When you go white-water rafting, if you’re a novice, your guide will spend some time teaching you how to sit in the boat, how to hold your paddle, how to adjust your centre of gravity, and where to plant your feet so that there’s less chance that you’ll get tossed out of the boat when you hit the rapids. Then, once you’re floating down the river, your guide will watch the river and warn you when the rapids are coming so that you have time to adjust your posture accordingly. An experienced guide will have been down that river many, many times, so they know how to navigate whatever’s coming.
Once you’re through the rapids and you get to a smooth spot on the river, your guide will let you know that you can relax your posture and enjoy the view.
A skilled leader has the same set of skills as that guide. They’re out front watching for rough water, and they’ve prepared their people so that they know how to adjust their posture to meet the needs of the moment. They warn people when necessary and then they help create the conditions for people to feel safe when the rapids subside.
This past year, there’s been a lot of metaphoric white-water rafting for all of us as we’ve had to adapt to the rough water of a pandemic without any guides to tell us when and how to adjust our posture so we don’t get tossed out of the boat. It’s hard to know what’s coming when nobody has been down this river before. Most of our leaders have felt just as confused as the people in the boat, and some of them have given us false information so we’re not always sure who to trust.
When you don’t have a guide you can trust, and your boat is floating down a river you’re unfamiliar with, it’s likely that your body will stay in the posture of hyper-vigilance. You want to be prepared for the rapids because you don’t know when they’re coming. After one set of rapids has passed, you don’t know if you can trust the stretch of smooth water enough to relax and enjoy the view.
As we near what we hope is the end of this pandemic, many of us will find it hard for our bodies to fully relax. We might be a little more edgy and anxious than usual. We might not be sure who we can trust or what circumstances are safe.
Recently, I was lying in my hammock trying to read a book and I noticed that, although there was no imminent threat and I couldn’t possibly be in a safer situation (in my own backyard on a beautiful day in a hammock with the gate closed and nobody else around), there was still tension in my body as though I were preparing for rapids. I scanned the things in my brain to try to figure out if there was something I was forgetting to do or some situation I was worried about, and I couldn’t find anything that should result in the posture of readiness in my body. I concluded that it was just the residual effect of a year and a half of hypervigilance without a guide to tell me when the smooth waters could be trusted. (I went through a similar thing the year before and the year after my divorce, to the point where I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue because there’d been so much adrenaline pumping through my system for so long, trying to keep me prepared for fight/flight/freeze.)
This summer, I’m taking time away from my work and from social media and it’s my hope that it will be what my body needs in order to more fully relax. I know from past experience that for this kind of long-term hypervigilance to leave my body it takes a considerable amount of time and intentional release. I’m giving my body and heart what they need – rest, companionship, fun, and nature.
I hope that you can find the time to let your body relax fully as well. Let’s be gentle with ourselves and let’s acknowledge how hard it is to go white-water rafting without a guide. We’ve done well just to survive without getting tossed out of the boat. Hopefully we’ve hit some smooth water that we can trust.
If you want to learn more about how you can hold space for yourself when there have been lots of rapids in your life, check out our self-study program, Holding Space in Times of Disruption and Overwhelm.