Checking In or Checking Out?

The Power of Presence versus Dissociation

As a leader, a business operator, a family member, or other life roles, we all are engaged or disengaged at various points of the day.   For example, you check in and out of a hotel.   You check in and out of work, in and out of meetings.   You ultimately check in and out of life (birth and death) as we know it.

How much of the day do you spend “checked in”, that is, completely present to what’s going on and able to respond from an appropriate space in which you are able to engage with precision, compassion, and connection, along with abundant and intelligent resources?   How much of the day do you spend “checked out”, listening to the world or your own dialogue as though you hear the voices of Charlie Brown’s teachers, “wanh, wanh wahn, yah, yah, yah, wanh, wanh, wanh….”

The crux of this article is to discuss the associative and dissociative phenomena, in which we are either present and in our bodies or only partially here and not registered at our current home address (as in your body).   If you are training for an extreme event – a marathon, swimming a long distance in cold water, or getting ready for a high-stress military selection process (Special Forces)- there MAY be occasional uses for dissociation, or disconnecting from the body for a bit. One of our trainers, Stew Smith, has talked about the utility of dissociation in extreme training environments as a way of getting through, such as in BUD/S in candidacy for becoming a Navy SEAL.

On the other hand, selection psychologists and psychiatrists for the most elite military units LOOK FOR people who dissociate in training, as they are more likely to fail in selection and in the field. Dr. Andy Morgan's research on baseline dissociation with respect to Special Forces (Green Beret) Selection and Assessment bears this out.  Dissociation is also a predictor for development of PTSD.  

For the most part, elite special operators are experts at staying present to what’s going on, even if they need to blow past some of the extreme discomfort they may feel in their bodies in training or on the mission. One thing you can take from this is looking at whether you are dissociating regularly in your daily life.  And, if you are, looking at how does this serve you?

Some of that may just be in the form of daydreaming to check out of a banal existence or a job that is less than enjoyable. So you might ask yourself what are you checking out of and why and is that a sign of boredom, burnout, or wanting something more interesting or challenging? And then ask the question, what am I checking into? What state do I want to be in and why? How do I operate on purpose?

Some of us “check out” by watching sports, the news, or a movie. Others check out by playing a video game or dropping into daydreaming. Still others check out using substances to numb themselves. There are lots of ways to check out.   What are the ways you check in?

One way to check in is stopping to be still for a moment and noticing what you notice. Observe your breathing and your energy state, including your emotional state. Feel your weight in your feet and your posture.   How are you doing right now? That’s checking in! 

Checking in also is about being present to whatever comes up.  Trauma, in many ways, is an aberration of memory.  It brings things up NOW when they aren't actually now.  That's also why cognitive (mental) and somatic (physical) frameworks can help us stay present when negative emotions come up.  As we notice, recognize, name, breathe into, and otherwise become present to the state, we reduce the charge of the brain's amygdala and begin decoupling the emotional state from its memory pathways. 

For the purposes of this article, checking in is about associating to what you engage with. Checking out is about dissociating. If you become more aware of when you check in and when you check out and discover WHY, you will have more leverage over developing and maintaining an optimal performance state.

More next time….