As a coach, enabling clients to have better self-management is usually the ultimate goal of any coaching assignment. Whether related to health, work or relationships, at the heart of what all of us are trying to achieve is better self-management. That is: the ability to manage our responses and emotions effectively, even when things aren’t going our way. The mistake most of us make at the start of this process is often twofold: firstly, we often don’t know ourselves well enough and secondly we confuse self-management with the ability or desire to control external factors. This month, I intend to focus on how you can achieve better self-management by avoiding the pitfalls of these two errors.
Often, one of my first tasks as a coach is to help clients discover better self-knowledge. This is huge as ‘our self’ is much more complex than we give credit for. We may use a handful of adjectives to describe who we are, but in truth this usually does us a huge disservice. Defining characteristics are rarely as defining as we think. This is something I understand first hand.
For years I thought of myself as an angry person. It seemed to me that there was plenty of evidence to back up that claim. I lost my temper too easily in my view, and people that knew me well from childhood onwards commented on it. Even until very recently, I thought of myself this way. It was only when I started to gain a greater degree of self-awareness that I started to question and eventually dismantle this definition. There were times when I kept my temper, plenty of them, but these went unnoticed – the times when I failed to being far more noticable obviously. I often went months without losing my temper, and the more I questioned this, the less angry I became also. This defining, unalterable characteristic of mine was actually no such thing. And the more I learned about it, the less frequently it was true. Don’t get me wrong, anger, along with a whole host of other adjectives, is a characteristic of mine that makes up ‘my self’. However, it is not the large, looming shadow over my personality that I believed it was for so many years. I don’t say this to blow my own trumpet, or claim to be an expert on anger-management. I say it to encourage you to ask you to ask yourself this question: how true and frequent are my weaknesses? By doing this you will notice not only the flaw in this singular definition, but the exceptions also. For example if you think of yourself as lazy, you may notice the occasions when you’ve been hardworking. When you find these exceptions you can then explore the who, what, why, where, when and how of them. With enough practice and reflection, the ‘lazy’ person can find their own strategies to become more hardworking. The same is true of any singular, dominant definition. The ‘I’ is too vast, shifting and complex to be reduced in this way, but humans like stories and stories are easier to tell if they make sense. A person who is lazy, strong, angry, patient, hardworking, jealous, tolerant, kind and ruthless is difficult from a narrative perspective, but it is often far closer to the truth of who we are in reality. Question your defining ideas and you’ll see that your narrative doesn’t hold up.
This leads to the bigger picture in exploring the self. Most of us can identify our flaws, weaknesses and failings in a heartbeat. Few of us are aware, or aware enough, of our strengths and highlights. Humans often are only able to hold contradictory beliefs on a subconscious level (cognitive dissonance) it’s often too confusing to hold contradictory ideas about ourselves. If you see yourself as a lazy, angry person then it’s hard to see that you are also kind, caring, hardworking, patient and tolerant – even if you can point to occasions that these qualities were patently obvious. So what we tend to do is attach ourselves to these more negative characteristics using the occasions we displayed them as evidence, and simply downplay or outright ignore our attributes that contradict these ideas. The sad irony of this being that, if we are paying attention, our attributes and the times we display them often outweigh many times over our ‘failings’.
Through coaching, people can overcome this first pitfall – how to firstly recognise when your weaknesses are most prevelant and how your strengths can help to overcome them. If you see yourself as an angry person, look for examples of how you overcame that anger. What did you do? How did you do it? What helps? When are you most vulnerable? If you say you struggle to get on with colleagues at work then what are the exceptions? It’s unlikely you are openly hostile and anti-social with everyone you meet on a daily basis so how are you managing to get on? What qualities do you display to manage this problem? Continuously looking for exceptions to perceptions will help you to unlock a greater self-awareness and more tools in the kit of self-management.
A second obstacle is often what I call delegation. In other words an insistence that the problems you are facing are completely dictated by external circumstances. This is rarely the case. Whilst I would never be dismissive of a client’s situation, it is rarely the dictator in solving an issue. A colleague at work may be difficult, time may well be limited, your spouse may be uncaring but none of these factors are within your control. How you respond to them both practically and emotionally is.
In CBT this is sometimes what’s known as A to C thinking. That is the mistaken belief that an activating event (A) causes an outcome (C). So for example a client may say ‘my husband is a drunk(A) so of course I’m depressed(C).’ This may well sound perfectly reasonable but the logic is flawed. If this were true then it would be universal and every single person who was living with an alcoholic spouse would be depressed, and that simply isn’t true. Don’t get me wrong, it hugely increases the liklihood but it doesn’t dictate in the same way that laws of physics dictate (it doesn’t matter how you respond on an emotional and cognitive level to jumping off a block of flats – the result will be dictated by the physics!) and if it doesn’t dictate it means that we can influence it.
The truth is that what largely dictates our emotional well-being is our reasoning and processing. This is the missing ‘B’ part of the equation. In other words, what beliefs you hold and your processing of A is a much more important factor in the outcome at ‘C’. So if you hold the belief that ‘my partner shouldn’t drink so much, it’s not fair and I clearly don’t matter to him’ then you are more likely to be depressed than if you hold the idea of ‘my partner drinks too much, maybe they’ve got problems, I’m going to try to help them.’ Whilst this is no guarentee of happiness, this line of thinking is inherently more optimistic and likely to have a more positive impact on your own well-being. It is also worth remembering that at any point we have choices over whether or not to remain in the relationship and that our choices are always worth exploring. If we choose to remain, we are ultimately saying that ‘this is what we prefer.’ If so, then why? (I am of course assuming here that the person is not under physical duress or threat.) There is of course no right or wrong answer here, but it is only by questioning our beliefs and reasoning at point B that we will get the answers we are looking for.
This is a very simplistic view of CBT but it’s worth remembering that however dire external circumstances may be, if you are unable to change them then the only paths open to you are to either remove yourself from them (changing jobs, leaving partners etc) or to change the way you think and feel about them. This isn’t necessarily about some sort of psychotic optimism or hiding behind a fake smile, but genuinely challenging the beliefs that you hold about the situation in order to improve your own well – being. If you think this is too much to ask of yourself, consider this: by remaining miserable about circumstances you cannot change you are essentially punishing yourself twice – the original punishment of the situation or person and then secondly by your own mind.
If, at this point, you still feel that it is necessary to change external circumstances such as your job, partner, house etc then before doing so it is worth reflecting: have you done this before? Did it work? Is this a pattern of behaviour in itself you need to change? Or has the situation gotten so truly intolerable that this is what’s required? Again there are no right or wrong answers here, just questions to explore the motivation. Leaving an unhappy relationship will obviously improve well – being. As will getting a more fulfilling job and often a fresh start in a new area improves people’s outlook. But if you are flitting from job to job, place to place and from one bad relationship to another, it may be time to look at your reasoning: are you focussing too much on external factors when it may be more beneficial to look at your own reasoning?
By discovering and accepting the total truth about yourself and your situation you are well on the path to greater self-management. But this is an ongoing process; observation, reflection and questioning of oneself are habits to be formed, not a quick fix easy solution. It takes time, patience, setbacks and practice but the rewards are well-established. You will often find that you are stronger, more resilient and more capable than you believed. You will come to a greater understanding of yourself and you will come to forgive your failings a little easier (you will still have them, you’ll just learn to stop identifying yourself with them) and start to literally play to your strengths.