Fight or float?

Rather than rushing to react, can we engage our wise mind and find a better way?

What would you do if you were caught in a rip at the beach?

Being pulled out to sea is a scary feeling. In that moment, it’s entirely normal for your reactive mind to take over. It simply wants to get you back to safety as quickly as possible. It is telling you to thrash and kick and fight with everything you have got. If the rip is too strong however, this may not solve the problem. Instead, you may end up exhausted, panicked and still far from safety.

If you are able to call upon your wise mind in this situation, you may come up with a far better solution.


Reserve your resources. Let the power of the rip diminish and once you have reached calmer waters, find your way back to safety.

It’s a lesson that can be applied far beyond the beach.

Throughout our lives we will constantly encounter situations that threaten our sense of safety and trigger our reactive minds. After hearing a nasty comment, watching a troubling news story or being told about a change which will affect us, we may instinctively jump straight into action.

This reactive instinct was incredibly important to our caveman ancestors, who had to contend with sabre-tooth tigers and all sorts of other physical threats. In our modern world however, the threats we encounter tend to be far more complex and require far more nuanced responses.

We can’t counter cyber-bullying by punching our computers. We can’t yell loudly and scare off a corporate restructure. We can huff and puff all we like, but it probably won’t make housing any more affordable.

When our reactive minds get hooked on these complex problems it can become an exhausting struggle. This reactive approach can bring us great dissatisfaction, without bringing us any closer to the outcome we want.

Rather than rush to react, there are a number of questions we can ask that will help us to engage our wise minds and find a better way.

What are my resources?
Consider, do I have the energy to take this fight on and engage in more struggle? Some stuff simply isn’t worth worrying about, particularly if you are already feeling stressed, run-down or exhausted.

Will taking action do any good?
Sometimes our first reaction may inflame the situation, rather than improve it. Sometimes we are up against things that are completely outside our sphere of influence. No matter how much we dislike something, it is perfectly reasonable to decide that the best course of action is to take no action at all.

Is this the right time to take action?
When we rush to react, we close our minds off to complexity. Taking a pause can give us time to assess a situation from different perspectives and gain a fuller understanding. Often the best time to take action will be later. Once the shouting has died down, others may be far more open to a constructive solution.

Can I pause for some self-compassion?
When we are faced with a new challenge, an additional burden or something which upsests us, it can be extremely useful to pause, acknowledge how it is affecting us and offer ourselves some warmth and encouragement. By taking care of ourselves first, we can be much better prepared to deal with whatever may follow.

Is there a better way to accomplish what you truly want?
Immediately tackling a problem head-on may not be the smartest approach. With the benefit of your wise mind and a little more time, it is likely you will come up with creative solution which can take you where you truly want to go.

Taking this approach is not easy, but it is incredibly valuable.

Choosing to ‘float’ rather than ‘fight’ can give us a far greater sense of autonomy and purpose. If we do not to react to every perceived threat or waste precious energy on pointless pursuits, we end up with far more resources for the things that really do matter.

Don’t forget, there is a third option – put up your hand and ask for help. Reaching out for support is always an act of resilience.

The donkey in the boat
Whenever I am in some sort of situation where patience is required, I like to call upon this image by artist Paola Pivi.

Paola Pivi
Untitled (donkey), 2003 

photographic print mounted on aluminium
180 × 224 cm

Photograph by Hugo Glendinning 

Courtesy Massimo De Carlo 


While the donkey is in quite a predicament, it is rather majestic in its stillness. Faced with a situation it has little control over, it is not panicking, trying to swim to shore or awkwardly attempting to start the motor with its hooves. Instead, it is simply standing patiently with the sun shining on it, knowing that stillness, time and tide will give him the best chance of reaching safety.

As humans we pride ourselves on problem-solving and being people of action. Rather than live with uncertainty, we busy ourselves with doing and scramble for quick fixes. Action is however not always the best course of action. Quite often it can be helpful to be still and patient, just like the donkey.