really excited and that allows me to perform at my best.
As well as managing your mind it’s possible to manage your body. I am a big believer in Power Posing. I think that you can manage the way you perform with simple changes to your posture. Watch Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk “Your body language shapes who you are”
When I am about to do something scary I will often disappear for a few minutes before I start. I will be in a dark corner somewhere doing a 2-minute ‘Wonder Woman’ and telling myself how excited I feel. It makes a big difference to how I deal with the scary monster.
So don’t fear failure. And certainly don’t fear fear. The quality of your life will be hugely affected by your willingness to chase butterflies.
If you enjoyed this article, take a look at our article on turning stress into a positive force here