Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth Consulting

Victor Frankl has famously said, “In between the stimulus and the response, there is a space. And in that space is your power and your freedom.”

When something unsettling or uncomfortable happens, what would it be like to catch ourselves in that space prior to our reaction?

Mindfulness teachers often use the word “equanimity” to describe this skill of being aware and “catching ourselves.”

A Pandemic Equanimity Story

About three years ago, during that first hard pandemic year, I remember standing in the kitchen and suddenly feeling so sad, scared, and alone. Strong emotions can do that; they sneak up on you like a wave and try to pull you under.

But on that day in the kitchen, I managed to simply observe the fact that I was feeling sad and alone.

I pictured my negative feeling as a cloud in the middle of the big blue sky of my awareness. I watched the sadness float in, I saw it grow bigger as my throat clenched and tears welled in my eyes. And then I watched how this cloud of sadness got smaller and smaller as it floated by. After a few minutes, it was basically out of sight. I took a deep breath, felt better, and went on scrubbing the pan I was working on.

I had observed my sadness without letting it drown me.

Equanimity is easy to talk about, hard to put to practice. But doing equanimity gets easier over time. It’s like a muscle that needs regular workouts to get stronger. The more you do it, the more your brain strengthens the neural wiring that allows you to be calmly present to yourself in this way.

So. What do these equanimity workouts look like?

Four Pathways to Equanimity

  1. First, mindful breathing helps. Learning and practicing some mindful breathing techniques will begin to alter your brain in ways that make equanimity, more and more, your home base.
    Try, for instance, “box breathing.” Close your eyes, and relax your belly and shoulders. Now, breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and hold for a count of four. Repeat four times. As you breathe, you can picture a box or square in your mind’s eye. Imagine slowly traveling up, across, down, and back across the four sides of your imaginary box.
  2. Second, finding a sense of inner safety helps. This is about taming your brain’s hyper-vigilant stress response system. Only a brain that feels truly safe, can slow down and be fully present.
    One quick way to find safety is to inwardly talk to the emotion. I know it sounds weird, but it works. You could say, “Oh, hello insecurity, it’s you again.” Or, “I see you, frustration.” Or, “how’s it going, catastrophic thinking.” Just noticing it and naming it influences your brain in a calming way.
  3. Third, waiting helps. In other words—don’t move, don’t act, don’t decide. Just be still for a moment. When I’m feeling upset, I will often literally just sit down in a comfortable chair (often with a blanket), close my eyes, and simply breathe. This is about giving it a minute, feeling it, and allowing it to subside.
    Research shows that the strongest reactions, if we will just stay with them and let ourselves feel them, will last only about 90 seconds. Then they start to fade. I love this quote from Burch and Penman: “If you don’t like your current state of mind, simply wait a while – another one will be along in a minute.”
  4. Fourth, reframing the issue helps. Many of our emotional ups and downs have to do with the way we interpret things, the way we talk to ourselves in our heads. You really do have the power to change the storyline and language of whatever’s going on!
    Example: When I’m trying to get my kindergartener to stop whining, it does no good to say, “stop whining!” What does work (at least sometimes) is to say, “Hey! Let’s practice being patient together. I know it’s hard, but let’s just sit here together, still and quiet, for ten seconds. Ready, set, go!” Bennett will immediately stop whining because I’ve reframed the issue. He’s building a new skill in a connected way, instead of trying to stop whining cold-turkey with nothing to take its place.

In both life and leadership, hard situations and difficult emotions are par for the course. It’s just going to be painful sometimes. Equanimity means we acknowledge the hard stuff and feel the pain. But we don’t make it worse by getting carried away in it.

About Andrea

Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth is Founder and CEO of Hollingsworth Consulting, author of the bestselling book The Compassion Advantage (2024), and one of today’s leading global experts on compassionate leadership. Since 2008, she has been studying, speaking, and writing about the science and spirituality of human emotions and relationships. Her articles have been published more than a dozen times in peer-reviewed journals, and she has taught at prestigious institutions like Princeton, Boston University, and Loyola University Chicago. In addition, Dr. Andrea has delivered talks to audiences at some of the top-ranked universities in the world—including Cambridge University in England and Heidelberg University in Germany.

Dr. Andrea spends most of her time inspiring leaders and teams to use The Compassion Advantage to build supercharged organizations through cultures of care— especially in times of challenge and change. Andrea lives with her family in Minnesota where she cheers hard at her son’s soccer games and relishes every opportunity to visit the north shore of Lake Superior.