The Danger of KNOWING Thy Self
By Kim Clist Fons
Marta1 was a 56-year-old VP of Finance for one of the biggest tech companies in the world, ran ultra-marathons, was on the school board, and otherwise coordinated the lives of her husband and children. She had worked and paid her own way through college and grad school, climbed the ladder – climbed all the ladders – and still had the energy to be a rock in the lives of her friends and family. By all measures she was unstoppable. Then the impossible happened. A global pandemic rocked the entire world.
Don’t get the wrong impression. Marta did not crumble, at least not immediately. She pivoted herself and her entire team to a become virtual powerhouse, continuing to hit all the old benchmarks and even some new ones. She moved two of her kids home from college and home-schooled the third, adopted a puppy, and started a home reno-project. How did she manage it all? The same way she always had, executing a self-care regimen with exacting precision and dedication: exercise, healthy eating, yoga, meditation, girls’ nights out. She was the poster child for self-care, and she had a successful career and life to prove it.
The challenges of the pandemic were just one more ladder to climb. There was no pause or hesitation as she shifted every aspect of her life to reflect the same pre-COVID energy amid the new-normal. “I’ve got this” she told herself. And she did – for months – for a year...
Eventually, the stress and challenges Marta was carrying began to show to the Execs, to her team, and to her family. But the problem wasn’t that she was fraying at the edges. The problem was that Marta refused to see it. And she was about to crash, hard.
When I met Marta, she was about to return to work after recovering from a seizure and was desperate to find a way to better manage her stress. She wanted tips, tricks, and advice. Unfortunately for Marta, it wasn’t going to be that easy. I couldn’t tell her 10 simple steps to shed stress or 3 easy ways to relax. Marta was a master of succeeding and this was no longer about what she could do in order to .
Marta was about to come face to face with the biggest challenge of her life – herself.
“What if you just stopped doing all-the-things?” I asked her. “I can’t. It would make me crazy. It’s just how I’m wired. It is what I do. It is who I am,” she explained, as if telling me that water is wet. “Then why are you here?” And so ended our first conversation. It took her three weeks to reach out to me again.
Our sense of self, which mostly runs our lives, may give us direction and a sense of comfort, but it also inhibits our growth. We cannot learn, adapt, or evolve if we’ve convinced ourselves that we already know the answer. Top that off with the fact that our instinct to avoid cognitive dissonance2 under extreme stress reinforces a need to seek out information that supports our preconceptions.
It is true, Marta couldn’t change who she was, and truth be told, she didn’t want to. What Marta could change was how she chose to be who she was. This may sound a little wacky or “out there,” I know, but bear with me for a moment.
The key is to ask ourselves questions, and to thoughtfully answer them. We have to allow room for doubt and curiosity. To do that, we need to stop for just a moment. Stopping and reflecting turns off the autopilot mechanism in our brain and makes room for something else to be considered.
Stop whatever you were going to say, whatever you were going to do, and let your body, brain, and emotions just hang there for a moment. Many of my clients find that a physical action to punctuate the stop makes it more effective: a finger snap, planting your feet, counting to three – I advocate for a deep breath as well. You might just need it before challenging yourself with a few difficult questions.
What you ASK can and should change depending on the circumstances, but the intent is usually the same. They often reveal that the underlying problem/need is not what you originally thought:
When I work with my clients, I help them tailor versions of those questions to fit their needs, their lives, and their unique situation. The answers to these questions should give new information about yourself and open a space for acceptance. They will give you the freedom to choose what you are doing or how you are thinking. The ability to CHOOSE is what makes humans such incredible creatures.
- Why am I doing/thinking this way?
- What about that is important to me?
- What outcome is important to me and my people?
- What might be another option that still gives the outcome that is most important?
Marta and many of my clients – men and women – have discovered that accepting their limitations doesn’t make them feel weak or humiliated. It hasn’t prompted judgement or been the harbinger of failure. Instead, it gives a sense of release, authenticity, and helps them feel closer to their colleagues. And most importantly, it allows them to CHOOSE where they will spend their energy.
For all my Marta’s out there, my type-A hyper achievers:
By accepting what you do and do not have power over, by identifying what is important and why it is important, and by CHOOSING what deserves your energy, you actually take more control over your life – where it matters most.
1: Although I’ve changed her name, Marta is real. She gave me permission to tell her story. She asks that you offer yourself the same kindness and empathy that you are probably giving her right now.
2: Cognitive dissonance is a psychological theory referring to the mental conflict that occurs when someone sees, hears, or experiences something different from what they believe to be true. This pain usually results in a person fabricating something that will explain it away or to completely reject that the experience was real/true.