Shifting into conscious choice

A new client who is considering starting a consulting business wrote this to me this week:

A former colleague reached out yesterday to ask me to help facilitate a staff retreat.

But as soon as they asked, I went into Freeze mode, like a freaked-out mess…

I immediately spiraled into self-doubt. I’m afraid that I’ll be miserable if I say yes or say no, that I’ll do a terrible job or be bad at it and burn bridges, that I’ll overcommit or under-commit, that I’ll miss an opportunity or never find ‘success,’ that I’ll ruin my summer.

It feels too high stakes to make a decision and live with it. What to do

Can you relate?

If you ever go into freeze mode when facing important decisions, I want to share with you what I shared with my client.

Here are six micro-practices for shifting out of freeze mode and into conscious choice.

One: As soon as you catch yourself in freeze mode, acknowledge that this is a win.

The first step to shifting out of freeze mode and becoming able to consciously choose your response is noticing that you’re in freeze mode in the first place.

The more we practice noticing and pausing—and acknowledging ourselves for doing so, the more we cultivate the neurological ability to shift out of freeze mode and choose a more helpful response earlier.

Two: Offer yourself soothing touch.

It can be nearly impossible to talk ourselves out of freeze mode.

The human body usually responds far more readily to touch, movement, and physical warmth than to trying to change our thoughts.

Here are some micro-practices that might soothe your nervous system:

  • Tapping the area above your knees, below your collarbone, or on the outside edge of your hand with your fingertips
  • Standing up, swinging your arms in a twisting motion, and tapping your back with your hands
  • Placing the palm of one hand gently on your opposite cheek and your other hand on your opposite shoulder.

(You can find free videos of me guiding these and other practices in the Somatic Practices for Social Change online porta on my website.)

Three: Do your best to shift into a warmly-curious witness perspective.

I invite you to imagine that you’re in a relationship with yourself. There’s one part that’s in freeze mode, and there’s another that offers attention and gentle curiosity to the part that’s in freeze mode.

You can either imagine that you’re tIhe frozen part, receiving warmth and attention from the witnessing part, or that you’re the witnessing part, offering warmth and attention to the frozen part. I invite you to experiment with both and notice which feels helpful.

Four: Guess your sensations and emotions, and notice how your body responds.

Although most people don’t believe that naming their emotions helps them feel better, fMRI research shows that when most of us find a word that matches our feelings, our amygdalas—the fear center of our brains—become less active, and our nervous systems settle. When we let our bodies know that we’re listening and give words to our feelings, it’s as though our bodies feel heard and can relax.

Rather than interpreting or judging your feelings (for example, my body is a freaked-out mess), look for a couple of specific sensation and emotion words to describe what you feel.

I invite you to look at my sensations and emotions lists for support. Then, make warm and curious guesses—asking, “Body, is this how you feel?”—looking for a sense of relaxation and a “Yup! That’s it!”

Five: Pick a few needs from the needs list.

As my client shared, figuring out how you want to respond when you’re in freeze mode can be very hard. So, before you attempt to figure that out, I encourage you to get curious about what the frozen part needs and look to my Needs Inventory for support.

Aim to pick at least three needs that resonate, and notice how your body responds. The frozen part may feel soothed by just naming your needs.

Six: Choose one teeny-tiny action, even the teeniest-tiniest, that might meet your needs.

The opposite of frozen is in motion. One of the keys to preventing and healing trauma (and a freeze state is a trauma response) is taking action, often teensy-tiny action.

So, rather than trying to answer the big questions—like what the perfect response to your friend may be or what work you want to do for the rest of your life—ask yourself this: What is one teensy tiny, itsy bitsy step I might take to meet my needs, right now?

And, if a part of you is eager to figure out your response to a request like the one my client received, you might ask yourself: What is one teensy tiny, itsy bitsy step I might take to figure out how I might respond?

It can be far easier to approach any decision as a series of tiny choices rather than forcing yourself to decide all at once.

I’m aware that for some people, reading about these micro-practices might trigger a response like, “But these aren’t going to help me find answers! I just want to make up my mind already! How do I do that?!” These practices might seem too simple, mundane, or indirect.

If so, I invite you to try them out each day for a week or more and investigate what happens.

The point of these practices is not to give you the final answers. The point is to help you unfreeze your nervous system and decision-making powers so that you have your full wisdom available to you and are more likely to respond in ways that serve you.


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