To Lead Better Under Stress, Understand Your Three Selves

To Lead Better Under Stress, Understand Your Three Selves

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A year into a global pandemic which upended how we work and live, the complexity and intensity of the challenges many people are facing exceeds their emotional resilience. And the understanding what’s happening in your body, mind, and emotions is at least as important to sustainable performance as the skills you bring to the work you do. The authors began to look more deeply at how we react to different levels of stress in our lives. They present here a roadmap for better stress management grounded in the premise that human beings don’t operate from a single stable self. Rather, we unconsciously move between three primary selves — the child self, the defender, and the adult self — which vie for attention and control, depending on the demands we’re facing.

Alice is the 38-year-old CEO of a New York-based consulting startup that was growing rapidly when we began working with her in early 2020. Then the pandemic struck. Alice was compelled to quickly pivot the company from providing most of its services face-to-face to creating a comparable level of personalized attention for clients online.

At the same time, Alice took charge of the virtual schooling of her 7-year-old and 5-year-old. Her husband helped, but as a hospital-based physician, he continued to go to work, putting in long hours. Alice was cut off from friends and neighbors who lived nearby, and from her father, who typically took care of her children when they weren’t at school.

At first, Alice considered it just one more challenge to conquer. She was confident that she could handle it, as she had with so many past setbacks. “I’ll get through it,” she told herself, only to discover after many months that there was no end in sight. Along the way, Alice’s assistant, a single mother, decided to quit, overwhelmed by trying to juggle work and parenting by herself.

As Alice’s business struggled, she felt increasing anxiety and disconnection from her virtual team. She began to doubt that they were working efficiently, and became more directive. In turn, they felt micromanaged and distrusted. Alice also found herself fighting more with her husband and losing her temper with her children.

During the past year, we’ve heard countless variations on Alice’s story. Over time, what became clear is that treating the symptoms wasn’t enough. The complexity and intensity of the challenges our clients are facing exceeds the complexity of their current thinking and their emotional resilience. We began to focus not just on the “what,” but also on the “why” — the underlying cause.

What we realized is that the self that mostly runs our lives may protect us from our worst fears, but it also stands in the way of our growing, learning, adapting, and evolving. In addition, our unconscious instinct, especially under pressure, is to seek out information that reinforces what we already believe.

If the demand on your computer exceeds its capacity, you can upgrade the operating system. But what does it take to upgrade your internal operating system? Understanding what’s happening in your body, mind, and emotions is at least as important to sustainable performance as the skills you bring to the work you do.

Influenced by neuroscience, trauma-informed care, and attachment theory, we began to look more deeply at how human beings react to different levels of stress in our lives. Our developing roadmap is grounded in the premise that none of us operates from a single stable self. Instead, we unconsciously move between three primary selves — the child self, the defender, and the adult self — which vie for attention and control, depending on the demands we’re facing.

Understanding the Three Selves

The first self, which appears as soon as we’re born, is our child self: It’s the most helpless, under-resourced, and easily threatened of our three selves. It’s also the most playful, curious, and full of wonder.

As children, we are often powerless, counting on others to take care of us. As we develop more awareness, capability, and autonomy, our child self’s experience of powerlessness and vulnerability becomes increasingly intolerable to us. To cope with the threats we face, we begin to form a second self: Our defender.

What we didn’t see when we first wrote about the three selves is that our defender ultimately becomes the dominant player in our lives. It doesn’t show up just when we feel threatened and we move into fight-or-flight. Rather, it’s the primary self we inhabit for most of our lives. Think of it as the persona we wear in the world. In the absence of stress, our defender can be focused and productive, even compassionate and winning. But it’s also hypervigilant and highly reactive to any perceived threat to its value.

As Alice’s defender moved into fight or flight, her capacity to think rationally and reflectively gave way to fear and defensiveness. Just think about the most recent time you felt triggered. How did you react? Perhaps you lashed out in anger, judgment, or blame, as Alice found herself doing. Maybe you moved to harsh self-criticism, or simply pushed your feelings aside by distracting or numbing yourself. These are all ways that our defender seeks to protect us from our child self’s experience of unsafety, unworthiness, and fear.

Our most capable and mature self is our adult self. It shows up in moments when we’re at our very best. Only our adult self, for example, is capable of observing when fear or anger rise up in us, but rather than acting on those emotions, treats them with care and compassion. The adult self is also in charge when we can sit with a colleague, a direct report, or a friend who’s struggling and hold space for whatever they’re feeling without judgment.

But it’s surprisingly challenging to access our adult self, especially under high stress, when we need it most.

Simply being able to distinguish between our three selves is a powerful first step. Much as a well-regulated parent can soothe and create a safe space for a child who is melting down or acting out, so our adult self is capable of compassionately soothing our child self’s distress, rather than feeling threatened or overwhelmed by it.

Only our adult self has the capacity to see and accept all of who we are. By creating a safer internal environment, our adult self can also free up our child self’s best qualities: spontaneity, curiosity, creativity, wonder, and joyfulness.

The heartening news is that even small shifts in awareness can have a disproportionate impact on our behavior. Over time, Alice became more able to observe her selves — first the way her defender rose up in the face of threat, and later her child self’s deep experience of vulnerability and fear. She discovered an experience of compassion for both her child self and her defender, which she’d never felt before.

Much the way Alice was able, at her best, to soothe and create safety for her two young children when they had meltdowns, she found she could do the same for herself. Calmer and more self-regulated, Alice was also more empathic in dealing with her colleagues, less overwhelmed by her challenges at work, more creative, and more able to be the parent she wanted to be. When we began working with her team and encouraging more open dialogue, they became better sources of support to one another.

Accepting and owning your limitations

Numerous leaders we’ve worked with — men and women — have discovered that accepting and owning their limitations and missteps hasn’t prompted the experience of weakness and humiliation they feared. To the contrary, it left them feeling less defensive, more authentic, and more easily able to connect with their colleagues.

Four steps have proved to be key in this journey:

  1. Begin to notice what you’re feeling in your body under stress. Any time you feel “less than” or “better than,” for example, it’s a sign that your child self is feeling threatened, and your defender has moved into fight or flight. Strong negative emotions such as fear, frustration, impatience, and anger are another sign that your defender is activated.
  2. When you sense in your body that you’re triggered, slow down to self-regulate. Take a deep breath. Name your emotions out loud, which helps you move from being at their mercy to observing them with more objectivity. Movement — especially oscillating or pendulating — can also help. Think of the way you instinctively hold and rock a child to calm them down.
  3. Rather than judging or criticizing yourself, acknowledge and embrace your negative emotions and shortcomings. Yes, they’re part of who you are, but they’re not all of who you are. The more you can accept your selves, the less you have to defend. As you self-regulate and bring your adult self online, you’ll be able to think more reflectively, compassionately, and wisely about how to address whatever challenge you happen to be facing.
  4. Get more comfortable with your discomfort. Discomfort is a prerequisite to growth and change, but we are taught to equate it with danger. Psychologist Resmaa Menakem makes a distinction between “dirty pain” — the chronic pain of seeking to suppress, deny, and blame others for our fears and vulnerabilities — and “clean pain” — the inevitable discomfort that comes from questioning our assumptions, facing our fears, and taking responsibility for our missteps.

Alice’s biggest breakthrough occurred when she was feeling most overwhelmed and powerless. “It suddenly occurred to me,” she said “that the worst things I felt about myself were true, but they were only a part of who I am.” It’s only when we can accept all of who we are that we feel truly empowered, and able to empower others.

Editor’s note, April 13: We updated the authors listed for this article to reflect additional contributors.

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