S2:E1 – Becoming More Resilient


In this episode, Bridgette and Irvine explore how to become more resilient in your life and become better able to manage the anxiety in the relationship systems in your life.



Don’t forget to check out Irvine’s You Tube channel with new videos every Wednesday on emotional intelligence, resilience, and leadership.

Check out Irvine’s new book Leadership Lessons From The Pub.

Check out Bridgette’s book which she co-authored with Bod Duggan  Resilient Leadership 2.0.

And as always, don’t forget about all the mind-blowing free resources some of which are mentioned in each episode. 


Bridgette: Hello, everybody, and welcome to the Resilient Leadership Podcast, where everything we talk about is aimed at helping you to lead with a greater sense of calm, a greater sense of clarity, and a greater sense of conviction. And my name is Bridgette Theurer, and as always, I’m fortunate to have my collaborator, Irvine Nugent with me. Hey, Irvine, how are you feeling today?

Irvine: I’m feeling wonderful, actually. I am feeling energetic and this new year has been interesting so far and I feel there are lots of potentials coming up, and so I’m excited and I’m really excited about this episode because, drum roll, today is, actually, our first anniversary. And we started this podcast a year ago, and our goal was to provide insights and practical tools that would help our listeners show up as the best version of themselves in all of their relationship systems. And, hopefully, and I know we have lots of feedback from people who are finding this podcast extremely helpful. And I know we were just talking before this recording, thinking, oh my God, it’s been a year. It just does not feel like it’s been a year and it has flown by so quickly.

Bridgette: Oh my gosh. It has rolled by with such speed. When we were talking before we hit the record button, I was saying it feels like we’ve only been doing this for six months, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: It’s crazy.

Irvine: Totally. Absolutely. Well, it is 2023. And if there’s one thing or a few things that can be certain, Bridgette, it is this, that the pace of change is not slowing down and we are still very much facing complex decisions in every area of our lives. And more than ever, I think people are reporting higher levels of anxiety. And I know many of us have made commitments for the new year, but, maybe, a commitment that we could, potentially, make would be committing ourselves to developing greater resilience. And resilience is often thought about, the traditional one is, when I get knocked down, I show fortitude and grit and I get myself back up.

And we have always attempted to look at resilience from a different perspective, from a systems perspective. And what we meant by that is simply that how can I be more resilient in the context of all of these different relationship systems in my life, our families, our teams, our organizations, social groups, and our communities.

Bridgette: Yeah. Irvine, to our listeners, particularly those who are joining us, maybe; just in the last few episodes, if you missed our very first episode a year ago, it was called a Unique Take on Resilience. Well, you’re in luck because today we’re really going to, kind of, connect back to some of those core tenets, right? Of resilient leadership. And the very first basic principle is this understanding that all relationship systems that we’re part of, right? Whether it be family, teams, organizations, communities, societies, have predictable ways of behaving when they’re under stress and duress. Isn’t that fascinating?

Irvine: Yes.

Bridgette: And Murray Bowen was the initial researcher that made that discovery, particularly about families. And, as leaders, when we understand what these predictable behaviors are that get exhibited in our systems and in us, it’s so powerful. Because we can begin to look at them and see them for what they are, which are symptoms of rising anxiety. And then that, kind of, opens up a whole new door for us, doesn’t it?

Irvine: Yeah. So, I love that. So, that’s really a map of today’s episode and what we’re hoping to do. So, let’s begin by looking at a little bit of what do we mean by anxiety? Let’s look at some of those predictable behaviors, because when we realize when we’re looking below the surface, we can absolutely see some of those behaviors are absolutely predictable, and when we become aware of them, we see them all over the place. And then most importantly, is the question in the face of those behaviors, maybe coming from ourselves or from others.

What’s the best approach to take? How should I show up so that I can make the greatest difference possible in whatever system I’m dealing with? So, Bridgette, let’s start then by once again defining what we mean by anxiety and how that might show up.

Bridgette: So, anxiety is simply this, it’s the state of unease that we experience in the face of imagined or real threats. It’s an evolutionary force of nature that is all about survival. Think about it, there are real threats in the world. If we didn’t have anxiety in us, or if organizations didn’t have some of this anxiety circulating, they’d go out of business.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Recognizing real threats and staying ahead of them is really what anxiety allows us to do. So, we need it. And yet, what often happens is that we get into a state of anxiousness that can be about perceived, imagined, or anticipated threats that haven’t even materialized yet. And think about the last three years, oh my gosh. We have been threatened and our amygdala has been triggered time and time again, and so for a long and sustained period of time, I think we’ve been living in a low-grade stress response. And, boy, does that have significant consequences for us as human beings and as leaders.

And so, that’s what anxiety is, and managing anxiety we often say is a leader’s first job. Because anything a leader says or does from an anxious place without realizing they’re anxious is what really sets other people off. So, Irvine, I want to bring this home to you. As a leader, I recall you saying and sharing in previous episodes that you experienced pressure and stress and you had anxiety. So, tell us a little bit about what were the sources of that anxiety for you when you were leading an organization?

Irvine: Yeah, it’s so interesting, I think. What’s interesting, as I’m reflecting upon this, is the own sources and then through coaching as well, understanding that I was not unique in some of those stress and strains and anxieties and the way I dealt with them. But patterns that always showed up, I think a pattern, for me, a very powerful pattern was this need, almost; to take responsibility for the outcome of something that was happening, even though I was only one person that was part of that outcome. And yet, I kept putting pressure on myself to succeed and feeling that the success of this initiative, really was on my back and on no one else’s. And, of course, that’s all self-inflicted.

Another one was a difficulty in making really tough decisions. And some of those decisions were tough because, and I’m sure many organizations are facing this at the moment, was letting go of some people. We are in the face of that now, especially in the IT industry, we’re hearing a lot of layoffs happening. And, at times, people have to give that news. And that’s really, really tough. How do we react to that, making those tough decisions? Because at the heart of it, we all want to be liked, we all want to be successful. And those decisions can be really difficult. And then the other thing, and we’ve mentioned this a few times, is, as leaders, there seems to be this cultural phenomenon that we need to know everything.

Bridgette: Yeah.

Irvine: And we need to have all of the answers. And so, this ability to really say, you know what, I don’t know. And to be okay in that answer and to be okay with the uncertainty. So, those are some examples that come up for me. And what I’ve learned is that I’m not unique in that and that impacts so, so many other leaders as well.

Bridgette: Yeah, so true. If you had to pick, Irvine, one of those three sources of pressure and anxiety that, maybe, was the biggest one for you, they all impacted you, but does one, sort of, come to the top as the most anxiety producing of all?

Irvine: I think, for me, it would be that second one that I mentioned, those tough decisions. And to knowing that within me there is this pressure of wanting to be liked and knowing that sometimes those decisions, well, for the good of the wider system, may impact others. And it may mean that others will look at me, maybe not in such a glowing light. And I know that’s something I’ve struggled with both today and also in my whole history of leadership.

Bridgette: Yes. Yeah. And, as I’m listening to you, it’s clear that the sources of leadership anxiety for you were a combination of internal self-imposed pressures and external pressures, right?.

Irvine: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. And I think that’s a really great insight; because there is a play, there is external factors that we have to deal with. There is a reality that we live in a world of constant pressure, of change, of complexity, of ups and downs of business cycles. And we also face that internally as well and how we cope with this internal. So, all of that, there’s this wonderful mixture going on within each of us that’s really important.

Bridgette: And so, to those listening, it might be interesting to just, kind of, pause for a moment and reflect on, you heard Irvine talking about his sources of leadership anxiety, but what are yours, and which ones are coming from the outside and which ones are coming from the inside? Because they can feel like they all come from outside of ourselves.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Some of them are self-imposed, but whatever the case, we have to manage them. Yeah. So, Irvine, you said in the beginning that anxiety drives these predictable behaviors in individuals and in relationship systems, right? And I mentioned it’s one of the core tenants, is understanding that all teams and families and organizations have these predictable patterns that surface under stress. So, why don’t we take a little bit of time to revisit what some of those predictable patterns are that once you know them, boy, do you see him everywhere?

Irvine: Absolutely. So, let’s really focus on three. So, I just want to invite you that, perhaps you’re part of a team or in your family, at the moment, and perhaps you’re going through whatever it is that makes you feel a little bit threatened or stress due to some disruptive change or some uncertainty that’s on the horizon. Perhaps there are lots of threats, and perhaps no real answers are coming to the surface. So, what are some of the behaviors that we could see? Because these will induce predictable behaviors.

So, let’s just focus on three. The first is this tendency, and I’ve, kind of, alluded to it at the beginning, of one person taking sole responsibility for the outcome or the welfare of the others in the system, be it the family or the team. And this behavior we call over-functioning. And then the second behavior, perhaps; is that in order to feel a little bit better, to be a little more relieved, we want to bring another person into the relationship, because it feels good to have another person that’s on our side. And that’s what we call toxic triangles. And then the third is that, perhaps to notice that this tendency makes us to want to withdraw or to move in and almost enmesh ourselves with other people. And this is this phenomenon of being too distant or too close.

So, let’s just look at that first one that over-functioning, and we’ve already mentioned this before, that this really shows up so often in leaders in today’s workforce. And what we mean by over-functioning is that we think, feel, or act for another person, and in such a way that it erodes our own capacity for ownership, for action, it’s this taking over. Now, just look at that because I’ve mentioned three things there.

One is to think, to feel, and to act. And so often we think of overwork, we’re doing, it’s all the doing, but really, the doing is not so much the problem. It’s, actually, the emotional burden, the cognitive burden we feel because we have this heaviness that we feel we have to think for someone else or we have the emotional responsibility for someone else. And how that can show up, what does that look like?

And just think about it. I invite you to think about some of your actions or invite you to think about your families or the workplace. This is getting stuck with the responsibility for the problems of others or feeling responsible, we’ve talked about that. Worrying too much about something, either something that we think is going to happen or worrying about something else.

Bridgette: Guilty.

Irvine: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Offering advice before it’s asked for; this wanting to move in, this taking over and this inability to, kind of, sit back, but wanting to offer advice. Taking over someone’s job without being asked. And then finally, one of the things that happens then is because this movement in to either a problem or another person, we tend to under-function and take care of ourselves. This is the real problem. And so, that’s that over-functioning.

Now, if you see over-functioning in any relationship or any relationship system, we’re also, if we look carefully, going to see some under-functioning, because both of them come together, it’s like a seesaw when one moves up, the other moves down. And, therefore, to under-function means to allow another to think, feel, or act for you in a way that erodes your capacity for ownership or for action. And how does that show up? Well, that shows up in by, maybe, constantly seeking advice. Being reticent to make decisions and feeling that if I don’t have the advice of others, I can’t move forward. And that shows up in not making decisions. Maybe habitually just letting others have their way or not speaking up or sharing your point of view.

So, these are behaviors, I think when you sit back and you look at the different systems, all of them just rise to the surface. And I think it’s important to sit back and ask ourselves, which behaviors do I see in myself? And to remember that in some systems you might be over-functioning, while in other systems you can be under-functioning. And with certain people you may over-function and with other people you may under-function.

Bridgette: Yeah.

Irvine: And so, part of that is this predictability in seeing these behaviors.

Bridgette: And even once you know exactly what over and under-functioning is, and that anxiety is what drives it, you’ll still catch yourself doing it. And the thing is, can you catch yourself sooner? And can you sometimes stop yourself?

Irvine: Yes. Absolutely. Yeah. And just sometimes just that, at the end of the day, just to reflect and say, now how did I do today?

Bridgette: Yeah.

Irvine: Where did I under-function? Where did I over-function?

Bridgette: Yeah. Because, Irvine, you and I have both admitted that we were, in our past life, chronic over-functioners, and we’ve improved.

Irvine: And if the truth be told, I can easily go into over-functioning.

Bridgette: Indeed. Indeed.

Irvine: So, the second thing we mentioned there, Bridgette, was the reality of toxic triangles. And I know for some people that sounds a very interesting concept. And yet, when we learn it, we see it everywhere.

Bridgette: Yeah. And we did a whole episode on that not too long ago. So, if this peaks your interest and you want to know more, look up that episode on toxic triangles, because we can get stuck in them, and leaders are the most triangle person in any organization. Triangles are just a really simple phenomenon. It’s really a triad that is formed by a person when they’re experiencing stress or tension between themselves and another person, they don’t know what to do with it, you know?

All two-person relationships are, eventually, unstable. Conflict arises, even in the best of partnerships, even in the best of marriages, even on the best teams. And when that happens, sometimes the easiest and quickest and most instinctive thing to do is to bring a third-party in and tell them all about it. And, at some level, beneath our conscious awareness, what we’re really doing there is getting that or trying to get that person on our side, because there’s safety in numbers, right? And they’re not all bad. Not all triangles are toxic.

Let’s say I have an argument with my spouse and I’m very upset about it and it’s unresolved, and that night I go out to dinner with a friend and I bring it up over a glass of wine. If she makes me, kind of, laugh about it and doesn’t take sides, and we move on to other things and I come back feeling lighter, that’s a healthy triangle.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Now, a toxic triangle feels and looks really different. So, suppose you’re working on a team, a new manager comes in, a new sheriff in town, and turns out this guy’s making a lot of mistakes and he’s irritating and annoying people. Maybe he’s doing that classic thing where he comes in and he wants to change everything really fast and tell everybody why their systems aren’t working well. And you and a colleague are so frustrated by this. And so you start to talk about it when you guys get on a zoom call, you’re like, uhh, just send another email. Can you believe he said that?

And over time a pattern gets formed, where you recurrently and regularly spend time complaining about the boss, but doing nothing about it other than feeling better after you vent to each other. And if that becomes a pattern of avoidance of the actual issue and it becomes the only thing you have in common with this other person, that’s what we refer to as a toxic triangle, because all toxic triangles escalate anxiety and keep people stuck in the same relationship patterns. Nothing changes.

So, we just invite listeners to look out for those, right? And look out for your own tendency to bring a third-party in, and before you are tempted to do that, no, pause and say, is this really going to help me be more thoughtful or am I just being reactive here? And is this going to lower anxiety or is it going to raise it. That’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it, Irvine?

Irvine: Totally. Absolutely.

Bridgette: Yeah. And, by the way, literally? Whatever time it is for the listeners, right, as they are tuning into this, once they’re done this afternoon, they’re going to be in a triangle. And they already are. So, when we say they’re ubiquitous, we really mean it.

Irvine: Absolutely. Yes.

Bridgette: Yeah. So, what about that third predictable pattern that you mentioned?

Irvine: Yeah. So, when we face anxiety, we tend to have a default tendency. And if you haven’t thought about that, I just invite you now, just to think about this as I describe it. And the default tendency is, at times, we either want to create distance, we want to create distance from the anxiety that we have, or the other movement is we become so enmeshed in it, it’s hard to know where we start and the others begin. So, let’s just think about this distance. How might that show up?

Well, just as it sounds, we withdraw from the source of anxiety and that relationship. We either withdraw physically or we withdraw emotionally as well. We may be there physically, but emotionally we are not connected, we have distanced our self. How that might show up at work is this constant phenomenon. Actually, I was just dealing with this with a client the other week, who are part of a team. There’s a lot of anxiety on the team at the moment. They have a work project that’s not going well. The person who organizes these meetings keeps canceling them. And part of that was just lovely exploration of people’s tendencies. And part of that will be canceling meetings, canceling check-ins, et cetera.

And another phenomena that shows up so often in the workplace as well, is leaving people out of emails or the loop, and especially if that person’s considered just one of the sources of the anxiety. So, it’s the distancing. And then the second tendency is that we become close. And how that may show up is, if you think about that same team where a person is canceling, then moving in would be taking sides with another person over that person.

And really, without figuring where you stand, so you get on the bandwagon and rather than self-differentiating yourself, really what you’re doing is you’re just going along. Or you’re unwilling to take a position unless you, kind of, see where others are. I’m not willing to stand alone; I want to see where others are at. Or putting off conversations because you feel sorry for somewhere else.

So, there’s a saying that we’ve used, we’ve used it in other episodes, which is where’s the balance here? And this is a tricky balance. And it is something we’re constantly recalibrating each and every day, but the saying that can be helpful here is we need to remain close enough so we can influence the system we’re in, but yet, distant enough that we’re not enmeshed and that we’re able to lead that. And that is a paradox and indeed it is. And it’s a hard balance to strike.

Bridgette: It really is. That balance is tough for all of us, as human beings. But for leaders, it’s really tough and it’s not a fixed balance. Right?

Irvine: Yes.

Bridgette: It’s going to vary. So, that makes it even trickier.

Irvine: Yeah. So, there we have it, so those are the three behaviors. So, we have anxiety, we have in the face of anxiety, predictable behaviors, which can be everything from over or under-functioning, triangles, and this distancing or becoming enmeshed. So, in the face of that, when we see that, and I’m sure our listeners are, oh my god, yes. I see this, I see that. What are some of the best ways to show up? How do we show resilience and how can we best influence the systems we’re in, Bridgette.

Bridgette: Yeah. I want to go back to what you said at the beginning, which is that when we talk about resilient leadership, what we’re really talking about is showing up as the best version of ourselves in the relationship systems that matter most to us, particularly when they’re anxious. Because it’s not that hard to show up as the best version of yourself when everything is copacetic and wonderful. But when the proverbial shit hits the fan, as they say.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Can you still find a way to be a positive influence on the people around you? That’s really what we’re talking about. And so, one of the best ways we can do that is to focus on our own functioning first. It is tempting when things are going awry, when people are being reactive, to become other focused and to really want to will other people to change, right? Other people start hijacking all of our energy and attention, but it’s about, and this is interesting, it’s about how do I get them to change? And, actually, if we could, we would’ve done it, but we can’t. So, it comes back to focusing on our own functioning first because when we do, then we elevate the system.

So, one of the best ways to do that is to really become an observer of our presence. Now, that sounds, kind of, mushy, but what do we mean by that? Presence is simply the quality of energy you telegraph wherever you go. So, your presence is telegraphed on a zoom call, in an email, in a text message, in a casual conversation at the office. When you walk from your office to another office, you’re telegraphing volumes of information about your mood, your outlook, your optimism, your reticence, et cetera, et cetera. And so, if we can pay attention to the quality of our presence, and in particular, if we can strive to embody what we call a less anxious presence, it makes all of the difference, right? And a less anxious presence is the ability to embody and communicate an inner calm in a way that lowers other people’s anxiety.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Yeah. And, as we’ve said in other episodes, the good news is it’s not like you have to be free of anxiety because that’s impossible and not even desirable. You just have to be a little bit less anxious than the people around you. And then you have a calming effect, which then allows people to think their way through problems. So, if we want to build a more resilient life, that’s a great place to start.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: But what else, Irvine?

Irvine: Yeah. And I just want to mention again, what’s being built there is self-awareness. This building block, this foundational block for us and for leaders in any system to really understand what’s happening, to understand, to be aware, perhaps, of our presence and when our presence is impacted. Because one of the things, we’ve talked about this in another episode, is that our presence is contagious. People pick up on our emotional state, they pick up on our anxiety and that spreads like wildfire. To be aware of that and to know that’s how we’re showing up is incredibly important.

And so often we can put the pressure on what do I need to do? What do I need to do to this person or that person? And really, one of the most important question is how do I need to be? How can I show up in the best way possible? And that awareness to be, the awareness to realize we’re triggered. The awareness to realize that we are off-kilter and off-balance and the ability to, kind of, take some time and to really focus on that presence. And, at times, it can seem so simple; it can seem almost overly simple. And yet, it’s so incredibly difficult to do, to have that awareness, to have that ability to, multiple times during the day, to check-in and to realize that the most powerful thing that we can offer other people is our own ability to self-regulate. And the fact that we are offering them a less anxious presence.

Bridgette: Irvine, you’re reminding me of a quote and I wish I could attribute it to the proper person. I cannot recall who said it, but the quote was this, one of the greatest gifts a leader can give their team is a calm nervous system. And I thought, well, that’s interesting. But really, it’s exactly what you’re saying, that when your nervous system is agitated and anxious, there goes the rest of the people, right?

Irvine: Absolutely. Yeah. So, we try always to finish our episodes with a practice. And maybe this is a great segue into this week’s practice, which will be focus on your own functioning. And so, I just want to talk you through a little process, perhaps, that you might find helpful. So, the first thing is step one would be, think of a challenging situation you might be in with another person or a group at the moment. Just bring that to mind. And then begin to notice, perhaps, some of the behaviors that you’re seeing, both in yourself and, perhaps, from others.

And the next time, perhaps, you’re tempted to, maybe judge or blame others or behave in a more reactive way. Take time to pause and to ask yourself, what’s my part in this? It’s really inviting yourself to some curiosity. What part do I have in this? And then take a breath and ask yourself, what other ways could I respond? And, hopefully, that response will be a response which will be less anxious.

Bridgette: I love that, Irvine. That’s a good one. And that courageous question there, right? What’s my part in this?

Irvine: Yes.

Bridgette: Hard to ask that question in the grip of anxiety, and yet, that’s the very time when we need to ask it most.

Irvine: Yes. Absolutely.

Bridgette: Well, boy, it’s just, again, so hard to believe that we have, we’re experiencing our one-year anniversary and that this is, I don’t know, our 28th episode, I’m not entirely sure, but we’ve come a long way, Irvine.

Irvine: We have indeed. Yes.

Bridgette: I thank you for a delightful first year. And I’m so excited about embarking on a new year of this podcast. And, again, we’re really dedicated to helping all of us to look at resilience as not an individual pursuit, but something that can really only be done in the context of our relationship systems. Because we’re not islands. We are always in relationship with other human beings. And if we understand that in those relationship systems what affects one, affects all; then we have unlocked an incredible key to greater resilience for ourselves and for others.

So, we hope you join us for year two; we have some exciting things planned. We may even in year two have a guest, who knows. Somebody who has been a client or I don’t know, Irvine, we’ll figure that out. But, Irvine, what’s on tap for our next episode? Can you speak to that a little bit?

Irvine: Yeah. Our next episode we’re going to explore another phenomenon, perhaps’ that people can relate to. And that is, at times, in the face of all of this data that’s coming at us, what is our tendency? Do we tend to shoot from the hip or do we tend to be paralyzed by analysis? So, we all tend to go to one side there and then we’re going to explore that reality and what we can do about it.

Bridgette: I love that. All right. I look forward to it. To our listeners, thank you, whether this is your first episode or you’ve been with us the whole journey, we just thank you so much for showing up. And, Irvine, as always, it’s been such a pleasure.

Irvine: Well, thank you, Bridgette, happy anniversary. And also, if any of our listeners have any ideas for episodes, I would love some feedback. We do have an email address, which is resilientleadershippodcast@gmail.com. Or if you want to reach out to either of us on LinkedIn, et cetera, please feel free to do that. Always open for ideas. And thank you for, both your listening and thank you as well from the many times you’ve given us feedback saying, you know what, I sent an episode to a person who I really thought could use that episode and it would be helpful. So, please feel free to spread the word and to offer the gift of an episode to a friend that you have or a person that you think might find use in the episode.

Bridgette: Take care, everybody. Thank you.

Irvine: Okay. Bye-Bye, everyone.

Bridgette: Bye-Bye.


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