There is a very real likelihood that your idea about yourself is not your real self; it is quite likely one that you have fashioned in response to other people’s ideals about people like you. Social convention means that many of us have become unhelpfully identified with our personal and professional roles and quite often forget that we are not defined by these roles, we are defined by our soul. It is that confusion that has caused us to force rather than flow and measure success in terms of making a living instead of making a life.
We each of us develop a number of behaviour patterns, some unconscious, others fully conscious, calculated and deliberate that are designed to support the story we tell ourselves. The stories are intended to ensure that we are accepted and can belong in the groups in which we seek to be included and not be excluded from the groups in which we conditionally and, sometimes precariously, belong. The desire to fit-in inevitable leads to our making edits, adjustments and adopting inauthentic behaviours.
One of the most common stories of all, especially amongst high achievers is that we must not fail – ever. It is not an option because it’s part of a complex web of self-identity where what we do, and how well we do it determines who we are and how people perceive us. This idea of ourselves (and the accuracy or distortion of that idea) affects the way in which we respond when failure does, inevitably, occur.
Learning to thrive in adversity is both an intellectual and emotional journey. The emotional component is often overlooked, especially in a left-brained world where logic and analytical assessment are prevalent. We are so caught up in what we must do, we often forget to really pay close attention to how we feel. However, it is fundamental because emotion when broken down, is literally “e-motion” i.e. energy-set-in-motion by our reaction to our environment, circumstances and life events. When these emotions are healthy, they act as adaptive responses to given situations and those responses have a sense of appropriateness. However, when events cause us to feel stressed, we find ourselves living in emergency mode, and there are any number of distorting lenses we tend to see the world through when we are in such a position:
- The imposter syndrome lens; which blurs our vision making us appear to ourselves as frauds. Through this lens even unqualified success simply means that you didn’t get found out – today!
- The people pleaser lens; distorts the size of others out of all proportion and shrinks us. If we see a need to live for other people’s approval, we risk being killed by their rejection.
- The fear of failure lens; makes even the light dark – when this is our view then to fail is to be a failure.
- The perfectionist lens; forms a pressure inside the mind’s eye such that it is unable to discern between the virtue that is excellence and the dis-ease that is perfectionism.
In these circumstances we are surviving not thriving.
Having spent more than two decades having supportive conversations with high achievers it has become abundantly clear to me that what was happening in these conversations should be characterised more as being life coaxing more than life coaching. Far from being semantic, the differentiator between ‘coaching’ and ‘coaxing’ is crucial. In what I call life coaxing, the answers lie within. The challenge is to enable people to be who they really are. And herein lies the great mitigant – ‘It is hard to be who we are because our great fear is that, that doesn’t seem to be what anybody wants.’ But let me tell you, Kierkegaard, knew that of which he spoke when he said “the most common form of despair is not being who you are.”
It is a painful irony to know that we are at liberty but yet we are not free. Not truly. Many of us are imprisoned by something. We are prisoners of performance believing that by doing more or getting more or being more, that we will be loved more and valued more. Many of us have lived all our lives with the ache of the unmet need for meaning and acceptance, living with guilt, the fear of failure, anxiety and the deep-seated belief that our best might not be good enough.
I am sure many can relate to what it feels like to have relationship status, a comfortable home and a full set of consumer desirables; yet a sense of restlessness; difficultly in connecting with our loved ones and feeling unfulfilled in our jobs. We can be awoken by the discovery that a person’s net worth is no guarantee of a sense of self-worth.
We may feel the sense of a dark shadow cast over us in the sense of unhelpful comparisons to siblings, partners, friends and colleagues and the overwhelming sense that we might be forgotten; as though life is a cruel game of emotional snakes and ladders. Each time the dice lands on a snake, the accusing voice of under-achievement whispers ‘Loser!’ in our ear. Somewhere along the way many of us have picked up the idea that acceptance is a results-related business.
Self-Acceptance, not Self-Improvement
When life is presented to us as a self-improvement programme, it simply feeds the results equals acceptance addiction. This addiction is mind-altering, affecting the way we see ourselves and others, and makes us paranoid about the way we are perceived. We often don’t think of ourselves as addicts, but I am sure many of us acutely know what it is to feel that you have to work harder than other people in order to get recognition. How many of us are forever comparing our lot in life with the lot of others?
These Feelings aren’t Unique
Whilst we may believe we are the only person feeling the way we do, we are not. Most if not all of my coaching, or rather coaxing, conversations with high performing people are about self-identity self-image and self-esteem.
There are at least five things that shape the image we have of ourselves, any one of which can cause a Performance Addict to turn to activity.
- Parental influences
- Life experiences
- Unreasonable and/or unattainable standards
- Unwise comparisons
These things provide emotional background music and inform every decision we make. Having spent most of our lives seeing someone else’s reflection when we look into the distorted mirror of self-esteem, our self-perception becomes an issue. Nothing seems to bring any sense of fulfilment; we have unwittingly become hooked on performing by receiving messages that love and approval are conditional.
People change when they hurt enough that they have to, when they know enough that they want to, and when they are loved enough that they are enabled to. The great breakthrough comes when we acknowledge that we don’t have a success problem; we have a belief problem. We understand perception – that the reason we do the things we do are because we think the things we are thinking, and the reason we think the things we are thinking is because we believe the things we believe.
Well-being has become part of our vernacular as a phrase to help us thrive. However, to truly be well there should be a more overt distinction to the terminology and two very different types of well- being; subjective and emotional. Subjective well-being has to do with happiness, and the difficulty with this is it depends upon happenings. If I have good happenings I am “happy”, if on the other hand I have “bad” happenings i.e. things don’t turn out the way I want them to or I don’t like, then I am “unhappy.”
Our relationship with happiness is fundamentally intertwined with the way in which we see ourselves, however happiness is conditional; it depends on our circumstances. It is about us being happy because of what’s happening rather than being happy, no matter what’s happening. Emotional well-being however, aims at something deeper – its goal is contentment rather than happiness. Contentment is not hostage to circumstances because it is unconditional. Well-being is really being well in the moment, and how to thrive in the here and now.
As long as we insist on making the link between affirmation and performance, we will never experience freedom. For some, we come to a place where we have no option but to stop. In so doing we eventually find hope. As Glouberman puts it, ‘‘We won’t stop, so burnout stops us. We won’t make a space for ourselves, so we burn out and all we have is space. And it is out of that space that the joy eventually comes”.
- Our strategies to make life work are bound to fail and this, in fact, is their redemptive quality.
- In order to escape from this paradigm of self-effort, it will be necessary to relinquish self-validation. If you are going to THRIVE in adversity you will need to forego self in any and all its forms including self-reliance, self-confidence, self-assurance, self-pleasing and self-authentication.
- In the extreme this surrender to self-effort comes in the form of burnout which Freudenberger defined as “a person being in a state of fatigue or disillusionment brought about by a dedication to a way of life which failed to bring the expected reward”. Everybody must first exhaust their own resources in a way that is personally impactful to them before such moment(s) can be experienced.
- One of the great problems of our age is not that we fail, it is that we haven’t failed enough. Not nearly enough. A great sadness being not that we die so soon, but that we take so long to actually live.
To finish, allow me to offer this simple (but not simplistic) left-brain and right-brain model, one that will appeal to both the analytical and the artistic sides of the brain called T.H.R.I.V.E. If practised assiduously it will inevitably help you to avoid choosing maladaptive responses to stressful or difficult situations. One thing for sure it will help us to manage our own inclusion and lead ourselves and others with humility, empathy, grace and compassion in these uncertain times.
© Paul Anderson-Walsh for The Centre for Inclusive Leadership 2020