What Gives You Energy?

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You’ve heard about Fight or Flight, right? In short, fight or flight is the hard-wiring in our brains and bodies that prepares us to defend ourselves against threats like lions, tigers and bears. It is our evolutionary ‘kill switch’ that shuts down all non-essential functions and throws our energy and focus into survival.

Today we don’t tend to experience many run-ins with lions, yet our fight or flight impulses are still very much intact. In the modern world, stressors like sitting in traffic, arguments with a boss or partner, and unexpected crises activate a fight or flight response in our bodies.

While I’m no expert in the science behind this response, I do know how fight or flight feels in my body. 

Think back on the last time you felt stressed, angry or anxious. For me, what comes to mind is a client who changed her mind about our final deliverable. I had spent hours working on something that would take us in one direction, and at the 11th hour my client decided to go in the opposite. Reading her email announcing this shift, I can remember feeling my heart pounding as anger, resentment and frustration coursed through me. My jaw got tight, my breath was shallow, even my throat was dry. 

When we’re in fight or flight, our posture and presence is one of contraction. Evolutionarily speaking, we get small and tight – protecting our vital organs, shutting off our ability to reason and think. All energy goes to survival. 

Now, reflect on a time when you felt optimistic, immersed in something that gave you joy and a sense of openness. For me, sitting on the floor with my young son, watching him master a new skill and seeing the thrill in his eyes fills me with a sense of wonder and possibility that is indescribable. I’m relaxed, my breath is slow and deep, and I am present in that moment. This is the opposite of fight or flight, or what some people call Flow.

When we’re in flow, our orientation is one of possibility and opportunity, and our presence becomes embodied by a sense of expansiveness. From what I understand, a flow state also increases our ability to see beyond ourselves and our needs, and feel more universally connected to the environment and people around us.

What are the activities, people, situations that make you feel contracted and tight, with your shoulders up by your ears and your fists clenched? Alternatively, what are the activities, people and situations that make you feel open, relaxed, expansive and perhaps even in flow? 

Amazingly, science shows that our brains actually change when we’re in these different mindsets. Also amazingly, we don’t need to be hooked up to an fMRI machine to know which state we’re in.

Today’s activity is all about identifying the elements that make us feel open and expansive, or closed and contracted – and we’re going to do that by considering what gives us energy.

It may sound sort of hippy-dippy, but talking about energy is an interesting window into how we inhabit our bodies, how we handle stress, and even how we can anticipate and listen to our inner warning bells when our fight or flight impulses are about to be triggered. For this, we’re going to use the metaphor of a sailboat.

Imagine you’re a sailboat (yes, seriously). As a sailboat, there are things that make you move faster. These are the gusts of wind that give you energy. There will also be anchors that weigh you down and drain your energy. 

Now, take out a sheet of paper and draw your sailboat (don’t worry: you’re not being graded on your art skills). Divide the paper into two columns and draw your gust of wind and your anchor. Here’s mine:

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Next, take a moment to consider the focus or lens for this activity. Do you want to examine the elements that give or take away energy at work? In your relationships? In a specific area of your personal life? Here you can see that I have started to tease out the gusts of wind and anchors that affect me at work:

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And in my personal life:

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Note: I chose to put these on post-its so that if I wanted to rewrite something, I didn’t have to create a completely new sailboat drawing. Do whatever works for you.

After you’ve added some gusts of wind and anchors, take a step back and assess: are there common patterns or elements that are related across the things that give you energy? For me, a common thread is feeling agency and autonomy to make choices – when I am able to listen to my instinct and needs, I feel energized, open and expansive (whether at work or life). When I have less control over how I spend my time, when work or life feels rigid or inflexible, that’s when my sailboat begins to feel weighted down and heavy. 

TIP: invite a friend or teammate to do this exercise with you, perhaps on a shared topic or theme. Then, compare answers and see where there are overlaps. Maybe you even have some strategies or tips to share with one another for the next time an energy-draining situation arises. Also: this works wonders for understanding romantic partners and how you can both put some wind back in each other’s sails!

There are two things I love about this exercise. The first is that it works along many dimensions, from gusts of wind and anchors that show up in our work life, our personal life, our relationships with certain people, even a project we’re working on or a team we’re a part of. As you can see, I’ve taken a stab at my energizers and energy drainers in my work and in my personal life, but I could have just as easily narrowed my focus to how I feel when I’m parenting, my experience as a freelancer, or even specifically about certain friendships. Like an accordian, this framework can be elastic and fit really whatever you need or want to evaluate.

The second thing I love about this exercise is that it’s not focused on results or conclusions, but rather on awareness. So often as wayfinders we’re seeking a quick answer, a clear result or assessment that almost makes our choices for us (at least I know I am). This sailboat exercise is not that. Instead, this is a moment to pause and tap into how our routines and habits actually make us feel. By getting mindful and paying attention to our “body wisdom,” we’re flexing important muscles of awareness and self-understanding that will serve us well on our wayfinding journey.

As with many things, we can’t make changes when we don’t know what our baseline experience really is. My hope is that understanding what gives you energy – and, by extension, the situations and experiences that put you either into fight or flight or into flow – is a first step toward knowing the kind of life you want to create for yourself. 

Onward,

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And thanks to Gamestorming for sharing a game that gave me the idea for this activity!