The role of a coach is to help clients bring clarity to their plans and lives, and a big part of that is helping to build self-awareness. It is a fundamental belief of mine that a coach cannot do this well without a continuous practice of cultivating ones own self-awareness.
At present I’m doing this by reading Michael Singer’s book The Untethered Soul, which is truly an essay on the topic.
There is a passage in that book that bears further thought:
… the most primal energy flow is the survival instinct. During eons of evolution, from the simplest of living forms to the most complex, there has always been the day-to-day struggle to protect oneself. In our highly evolved cooperative social structures, this survival instinct has gone through evolutionary changes. Many of us no longer lack food, water, clothing, or shelter; nor do we regularly face life-threatening physical danger. As a result, the protective energies have adapted toward defending the individual psychologically, rather than physiologically. We now experience the daily need to defend our self-concepts rather than our bodies.
What this is saying is that the power of all of the evolutionary forces that have created the highly evolved human species now are applied to perceived threats to our self-image. So capacities once applied to dealing with sabre-tooth tigers and hunting food for the family now are applied to what others say and do to us! If we haven’t developed our self-awarenss, we may also be less aware of our impact on our happiness or on others.
The strongest of these capacities is our fight, flight or freeze response. Each of us likely has a favorite of these “f words” but we probably emply each at times. Which one we use isn’t as important as knowing when we are using any of them.
That’s the trick – figuring out when our self-protection devices are defending our self-image so we can decide if we really want to use our emotional energy on the focus of our defensiveness.
Our defenses get activated in many ways.
- We see something that causes a reaction, for example jealousy
- Someone says or does something that triggers an emotion
- We are self-critical of something we did or failed to do
- Our ethical norms are creating judgments of others.
The commonality among these items is that each becomes an object of our emotional attention, whether that be internal to us or the action/inaction of others. We allow our “f words” to take control of our response to these objects without any conscious awareness of whether that is what serves us best. By becoming proficient at recognizing when this is at work, we receive many benefits, including:
- Better personal effectiveness
- Stronger interpersonal relationships
- Increased potential for growth
- Maximized happiness
Here are three steps to making this a reality in each of our lives:
- Learn to feel it kick in. This is easier said than done. Our self-preservation systems are our oldest emotions, coming from our mammalian roots. When activated, that portion of our brain actually releases a chemical that suppresses our human intellectual capacity. This worked for saber-toothed tigers. It is less effective in a work conflict, for instance. So it is hard to think our way through such a situation until we can get control of the response. One of the best ways to do that is to identify the physical feeling associated with our “f words”. There may be more than one feeling, and each will be associated with certain perceived threats. When we are in a heightened state, we are much more likely to be able to identify a somatic sensation than the logical root of the issue. Once we get practiced at identifying the somatic sensation then we can practice activating our intellect and clearing out the chemicals so we can respond more logically.
- Decide whether it is worth it. It is important to remember that we have evolved this “f word” response system for valid reasons. It is supposed to protect us from valid physical threats, and those have not been entirely eliminated from our world. Just drastically reduced. At times, self-image protectiveness might still warrant a response from us as well, but before we consider that we should consider whether the threat is real, or whether someone has simply touched a soft spot within us. For example, I know I am sensitive when people talk over me. I feel unimportant and dismissed. I feel it as a tightening in my chest. Depending on the topic, I tend to respond either with a sharper than required “let me finish” (fight) or by withdrawing from the conversation (flight). When I feel it kick in, I can take a breath and check in whether what I had to say was truly important to the group or whether it was just my known soft spot vying for attention.
- Let go when it’s not worth it. In my example above, let’s assume that this was not a situation that needed self-protection. If I don’t properly recognize that and don’t shut it down then I proceed with putting a barrier around myself to make sure I’m safe. I stew about it and rationalize to make it feel better to me. I try to know what happened so I can more quickly defend myself next time. If another person is involved I might make up a story to make them the villain. All of these things simply ensure that we continue to carry the situation with us into the future, impairing our effectiveness, relationships and happiness. That sounds like too high a price to pay to accommodate a non-critical outside force. That leaves only one other alternative. Let it go. By going through these steps we should have the scenario and emotions held clearly in our mind and we simply say “go away” and deliberately disconnect from them. If they come back, continue to look for what you are hanging onto, and consciously let go of that additional thread.
What this process ultimately does is provide us the freedom to own our own experience without any dependence on the behaviour of others. It does take a lot of practice, and my sense is that it is a life’s work to master it. Start with smaller situations. As you become comfortable try it on more intense situations. It’s worth the effort.
The reward, after all, is our ultimate emotional freedom!