The business review meeting is dragging on from one disappointing fact to the next and Alba is impatiently waiting for her turn to speak: her division has some encouraging results, which will hopefully help improve the gloomy moods. As she sets up to speak, her colleague Marc blurts an impromptu comment: “Look forward to hear what you plan to do with your Alex! He is pissing off everybody.” Alba feels a pang in her stomach and a rush of emotions prompts her to defend the unpopular Marketing Director; but she quickly changes her mind…
After a second, Alba smiles at Marc: “Thanks for raising this point, she kindly tells him, I will make sure to address talent development within my review” and she calmly starts her presentation. Her demeanor indicates that she is clear about her priorities, but not dismissive of others’ inputs; confidently able to select and address the constructive part of Marc’s comment (concern for behavioral training of talents) without responding to its less constructive part (negative single-sided judgment); assertively determined to keep the dialogue on business relevant topics, not to let it drift towards potential ego clashes; and in peace with herself. In fact, everybody can tell that Alba feels in peace with and that she is being her genuine and brilliant self.
Simple enough? Well, it has not always been this simple.
In the past, Alba would have reacted in either one of these less effective ways:
Interpreting Marc’s comment as a personal attack, she would have reacted to the “provocation” at once, fiercely raising in defense of Alex, head-on questioning and invalidating Marc’s judgment, going to great lengths in explaining and justifying her own people management abilities and choices. In this process, she would have lost track of allotted time, having then to rush through the presentation within the negative halo effect of a defensive start.
Or, making the assumption that Marc intentionally wanted to send her off-track, she would have resisted the temptation to react, forcing herself to “take a deep breath, count till three, and refocus”. Yet, Marc’s comments would still be in the back of her mind, and she would not be able to be at her brilliant best, with doubts, frustration and anger occupying her unconscious brain.
Or she would have taken the comment as an indication of her inadequacy; thoughts like “I should have prepared for this” and “I should have an answer” would have clogged her thoughts and made her insecure and defensive.
In all three cases, her mind would have been occupied by thoughts of the self. She would loose focus, stop caring for the business, and forget the importance of the review. In stead she would be filling her head with strong emotions like anguish, worry, insecurity and hurt: she would be preoccupied with protecting, defending or doubting her self-image. In a nutshell, she would have become self-conscious.
All of us have experienced something similar, moments when we get so absorbed in thoughts about our self-image that we forget to be present with our full self. For each of us there may be different types of triggers, different paths of thoughts, different depths of “distraction” (or obsession) and different lengths (from minutes to hours or days). Yet we all experience this “unproductive state” one time or another. And every time we become self-conscious, we lose presence and effectiveness; we use so much energy in obsessing about our self-image that we actually sabotage ourselves; when we are self-conscious we are not our best.
How do we minimize spending time and energy in this unproductive state? The simple answer is: moving from self-consciousness to self-awareness.
The Path from Self-Consciousness to Self-Awareness
Unlike self-consciousness – which is also described as being consumed by the thought of the self – self-awareness is the knowledge of ourselves that puts us in the driving seat of our own life.
The first step is to accept that being self-conscious is an important protective mechanism that has its place in our development as adults with a critical mind. Being “afraid” of giving the wrong impression is a very legitimate preoccupation, for example in a delicate negotiation; as it is natural and legitimate to be “afraid” of being insufficiently thorough in our analysis; or insufficiently clear in a presentation. Such preoccupations are what keep us alert and alive. When we are proactive about such preoccupations, for example when we ask for feedback or double check our results, the protective mechanism works well. It is when we stop being proactive and exaggerate that the problems start.
Thus the second step is to learn to recognize when we go too far in our “being afraid”: if we find that we spend a lot of time pondering our preoccupations all alone (e.g. preparing a defense before double checking if we are in fact being attacked) or in retrospect (e.g. turning thoughts of “I should / I should not have” in our head), then we are going too far. As we learn to “catch ourselves” getting into this state, we can learn to step back and put things in perspective. Sometimes this is all it takes. Sometimes it is not sufficient.
Then the third step is to learn to recognize the beliefs and values that ignite our defense mechanisms; in the example of Alba, she believes that “anybody who wants can learn” and prides herself of having excellent people development skills, thus she knows that she is very sensitive to challenges in this area (threats to her self-esteem). This knowledge helps her put Marc’s comment in perspective; she knows that she is probably assuming the worst and therefore gives him the benefit of the doubt, refusing to respond to a provocation that most probably is only in her head. (Note that whether or not Marc intended to attack her is NOT Alba’s problem, her problem is the effect that her believing to be provoked has on her effectiveness)
The fourth step is to establish a reference. There is no better motivator than experiencing at least once the excitement of feeling free of fear. With the help of her coach, Alba learnt the first three steps and gradually managed to catch herself going into negative loops; at the same time she learnt to be kinder with herself: in stead of beating herself for falling into a negative loop, she learnt to acknowledge her desire to honor her values while cutting herself some slack. The moment she was successful in her efforts, the path was downhill. Now, every time she is on the verge to fall into the negative loop of self consciousness, she reminds herself of how wonderful it felt to experience being present, brilliant and effective; this allows her to leave aside the self-consciousness and use her self-awareness to be her self at her best.
This is the way Alba describes her experience: “Before it was like trying to clean the attic in darkness, all of the time anxious that something unpleasant would fall onto me or jump out of corners; I was accomplishing very little with great effort and I was exhausted at the end. Now it is like if someone had turned on the light: I clearly see what needs to be done, am relaxed, accomplish a lot in less time and I am not tired”
She has hung a poster in her office that quotes: “It is yourself-image which is unhappy, not you”.
Copyright © 2014 Laura Lozza
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