I woke up this morning feeling like my jaws had been cemented shut. It hurt to yawn. I realized that I must have been clenching my teeth again while I slept, an unconscious coping-mechanism in my body’s attempt to manage all the rapid change we’re facing. As I sit massaging my cheek, at the painful joint where my teeth meet, I’m glad I took inventory. I’ve seen the price people pay for tension unattended and it’s not pretty. I work on my jaw with a surgeon’s focus, kneading the knots away, and five minutes later I’m free.
It’s one of the gifts I received in my theatre training – something I use daily, and something I teach – and while it’s often minimized or dismissed in the professional world of work, I’ve found it to be at the very foundation of influence and presence. It’s simply this: Where do you carry your tension? How does it manifest itself? Take inventory and remove it, or it will own you.
Tension blocks authentic expression. You cannot be your best or perform your best if you’re carrying tension. Since we’re human beings and life is stressful we all get it, but most of have no awareness of it so we carry it around like Sherpa on our journey. Heavy. Our senses and ability to express ourselves authentically, muted or distorted by the weight. We don’t realize the impact it’s having and we’re too busy with more pressing matters to even give it a thought, so we just push on through. And it builds. And builds. And blocks us up like a dam.
Every time I think of this, I think of Christine*. Christine’s boss had attended OnStage and he practically ran me over on the first break after we had talked about how to manage our tension. “She’s brilliant and I can see that she’s got great leadership potential but…” he said, shaking his head “…she’s so…intense.” He went on to explain how the other people on the team thought she was angry, and that the other departments were scared of her because they thought she was mean. “I’ve taken the time to get to know her, so I know she’s a nice person – it’s just stress. But…”
And when Christine showed up in my session I could see what he was talking about. As the program got underway, she sat rigid in her seat, a sharp frown sewn between her brows, her jaws tense. It looked like she was ready to hurt someone. Or flee. I couldn’t tell which…
The Christine I met during that first break was a very different person. “Oh my gosh Kimberly, I…I..had no idea,” she said reflectively, looking down at the ground, almost sorrowful. “I think that, for the past 15 years, every morning when I’d get in the car to go to work I’d clench my jaws just thinking about all that had to be done, and that I’d stay that way until I went to sleep at night….No wonder…”
A couple of months later her boss called me. “What did you do to her? She’s like a totally different person!” He went on to explain that she had apparently started doing yoga every morning and that he could really see her becoming a leader with the team. “People are turning to her now for advice and listening to her differently. They’re not scared of her anymore!”
Here’s the thing: We all carry tension. Some of us carry tension it in our jaws, some of us in our necks, some of us in our shoulders, or our hands, or feet (and some of us take the collector’s approach – why have one when you can have it all!). We all do tension differently. The key is to be able to identify where it shows up for you personally so you can do something about it. Because if you’re not, it owns you. And you haul it with you to every conversation, to every meeting, and to every presentation. It effects the way you carry yourself, the way you react, and the way you feel…about yourself. And the people around you don’t know what’s going on – they’re making meaning of how you’re showing up – deciding about you. “He’s mean,” they’ll think. Or, “she’s got a bad attitude.” Or, “he doesn’t care.” Or worse, they’ll just give up trying to figure it out and you’ll fall off the radar all together. Then how influential can you be?
Know yourself. Know how your body does stress. Every day take inventory from the ground up. Name it, so you can do something about it. Be aware of it and manage it throughout the day – it doesn’t take a lot of time, just a few seconds – what it takes is mindfulness and action. So you can show-up in the world as your best you.
Because how you show-up counts. Scan yourself.
*Names have been changed to protect the formerly tense.