Over my career, one of the skills I most wanted to develop was the ability to be calm under pressure.
I’m not alone in that quest. When I ask people in the leadership programs I teach how important being calm under pressure is, at least 80% say it is critically important. For the people I work with at the top of their companies, they all say it’s one of the most highly prized skills.
Calm under pressure is also one of the mostly highly faked skills. How can I be so sure of that? Well, I’m one of the fakers – and I’m not alone. We all have a pressure threshold, which is the level of growth where our “invisible tools” match our ability to handle a given level of pressure. When the pressure goes beyond that threshold, we have a pressure gap.
Side note: By “invisible tools”, I mean that package of tools that involves the mind, body and emotions when performing under pressure. It’s MUCH more than just a mental game when we are flooded with emotions, the sensations of nervousness and uncertainty. The invisible tools are the ones that make the real difference. It’s the unseen that drives the seen.
It’s in the pressure gap where the faking begins. Instead of actually being able to handle the pressure, we start pretending we are fine, when we are anything but ok. Our “non-fineness” leaks all over the place and we are the only ones who don’t realize that we are sending off vibes of uncertainty, insincerity and mixed messages.
This is the high stakes version of the game we play every day when someone asks “How are you?” and the socially acceptable answer is “Fine, how are you?” Heaven forbid someone answers by saying “I’m feeling so insecure today after the boss called me out in that meeting.”
This tendency to fake it is born of our conditioning. Unless we choose to develop our invisible tools, we keep reverting to the same coping strategies that served us as kids caught with our hand in the cookie jar.
The cost to ourselves and everyone around us is huge. When we pretend everything is fine, it creates deafening noise in our personal energy system, keeping us from being clear and honest with ourselves. Our insides and our outsides no longer match. We are out of alignment within ourselves.
Pretending also gets in the way of us being clear with others. We cannot find the signal through the noise.
It took me getting thrown off a horse to really start facing the many levels at which I was pretending – from not knowing what I didn’t know to pretending that I knew more than I did to covering up my mistakes.
Eighteen months after I got out of the hospital, a horse called my BS.
In the round pen with the “simple” task of coiling a lariat, the pressure overwhelmed my invisible tools. Behind me is my daughter Jen. In front of me is Bruce, whose job it is to “help the horse help itself live in the world we have created.” Also in the round pen is Trini, a sweet mare who was simply hanging out in the same round pen.
As I began coiling the rope, what looked simple was not so easy. As I worked through the task, Trini started running in circles, even though I was ignoring her and asking nothing of her.
My way of coping with this pressure was to act calm. But inside, I was anything but calm. My inner tyrant was driving the me and my energy field, which was my usual coping strategy under these conditions. As Bruce would say, my past was interfering with the moment.
The more Trini ran in circles and the more questions and coaching Bruce gave me, the more I felt like a complete screw up under the pressure. “Why can’t I get anything right?” “Boy I must be looking pretty stupid right now.” “You better get this done quick or else.”
Rather than stop and own my inability to handle the pressure (and thus open myself to being honest in this moment in order to learn), I doubled down on proving that all was fine. The outside version of Lynn was saying “No really, I’m fine.” The inside version of Lynn was lost and confused.
That’s when Trini started running faster and kicking up her heels and even bucking. Again, I’m 30 feet away. The only thing that could be causing this was me.
Later, Jen would say she would have loved to disappear into the ground right about then, and who could blame her? She’s in the middle of a round pen with no escape and a bucking, frightened 1200 pound animal. She had experienced my “fake calm” mindset thousands of times in her life. (The enormous cost to my child of this faking game it is a story for another day.) To her chagrin that day, the ground failed to open up and swallow her.
To Trini’s chagrin, the gate to the round pen stayed closed. She could not escape the crazy mixed up woman trying to coil the rope. So she did what any horse would do under the circumstances. She tried to run away from the pressure.
Finally, the pressure was so great I had to stop. I quit trying to prove and pretend. I owned up to the fact that I was lost.
I dropped all pretense. I asked for help. I gave up trying to get to the end goal. I let go of perfection. It was as if the building blocks inside of me snapped into vertical alignment. The rope still wasn’t coiled, but I was here, in this moment, ready to listen and hear what would bring the rope and me into harmony and balance.
Ironically, in the moment my insides and outsides were aligned, the real, imperfect me could shine through. It felt like an enormous weight was lifted. Relief.
With coaching, I was able to coil the rope without pretending everything was fine. Trini quit running, turned and faced me. The connection I felt with that horse was palpable. She showed me that faking it under pressure has a cost. The more I lie about what is really happening, the more I telegraph that I can’t be trusted – by me or anyone else. She called my BS.
Just as the horse had done 18 months before when he could no longer tolerate my mixed messages. While it didn’t feel like it at the time, he gave me one of the greatest gifts of my life: the opportunity to reclaim the real me.
Leaving my conditioning of the proving mindset continues to be a lifelong journey. There will always be a level of pressure that exceeds my invisible tools.
However, when faced with those moments of pressure where I’m playing in the froth, rather than pretending that everything is ok, I can choose instead to see it as an opportunity to build my invisible tools. I can see it as a chance to grow.
Am I done? Complete? On the road to perfection? Oh no. I’m raising my invisible tools on my journey to proficiency.
Where are you pretending everything is ok when it’s not? What kind of pressure gets to you? What are you doing to raise your invisible tools to match the kinds of pressure you are facing? What is sending mixed messages costing you? What is living in the midst of mixed messages doing to your level of trust with your colleagues?
These are not rhetorical questions – I deal with these and more every day with my clients. I would love to hear your struggles and victories. Please reach out and share your stories.