Real Leaders

How pain releases our inner leader for good


While doing a course on dolphin therapy this summer I learned that caretakers must be very vigilant of health risks and carry out rigorous daily testing. These animals don’t show any change in their behavior until they’re irreversibly sick – in the wild it would make them easy prey to predators. Do our executives do the same?

It’s safe to say that showing weakness in high power circles is dangerous for any leader. Some companies are famous for back-stabbing practices. Many a country’s government used to change in history if the rightful heirs were killed or Roman generals were openly knifed in plain daylight. We’ve become less tangible and more sophisticated about such things in recent centuries, though power moguls must still watch their backs. Visible vulnerability is just as dangerous for todays leaders as it might be for dolphins in the wild.

Sadly, it’s not only powerful CEOs and heavily botoxed country leaders who must remain as fit (and sexually obsessed) as Supermen. They’re only the very visible tip of an iceberg that permeates our entire modern society, for which showing pain or admitting flaws has become a really big “No,no!” We’re addicted to happy meals, happy songs and equally happy faces, even if it takes stashes of prescription drugs to keep up the performance. Dolphins aren’t the only ones that fake fitness.

Pain is not tolerated as a conversation topic, especially not emotional pain. It must be hidden, lied about, or kept under the rug. Our world-saving banter takes place on many layers, with the surface showing off our own success, unending drive and perfection. Meanwhile lower, more subtle levels of exchange betray exhaustion in dark rings under our eyes, lack of shine in our gazes, flat voices, shallow or forced breathing, sagging tummies and bulging curves. We’re actually much worse at acting fit than dolphins.

Our woes submerge into the deep dark unconscious pools of our minds, our muscles, bones and tissues. It’s what some call cellular memory. I used to find this expression ludicrous a few years ago. It sounded like some whacko cult leader’s made-up, and heavily copyrighted, term. What type of memory could a tiny cell contain anyway. DNA?

Well, there is some truth to it, though tissue or muscle memory are more satisfying terms to my mind. Our body tissues do store some type of memory, traces of which science may spend a long time chasing. Such recollections aren’t sitting around waiting for a microscope to take a selfie. They only show up in motion, and they may lay dormant in the shadows of what we call the unconscious. While many strive to step on the moon or find life on Mars, I’ve found myself exploring the depths of this uncanny black mystery we each have inside us.

Hidden pain is best understood in extreme situations: when people go through traumatic life or death experiences which they totally forget about. Their conscious memory mechanisms stop recording, though sensorial information is still taken in and kept somewhere in our unconscious mind. While the term ‘mind’ inevitably brings the picture of a head to our imaginations, most of our unconscious nervous system is actually under our necks, contained in the sophisticated network of nerve cells running through our entire bodies. Randomly organized visions, scents, sounds, frozen responses and sensations wait silently in that huge, not clearly localized darkness until something brings them back up to the surface of consciousness. I say not localized because, honestly, every single neuroscientific study I’ve seen shows lots of lights and colors in the wrong places: The whole thing works so synchronously that it’s never this part or that side. It’s always a whole network of overlapping dialogues between fuzzy, shiny neurons all over the MRI scan!

Trauma experts like Peter Levine or David Berceli describe multiple cases of individuals healing from past trauma, ranging from war veterans to people in car accidents or survivors of violent attacks and child abuse. What is most impacting in these cases is how certain movements bring back memories. The same muscles and tissues which would have been activated to respond, if the individual had not gone into freeze response, retain that impulse to wait for a safer situation. As the person expresses the frozen pain, anger or fear in a safe space held by an experienced therapist, memories come back, reconnect and rebuild the story of what happened so long ago. Better yet, chronic patterns of muscle tension dissipate, physical pains slowly dissolve, and repetitive behaviors also improve.

We executives like to think our childhoods were exempt of traumatic events, but we’ve actually forgotten all the things that went wrong. Forgotten as in amnesia, typical of events the brain considers deathly. Lots of non-ideal things happened during our first seven years of age, even during gestation in our mother’s wombs. Slowly developing cognitive functions could not yet interpret subtle layers of information, triggering frequent life or death freeze responses all the way to our seventh birthday (more or less).

In a society based on discipline, logic and economic incentive, the baby-body’s critical need for physical closeness to its mother’s body is totally underestimated and criticized as savage, infantile, primitive and weak. Radically opposing and reinventing parenting practices which all other mammal animals and all our less civilized ancestors have always followed, we submit our babies to unprecedented levels of unintended cruelty. Thus the many levels of very intense and carefully hidden pain executives carry today in the apparently unending blackness of our unconscious.

Our human body is one fascinating machine of wisdom and we are probably the most ignorant generation yet to interpret it. So exclusively scientific in our ways, we’ve discarded and rejected ancient forms of indigenous wisdom that understood the impact of trauma, instinct and emotion way better than we do. Many a ritual in aboriginal tribes was destined to recreate and release old frozen emotions and impulses. But hey, we’re a lot smarter, right?

Pain is the best professor. Admitting pain is painful. Facing it is hard. Letting ourselves feel it in order to release it makes us feel like ridiculous, forty-year-old fragile babies. But once it’s out, we remember everything. We realize everything our parents were going through when we were young and how well we saw it on their faces even if we couldn’t actually explain it.

More importantly, we stop hiding from ourselves and our deeper truths in superficial conversations about nothing interesting or real. We unleash that infinite life force that unites us to the rest of the animal kingdom, to our ancestors, to our heirs, to the planet we’re unintentionally and cruelly hurting. Overcoming our pain makes us infinitely deeper leaders. And when we’ve conquered that big black hole inside ourselves, we stop fearing predators. That’s the freedom of the wild for you right there!

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