A woman I know was preparing to interview for a huge internal promotion. She hired a coach to help her develop her C-level persona so she could really step into the role via body language, leadership awareness, and even wardrobe. Throughout the exhaustive rounds of performance interviews, she kept a confident stride and spoke authoritatively with the partners on how she would add to the culture. There seemed to be no other candidates with her qualifications. She had a good feeling about it.
She didn’t get it.
As you can imagine, it was a harsh disappointment. All the pictures of how her life would change, the excitement of stepping into a deeper level of personal and professional authority, now had nowhere to go. Even though she still had a job, there was emotional loss. And as you may well know, loss involves a whole subset of feelings including shock, sadness, anger, etc.
As the woman recounted what happened, she shared quite a bit of narrative that was not applicable to the situation: “I’m an idiot.” “All that work for naught.” “I think they hired the other person because of race” and “I’ll never have a job that really suits me.” As she continued, she became more and more morosely focused on the apparent truths of these statements, rather than on the feelings of the loss itself. In this way she collapsed her heretofore incredible feat of self-leadership.
Can you relate? How did she come to the conclusion that her work advancement was over? Or that the loss of a potential job is confirmation of her personal inferiority?
It can be difficult for many to differentiate between the feelings that a situation evokes and the fictitious, negative interpretation of the events. I experience this confusion in myself and witness it in people frequently when they encounter unexpected events that spark uncomfortable feelings. A woman getting divorced at 45 claimed that she would probably never fall in love again. A man who lost his job went from the shock of “I can’t believe I was let go” to “I am such a loser . . . I’ll never get another job” within seconds. Feelings of discouragement, outrage and rejection are normal in these painful circumstances, but the idea that you are loser doomed to perpetual single-hood or unemployment is not a feeling; it is a baseless conclusion.
The events and interactions in our lives are always knocking us off center. As bad as it may feel to call yourself a loser, it might actually make you feel stable in the face of inner upheaval, chaos and the void of the unknown. If you feel certain that you are a failure, at least you can have certainty about something, and that certainty might feel preferable to the knowledge that our lives can drastically change course at any moment. In this way, we trick ourselves into thinking we can at least control our feelings, and we comfort ourselves with our despairing thoughts.
Clearly, attempting false stability through fictitious narratives does not breed effective leadership intra-personally (inside oneself) or interpersonally (in relationship). As leaders we must strive to change this habit, first by accessing stability in a proactive way. Although this is a journey that may take time, assistance and practice, here’s a way to think about the steps:
1) Recognize when you slip into fiction — What does it feel like in your body when you try to stabilize through judgments and made-up stories about the future or what is happening? Remember that feeling and when you feel it, shift away via Step 2.
2) Make space for real feelings — Find a time, place, circumstance in which it is safe to feel your feelings without having to make meaning out of them. In other words —
3) Connect to a larger task — Our heroine’s goal was to get a new job, but her over-arching task in her life was to grow — as a professional and as a leader. Helping her connect to her personal task of professional growth enabled her to see the job loss as a step in the right direction on a larger course.
A New Narrative
When a setback occurs, it is only after the feelings have dissipated that a truer story can take shape. The woman eventually saw and felt how the new skills she developed in prepping for the promotion opened her to many more possibilities, and she began to look for opportunities in exciting new directions.