“Are you sure you want to do that?”
“What if people don’t like you?”
“What if you get it wrong?”
“What if you’re not successful?”
Do any of these thoughts sound familiar? As a Certified Professional Co-active Coach, I knew these thoughts as my saboteurs – the voices that would show up when you try to change something in your life.
These saboteurs show up, get in your way, and try to impede the change.
Richard Carson’s book Taming Your Gremlin was an early triumph in framing the discussion on the negative mental chatter all of us experience. He referred to our saboteurs as different personifications of the gremlin, describing it as: “a vile, vicious, villainous, insufferable bully lurking in the shadows of your very own mind.”
More recently, Shirzad Chamine’s Positive Intelligence points a way forward to dealing with what he refers to as “your internal enemies: the voices which seek to attack, hobble and thwart you in your pursuit of what really matters to you.”
But what if these voices were not your enemies?
What if trying to defeat them was not only unhealthy, but actually counter-productive?
An alternative perspective on these “voices in your head” is that they are simply “parts” of you which sometimes have something useful to say. Developed by Dick Schwartz, Internal Family Systems Theory (IFS) applies systems thinking to human beings: Our mind is made up of sub-personalities which each have their own perspectives and qualities.
What if they wanted to protect you?
Jay Earley posits that rather than being saboteurs, our parts want to protect us; that rather than being the enemy within, they are a resourceful part of us, vigilant for threats which might harm us.
They are just like your own children.
The challenge with our “parts” is that they are formed when we are younger and not yet well equipped to deal with the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of the world around us. Their desire to control or cope with a situation, provoke conflict, withdraw, or whatever their response might be, is based on our experience when they were formed.
Unfortunately, while we get older, our parts remain frozen in time. Put another way, the response that might have worked for you as a frustrated eight year old – tantrum collapse, withdrawal, manipulation – does not work for you anymore as a 50 year old leader in a large organization, or 35 year old entrepreneur trying to realise your dream!
What is it that they really want?
As a leadership coach I have had to explore which of my parts show up when, what brings them out to play, and what it is that they are trying to protect me from.
I became aware that I had an angry part that would show up when things didn’t go my way. Not the Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson kind where it flares out in a burst of sound and fury, but one that would get frustrated, annoyed or angry, and would want to express that anger. I have another part which would then say “keep it inside” and tried to keep it shut off from the outside world. That part would say: “You shouldn’t be angry. You shouldn’t be feeling that. You shouldn’t over-react like that.” You can see the pattern.
I needed to get conscious that when one part was angry and the other felt like I shouldn’t get angry, my adult self was allowed to choose how I wanted to behave. In other words, I could consciously choose to get angry. While part of me saw the relationship cost of getting angry, I came to realize that there was cost of repressing my anger: I also repressed other emotions and sacrificed my pursuit of goals and my vision for fear of damaging relationships if I expressed how I really felt. That was the cost for letting that younger part of me choose my behaviour. That was the cost of letting an 8 year old part of me lead.
I took me a while to accept that my “parts” were part of me, not sabotaging, external critics or gremlins inside my head. My parts had a role to play in protecting me as I grew up, but I outgrew those parts and I needed to transform my relationship with them.
Be kind to them, be curious about what they need from you, but don’t let them drive the car!
Why does that matter? As a leader, whether I am leading from the front or the back, the side or the field, I need to be able to choose my response in any given situation and not react based on the fears and anxieties of my inner 8 year old. My inner 8 year old is a lot of fun, but that doesn’t mean that he gets to drive the car whenever he wants to.
Put differently, I need to act from my Self – my empowered, adult self – who sees things from the vantage point of 50 years of experience in a multitude of countries, organisations, contexts, and relationships.
Because if a leader isn’t acting from Self, there is likely a scared or pissed off 8 year old behind the wheel of a very expensive car, driving a little too fast and erratically for everyone’s good.
Who’s sitting in your driver’s seat?