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Meeting our fears from a place of presence
Each of us is afraid of something, and each of us can find a degree of freedom when we look our fear in the eye. For founders, this is an indispensable skill.
One of my clients once asked me how she can move from feeling unsure if she will raise the next round to an unshakeable conviction that she will.
I replied: “You don’t know if you’ll close the round and it’s ok. However, and this is important, you have what it takes to handle any situation. You are likely to raise and you’ll do everything you can to do it, and if you don’t, you’ll find a way forward.
If there’s a part of you that believes that you can’t handle failing to raise, that part will not let you be your best self because it’s terrified of failure. Paradoxically, by allowing yourself to meet the potential for failure, you increase your chances of success. Japanese samurai code of Bushido explains:
"through a constant consciousness of death, it is possible to achieve a state of freedom that transcends life and death, whereby “it is possible to perfectly fulfill one’s calling as a warrior.”
Likewise, as founders we are more likely to fundraise if we accept that we might fail to raise because we won’t be afraid to fail and therefore we’ll approach the task without fear.”
Reflecting on this, the founder recognised that yes, a successful raise is not guaranteed, but if she fails, she’ll be ok. The company will survive and even if it doesn’t, the worst case is that she’ll get a far better paid job, spending more time with the family. Looking the fear in the eye, feeling it in the body and seeing it for what it is allowed her to show up with a different energy in her conversations with investors: quietly confident, not feeling flustered anymore as she was when she was trying to hide her fears behind bravado. In our next coaching session she casually mentioned that all her existing investors committed to follow on their investment and now she’s talking to new ones with confidence.
We all have inner work to do
Half of my work as a coach is helping founders meet their fears or other deep emotions. As I wrote in my last week’s essay,
every dysfunction in the business can be traced to some unfinished psychological work at the top.
It shows up again and again. A client says that his organisation is dysfunctional, but his fear of being pushed out of the business is exactly what’s preventing him from taking bold action that is needed to fix the dysfunction.
Another client dies a little inside every time an email from an investor appears in the inbox. It feels easier to please the investor than to meet the fear of the startup going out of business. Ironically, trying to please the investor is exactly what is likely to lead to failure.
Another client — hell, several clients — hires a new CEO to replace them, but they hire an incapable lame duck CEO, which allows them to avoid facing their fear of leaving the business while pretending they’re leaving, because now they “have to” stay and “help” the new “CEO”. There are no winners in this scenario.
However, telling someone (or ourselves) to “face our fears” is rarely enough. If it were this easy, we wouldn’t have elaborate strategies to avoid our fears. I say “we”, because we all have them. We all have fears and we all have ways we try to run away from them: you, me and everyone else.
“Namaste my ass”
One tried and tested way of meeting our fears is by allowing them to be as they are and feeling them in the body. We allow them to be as they are by meeting them with love, compassion and acceptance in the light of our awareness. Instead of just thinking about them, we allow them to be felt in the body, including those burning, nauseating, cold sweat inducing feelings we so don’t like.
In his book Reboot, Leadership and the Art of Growing Up, executive coach Jerry Colonna writes about this sort of radical self-inquiry:
I laugh loudly when folks suggest that this is some sort of yoga-inspired soft-bellied call to leadership. “Namaste my ass,” I say with my Brooklyn-born chip firmly, squarely, and proudly on my shoulder. “Try entering the cave, walking to the dark recesses, and retrieving the treasure wa-a-a-y in the back. Then come tell me about being soft.”
So, how do we go about it? One way to do it is to explore different parts of our psyche and the feelings they hold. Parts are nothing mysterious. We all know the experience of feeling that a part us wants to order a salad because it has a commitment to a healthy lifestyle, but another part of us wants to order a pizza as a reward for getting through a complex day. And a yet another part is trying to moderate the conversation between the first two. We have all witnessed these conversations in our heads.
We often identify with one of these parts, which we experience as “I”. When we say “I want to have a pizza, but I also want to stick to healthy choices, and I’m not sure what to do”, we are referring to three different parts of us as “I”. At this moment we may notice that we can be aware of this internal dynamic. We know it’s happening and there’s nothing else, just an awareness of it.
This is a place of presence, which some people may call true self, soul, consciousness or in many other ways. What’s important to us here is that you have the capacity to just let things be, being aware of them without any agenda whatsoever to change them, just like a mirror isn’t trying to change what’s being reflected in it.
So the first step is identifying these different parts and noticing how they show up. Often, it’s a series of thoughts, but it can also have a somatic signature (e.g. tightness in the chess) or mental images or internal voices.
Getting to know our parts and feelings
Once we notice what parts are present, we can enter in a dialogue with them from a place of presence, allowing these parts to be exactly as they are. We can ask them how they are and we can notice, from a place of presence, how they respond instead of thinking about it.
Maybe that tight feeling in the chest becomes a bit less tight, or maybe another part tries to take centre stage. It doesn’t matter what exactly happens as long as we lean into the process with love and curiosity.
The paradox here is that if we come to the parts with any change agenda, they will only become more entrenched, but if we come with genuine love, acceptance and curiosity, they tend to relax and reintegrate in a healthier, less neurotic way.
Many of our parts are protector parts. They have a strategy to save us from something they are afraid of. In this essay, I wrote about how for me building a startup was a strategy to avoid feeling rejected as a child.
I was running away from feeling rejected and deficient as a small child, quietly hoping, in the depths of my unconscious mind, that if I only build a successful business I won’t ever have to feel that way again. I will be able to finally relax and feel like I’m ok. That I’m loved, accepted and respected for who I am.
These strategies to protect us can be quite elaborate. And the reason our protector parts come up with them is that they believe that we can’t handle the pain of meeting our fears. Yet avoiding feeling our feelings is like walking around for years with toothache in order to avoid visiting the dentist. Sure, visiting a dentist is not fun, but it’s way better than living with toothache every day.
We also have hurt parts that remember the pain from the past. Whenever we are hurt in a big way, a part of our psyche captures it as a hurt part that carries this pain inside, not only in our memories, but also in our body. Ever noticed how some people walk around as if they are trying to occupy less space and be less noticeable? Even when it’s safe, there’s a part of them that remembers how they’ve been hurt in the past and it manifests in how they show up in every moment of their lives.
The point is never to remove or change the parts. The point is to get to know them and to let them get to know each other. The rest will unfold naturally, effortlessly and beautifully.
Working from a place of presence
The way to work with these hurt parts is by letting them be seen and getting to know them from a place of presence. When our hurt parts feel seen, loved and understood, when the old pain is consciously experienced from a place of safety and presence, two things happen. The hurt parts start to hurt less and the protector parts see that maybe there’s less need to protect. The parts melt and the psyche reorganises itself into a less tense, less neurotic, less suffering, more relaxed, more confident, more quietly powerful configuration. Aggression might morph into determination. Avoidance might transform into self-care. Arrogance might become confidence.
Again, the key here is to approach it without an agenda. If we try to “melt the parts”, we’ll achieve the opposite effect. We must enter the process with genuine love, curiosity and openness to whatever arises. And that’s where it gets difficult, and why Jerry says “namaste my ass” whenever anyone suggests it’s some touchy-feely woo-woo stuff. It is hard.
One client told me once that tears seem to come up in every other coaching conversation with me. “Wonderful,” — I replied — “it means that we’re releasing deeply held emotional stuff bit by bit, step by step, in a healthy way instead of running away from it or acting it out”.
I know from lots of personal experience that this work pays off and leads to freedom, manifesting as a quietly confident feeling “I choose to do this” instead of “I have to do this, otherwise I won’t handle it”. It manifests in not being triggered as much as I used to be, responding with a smile to what I used to respond to with anger or fear.
Inner work is always a conscious choice
This work can’t be imposed on anyone. Sometimes in a coaching conversation I realise that the client struggles to recognise they can show up from a place of presence, just letting different parts of themselves be as they are, just allow different sensations come up and be there, just hang out in that space of not knowing where it’s going and not having any need to go anywhere and do anything. A part of their mind kicks in that has a need to make progress or do something “useful”. It’s ok. There are plenty of other coaching approaches that can be helpful instead.
I once made a mistake of pushing it a bit too far. A client came to me with a very rational, objective choice he was struggling to make, and in the first conversation it became clear it goes deep into his childhood. We brought deeply repressed feelings to the surface. There was a lot. In the next session we went even deeper. A part of me (see what I’m trying to do here?) was excited about how brave he was to go so deep with so much courage.
Then, after two sessions he disappeared with some excuse. On reflection, it was my big mistake as a coach. Instead of letting things be as they are, allowing them to unfold in their own way, I didn’t notice how I entered the process with an agenda of helping this client to work through his unprocessed feelings to understand why his present situation feels so difficult to him. A part of him felt that there was some agenda present and it fought back with vengeance, stopping the process altogether, leaving with an open emotional wound.
We already have inside what we’re looking for outside
The big irony of the human predicament is that things that we are looking for — deep peace, sense of being alive, quiet strength, safety, confidence, joy, passion, strong will, compassion, clarity etc — we all already have it inside ourselves. Discovering the authentic expression of all these qualities will give us a far better experience than the counterfeit analogues that our parts are trying to create for us: “safety because we have money”, “feeling alive because our lives are full of adventures”, “peace because we eliminated every source of discomfort”, “respect because we have more followers on social”.
The real qualities are unconditional and we can access them when we work through layers of feelings and strategies to avoid those feelings. Then we enter a fundraising conversation with investors with quiet, unshakable confidence that we’re offering an incredible opportunity to invest.
Then we hire people who take our company to the next level with gratitude and not the fear that it will make us look bad.
Then we meet the next crisis from a place of clarity and strength, trusting our ability to handle everything that happens.
And that’s what takes our game as founders — and humans — to the next level altogether.
CEOs in transition Peer Group (waiting list)
Last week we had our first meeting of a peer group of CEOs in transition. It was beautiful. Everyone showed up with vulnerability, openness and curiosity, keen to understand others and themselves and find the right step forward in their CEO transition.
The group is now full, but if you would like to be on the waiting list, email me on email@example.com and I’ll let you know when a spot becomes available.
As a reminder, this group is for you if you are a startup CEO trying to decide if you should step down as a CEO and if so, how to best do it.
Get the substack app
You’re probably reading this in your inbox, but the Substack app offers a beautiful reading experience. Furthermore, unlike email it offers additional content from me, such as Notes, and down the road this is where I’ll start adding audio clips (I’ve lots of plans for this Substack!).