It’s a beautiful spring day, and the second day of the Grace Under Pressure: Leadership Embodiment workshop with Wendy Palmer. Wendy is a petite powerhouse of a woman with a bright smile, who is dedicated to empowering people in the workplace by engaging the mind-body connection. I am curious about how I can learn to have more of an impact in a new work environment where I am still trying to prove myself.
The sun shines in through the row of floor-to-ceiling windows of the Eileen Fisher Learning Lab, a beautiful loft-like space in Irvington, New York. We’re engaged in one of Wendy’s seemingly simple exercises. Along with everyone else, my assigned partner and I are slowly walking around the room, practicing leading and following.
I lead first, my right arm held out about waist height, elbow bent, palm face down. The palm of my partner’s left hand is underneath mine, face up. We walk side-by-side, the leader sometimes speeding up, sometimes slowing down, and sometimes pulling their hand away altogether. It’s comfortable for me; my body knows what to do to keep my follower with me. Then my partner leads. I’m already not as comfortable, but I am willing. We take about 10 steps, she pulls her hand away, and to my complete surprise, I burst out crying. I immediately understand that while I consciously believe that I can stay the course when a leader acts inconsistently, my body has revealed a deeper truth.
Over the course of the two days in Wendy’s workshop, there are a lot of surprises. We all experience them at different times in different ways. Each exercise is unique and creative, designed to trigger our body’s habitual response. One of the things I find fascinating about Wendy’s carefully designed exercises is that the body responds the way it does despite the fact that we actually know what is going to happen.
Throughout the weekend, Wendy guides us in both revealing our underlying patterns and also embodying new ones — so that we can intentionally build our “muscles” of confidence, focus, connection, openness. In my case, I work a lot with Wendy’s centering practices — over the weekend and after it — so that I am less thrown by whatever those in leadership do or don’t do.
I leave the experience feeling freed up — instead of thinking I need years of therapy to figure out why I don’t trust someone else’s lead and get confused when invited to state a clear intention I’ll follow through with over the next 6 months, I begin to use Wendy’s practices to deepen the grooves of confidence and empowerment.
Here are the 3 most important lessons I learned from Wendy:
1. The body always wins.
This is Wendy’s key message. What she means is that no matter how many good intentions and clear goals and impassioned visions we may have, our bodies will either get behind them — or sabotage them. Our nervous systems are wired in certain ways, whether we know it or not. Mine is wired not to trust that leadership will be consistent. It is also wired to get confused when asked to set an intention — there are so many things I want to focus on. Which one is most important? What if I choose the wrong one?
2. It’s all about practice.
In order to change how we show up in moments of stress or challenge or opportunity, we need to rewire our nervous system. How? Wendy teaches a variety of go-to practices that she encourages us to use consistently throughout the day to re-pattern our nervous system — whether it’s getting re-centered when stress pushes us off balance, creating a confident stance before facing a fear-inducing conversation, or staying present and open to an opposing point of view. Through repetition, she explains, we can gradually train ourselves to respond in new, more empowering ways — or more easily recover when we don’t.
3. We don’t need to do it alone.
In fact, thinking that all we have to rely on is our individual selves is precisely what gets in the way. Wendy’s point is that we’re connected to a larger field of energy that we can draw on for support at all times. She makes a distinction between our personalities and our center and shows us how we continually move between one and the other. When we’re operating from our personalities, we are more limited, mostly reacting in habitual, less empowered ways — more likely to be perceived as too forceful or too indecisive, for example. When we engage from our center, which is by definition connected to an infinite source of power, inspiration, and ease, we can draw on more conscious options and expand our possibilities.
Oh, and the intention that I eventually set? To write an engaging piece about the weekend with Wendy Palmer for LifeNotes.
Grace Welker is a writer, editor, and publisher who lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.