What Is ‘The Flinch’ and Why You Should Care

I stumbled across an extract from Julien Smith’s ‘The Flinch’ on social media and that paragraph alone floored me. In plain terms, ‘the flinch’ is an instinct that makes us behave the way we do and in order to lead better lives we need to master this instinct. In this post I will be summing up what I found most eye-opening from the book but I encourage you to read the entirety of it yourself too. If you’re not big on reading, don’t worry it’s only 38 pages and is available for free here.

Smith begins by introducing the metaphor of a boxing match. Boxers are trained not to flinch when being aimed at, the average person is not. Fighters that don’t flinch are more likely to be winners and people that don’t flinch are likely to be winners in life. He then affirms the idea that the flinch is our opponent. Whatever our goal is, whether that be weight loss or getting a promotion, we have all the knowledge of how to achieve it. Yet somehow the weight stays on and we never get a raise. In order to achieve the things we want, to be winners in life, we need to train ourselves to reject that instinct to flinch in the face of fear or change or whatever else is holding us back.

Moving forward, Smith uses the feeling of when a character in a television show does something humiliating and you almost want to look away because you’re embarrassed for them. This is the flinch in action, but there’s nothing remotely dangerous or threatening about a fictional plot so why does the flinch rear its ugly head? He instructs us that we need to stop defending ourselves against non-existent threats. For many of us, our brains are wired to think that anything uncomfortable, any change, is something to be guarded against. When in reality, the new is something we need to embrace more if we wish to grow and succeed.

Julien Smith highlights how as kids most of us were not “spoiled by the flinch”. You fell off your bike, the monkey bars, out of a tree and you got up and tried again. The curiosity of wanting to know how things work prevents kids from being scared. They don’t know to be scared of things, so they just do them anyway. Those kids who’s parents did warn them off the dirty and the dangerous, learn to become careful. Which means they don’t get hurt or burnt or make mistakes as much. But Smith warns that lessons we learn best from are the ones we do get burnt.

“The anxiety of the flinch is almost always worse than the pain itself”

jULIEN smITH

The first line of the extract I included near the start, “you don’t know anyone at the party, so you don’t want to go”, is a perfect example of the anxiety of the flinch being worse than the thing itself. The number of times I have been invited out with a friend of a friend or to a party where I am not that close to anyone going and have turned it to down to avoid the awkwardness of not having someone to talk to and nothing to do with your hands. Then you spend the night of the party wondering what you missed, sitting on the sidelines. Which feels just as bad, if not worse, than sitting on the sidelines at the party. You never know who you missed meeting or the experience you missed having, all you know is that you were too scared to go for it.

I wrote this post a few months into my first year of university about putting myself out there, despite being scared to do so. I did not know this at the time but this was the flinch in action and because I wanted to meet new people and make new friends more than I wanted to stay in my comfort zone, I pushed the flinch aside. It’s funny looking back at this, because I now live with the girl from the movie night.

The section titled “Between You and The Fight” is about that almost imposter syndrome, where you think I can’t do this, so why bother trying. It’s about giving up before you start. This part reminded me of how your head tells you to give up long before you body would give out. Like when you’re doing a plank and you think a minute in, I can’t do this anymore and suddenly you drop out of it. Whereas, if you keep repeating I can hold this for another 30 seconds, you find you can. You can probably keep telling yourself ‘and another 30 seconds, another 30 seconds’ until your body decides that despite what your head is telling you, you can’t physically hold it. We almost have to train our minds to be stronger than our physical selves.

After this, Smith sets a homework task for us to help us resist the flinch in practice. Step into the shower and turn the cold water on. It’s shocking and uncomfortable at first but after a few moments of discomfort you get used to it. This principle can be applied to anything, from speaking to new people or skydiving. Despite being a fan of a steaming hot shower, I have started turning the water cold for the last minute or so of my shower and have found myself enjoying that wake up call.

Often I feel like I am almost on autopilot, the days can seem so repetitive and without doing something new regularly I can feel like I am not moving forward in life. Smith refers to life as a corridor when you’re stuck in ‘flinch avoidance’ mode. You can change your journey at any time by taking a risk, opening doors and making a new path for yourself. Even a small change, like a cold shower, can you wake you up and remind you to live in the present and continue make conscious decisions to do something different.

Our second homework task, is to smash a mug we dislike. The lesson is that to break out of our programming, we need a moment of strength. I understand and appreciate this lesson but unfortunately I own only 4 Starbucks mugs and I love them all, so I happily take the F on this assignment. It made me wonder though, when the last time I did something that required a moment of strength like that, to go against the grain. I think last week I did this, when I impulsively decided to cut in my own curtain bangs, in spite of all the warnings not to cut your bangs during a breakdown. In my case, it turned out okay and I think the wonkiness gives it character.

“If it is useful to do so, you must abandon your identity and start again. Sometimes, it’s
the only way.”

Julien smith

Have you ever grown apart from a friend, because they’ve changed so much you don’t have anything in common with them anymore? In these cases, it is easy to think of a person changing as a negative thing. When in reality, sometimes we outgrow ourselves and need to change just to like ourselves again. In school, I was constantly dyeing my hair and I tried out every label “grunge”, “goth” and “indie”, so on. Obviously, I look back at this time with both embarrassment and humour. Trying to figure out who you are does not stop after high school (secondary school for my fellow Brits). I don’t think it is necessary to know who you are, it is perfectly okay to just be, but there is some comfort in re-inventing yourself when you feel stuck. If nothing else, committing to working on yourself is never time wasted.

Surprisingly, Smith abandons why the flinch is a negative in the section “Use The Flinch” and directs us to use the flinch to our advantage. Instead of backing off when we feel the flinch, we should use the reaction to dart forward. In doing this, we are shifting from defensive to offensive. If you’re thinking this sounds good but I have no idea where to start, ‘The Flinch, a Checklist’ section offers small ways to embrace the flinch everyday.

The last homework assignment is to pass the book The Flinch on to someone else. You have learned what you need to know, so send it to someone you think might benefit from reading it. I elected to share it with you guys and I hope you found it an interesting read!

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