The F Words

What has surprised you about the way you’ve shown up to this global pandemic adventure?

When we are under significant stress (which we all are — isn’t the magnitude of this shared experience amazing?), we tend to respond in some combination of four ways:

  1. Fight
  2. Flight
  3. Freeze
  4. Fawn*

I’ve seen each of these, individually and organizationally over the past month.

Some leaders have a knack for making this situation all about them or trying to exert control over it (fight). Some have basically gone missing in action (flight). Some are deer in the headlights, perhaps responding as one business owner I spoke to recently, “We’re carrying on as we always have and hoping for the best” or drowning in Netflix and Easter chocolate (freeze). I think fawning is perhaps more difficult to spot — it usually looks like appeasement or over-compliance. I see it in copycat behaviour, trying to keep up with what others seem to be doing (such as companies writing to describe their responses to COVID-19 at a level of detail I really don’t need or care about) or perhaps in over-policing others. Fawning behaviour can show up in denying our own legitimate needs and serving others to the point of exhaustion.

What’s your tendency? Have you noticed yourself bouncing between these four responses as we all adjust and adjust some more?

I’d like to suggest other F words I’m finding more helpful during these unsettled times:


Our attention span and willpower and brain capacity are limited in these days. We are tired. We therefore need, more than ever, to figure out where our resources are most needed and invest them there. This exercise seems to have taken on a weekly cadence for me. What do I most need to focus on this week? Week one was all about reacting. Week two was adapting. Week three was accepting. Week four was upskilling. Today marks the start of week five for me, and I think it will be about re-engaging to see which of the many projects initially postponed can be resurrected in new ways. Each of these has been true in work and personal domains (I’ve become a ninja at finding groceries without leaving the house. What superpower have you developed over the past month?) As Gary Keller writes in The One Thing: “What’s the one thing you can do such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?”

(Another element of focus is choosing to pay attention to what we get to do rather than what we can’t do during these times. Perspective is everything.)

We also need to be more flexible than we have ever previously been. I write about behaving nimbly — now that responsiveness is needed not just in meetings or projects but in virtually every area of our upended lives. I picture this skill in two ways: loosening my grip (usually on my expectations or my script) and keeping my knees slightly bent (so that I’m ready to change directions instead of being locked in place). When we are stuck in one of the stress responses above, this skill is particularly hard to find, but it’s so helpful. I’m learning more about the benefits of leaning into uncertainty from Oliver Burkeman in The Antidote right now.

Two other positive Fs were suggested by my daughter Genevieve (you can see what she’s up to at We struggled to make these ones verbs, but thought they were definitely worth including:

Be fierce
Have fun

There is benefit in being determined and light at a time like this. The most magical among us seem to be able to find both at the same time.

One unexpected surprise for me about this past month is how enjoyable parts of it have been. A clearer calendar. Impromptu dance parties. Leisurely conversations with my grown kids. Intentional connections with friends and colleagues. More time to cook and read. Greater awareness of my privilege to have any of these things. And I’m also doubling down on my work, even when it’s scarce. I’m taking some risks and learning some new skills. I’m determined to make this chapter a memorable one for positive reasons. Fierce and fun.

So check in with yourself and your team. Maybe it’s time to replace some unhelpful F words with some more productive ones this week?

And if I could think of a word for self-compassion that starts with F, I’d include that here too and I’d give you a round of applause. These are challenging times and we’re all doing the best we can.


*Source: Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Pete Walker. See also and

3 Replies to “The F Words”

  1. I think my words are free, flight and force field.

    Working at home as opened up opportunities to reconnect and build new relationships with neighbours I have never met and professional contacts I have been meaning to make. Flight is the way to step up and see my current situation to reflect and reframe for a new normal. Force Field has let me look after myself, and support my family first before serving others.

  2. Thanks to those of you contacting me with possible additional F words for self-compassion! Feelings? Forgiveness? And some that shall not be reprinted here…;)

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