Earlier this week, I spent about a half an hour trapped, by myself, in an elevator that I’ve traveled 27 floors up, and down, an average of twice a week every week for the past 25 years. That I so regularly frequent this conveyance at all is slightly amazing, given that I’m a moderately afflicted claustrophobe.
OK, I’ll admit it. I panicked. A little. But not a lot. After calling for help, at long last the elevator came to a gentle rest on the ground floor, and the doors opened onto a lobby that had never looked so appealing to me as it did in that moment.
What a great experience! Although my autonomic nervous system would have argued at the time, and for a day or two afterward.
Focusing on the “great” part, here’s what I learned:
- When we’re actually thrust into a situation that we’ve feared, we usually manage, somehow, to do ok. My claustrophobia, I discovered, isn’t as severe as I’d always thought it was. I didn’t totally freak out. Only partially. Think of all the times you’ve survived something you’ve feared. It’s likely to happen again. And again, you’ll probably do ok.
- Discomfort is not the same as danger. I was in discomfort; I was never in danger. As it turned out, I was stuck between the 3rd and 2nd floors (ha!), although because it was an express car, with no floor indicator below the 15th floor, I didn’t know it. How often are we inconvenienced, or uncomfortable, annoyed maybe, but not really in trouble? This was one of those times.
- The mind is a terrible thing to listen to…sometimes. My anxiety was totally irrational. (Yeah, I know, that’s the definition of a phobia. But knowing that fact doesn’t help the way you feel all that much.) As with so many things in life, the fear is far, far worse than the actual event. I will remind myself of this every time I put off calling a prospective client because of a fear of rejection.
- Friends are invaluable. They really are. As soon as I’d pushed the little emergency phone button in the elevator and registered my situation, I used my thin, but serviceable cellular connection to phone a friend who I knew happened to be about to board an elevator on the same floor I’d just come from. Of course, he changed his plans. But then, he talked my nerves down. Then he called a few other friends who called to do the same, and with great effect. That’s a friend.
Then, friend #1 texted me a picture he’d taken of the firetruck that had just arrived at the skyscraper. Hot dog! Help was on the way! Make friends. Be a friend.
- Most useful lesson of all: My fear came entirely from uncertainty. Had I known that the ordeal would have been over in a half hour, I would have totally chilled out (well, maybe not totally totally…) Communication is the greatest weapon in the fight against fear. The elevator service company people on the other end of the emergency phone weren’t great at communicating. In fact, they sucked at it. I’ll give them this: they were very calm. A little too calm, if I can just weigh in on that. They told me nothing about what was being done, or when, or if I was going to be freed from my 3×5 box.
Leaders – HUGE lesson here: when scary things are going on at work, COMMUNICATE! Tell the truth, and tell it often. Just as “Contented Cows Give Better Milk”, frightened employees aren’t very contented, let alone productive.
- My daily worries and problems are very small, really, compared to being stuck in an elevator. Things could always be worse.
- Being stuck in an elevator is nothing, really, compared to many people’s daily worries and problems. Again, things could always be worse.
- And finally, it’s true what you’ve always heard about “getting back up on the horse after you’ve been thrown.” After I escaped, and was assured that the elevators were again operable, I got right back in another elevator in that same building, and rode up to the top floor, and back down again. Had I not, I think the next time would have been a lot harder. Ever get thrown off a horse at work? Get back on – quickly – and ride it to the finish line.