Leading From Within

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the statesman
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the statesman

Many powerful people have discussed and described leadership. The hallmarks of leadership include creating a vision, establishing a direction, and demonstrating by example how to pursue the path. As I reflect on those I consider great leaders I think of people such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Gandhi. Certainly they were vocal, strong in presenting and pursuing their visions and voicing their passion, most definitely important aspects of leadership. However, they each learned leadership through the crucible of life which honed and prepared them for their mission. They first had to lead from within, so that their integrity shone forth and their personal power established. Without first mastering themselves, and demonstrating leadership of themselves, they would not have had the same power to shape nations.

Imagine spending over 20 years in a prison cell. The courage and the conviction required to abide the appalling conditions Mandela suffered enabled him to emerge as the statesman he is. Gandhi’s did not invent his ideas on nonviolence on a whim but as a result of years of struggle, including imprisonment, and demonstrated conviction to his values. Martin Luther King grew up with a full understanding of oppression, and knew it was dangerous to seek change, but had a vision, a dream, and was willing to back it.

To achieve leadership greatness one must, I strongly believe, lead ourselves first and foremost through and out of our own darkness. All through our life we have built up layer upon layer of programming, training, behaviours, attitudes, beliefs, addictions, emotional responses, social expectations etc. These cover up and detract from our clarity over our life purpose and the values that are core to us. We establish protective mechanisms that keep us safe, maintain security and levels of certainty, but which also rob us of the ability to align with and act in accordance with our core purpose. Cutting through the façades we have built around our soul so we can shine forth in the fullness of who we are is a powerful process and requires deep commitment to self, and personal leadership. Success in this endeavour provides the substance for and basis of our personal power. It enables us to manifest leadership to others because we have triumphed within ourselves.

Fundamentally it is pain and pleasure that motivates us to action. We avoid pain and seek pleasure, with pain taking precedence over pleasure. We grow up with experiences shaping our beliefs, attitudes, values and perceptions. We learn who we are and what behaviours are acceptable, and which are not, from our primary care givers. We associate pain with non-conformance, from failure to work within norms and social boundaries. We associate with groups (friends, colleagues, gangs etc) and learn of the rules for reward by these groups. Obedience to norms carries rewards. Breaking from the norms, being odd or different, carries penalty and pain. But a leader cannot work in the norm, as an average person, as part of the group. At some point they must assert themselves, separate from the group, and come into their own space.

Most people start learning this as teenagers, rebelling from parents and choosing another tribe to belong to. They move from one social group to another, establish different patterns and norms, and feel they are closer to being themselves. Later they discover it was their desire to belong that motivated them so they were still being managed by groups. Some never get over this, looking outside themselves to satisfy their need for acceptance and belonging rather than from within themselves.

When pursued further, the maturation process eventually leads us to question who we are, why we are here and what greater purpose we serve. The recognition of our individuality, our uniqueness, and the possibility that we have value enables us to seek within for our gifts. Discovering and being true to who we are becomes important. There is a shift from seeking love and acceptance from outside to a place where we provide that to ourselves, and become less bound to the whims of our “tribal” groups and roots. However there is also pain in this process.

Shifting our focus from outside to inside us requires us to meet and confront all our fears, insecurities, debilitating attitudes and behaviours, and find ways of putting them behind us. Some of us have powerful inner critics that berate us as our parents may have. We hear the piercing criticism from within with greater clarity than the scolding we may have experienced in younger days, which can stop us in our tracks. Whether it is the voice of our inner critic or the rigid walls of protection we have erected over the years, they stop us shining, and to truly emerge we must overcome them. If we stay bound to our insecurities we shun the opportunity to change and to transform ourselves from part of the pack to the leader we can be. If we seek to change ourselves through coercion and internal aggression and anger we have simply substituted the voices of our experience with our own tormentor. We emerge when we have found ourselves to be lovable, acceptable and perfect as we are, and truly believe that. That is not saying we are perfect. Goodness, what is perfection and who can judge that? It is saying that we are entirely acceptable as we are, that we have our own uniqueness based on who we are and what we have experienced, and everything has brought us to this point in life, and all of this is perfect and right as is.

To lead others we must lead ourselves. We must be able and capable of dealing with adversity, the naysayer, and find ways through and out of those difficulties. Our ability to deal with and manage external adversity and opposition is much greater when we have mastered the opposition that comes from within us. Our ability to lead with clarity and conviction in public is greatest when we have already managed that within ourselves in isolation. Perhaps being in prison for 20+ years is something that could benefit everyone. Certainly it provides time to reflect, see ourselves more clearly and deal with our personal demons. However not all of us need to change whole nations. We have good we can accomplish by remaining engaged in the world, but the battle within is just as real. A growing number of people are learning the benefits of meditation, yoga etc for stress relief. Some find it painful because they slow down a little and start to see themselves more clearly, and find things they judge as unacceptable or wrong with them. If we wish to lead others effectively then we must have already learned to lead from within. We must have confronted ourselves and been victorious in engaging with and being comfortable in the presence of our own voices and messages from within. We must have learned about tolerating and working through the issues that surface from our past. We can be hampered by insecurity and doubt or develop a powerful love of ourselves, warts and all. None of us can become entirely free of these things, but we can develop comfort for and appreciation of the fog we create in our lives, and find ways of charting through them. For as we move through our own internal fog we develop the capacity to lead others through theirs.

I have always found the following an inspiring statement:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Marianne Williamson, “A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles”

The more we connect with ourselves, and manifest the greatness within, the greater our capacity to work through life, deal with issues, and exhibit personal power that will inspire others. If you wish to lead others, then first lead yourself.

Where are you in the process of developing personal power and governing yourself? What barriers have prevented you achieving the success you desire? What behaviours and attitudes diminish your ability to lead others and create change within your organisation? As you learn to lead from within you also gain greater understanding of the issues and barriers faced within organisations and how to work through them.

Engaging Our Humanity

Diverse group of school children
At what stage do we differentiate ourselves from others based on difference?

Diversity is about acknowledging and honouring the difference in people and groups. By necessity that is the difference between ourselves and others in terms of what we value, how we view the world, what we each consider makes the world work best, physical and cultural characteristics, and any other form of difference that may be recognised. Over the past few months I have become increasingly aware of examples where difference is feared and of behaviours used to distance self from those who are different. The key word to summarise these behaviours is ‘Objectification’, a process of dehumanising others so what we think, feel or do has less personal/moral significance.

There are many forms of objectification. Some historic and current examples I am aware of include:

  • A common complaint by women is that men objectify them. A woman, for instance, is seen for sexual utility, and not for the person she is. I grew up with the proverbial Playboys under my bed, and I spent a lot of time noticing ‘attractive qualities’ and disregarding those I deemed unattractive. As unpleasant as this demeaning process is, it is very common. Now with the availability of pornography, objectification of those meeting a person’s sexual preferences is even more prevalent and pronounced. They become sexual objects to be used, whether in reality or fantasy, rather than people who hold intrinsic value as themselves.
  • In 1974, Marina Abramović, a performance artist, stood for six hours with the audience invited to use any of 72 objects on her as they desired, Marina taking full responsibility for the consequences. Some were objects of pleasure. Others were destructive. Initially little happened, other than photographers taking pictures. Then people started to touch her, move her. She was then touch intimately. Items were attached to her. A man cut her neck with a razor blade. Her clothes were cut off. A loaded gun was put in her hand and aimed at her head. By the end of six hours Marina’s body was a canvas of how others had objectified her and taken licence because she was “an object” and they faced “no consequences”. When the six hours was finished, the gallery announced the exhibition had concluded, and Marina then moved and walked among the audience. No one would engage with her, experience the confrontation of what was done by them to a real person. (See article about the exhibition and an interview with Marina Abramović about the exhibition)
  • Hitler’s regime is well recognised for concentration camps and the heinous treatment of those sent to the camps. Jews are well known as targets of the cruel and barbaric treatment. Other groups singled out for specific attention included blacks, homosexuals, gypsies, those with disabilities, among others. Growing evidence highlights North Korea’s atrocious treatment of their own people, where three generations of a family may be sent to “work” camps for life for supposed crimes of one of the family. Starvation, torture and other acts of cruelty are alleged to abound. Recently allegations have been made that Chechnya has set up internment and torture camps for anyone who is, or is thought to be, part of the LGBTQ community, with abductions and murders apparently becoming more prevalent.
  • In the early 1970’s Ford fast-tracked its design and production of the Pinto, getting it to market with a design flaw it knew about. A low speed, rear-end impact caused the fuel tank to rupture. Deaths occurred. It took the tragic deaths of three teenagers in a fire ball, as they were going to church, to initiate a recall. Part of the decision to release the car with a known severe fault was a cost-benefit analysis. A dollar value was placed on a person’s life, and the fix (about $10 per car) applied to all cars cost more than the likely number of deaths multiplied by the value of a human life. In this case a human life became a financial object and an unethical decision was made.
  • A common approach within organisations is to consider and treat people as resources. This allows the utility of a person to be assessed, valued and applied (or discarded) based on operational merit. The approach allows decisions to be made that impact people with the decision maker holding a sense of distance from the human consequences. The same is true of a general choosing to send military forces against an enemy. While such analysis and decision making is needed for the machinery of civilisation to grind on, they are example of objectification.
  • People with Autism (and Asperger’s Syndrome, which has now been merged into Autism) tend to view other people as objects in their world, without much or any of the usual sense of human connection. Their objects can be interfaced and interacted with. There are objects that hold more meaning than others, such as parents, who are familiar and serve a more significant function than others. Those with Autism rely on objectification to define their world.
  • Stereotyping, whether by age, religion, gender, education, culture, colour, or any other attribute, is used to define difference and distance self from the group based on difference. That ‘difference’ may be perceived similarity when speaking as ‘we believe…’, ‘we want…’, ‘we hate…’ etc.
  • Gossiping is a marvellous way to objectify. The target of such stories, whether those stories are fact-based or not, becomes isolated and excluded from the group, the object of bullying, without necessarily knowing it is going on, by whom or why.

The antidote for objectification is engaging your humanity, which enables us to see and recognise the intrinsic uniqueness and value of each person, and feel compassion. If we hold a question open around who they are it is more difficult to objectify and dehumanise them. Their “differences” become a matter for inquiry and inquisitiveness, a chance to meet someone new and perhaps gain an alternative perspective on life. Often our fears of ‘the other’ are rooted in ignorance, and insecurity about our own sense of self, and whether we will survive meaningful connection.

How many wars, crimes and aggressions would happen if both sides truly sought to understand the views and perspectives of the other, allowed themselves to see the humanity (including vulnerabilities and frailties) of the other, without wishing to crush and exercise power over them.

In what ways would the assessment of a person’s value shift in a business environment if more humanity was applied? How would it impact culture and values of the workplace?

How do you recognise, acknowledge and value difference? In what ways do you objectify others? What would happen to those relationships if you were to connect with them with genuine interest to know them as people of value? Would decisions and actions you take in work and other settings be different if you recognised the humanity of those your decisions impact? Have you ever tried to reverse roles with others to gain insight into different views and beliefs?

If you choose to engage with this area of exploration, it can open a rich wealth of learning and meaningful human connection.

Pause Your Judgement and Notice the Beauty

Steam locomotive
A beautiful example of a steam locomotive

I had a wonderful experience the other day that reminded me of my own biases and judgements. I got to see them clearly, and the beauty that exists in those I might judge. I was richer for the increased awareness.

I caught the train into Wellington city and one of the conductors collecting tickets walked along and clicked each ticket and said in a very robotic, short, sharp fashion, “Thank you.” He was stern looking and seemed quite stiff in his body. Click. “Thank you”. Click. “Thank you.” Click. “Thank you.” My judgement: he was bored to tears and going through a learned process or routine. Then magic happened. He finished the ticketing process and stopped to chat with a small group. His whole being softened. His face lit up. He changed roles and was instantly a bright, engaging, excited and friendly character. In that moment, for me, he shifted from being alien and difficult to fathom to a beautiful and vibrant human being. I got to see the problem with my own biases and judgements.

Judgement is a very natural survival- and fear-based process that occurs within milliseconds of meeting anyone. It enables us to simplify the complexity of life and make decisions quickly. It was massively helpful when walking around a corner and meeting a sabre toothed tiger or a mammoth, or a strange cave person. It does help us now as well. Is this a hostile or a friendly audience? Is my customer pleased to see me, irritated, or angry? Judgement is natural and essential. It is not always accurate. Some of our judgements are biases we have learned, as children from our parents or from our own experiences. Often they are very contextual and then get applied generally. They limit our openness to others, particularly those we judge as different.

A friend of mine, who has some clear understanding of some of his biases, was taking his daughter to choose a new school. In meeting with the principal, he heard, paraphrased, “We are largely a white school”. His response: “I may be a racist but that doesn’t mean my daughter has to be.” They went looking for a different school.

Research highlights that diversity in our teams and organisations creates an environment where we get better solutions and results. The varied opinions, experiences, thinking processes, however annoying we may find them from time to time, create variation that challenges and improves the outcomes.

I remember an organisation that decided project managers must be Myers-Briggs ENTJ. Any other type was excluded from being a project manager. Their projects all had a common look and feel, and failed to respond to variation in a similar fashion. It is difficult to learn from others when those others are the same as you. In a different organisation I had consulted with them for several months, and had worked with the manager in a different context for several years. Then, because he was considering offering me a permanent role, he had me psychometrically assessed. I did well in all the cognitive and behavioural aspects, but he turned me down for the role because, in his opinion my Myers-Briggs suggested I was a business analyst, not a project manager. That was a thoroughly unscientific judgement based on his own misuse of the tool. This was in spite of him having observed me as a successful project manager in a variety of different contexts over the years we had known each other.

What challenges are you aware of in building diversity and inclusion in your teams and organisations? What benefits have you noticed? What judgements get in your way? Do you surround yourself with those you feel comfortable with or do you actively engage with those who are different from you, who may challenge your ideas? What value is lost when there is a push for sameness rather than diversity?

What Story Do You Carry?

You get to choose which stories you use!
You get to choose which stories you use!

I felt moved as I read the transcript from a Ted Talk given by the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie, titled “The Danger of a Single Story”. She spoke of her early love of reading, initially always Western children’s books. When she wrote stories in school they mirrored what she had read, not her experience. Later she went to university in the USA. Her roommate met her and voiced stereotyped expectations of her, a view developed from the stilted view portrayed in Western media of the African “country”. A professor even rejected her writing, now of her experiences in growing up, as not being authentically African, because she wrote of reading and speaking English, having a happy childhood, and not to his flawed idea that all of Africa was war torn, starving and destitute. She shared other stories of a similar ilk.

We all carry stories. A few may be inspiring, liberating and expansive. These rare gems will act to open the mind to possibilities and lift judgements placed by others to uncover potential. I am all for this type of story.

Generally, the stories we naturally carry are restrictive, declaring the nature of groups and individuals based on their fit to some specific characteristic. As such they cloud our ability to see others as they are when the stories we apply (without even realising it!) rule out any other possibilities as being reasonable. They get in the way of us appreciating the diversity of others. They are essential for bigotry to occur. The stories separate people, cultures, groups, nations, political parties, gangs and peer groups. Their liberal use stops us seeing others for who they really are, and connecting in a meaningful manner. With a story clouding our perception we tend to mentally validate our story by finding any matching attributes, and filtering any mismatch. It is a mechanism the brain uses to simplify processing the complex data. It leads to erroneous and limiting judgements: “This person is a … therefore”:

  • they are …
  • their experience and background is …
  • they judge me as …
  • they expect …
  • they cannot …
  • they don’t know …
  • they value …
  • They are different from me because …
  • they should be [pitied / hated / loved / shunned / included / excluded / listened to / … ] because …

And so the list goes on.

The really interesting thing is we also can and do carry stories about ourselves. All the above may be rephrased with “I” instead of “they”. We then have a belief about ourselves that indicates the story we hold about who we are, what we can achieve, our strengths and weaknesses. This story is often inherited from our childhood, and we then fail to update the story as we grow and develop. We can hear old stories of ourselves from inside that are long out of date. Unchallenged, they persist. Even when they are challenged, these old familiar stories return on the slightest indication that they will be tolerated.

A great thing about coaching is the powerful assistance it can provide in recognising and adjusting the stories you work with.

How Can I Respond Usefully to a Story I Carry?

First, recognise that any of the above sample scripts, or others similar in intent, are running. Whether about you or someone you are meeting, these statement of judgement are a clear indication a story is running, that you are generalising about this person based on some arbitrary criteria.

Second, acknowledge to yourself that this process is limiting your perception and there may be a different or broader perception to be had of this person. Again, this applies as much to stories about ourselves as it does of those about others.

Third, ask questions of yourself that open your mind to alternatives. Examples include:

  • What [does this person / do I] bring to this situation that is of value and different from what I know (I.e. my current story)?
  • What do I notice about [this person / me] in this situation that is outside my previous experience (I.e. Different from my story of them)?
  • What is one thing of value [this person bring / I bring] that I hadn’t recognised and acknowledged? What’s another one?

Each of these questions serves to challenge the mind in a way the mind likes to be challenged. They are open questions asking for investigation and inquiry. The mind will respond with answers, and in so doing will have to adjust the story it was carrying. That said, some stories are so deeply burned into our psyche that it will take many such intentional challenges to create a shift to a new one.

Forth, actually engage with the person in an open dialogue, mentally holding the possibility that your story is incomplete or incorrect. Become a ‘naïve inquirer’ and ask questions of them to understand who they really are and what matters to them.

One of the stories I carry about myself is “I am inadequate.” That shows up in almost every context, is generally thoroughly unfounded, and the monotony of repeatedly retraining my brain can be frustrating. However, the breakthrough of doing so is worthwhile because then I shift mentally and emotionally into a free space where productive action becomes possible. In fact, when I step out of my story of inadequacy the question about success does not show up. I am in the “zone” and make things happen as a matter of course, the mind not interfering.
What is getting in your way with yourself or others? What groups or individuals do you exclude because …? Are you prepared to entertain the possibility that the stories you hold may be invalid, even if only for the person in front of you?

Freeing yourself of the limiting effect of stories opens the possibility of new and exciting opportunities, relationships and outcomes. Which of your stories needs to be dropped? All the best with the adventure of redrafting your world through changing your stories.

Reclaiming Self, Again

Dark, dreary and forlorn
When all seems dark and dreary… how do I find and reclaim myself?

The world seems dark, closing in around me. My vision has dimmed. My inner emotional and mental turmoil grows. Dense, dark clouds of desperation choke me. I feel like I am losing myself, my grip on reality, and wonder how or why I should carry on. And only moments ago I felt okay. What changed? Why am I pitching and tossing as though I am in a tiny boat on a raging ocean storm? Where is my virtue? Why has my positive sense of self vanished? Why do I feel abandoned and alone? Is there a way out of this seemingly impenetrable darkness? Why can’t light flood in as easily as the darkness? What am I to do?

Ever known moments or periods like that? I have. It can seem like goodness has evaporated and darkness is all that is available. What causes such experiences? How can such moments/periods be overcome? Answering questions such as these was part of the motivation behind my book, Appreciate the fog: embrace change with power and purpose. I continue to experience and learn.

Many things can create the loss of light, disconnection from what feels positive and good, and plunge us into chaos, confusion, and uncertainty. Trauma certainly can. New trauma messes with our sense of safety and trust. Events may remind us of past trauma and return us emotionally and mentally to old states. Loss, and the accompanying grief, is another trigger. Losing someone through death, capability through illness or accident, a job through retrenchment, or any number of other sources, can cause us to question life, purpose, and our place in the scheme of things. Shame can trigger the downward spiral or dramatic plunge, as the case may be. It could be through returning to an old habit, one we thought we had beaten, or being reminded of something we have done that we regret. Shame can also accentuate the downward process initiated by other causes. This one has a fabulous ally in the descent into darkness, our inner critic, who, through shame, has received a package of evidence of our uselessness as an individual. We may have a massive job disentangling ourselves from our critic’s habitual negative messages before we can even consider climbing out of the pit. The critic is such a potent voice, and if we attack the critic for being critical, it only serves to strengthen the critic and deepen the hole we are in. There are many other triggers that can take us down.

With the brain surgery I had several years ago came a raft of such roller-coaster experiences. It was traumatic in the extreme, far more so than it actually seemed to be. One moment I was fine. The next I learned I had a life threatening tumour, and had life-saving and life-changing surgery with loss of physical function and capability. It is all invisible disability, but I know it is there. So does my critic. Every now and then I find myself back in the negative soup, needing to yet again extricate myself. In response to the trauma, I found myself plunged back into unproductive patterns I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager where I had little trust that I would be okay. For all the miraculous outcome of the surgical intervention, a brain tumour does highlight safety concerns, and I found myself working with very old patterns and attitudes: isolation, distrust of others and life in general, and a generally bleak mental outlook. “There goes 30+ years of personal work down the toilet” was one of my evaluative internal comments. “Hey, I have written a book about this stuff. How could I get caught in this trap?” Pretty easily actually. The brain never drops old wiring. We may manage to create new pathways and implement new habits, including mental and emotional responses, that are useful and forward moving. In some ways trauma can unearth disused paths and bring them back into use. The difference this time however is that I have worked my way through and out before.  I am armed with that knowledge and capacity. This whole process became another chance to bed down the restorative processes, and heal past old hurts at a deeper level.

So, how can we reclaim ourselves at such times? This is the equivalent of redeeming ourselves from hell, the turmoil created within one’s psyche by mental and emotional processes gone awry. Some examples of methods for reclaiming self include:

Implement new positive routines. These have the effect of reminding ourselves we matter and provide positive feedback and self-care. For me, something as simple as stopping each hour to do a few stretches that break up my day of sitting and working on the computer makes a massive difference to my sense of self and my outlook.

Inventory the qualities and virtues you seem to have lost, and reclaim them. When I hit these sorts of dark places I tend to lose playfulness, trust, hope, delight, innocence, many other child-like qualities. The world seems to be too big, bad and unsafe, so they get stowed for a brighter day. Without them the brighter day doesn’t actually happen. Check in on what you don’t seem to have access to, because you have hidden them away, and reclaim them. Bring them back into active use. For me I metaphorically throw my items into a sack I carry on my back. To reclaim them I go through a process of recognising that has happened, and mentally opening and exploring my sack to find the qualities I want back. Sometimes I use a physical bag full of items and enact the process to strengthen my mental and emotional connection to reclaiming myself. That has a great effect in opening my awareness, establishing the importance of the qualities I am reclaiming, and reasserting them as valuable and available in my life. The world gets brighter in that moment.

Practice loving and accepting yourself. A simple way of doing this is to say: “I love myself and I accept myself, even though I don’t understand myself… and I forgive myself.” You could even list the things you find difficult to understand about yourself. This phrase asserts love and acceptance without judging yourself as good or bad . You can up the experience by standing at a mirror, taking up your own gaze, and then saying it. Do this multiple times and notice your inner response to yourself saying such a simple statement. I find this is an invaluable feedback mechanism. Any difficulty I have when holding my own gaze and saying this statement quickly informs me how strongly judgemental and unaccepting I am of myself in that moment. Staying with myself, when it is difficult, and finding a way back to loving and accepting myself, is a powerful, valuable, and often challenging, investment in self.

Phone a friend. Reaching out can be an incredibly difficult action when surrounded by your judgement of how pathetic you are. A real friend loves and accepts you even when you don’t know how to. It is a great lifeline to have and call on when the moment requires it. If you don’t have a friend available in the moment of crisis, call a helpline or see a counsellor. All these options are positive steps that say “I want and deserve better for myself.”

Gratitude. Find and name a few things for which you are truly grateful. If you can’t find anything, ask yourself what you could be grateful for, and then be grateful for that, and for asking the question. If you have done any of the previous actions, or anything else that works for you, express gratitude to yourself for doing them, for investing in yourself. Work with whatever small sliver you can find, and build on it.

Practice while the going is good. Build up your capacity to reclaim yourself when you don’t need to. It is easier to hit those negative experiences if you are already resourced. As challenging as my process of working through my surgery and aftermath has been, it has been much easier for having already established mechanisms for reclaiming myself. There have been times when, regardless of all I know, I wondered what the point was, but underneath I have known there is a point, and I that I could find my way back.

These are by no means all you can do. What are ways that work when you need to reclaim yourself?

Refer to “Reclaiming Self” for an earlier article on the same subject.

Easier Can Be Better

Taking the easier course of action
Easier can sometimes better

Tremendous energy can be poured into changing old patterns and behaviours. When you identify some quality of yourself that is not working for you, the tendency is to place enormous attention on changing it to a satisfactory behaviour. For most of us, that is accompanied by our internal critic working overtime, that voice within us that speaks into our middle ear about how we don’t measure up, won’t amount to much, and are under performing. The more effort we exert to change, the greater this voice that articulates all the accumulated negative feedback of our past becomes. It can become a riot in our mind. Even without the critic, and there appear to be the fortunate few with that blessed silence, focussing on changing old patterns tends to be a long and relatively unrewarding process.

Neuroscience has identified that once a neural pathway is established, and only a few repetitions are needed for the brain to adopt and establish a new pathway, it is almost impossible to remove. The best approach for change is to bed down another pathway, and place attention on asserting that behaviour until it becomes dominant. Rather than remove the old pathway, the idea is to create a newer, more productive, and more frequently used, pathway that makes the less productive pathway irrelevant through disuse.

I had an experience of this recently. Following significant surgery I had earlier last year I have found my confidence when facilitating groups markedly diminished. The degree of nervousness prior to running a session was significantly greater than my pre-surgery experience, and after I completed a session I found my critic undermining me for the most insignificant of reasons. However, when I was actually in front of the group running the session I had almost none of those issues, finding myself comfortable and increasingly fluent in my facilitation. On a recent weekend programme, the struggle against these before and after pain-laden attacks on my psyche were particularly pronounced. Rather than fretting over the behaviours that were undermining me, I shifted my focus by firstly sharing very simply with others I trusted that I was anxious, struggling, and otherwise authentically expressing and naming my experience in the moment. This had the effect of diminishing the energy building up around the anxiety, and curbed it. I then found that my capacity within a session improved because my warm up to it was cleaner, and the post-session internal shame game also diminished. As the multi-day programme unfolded I continued this practice and found that the confidence was easier to achieve as I owned my anxiety without making a big deal of it. I consciously placed my attention on the outcome I was seeking, a fluid and confident facilitation session. My focus and attention was very much placed on the outcome I sought rather than on changing the old pattern of anxiety, and the transition felt relatively smooth.

When you have an unproductive behaviour that is dominating you, perhaps you can identify what you would prefer to do instead, and find ways of asserting that behaviour, rather than condemning and “changing” the old one. Some ways of supporting and enabling such change in oneself can be journalling, enlisting the support of a coach, and developing awareness of your inner mental and emotional world to determine the most opportune intervention to offer yourself.

Reclaiming Self

The innocence of children
Children, relatively free of protective patterns of behaviour

When we are born into this world we are innocent (in my belief system) and unfettered by protective patterns of behaviour. As we experience life, encounter pain of varying kinds, we learn to erect protections to keep us safe. These become increasingly complex as layer upon layer of protection is established in response to all that life throws at us. Each protection requires energy from us to support and maintain, and as a consequence robs us of our life force and capacity to freely respond to life. It is often a crisis that makes us aware of how our behaviours interfere with our ability to engage with life in a meaningful way. We may experience ourselves as “too…”, an indication that our internal Critic or Judge (or external, when heard from those around us) considers us as having wandered from appropriate expression. Examples include “too volatile”, “too reserved”, “too pleasing”, “too aggressive” and any number of other judgements, singularly or in combination. These behaviours, when the judgement has some merit, have typically been developed in response to our needs being unmet and us seeking to satisfy them to the point that the behaviours become patterns that are applied without conscious thought, long past their use by date.

In becoming aware of such behaviours, perhaps through the failure of relationships, difficulties fitting in, negative feedback from multiple sources etcetera, the question then arises ‘What should I do about me?’ The process then becomes a matter of reclaiming oneself and finding ways of freeing our life force, returning to a spontaneous, creative and adaptive way of living, being better able to respond positively to the present.

In my own life this process started with a crisis of identity in my early 30s and has subsequently seen me free myself up and how I live and present myself to the world, an ongoing process. Earlier this year the surprise need for life-saving surgery plunged me into a whole new cycle of self-reclamation. The process of recovering from surgery required adapting to the loss of hearing in one ear, and developing physiological strategies to compensate for impairment in my balance processes. The physical recovery, while being a challenge, has been easier in many respects than the process of reclaiming my concept of self. In many respects it is as if the surgery sliced through significant protective mechanisms and unleashed old patterns of thought and feeling that I haven’t seen since I was a teenager and that I found particularly difficult in the first instance. Now, it is difficult seeing poor concepts of Self return, but at least they do so in an environment where I know I can process and work through them in a constructive fashion. In a sense, a very real sense, I’m back to dealing with old issues all over again. The reality however is that I am now working at a much deeper level, as if I have taken the head off and am cleaning out an infectious boil, rather than dealing with a superficial spot. While the issues are similar, feel very familiar, and are, I am better equipped to deal with this new level of emotional healing than I have been previously. The act of staying engaged with what arises within me, riding the wave as it forms rather than trying to escape it, will eventually lead to me being freer than ever before.

Some ways of engaging in the process of reclaiming Self include:

  • develop capacity to identify and observe behaviours in yourself that do not fit well relative to how you would prefer to be and what would work best in your context
  • develop love and acceptance of self that is free of needing to understand why you behave as you do and that opens you up to being able to forgive yourself unconditionally
  • define your core values, life purpose, vision and mission which will provide you with clarity about how you would prefer to live and present yourself to the world, something to aspire to
  • establish goals for moving forward into new, more productive, behaviours
  • find trusted individuals who are able to provide you with love, support, and constructive feedback
  • recognise that life is an ongoing journey and while you may have a preference for where you end up, and how you behave, perfection is out of the question and any vision you hold is a guide rather than an edict that must be obeyed at all costs
  • appreciate the fog that arises when life serves you growth opportunities, and allow that fog to water your life as rain does fertile soil

Through these approaches we can reclaim our lives, incrementally bring ourselves back to a fully free and available space to manifest our full, unfettered potential.

Construction Zone, New Development Underway

Construction zone
Construction zone, new foundations forming

A specific change within ourselves may be initiated for any number of reasons. Two significant motivations include recognising and consciously deciding to attend to an underdeveloped or absent role that we require; and a specific situation demanding responses that we are unable to sufficiently offer. Whatever the catalyst for personal change, the more dramatic the change and the urgency or drive to change, the greater the upheaval you will experience. It can look very much like your inner being is a construction zone. Internal structure are pulled down, old patterns and beliefs that have been dormant may be liberated and occupy your psyche, even if unconsciously, and groundedness may disappear while a new foundation is formed. This all depends on the magnitude of the change. Life crises can often stimulate such upheavals, with examples of such events being birth of a child or grandchild, divorce, illness, death of a loved one, or the proverbial “mid-life crisis”.

A recent example from my own experience has been recognising patterns I have around taking leadership roles. Based on my life and experience there is no question that I can step into leadership and do well. However, my journey into leadership often takes me through one of the following routes:

  • If others are seeking the leadership role, I step back and say to myself, “Let them have it.”
  • If no one wants a leadership role (or it is an initiative I have started), I throw myself in with energy and gusto.
  • If I am invited into leadership, there is some degree of internal resistance that doubts my capacity and pushes the opportunity away.

All of those being true, I have sometimes surprised myself and moved forward with a degree of ease, though internal resistance invariably manifests at some point.

Lately, as I have recognised these patterns more fully, I have decided to develop my capacity to gracefully claim leadership, step into the space and occupy it with a sense of ease and belonging, and allow myself to be seen. Sounds easy! What a journey it is so far. In a recent situation where I was facilitating I was feeling great, owning the space, and fully there, and then familiar voices sounded off in my head that I was inadequate, should not be there, and I would surely fail. I realised that the difficulty for me serenely and gently occupying space is that I then hear the cacophony of voices that pull me down and back. That moment became a process of choosing to stay in that space, recognising all my own internal nay-saying voices, expanding my capability for intentionally remaining in leadership and cutting, or at least acknowledging and loosening, the bands that hold me to past experience and beliefs. In the meantime my internal world is in a state of relative turmoil, with anxiety and shame being merged with excitement and hope of a new way of being. This is a great time for me to appreciate my fog, recognising it is a natural part of the process of change, and that at some point the dust will clear. Then, I will have easier access to the new capacity forming within me.

What do you do when the fog arises from within? Do you allow it to be, and recognise it as a natural and necessary part of the process of change, or do you avoid the change or otherwise attempt to suppress the fog?

From the book…

Appreciate the Fog book image
‘Appreciate the Fog’ book

Whether we have a positive attitude to personal learning and growth or require life circumstance to motivate us on to a path of self-exploration, life as an adult is about unlearning deficient patterns and opening to new ways of being authentic. It can be exciting, is every bit about growth and development as growing up from baby to adult was, and it will involve pain insofar as we resist the unfolding. Through this process, we gain access to our unbridled potency, our power, and can return to manifesting our true and full essence.

Co-Counselling: A Doorway to Self-Directed Healing and Transformation

I have been practising Co-counselling for over six years, and as a result I am equipped to process emotions, identify and resolve patterns of belief and behaviour that get in my way, and am able to create my own positive future. These and other outcomes are directly accessible by learning and practising Co-counselling.

I became aware of Co-counselling as a result of the Essentially Men programme, the skills learned being a core to the programme. As I learned Co-counselling my capacity to work with myself and support others increased; I became more emotionally competent. Now, as a facilitator of Essentially Men programmes it is a vital part of my tool-set.

When I first attended training I realised I was harbouring significant anger and was distancing myself from women because of a then recent betrayal by a woman who had been a dear friend for many years. Consequently I would not allow women close to me, and I was failing to form and maintain intimate relationships. I carried so much distress that I didn’t know how to act differently. As a direct result of my Co-counselling training I was able to identify and dislodge patterns based in fear, grief and anger, and opened up to new possibilities. I was able to re-engage with women in an open, wholesome way, and that led to healthy relationships.

The ability to identify my core needs, the distress associated with them not being met, and discharging the built up energy, has enabled me to autonomously direct my own healing process. I have become my own healing detective, able to find a symptom that indicates a blockage in my own flow of life, and track back to the source and resolve it.

Far more than focusing on and healing past hurts, Co-counselling supports and encourages actively creating positive futures. Validations are core to the practice, tapping into the positive truths we hold about ourselves, and expressing them, perhaps reversing what may be a lifetime of self-criticism. Action planning is used to map out next steps. Celebration magnifies the positive experience of success and acknowledgement. These are founded on authentic connection with self, and not on the fabricated distress of a lifetime of pain. Learning the skills and practices of Co-counselling is liberating and enlarging, and enables you to write a new script for your life. I have for mine.

More than at any time in my life, I am now living the life I always wanted. I am married to the woman of my dreams. I have written the book I had known was in me. I am increasingly working in the way I have always dreamed of. I am manifesting my purpose and vision more fully than ever before, and I know that more is to come as I continue to open to myself and allow my essence to emerge with greater freedom and passion.

I have learned that how I feel is not hard-coded. I can change my experience, my attitudes, beliefs, patterns of behaviour, and even how I feel. I am captain of my ship, navigator of my life, and that I have proven I can withstand storms with a certainty that comes from knowing and loving myself. And Co-counselling has assisted me to achieve this.

If you are struggling with self-limiting beliefs, burdened by pain that seems unrelenting and overwhelming, are deafened by your own internal voice of criticism, or want to shape a better future, I encourage you to add Co-counselling to your toolset. It is personal and portable, can go with you wherever you choose to travel. It will assist you to feel and experience life more fully, so that whatever you believe and want to create can become a reality. It will bring you into community with others who are interested in creating a better planet by creating better selves, themselves, and then living their purpose more fully.