Behind Every Good Leader #3: Gaining Self-Awareness
- If attachment style begins to develop during early childhood experiences, is it even possible to change?
- I can identify myself in some of the examples of anxious and avoidant attachment styles described in previous posts, and I don't like it! How do I get rid of these tendencies in myself?
- What can I do to begin feeling more secure, both in my leadership role and in my personal relationships?
The answer to the first question is yes, so feel free to breathe a sigh of relief! Although our early childhood experiences are highly influential in how we experience others and ourselves, we now know that our brains change and grow throughout our lifetime. What this means is that even if your childhood was less than ideal, experiences of trust and connection in adulthood can change the way your brain processes interactions with others. You won't ever completely get rid of your instinct to withdraw or lash out when you feel threatened, afraid, lonely, or abandoned. But you can gain an increased ability to regulate your emotions and behavioral reactions. The process of change begins with self-awareness.
It is best to do the exercise I'm about to describe with your eyes closed to allow yourself to focus your attention inward. This exercise will help you to gain some awareness of your internal emotional landscape when you are under stress.
Close your eyes for a moment and recall a time at work that was particularly difficult for you. Perhaps you were having a conflict with a coworker. Maybe a supervisor was giving you negative feedback. Perhaps you were delivering bad news to an employee. When you have a specific event in mind, reflect on these five questions:
- How did you behave in response to the situation? Perhaps you did not communicate clearly. Maybe you became defensive. You may have maintained a semblance of calm during the interaction, but maybe you were inefficient and distracted for the rest of the day.
- What did you think about the other(s) involved? What did you think about yourself? Generally, these thoughts focus on global, negative labels we place on others and ourselves (e.g., irresponsible, failure, unreasonable, not good enough).
- What was the first emotion you noticed yourself experiencing? Usually the first emotions we notice are things like frustration, anxiety, or anger.
- What deeper, more vulnerable emotions did you experience? These emotions are typically related to fear, inadequacy, or worthlessness.
- What basic, fundamental needs did the experience touch on for you? Common examples are needs for approval, perfection, control, respect, and love.
Now that you have participated in this exercise and taken some notes on your behavior, perceptions, emotions, and needs in a stressful situation, I recommend that you continue to use it to gain increased self-awareness. When you find yourself in a stressful situation this week, whether at work or at home, reflect on the five questions above. After you've reflected on these questions in response to several interactions, notice the themes that are common across incidents. What are the common emotional experiences and needs you deal with, regardless of the details of the situation?
In my next post, I'll talk about how your internal process interacts with the internal processes of others. In the meantime, enjoy gaining more understanding of your internal emotional landscape.
*The exercise in this post is based on the work of Dr. Sue Johnson, developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy.