On Performance and its Correlation to Safety
I was in the office pounding at my keyboard furiously when a thought started to form in my head and got me to pause and think: "What makes the difference between good and bad performance?"
Maybe I'll backtrack a little and provide some context. My internship has been a great learning opportunity for me. My second month into the job, I've been placed in uncomfortable situations and have been forced to perform under pressure. Be it presentations in front of my colleagues and supervisors, or just simply sitting at my desk knowing that I have to do well at the tasks I'm given.
Truth be told, I've been suffering from a slight anxiety problem at work - constantly counting points for myself, "plus points if I do well, minus points if I screw up". I admit my obsession with perfection has made things difficult for myself. Besides the fact that I'm trying to tell myself to bring it all down a notch and to loosen up a little, I've been noticing that I tend to do well when I'm calm, collected, confident, most of all when I feel safe.
What do I mean by "feel safe"? It's not like I'm in any sort of imminent danger or anything, no. What I'm referring to is having the feeling of comfort, of not feeling on edge or "threatened" by things around me. Being fully myself in the face of things that normally unnerve me or things that used to bother me. Being in my comfort zone. And being in control.
We all feel safe when we're in our comfort zone whether we realize it or not. We normally don't notice the ease that resides in us when we're in our home country, for instance. Being a legitimate citizen of our country or being part of a culture and language that we are fluent in, or native speakers of. When we feel safe, we tend to be more of ourselves. We won't reveal our thoughts in the first few minutes a salesman approaches us, maybe because we have a certain distrust towards this stranger, or we feel he/she may want something from us and we keep our guard up. But we relax a little when we sit down and have coffee with said salesman, the salesman shares a bit about himself/herself too, and there's an ongoing conversation of reciprocal sharing. That's the point we start to feel safe in this particular environment and being around this stranger we know more about.
Of the times I performed badly (in my opinion, because I'm always so hard on myself), what struck me was how "danger points" blared out so strongly at me from start to end of my presentation (or any other assignment). For instance, of being fully aware of being assessed by my supervisor, feeling extremely self-conscious, stumbling on my words, palms getting sweaty, wishing I was someplace else and so on. And in this context, I was making the choice to not make the environment I was in a safe one for myself. Okay, this may sound a little convoluted. Let me break it down.
I believe we can make environments safe for ourselves, whether they are foreign to us or not. And this choice we make translates to an instant shift/change for us. It can be as fast as a snap of the finger, and we immediately feel safer and more assured. (I don't mean to say it's as easy as a snap of the finger; for it to work, we should fully embrace and believe in this choice we make.) As such, feeling safe is a choice.
When you're in front of a conference room standing before your PowerPoint slides, staring at the table, your boss staring at you, your boss' boss scrutinizing your slides, you may feel threatened. Your image is threatened ("What if they think what I'm saying is stupid?", "What if they don't like what I'm saying?", "What if I'm wasting their time?") It is at this point in time that you have to refocus yourself with respect to the position you're in. Look carefully across the room and everyone sitting in it. These are the people you know, these are the people you have/may not have talked to. Yet, they are people who perhaps have similar fears/insecurities as you do in circumstances they go through in their daily lives. These are people with feelings, with difficulties, dealing with the same shit you deal with (or even more). Make the choice to extend beyond your self and feel the entire room. Breathe deeply if it helps. Then notice the tightness in your toes. Or the rug beneath your feet. Or the air-conditioner blowing in your face. Notice your entire being in the room. Feel your presence fully. Being more aware of the environment you're in instead of merely panicking at the existing "danger points" could help in making you feel more rooted.
On the flip side, if we only focus on the surface of things such as our thoughts, the alarms going off in our heads, everything just stays within the capsules of our beings. We notice our anxiety and get more anxious. We feel more and more out of place and unsafe. We panic, we stutter, we falter. Performance dives.
Feeling safe is a choice, and it applies to many other contexts.
To share a personal example, I'm a great table tennis player. I've played for years and I'm still active in my college varsity team. But over the years, I've become afraid of serving the table tennis ball. I am terrified that it'll go down the net. This fear has started to cripple me, and whenever I raise my arm to serve, it goes stiff, and the ball pathetically goes down the net (as expected). Yet, if I focus on the ball in my hand, become aware of the growing stiffness in my fingers and then shaking and loosening them, knowing that my opponents are across the table waiting for my service, keeping in mind of the times I've served the ball in safe environments (e.g. during training), it doesn't become so nightmarish anymore. I've done it before, and I can do it again.
We can control how we feel. Those who say they can't, maybe they aren't being honest with themselves, maybe they haven't dug deeper and asked themselves important questions. Yet there are different approaches to attaining a sense of safety. It could be by associating a present situation with a previous memory (of feeling safe), it could be trigger words to yourself, it could be really scolding yourself and reminding yourself. Whatever. The point is figuring out what works best for you.
When we make the conscious choice to turn foreign, "unsafe" environments into safe ones, many pleasantly surprising things can happen. Meeting a friend you haven't met in ages, noticing the awkwardness that creeps up on you and yet letting your excitement at seeing your friend shine through, affecting the other person positively, creating a safer environment for the both of you. Being able to open up a more intimate and casual conversation with your boss because you no longer view him as a big bad wolf but a normal person just like you, or going into class full of people you have not been able to forge good relationships with, bringing your enthusiasm into your conversations with them, being yourself and watching things unfold well naturally.
Many things seem to happen to us all at once when we're uncomfortable. We so very much want to get out of it. But tackling these things one at a time and slowly becoming accustomed to the uncomfortable, that's when magic happens.
Turn the undesirable into the desirable. All the areas in your life that make you queasy, switch on the "safe" button one by one...Subconsciously or not, you're expanding your comfort zone. You're growing.