Stepping outside of the now

Like most headteachers, I suspect, anxiety is a feature of my daily existence. I don’t like to say I ‘suffer’ from it, because I don’t see myself as subject to it. I prefer to acknowledge my anxiety and believe that I can act upon it, not it upon me.

This is already sounding more ‘new age’ than I intended… bear with me.

This week in particular (for reasons which I will not go into), I have been aware of the background noise of anxiety. For me, this usually means that my mind projects forward and runs through future scenarios which I mentally rehearse for. I know this to be unhealthy and work hard at shutting this down. However, such was the nature of my working week, I also did that other classic anxiety thing whereby you replay past events again and again, trying to work out how you could have handled something better. Both these mental short circuits took place at about 5am each morning.

I have tried various things over the years to break the habits of mind that draw me towards an anxiety state. Whether this is strictly correct or not, I think of anxiety as a ‘fight or flight’ response which occurs when one is not needed – a misfiring of brain circuitry. I choose to believe that I can hack into the behavioural loops and break the circuit. I have a healthy skepticism of mindfulness, but I have found some mindful practices to be effective. They involve a concerted effort to be in the present, not rewinding to the past or projecting forward. For me, climbing a mountain is a guaranteed health-hack. However, when no mountains are near, bringing one’s attention to the here and now is the next best thing. Writing usually works, as does a brisk walk, or some controlled breathing.

However, whilst being in the here and now is emotionally rewarding, learning to live with a very stressful job also means stepping outside of one’s present situation. This is sometimes referred to as ‘keeping things in perspective’. In the midst of a very intense situation, this is really difficult to do. There is a sort of psychological reversal which can take place when the mind is under attack whereby we lose perspective and behave in ways we wouldn’t normally behave. Neil Gilbride explains this kind of retrenchment in relation to the ego and reflects on how we can look back on our behaviour during a stressful situation and wonder why we acted so out of character.

How can we protect against these psychological bear-traps?

I think there are two factors which help us get better at ‘keeping things in perspective’. Both relate to expertise and knowledge.

The first factor is experience. Being a headteacher means that you experience some extreme, complex, intense stuff – let’s call these ‘wicked’ experiences. Early on, you are in no way prepared for this stuff. The first time you come across a particular wicked experience you are utterly out of your depth. You wonder if this is normal; whether other headteachers are having to deal with this kind of thing. You question whether it was made clear to you when you took on the job that it would involve things like this! Unless you are narcissistic, you suffer self doubt and imposter syndrome. But as time goes on, you realise that wicked things happen: you are not cursed, particularly unlucky, or suffering for sins in your past life. It won’t ever be easy, but the sense of panic at the unexpected diminishes over time.

The second factor which helps one keep a sense of perspective is historical knowledge. I would advocate two domains of knowledge in particular. The first is knowledge of the education system. If you take the time to study the history of our education system you come to realise that the way we see things now will change. What seems important now – or what feels like a great idea – will appear different from a future vantage point. We are trapped in the present, unable to remove ourselves from our time and place, but we do have the intellectual capacity to acknowledge this fallibility and recognise that this moment will pass. Knowledge of our own school’s past is also powerful. All schools have a history. If your school could talk, it would tell you shocking tales, recount heroic struggles, and recall tragic events. It would speak of past headteachers: some good, some not so good. Your school has seen this all before. If it were able, it would laugh at your narrow perspective; your parochial concerns.

Stepping outside of the now is, in my view, as much a helpful habit of mind as the ability to focus on the present. Whilst the latter quietens the incessant chatter of the mind, the former allows the wise voice of reason to speak. The latter requires deliberate practice, whilst the former requires the deliberate acquisition of knowledge. Both emotion and intellect have a role to play in centring us, and we can work on both.

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