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Beyond Threat - The Introduction
It is not our fault that we get trapped in bad habits or ‘loops’ of unhelpful and sometimes destructive behaviour. Or that we are easily irritated, sometimes less than truthful, suspicious of others and inexplicably anxious and afraid. It is not our fault because most of what we feel, think and do is motivated by unconscious memories of how to survive the environment into which we were born. These memories, without our knowing, continue to exert a huge influence in our adult lives.
At work, these hidden motives play out in unexpected and often unwelcome ways. We can be ruthlessly competitive, frequently disengaged or dangerously compliant. We can say and do things that we regret, make mistakes, upset people and feel miserable and defensive. Not all the time, of course, but sometimes. And as we get older, if our problem habits go unaddressed, the ‘sometimes’ becomes ‘often’.
Along with their extraordinary tales of resilience, brilliant accomplishment and profound company loyalty, my organisational clients also talk about, exhaustion, dissension, lack of appreciation, fear and doubt – and they wonder what to do about this. Such experiences affect us all but in organisations we are rarely encouraged to talk about them openly. Instead we are told to be positive, innovate, grow, inspire and win. Yet we cannot do these things if our bodies and minds are in threat.
So, I have written a book which does talk about these experiences directly. I have written it for people leading, working in and changing organisations and, for this reason, I have adapted the language, theories and practices of mainly neurobiological and psychological disciplines so that they can be applied in this organisational context.
I hope, especially through the case studies of three people working in ordinary organisations, to persuade you that with understanding, awareness, insight and practice, we can live and work more freely and bravely. I strongly believe that doing so will enhance organisations in ways that may be beyond their current imagining.
In the first part of this book – How has it come to be this way? – I weave together insights from neuroscience and developmental psychology to explore the way in which our biological heritage (nature) and our early individual experiences (nurture) combine to make us who we are. We start by considering how we are motivated by three neurological systems – threat, drive and safe – which together form what I call the Trimotive Brain which is a metaphor (not an actual brain) that I find useful when trying to understand human motivation. When these systems are working well together we are ‘centred’ and we can respond to our experience with focus, calm and accuracy. When our Trimotive Brain is ‘dis-integrated’ we experience problems. Usually this is because the ‘threat’ part of this system is overactive and/or the ‘safe’ part is underactive. We learn how and why this happens by considering how childhood experience influences the development and functioning of our Trimotive Brain and how our formative relationships shape our adult orientations to life. When experience teaches us that people and events are mostly hostile, unpredictable, dangerous and uncaring then our threat brain emotions start to dominate and we get trapped in rigid behavioural patterns of moving against people/events (fighting/controlling), moving towards (freezing/ submitting) and moving away (fleeing/disengaging). These patterns are explored in Part Three through the three coaching stories.
Our biological inheritance and our childhood experiences are preserved in and by our memory and so we end Part One by taking a look at what memory is and how it works. This sets the scene for an exploration of unconscious processes in which implicit memory plays a large part. Here we discover that most of our feelings and thoughts happen outside our conscious awareness and we consider the implications of this for our decisions and actions.
In Part Two – What else is possible? – we dig down towards the roots of our habits by exploring the unconscious processes in our body and mind that sustain them. We learn that to become aware of these processes we need to develop self-compassion – or ‘warm awareness’ – in order to tolerate and accept some of the unpleasant or unwanted truths that fuel our problem habits. We explore what self-compassion is and how the experience of mindfulness, kindness and acceptance of our shared humanity helps us to increase safe brain emotions that regulate threat and bring equilibrium to our Trimotive Brain.
Once we have cultivated basic self-compassion we are ready to enter our unconscious and discover the hidden or unnoticed intelligence that resides there and we end Part Two considering three simple practices that help us become aware of our unconscious processes. The new material that emerges from this exploration provides ample inspiration for re-authoring our lives. In the new stories we tell about ourselves it is possible to let go of old habits and develop different, more satisfying responses to our experience.
Finally, in Part Three – Panning for Gold – we examine the coaching stories of three clients working in different corporate environments but each trapped in the problem habits arising from their overactive threat brain. We return to the patterns of moving against, away and towards to understand these habits and to learn how to soothe our threatened brain. In sharing these stories I also hope to make a case for the value of depth coaching which includes an exploration of the unconscious forces influencing behaviour and sustaining the habits we wish to change. Depth coaching seeks to support profound and lasting change and to nurture healthy ‘drive’ motivations by ensuring that goals and objectives are informed not by threat brain motives but by the conscious, compassionate and wise motives emerging from safe brain.
The Trimotive Brain metaphor and the cultivation of warm awareness through self-compassion have helped me to make sense of and travel beyond experiences that for a long time have held me captive, confounded and immobilised. These ideas and practices represent my way of comprehending and working with the inherent complexities and challenges of ordinary life and I have discovered in their research and application the possibility of living beyond threat that is both conscious of our mortal vulnerability and no longer overwhelmed or enthralled by it.