Art by: Anna Kövecses

Welcome to the Land of FOTU

Take stock of your newfound survival habits and how a global pandemic requires your most vulnerable self.

Elaine Broe
7 min readMar 15, 2020

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We are in it. Many of us began this week with a growing awareness and ended it in a long line at the grocery store stocking up on frozen vegetables, canned beans or in my case; wine. There are a lot (billions) of articles examining the depth of this crisis — this is not one of those articles. In the next ten minutes I hope to make you smile, lower your shoulders from your ears and connect to some actions of hope and love. Yeah I said it, love.

What is FOTU

I just finished what will probably be my last in-person leadership program for a while. If I try to put a timeline on what I mean by “a while” I start to get very, very sweaty. Then I have to google virus symptoms in order to reset my mental and physical state back to a semi-functioning level.

Many people describe the feeling of a switch flipping (not in a good #fliptheswitch way) between Monday and this past Friday. Whatever your case may be, we’re all at different stages of understanding, vulnerability, and fear. The unknown does that — which is why it’s not our favourite thing.

In fact, there is a scientific name for what is happening — which always makes me feel more normalized. The Journal of Anxiety Disorders names it FOTU or Fear of the Unknown. In my mind, this is a close cousin to FUBAR — but that’s not the focus for today.

Within the definition, fear is distinguished from anxiety by being present-oriented and relatively certain, rather than the future-oriented and relatively uncertain nature of anxiety. Just to be clear many of us are simultaneously afraid of our current state and anxious about our future.

However you’re feeling, you’re probably not alone. Note to self: comfort in numbers is not always ideal when experiencing a global pandemic.

Be patient with yourself, your words and your people

You Are Here

The idea for this article began as tips for facilitating remote connections with your families and colleagues. Then I realized like any change, there is an ending, a shift period, and over time celebration. What I began to write was useful for the “shift stage” and right now we are in the thick of “endings”. With each day comes new infection statistics and timeline predictions. With each refresh of the browser we experience another ending — we need a moment to just be with what is, because it’s constantly changing.

Endings create a desire for an idealized past along with a deep urge to control a present that is changing with every literal breath. How many of you judged those who purchased extra toilet paper on Monday and by Friday, while staring at empty shelves, wished you had bought at least one extra package?We are in a state of constant vulnerability. Elizabeth Gilbert’s gentle reminder sums up the complexity of this moment perfectly:

When it comes to uncertainty, we are still in the awkward learning stage around many new forms of social behaviours. Social customs are ingrained and we’re flailing about in a new world. Huggers, don’t ask if it’s ok to hug people — it is not. By asking, you create a situation that makes rejection a tricky option for some. Hand shakers, smile and stand with your arms by your side or place them together. The tradition of shaking hands originated as a way to demonstrated you weren’t carrying any weapons. Right now, a handshake in itself can be a weapon to those vulnerable to the virus. Let’s get more vulnerable at being uncertain and awkward in service of our health and survival.

I’m personally testing out “raise the roof” as an option.

Survival Habits

Your habits are already changing in response to present realities. Does any of this sound familiar?

  • Compulsively checking for new statistics and government updates
  • Seamlessly using new terms such as flatten the curve and social distancing
  • Repeated grocery store visits for “just in case” items
  • Recoiling at the sound of a cough or close human proximity
  • Noticing how much you touch your face (why so much)

Many of these habits are useful and nurtured from a place of fear and survival. It’s about keeping yourself safe and for our more vulnerable community it is the difference between life and death. Self-protection is our primitive brain’s natural response to developing these habits. Yesterday I saw a person sneeze with great gusto and no inclination of covering their spray zone in the least. It took everything in me not to throw my toilet paper rolls at their head.

Calm Your System

This is your reminder to take a moment and refrain from throwing things. Get into a sitting or standing position and place both feet on the floor. Take a deep belly breath, not from your shoulders — from your belly. Inhale for 3 seconds through your nose and exhale for 6 seconds out your mouth. Repeat.

By doing this you decrease cortisol in your body and increase oxytocin. This can help us feel less reactive, more calm and connected to our present state.

Human Contact

At a time when we are told to create distance between ourselves, we need connection most. While our fear driven survival habits help us during the short term, they come from a place of stress and will wear us down over time. We are in this for a long haul. Whether it’s connecting to yourself, your community or your team — now is the time to create new habits of vulnerability. Create a plan to support mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health with all the people in your life.

SELF: Identify how many fear based habits you may have acquired over the last few weeks. Set a limit to your time on the internet and be purposeful about how you choose to start and end your day.

I want to stop looking at my phone as the first and last part of my day. I want to start meditating again. I will keep creating playlists that uplift and get me moving.

COMMUNITY: Be more thoughtful about reaching out to people that bring you joy, schedule video dates, bring an appetizer and catch up. Amp up your social awareness and empathy, take a moment to thank the exhausted pharmacists and smile at strangers. We are literally all in this together.

I want to stop allowing my frustrations surface when I’m waiting in lines or can’t find a parking spot. I want to start connecting to neighbours by leaving a note with my number as a support resource. I will keep scheduling video dates with my friends.

TEAM: Whether we agree or not, now is the time our personal and work worlds collide. As a leader (whatever your formal position) slow down to explore the emotions of your team. Start meetings with dedicated check ins focused on people as human beings, not just human doings. Provide as much context as you can, especially when it is simply context about not having any context. Encourage questions, experimenting and patience.

I want to stop kicking off meetings with worst case scenario news. I want to start having more awareness for the personal fears and family dynamics my team members face. I will keep appreciating people with tailored gestures and words that help them know they are valued.

Thank you for hanging with me. It’s the first time in weeks where I haven’t refreshed news stories because I spent the day writing to you. My hope is that you had a smile and remember to focus on what you can control (which is mostly just yourself).

With newfound time on my hands, please reach out with any topics you might find useful — it’s nice to imagine being connected in as many ways as we can right now.

Take care and be one of the helpers.

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Elaine Broe

I am the founder of the Leadership Collaboratory where I design and facilitate experiences that inspire new ideas & challenge old patterns. elainebroe.com