Imagine for a moment that you are sitting in a chair at the center of a room, with dozens of your peers surrounding you. All eyes are on you, as the boss-man standing across the way begins to speak. “You will never make it in this business. You don’t have the skill. You are too lazy and forgetful…” Out comes the verbal lashing that you dread, and it’s for everyone to see.
What’s your reaction?
Now, take the same situation, but instead, have your significant other and your best friend standing behind you, their hands on your shoulders. They don’t say a word, but you know they are there, supporting you. You can literally feel their presence.
Is your response different?
Having run this experiment in coaching workshops, when we are alone in the chair, we tend to sink into it. Our body droops, our eyes drop to the ground, and shrink away. Our body language clearly signals that we want to be anywhere but here. When we have support with us, we sit up tall, and eye contact remains. The verbal lashing is the same, but our response is a world apart.
This is but example of how feeling supported shifts how we perceive the world.
In one study out of the University of Virginia, researchers put subjects under the threat of a very painful shock while they were lying in an fMRI scanner, to see what was going on inside their brain as they faced the threat. Not surprisingly, when a shock was imminent, areas in the brain related to threat and distress lit up. But there was one exception: when the subject lying down in the machine was allowed to reach over and hold the hand of their spouse. As Dennis Proffitt and Drake Baer summarized the research in their new book, Perception, “The better someone felt about their marriage, the smaller their fearful brain activation.”
It’s not just spouses or significant others that do the trick. Sports teams report the magic of team culture, of feeling like they are a family, all in it together. I can tell you firsthand that these stories of the impact of a team bond are not clichés. They are not just stories we tell ourselves to make it seem like team culture matters. They have merit. Team culture really does matter.
In another study, this one out of the University of Plymouth in the UK, when subjects were walking up to a massive hill, they perceived it to be less steep if they had a friend by their side. With someone else there, the daunting seems more manageable. The same held true when instead of perceiving the steepness of a hill, subjects had to lift heavy boxes. When a friend was there, the total weight seemed lighter.
The theme in all the above examples is this: When we have someone to physically or psychologically share the load, everything seems a bit more manageable, a bit more doable, a bit less threatening. When we feel secure and supported, the way in which we see the world changes. It ceases to be a threatening place filled with opportunities for embarrassment and failure. Instead, we walk around knowing that even if adversity rears its head, we will be okay. We are born to belong. The world looks a little less threatening and a little more conquerable when we have others in our corner.