For many of us, the world can feel like too much right now – a never ending cascade of anxiety-inducing news. It’s something that Christina Blacken, founder and chief narrative strategist at The New Quo, calls the “mental fire.” As we struggle to handle the pressure that we feel in society right now, our own anxieties can fuel narratives and actions that are harmful to others – especially others different than ourselves.
Blacken speaks with host Morra Aarons-Mele about how we can move away from rigid perfectionism, toxic competition, and conformity and toward a culture of curiosity and acceptance.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m Morra Aarons-Mele and this is The Anxious Achiever. We look at stories from business leaders who have dealt with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges, how they fell down, how they pick themselves up, and how they hope workplaces can change in the future. Throughout this season, we’re thinking about the ways we can build mentally healthier workplaces from the inside out. Before we can really talk about external solutions, we have to get to the root of problems that we’re facing in our lives, but ones especially, that come to us during the workday – that distract us, that may cause us to sit and ruminate and feel hopeless when we’re supposed to be feeling productive. Life and work, it’s not separate anymore, for better or for worse. I like many people, spend most of my work hours in the online world. I’m constantly stimulated, scanning through tweets and posts and blogs and headlines. It can feel like a blur, and then your brain latches onto something.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Today’s guest caught my attention when she used the phrase “mental fire,” which seemed like it would resonate with a lot of our listeners. For me, the “mental fire” is that worry that I latch on to – the terrifying news about climate, about the coronavirus, the sense that bad things will happen. And I find it very difficult to shift and focus on my work. I want to feel positive, but instead I feel scared. I’m excited to speak today with Christina Blacken. She’s Founder and Chief Narrative Strategist at The New Quo, where she helps leaders and organizations think about how they communicate and tell the stories that drive change forward. And I started our conversation by asking her about what “mental fire” means to her.
CHRISTINA BLACKEN: I had written that because that was after a series of things have been occurring with the whole issues in Afghanistan. There was multiple natural disasters occurring at the same time, all types of human rights issues. And I remember thinking, “What can I do right now to make sure that I don’t be consumed and paralyzed to the point that I don’t want to do anything?” And that I don’t want to do action and I don’t want to tune in. I don’t want to feel like I’m giving up on the idea of us getting better as a society healing. What can I do to get over that? I remember thinking through conversations I had had in the past and things I had written in the past around social justice because it’s a long game, it’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. There’s so many incremental steps that make social change occur. And so it’s easy to get fatigued and to lose sight of the long-term goals. I started to examine that again. I remember some of the tactics and things I had shared when being in the trenches and working in social issues. My work is all around inclusion and equity and changing the paradigms of leadership specifically. And at times it’s easy to be like, “Ain’t nothing changing. People are crazy. I’m over this. Hands in the air.” And I think the internet, because it’s very easy to get in sort of an insular group of yelling at each other, that people are all sort of piling on and saying, “Everything’s going to hell in a hand basket. There’s nothing we can do. The world is terrible.” And so I wanted to add some other perspective around it. How can people still stay sane and stay balanced and stay informed without being completely overwhelmed or feeling like there’s nothing they can do and being completely helpless and sort of numb and paralyzed in action. So that’s why I had shared that. And it really comes down to looking at the broader picture, remembering history, and taking note of some of the progresses and advances we have had and the wins that we have had – because there have been many. Also, just making sure we’re taking care of ourselves mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and not just burning ourselves out to the point where we can’t do anything. Because that doesn’t change anything either. That’s typically what keeps the status quo going is people being disengaged and detached essentially. If we do want to see improvements, doing nothing or being a pessimist or cynicist to the point of no action doesn’t actually change anything.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: You wrote, “I check my newsfeed like I breathe air.” Ditto. “My feed is a swirling pulsation of news, opinions, and calls to action, and baby pics.” But you said, “The duality of this blessing of instant access to information comes with the curse of information overload, and that now it’s so scary and disheartening.” You said, “The news at large feels like taking two basketball-sized globs of sriracha sauce and throwing them into both of your eyes.”
CHRISTINA BLACKEN: Yeah. Is that not the truth? It’s literally like, “What’s on fire today. What hurricane is barreling down this weekend?”
MORRA AARONS-MELE: It’s really, I mean, yes. And then there’s also, I think, the compounding factor of when you work alone – like a lot of us are working in a more isolated way physically, right? We’re so dependent on the internet. And maybe this is also coming from a place of privilege, but feeling detached and depressed is sometimes easier in a way.
CHRISTINA BLACKEN: Yeah. In the thing I wrote, I mentioned processing and sitting with your feelings is an important part of all of this because I think why we’re in this place is we’ve been conditioned and encouraged to numb ourselves and to detach from our feelings. Even if we’re detaching from them, it doesn’t mean they don’t get expressed. It doesn’t mean that feelings and emotions aren’t there. They’re just then expressed in super dysfunctional, destructive ways.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Like what?
CHRISTINA BLACKEN: Like violence, anger in ways that are harmful for other people, oppressive laws that we keep seeing people pass because of their anxieties and fears. I really think a lot of the inequities that we’re seeing play out is because of repressed emotions and people’s fears and anxieties not being processed in healthier, functional ways. In a society that encourages us to be anti-emotional and anti-feeling, it’s going to come out – whether we want to process it and address it or not. I think it is an important step to say, “I’m sad. This stuff is not great. I don’t feel great about this. How am I feeling about this? How does it feel in my body? How is it showing up in my day to day physicality? Am I feeling a gut pain in my stomach? Am I having weird muscle spasms and headaches?” All of that is sometimes indicative of how we’re expressing stress, how we’re expressing anxiety or fear. I think processing that’s really important. One of the ways that I do that, is I sit down and I just write through it. I write all the things I’m thinking – no matter how wild, no matter how crazy or stress they may be, I put them down on a page. And it gives me time to just at least express them and to state them and to acknowledge, this is what I’m feeling in the moment. Then I’ll usually go back after some time and start to read through it and reflect on it and to see which parts of those things need some sort of plan of action, which some of those things just need to sit and pass, and which of those things are just completely false and aren’t realities that I have to acknowledge as truth. Just because you have a feeling doesn’t mean it’s true—
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right. Feelings aren’t facts.
CHRISTINA BLACKEN: Exactly. I think processing our feelings is an incredibly important function and skill that many of us are not taught. We learn over time trial and error. I know for myself, I had to learn that through reading, writing, therapy, other modalities on my own as an adult – to be able to function and to be able to survive adversity and crisis. How you respond to adversity and crisis really defines your life. Adversity and crisis is always going to happen. It’s predictable, it’s inevitable, but our responses to it really define the quality of our lives, define how we show up, defines our values. I think, yes, it’s incredibly important to acknowledge that and to also process it and move through it and not ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist. Or, the other side of it, wallow in it to the point where you can’t function because all those things themselves are not healthy either.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want to go back to the systemic view because I think it’s really important. This is my belief and again, I’ve never seen data to back this up, but I want to go back to where you talked about a lot of oppression that shows up in our laws, in our workplace. And toxic leadership comes from an inability to express fear, anxiety, a lot of uncomfortable feelings.
CHRISTINA BLACKEN: I think there’s a lot of really interesting research about the amygdala and our response to uncertainty and fear. They found that typically when we are confronted with something new – whether that’s a new person, a new experience – we many times go into hypervigilance because of evolutionary reasons. We’re always trying to find ways to see who’s safe, who’s unsafe, who can we trust, who’s going to have our back when something big happens and we need support? We’re an interdependent species. We depend on each other for our literal survival. And I think it’s always interesting when people are like, “I’m a lone island. I don’t need anybody.” It’s like, even if you’re a lone island, all the supplies that you have right now were probably made by hundreds of people you don’t know, and you wouldn’t have been able to have them without those individuals. So we are an interconnected species who are very in tune with our social connections and are always sort of on the hunt for potential threats. That being said, some of that evolutionary bias is over amplified and many times is detrimental to healthy collaboration, healthy communication. Many of the laws that we have now, are built on zero-sum ideas. The idea of there’s only so many resources that we have, some deserve it more than others, and it’s okay that some people have more than others do. There are all these narratives and myths that get taught through history, education, media, schooling, your family of origin, that justify those gaps – that justify those inequalities. Many times when you break down those myths, they start from an idea of that group, that identity, that potential other, is dangerous, is scary, is threatening. And so, we have to control it. We have to police it. We need to kill it. That’s really a function of a majority of the inequalities and laws and oppressive things that we’ve seen. A lot of my work, I teach the idea of narrative inquiry to really unpack what are the stories that have built your point of view, your perspective, your beliefs, your bias. Which of those are in the way of your full potential and connecting with others, and which are allowing you to see the world in a clear way. If we don’t do that process regularly, we can get really off the mark essentially.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m really fascinated by the idea of how our emotions, how our feelings, and specifically how our anxieties, right, because anxiety is a fear of what’s going to happen in the future. I want to hear a little bit about how you think these feelings and these emotions craft the narratives and the stories that then become society.
CHRISTINA BLACKEN: It really comes down to the idea. There’s a book called The Sum Of Us, which I think is a great book that breaks this down. It talks about the zero-sum theory. The zero-sum theory is the idea that we have limited resources. If I’m going to get my fair share and survive, I need to make a story to justify why I deserve more, or why this potential group deserves more. Then that gets baked into all types of things. Usually it starts with media and stories and the news, and the way that things are spun and positioned. Then from there, it gets trickled down into various aspects of how we talk about history, how we talk about laws. I think it’s important to remember that a lot of it’s made up. Even though it feels really certain and set, how the world operates right now, how our economic systems operate, our political systems, our business systems, they feel like they’re just these really solid, always been this way, sort of truth. When in fact, they’re pretty new and they’ve always been changing and evolving, and they can change. Even though something’s always been a specific way – so for example, you were not allowed to be in leadership positions or to be in politics or be a business owner as a woman or a person of color until very recently. There were actual specific explicit laws that said that was not possible.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right.
CHRISTINA BLACKEN: For a long time, only one specific demographic was in positions of power. Now that leads to all types of imbalances when there’s only one demographic represented, one perspective, one point of view. For many people, they believe that that’s just how it is because it’s the natural order of things and there’s a natural difference. All of that sort of assumption is really based on pseudo-science and fear and myth. We’re seeing that play out again, when we talk about the various racial issues in this country. When people are like, “Race doesn’t matter. You should stop talking about it. It doesn’t exist.” I’m like, “Yes, it’s a social construct, but it’s a social construct with very specific impacts and consequences that are very measurable, that have been studied for decades. Pretending it doesn’t exist, doesn’t solve it.” It’s sort of saying, “Cancer doesn’t exist. I don’t see cancer,” and then expecting us to just magically solve breast cancer. That’s not how you solve – I don’t like cancer either, but we’re not going to solve it by pretending it’s not there.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Can you tell us a little bit about what you do with companies? I would imagine most people don’t unfortunately have a Chief Narrative Strategist on staff at their job, but tell us how you are helping organizations get rid of those toxic old stories.
CHRISTINA BLACKEN: Yes. I love that question. I run a company called The New Quo and at the core of it, is teaching behavioral science-based story strategies so people can change behavior and transform their culture to be more inclusive, more innovative, really more connected. It boils down to, sort of a framework that I’ve developed through research and through being in various storytelling and communication positions for 10 years and seeing how really impactful story is for how we think, for how we see things, for how we’re influenced. Many times we’re not taught how to use those things in positive and impactful and directed ways. I think people understand story when it comes to marketing and sales. Many times there’s many positions where it’s like, “Let’s sell things people don’t need. Get them to buy stuff that is not really going to benefit them.” But then when you turn it inward and use it as a tool for professional development, personal development, it can be radically powerful. And so, for many of the companies I work with, they’re in a change period, or they’re going through a period of growth, and they’re seeing some of the breakdown. Maybe their culture is sort of struggling or maybe their leadership needs to have a bit more training when it comes to how to really connect with the diverse and a team different from themselves and how to get the best out of their teams. Or maybe they’re going through a phase where they’re building things from scratch because they’re a new company and they want to do it right from the beginning, and don’t build inequitable things into their practices and structures that then bite them in the ass later. Many of the people I work with, they’re like, “Hey, we want to do training around leadership and inclusion and building better habits. How do we do that?” And so, I had put together programs that include online learning and webinars and facilitated conversations – to get people to understand and be aware of what causes bias. What’s the psychology of it, the history of it, the historical and social context of it. And then how do we unpack it and then reframe it and replace some of the automatic responses we have to change and difference with more healthy, impactful narratives that can get us to a better goal or to a better place.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Those automatic narratives hearkened back to the sort of sense of fear and anxiety that a lot of people feel when their way is threatened.
CHRISTINA BLACKEN: Absolutely. Yes. Everyone goes to this process. I kind of call it the status quo changing method, where we can either respond to change and difference by going through an autopilot series of values and behaviors we’ve been taught. Many times that starts with toxic competition, the idea that it’s a zero-sum game, there’s not enough every way. We must fight each other. Conformity, the idea of if people aren’t part of the norm and the status quo, then they’re an other and they should be distrusted. Then perfectionism, which is the idea that we don’t have any error to try anything new because everything must be perfect in a specific way all the time. Those three core values are taught through all types of means. We pick them up as like, “This is just how it is. It’s how businesses are. This is how school should be. This is how organizations should be.” And it leads to responding to change and difference in very rigid and destructive ways. So I call that the culture of autopilot, which is it just happens, it’s automatic, but it’s not necessarily healthy or productive. I motivate and try to teach the companies and organizations I work with to move from a culture of autopilot to what I call a culture of curiosity and inclusion. That requires acceptance, collaboration, and experimentation. Without those three core values, you can’t really respond to change and difference in a positive way. And acceptance is genuinely seeing difference as a strength and a value add, versus a threat. Collaboration being the default, instead of competition to the point of detrimental, just failings in communication. And then experimentation of, “If we’re going to try this, iterate, collect data, and see what happens.” Instead of believing, we can’t try anything new because there’s too many what if’s, there’s too many risks and we’ve always done it this way.” I think if you can motivate people to build that into their communication practices, their meeting practices, their brainstorming, how they make decisions, how they recruit, how they build their products and services, you can start from the ground up of building better habits. Because really all of this is a series of habits. We pick up communication and thinking habits from a very young age. Many times, those habits feel permanent, but they can be changed. They can be changed over time. And it takes incremental practice and learning over your lifetime to unpack the habits that are not good and to replace them with better ones. So for example, I’m running a program right now with Nextdoor, which is a tech app that allows neighbors to refer things to each other. Most of their moderators who moderate content on the platform are volunteers.