Fight Better. Here’s How.
You fight every day.
I’m not referring here to interpersonal conflict though perhaps how to “fight better” when you disagree with others could be a topic for another article. (Until then, I recommend How to Argue and Win Every Time by Gerry Spence. He will redefine your concept of both arguing and winning in the best possible way.)
I’m talking about the daily battles you wage to lead your life and your organization. Every change, every step forward, every ounce of progress creates resistance. And it can be a fight to overcome that resistance, whether you’re pushing against your own habits and mindsets, another person’s, an entire organization’s, or society’s as a whole.
Leaders are fighters. But the question is, who or what are you fighting and why? There’s a huge difference—in your thoughts, your emotions, your physiology, and your results—between fighting for your survival and fighting for a cause. The first is self-focused; the second indicates leadership.
Our society has decided that stress and resistance are bad things, and yet, they are both actually really good for you, especially in small to moderate doses. You know this is true physically: moderate amounts of physical stress and resistance are necessary to increase flexibility, muscle mass, stamina, and cardiovascular health. We stress our bodies on purpose (otherwise known as exercise) to be stronger and healthier.
The same principle applies mentally and emotionally. However, you’ve been conditioned to believe that stress and resistance are bad. So when you encounter some, chances are you often respond to stress and resistance as if they are dangerous threats rather than exciting, possibility-infused challenges and opportunities.
Your perspective determines how your brain and body react. And that, in turn determines your results. You have two choices…
If you see a threat and fight for survival, you jump into fight-or-flight mode. Your system is flooded with cortisol. You feel anxious and withdraw or you feel angry and become aggressive. To mobilize energy and protect yourself from physical harm, your blood vessels constrict, your heartrate increases, your pupils dilate, your breathing shallows and accelerates, and a whole bunch of entire systems (digestion, elimination, and reproduction, for example) simply shut down. Your brain reroutes oxygen to bypass the relatively slow frontal lobes—where logic, analysis, creativity, and big picture thinking happen—and sends it directly to the limbic system so you can react instantly and instinctively.
There are a couple of issues with this. First, when was the last time in the course of your workday that you needed to physically fight or run away in order to ensure your survival? Draining energy from your brain and pumping it into your arms and legs isn’t super useful in the type of fight you face today. Generally, when you’ve got a fight on your hands, having your higher brain functions online and operational would be much more helpful! You don’t need to swing your fists, you need to think!
Secondly, being in fight-or-flight mode continually is pretty hard on your system. And if you see all stress or resistance as a threat, then you live in constant fight-or-flight. You’re plugged into a perpetual cortisol drip, and you’re probably noticing some side effects: heart problems, digestive problems, low sex drive, anxiety, depression, etc. So… fantastic. We’ve been conditioned to choose a response to resistance that is not only unhelpful in today’s context, but actually harmful!
Happily, this is a learned response, which means you can change it. If, instead of a threat, you see a challenge, your brain and your body react in an entirely different way. Rather than cortisol, your body is infused with (a) adrenaline, which gives you power, energy, and mental clarity, (b) testosterone, which boosts your confidence, and (c) dopamine, which increases your capacity to learn. Instead of feeling anxious or angry, you feel excited and focused. Seeing the challenge response in action is why we love to watch the Olympics or the Super Bowl or the National Spelling Bee. Yes, of course, it’s the epic training and hard work that gets people to those events. Yet the high stakes of the competition incites the challenge response and you see unbelievable feats and thrilling plays and new world records. It’s exciting!
The challenge response is actually helpful to you in stressful situation. As a bonus, it’s good for your body, too. And as an extra added bonus (I feel like an infomercial) it feels freaking amazing! It’s so much more fun to be fired up than beaten down!
So how do you change your habit and choose to see challenges instead of threats? Kelly McGonigal, in her book The Upside to Stress, suggests a couple of ways:
1) Remember you can handle it.
At the risk of sounding a bit too Disney, you are stronger than you think. You have many strengths and a track record of using them. You have a great number of resources, including the people around you and your own amazing body. You have past experience, the capacity to learn, the ability to prepare, and a great brain. Stress and resistance don’t have to break you down. They can build you up.
2) Remember it’s not about you.
Perhaps this is the biggest difference between fighting for survival and fighting for a cause. When you fight for survival, you worry about yourself. And everyone knows it. You trade credibility for anxiety and depression. Bad trade-off! Fighting for a cause inherently means you’re focused on something bigger than yourself. This approach provides you with a sense of meaning and leads you to feel more hopeful, curious, inspired, and excited.
McGonigal writes, “The most meaningful challenges in your life will come with a few dark nights.” But after every dark night, the sun still rises.
There are certainly some stresses and challenges that are worth drop-kicking right out of your life. You don’t get stronger by lifting more weight than you can; you get injured. So by all means, pick your battles. Yet keep in mind that you can and have overcome all sorts of gnarly challenges in your life. Keep fighting. But fight better.