This post was written with Kris MacKain, Ph.D
Joe was a self-described slob who wanted to please. Everything around him was chaos — his house, his thoughts, and his relationships. However, this tendency to create a muddle out of everything perplexed him greatly since what he desired most was to please the same people that he constantly irritated with his inability to organize himself or his life.
Joe can be viewed as a classic illustration of the divided self.
All of us have competing personality and behavioral tendencies that produce varying degrees of internal and/or external conflict. Let’s consider some familiar examples:
Perfectionists who procrastinate on tasks they so want to complete for fear that nothing they do is ever good enough.
Highly empathic people who want to take care of themselves and others but, instead, they over-care for others and neglect themselves.
Oppositional personalities who repel those they want most to connect with and, consequently suffer when others avoid them.
All these people experience conflict between their aspirations and their actual behaviors. These examples may ring true because, to some degree or another, we all have conflicting aspects of ourselves that play out in similar ways.
How then can we live without the different aspects of ourselves bumping into each other and creating suffering? How can the slob start to clean up his act?
The answer can be found in Self-Regulation.
Making changes involves three consciously choreographed steps, which can be captured by three simple words: stop, think, act.
We all need a good set of brakes. Stopping before we act is an essential aspect of self-regulation, which Daniel Goleman, among others, has argued is a key component of emotional intelligence and effective leadership.
To hit the brakes:
o Learn what situations, people, or comments tend to trigger noxious and/or unproductive behaviors.
o Learn to flag these triggers and stop before you act.
o While tabling your emotions, give yourself a breather to think of a more productive, less reactive response.
o Remember that the price is too high for not controlling one’s emotions.
Our unproductive emotional responses are more often than not based on faulty thinking. As Shakespeare once wrote, “The fault… is not in the stars, but in ourselves.” Learning not to always believe one’s thoughts or to be a prisoner of one’s perceptions is important. To do this:
o Challenge your beliefs. Ask yourself, “Does this situation really warrant such an intense response? What is causing my negative emotion? For example, is it simply a sour look on the boss’ face or is it my interpretation that her sour look is directed toward me?
o Put your negative response on hold until you have more evidence. Is the boss’ sour look triggering a past unresolved conflict with someone else or is it really something between the two of you?
o Do not judge yourself for aspects of your personality that are unacceptable to you. The word “slob” is a harsh self-judgment. Many of us are inclined to be tough on ourselves and then on others. Backing off judgmental responses and learning self-compassion is key to thinking about ourselves in new, more highly functional ways.
The final step is to consciously change our behavior from emotionally reactive to rationally deliberative. To do this we act our way into a new way of thinking (incidentally this is a more powerful agent of change than thinking our way into a new way of behaving).
o Emulate best practices of those who have overcome similar tendencies; for example, the employee who adopts the practice of refraining from blurting out, “What’s wrong?” to his boss and, instead, asks others for the causes of the boss’ perceived foul mood while taking direction from the boss and completing his assignment.
o Practice the behavior until it becomes habitual. In this way, we “act” our way into a new way of thinking that is automatic and consistent.
At the end of the day, there is hope for the person with conflicting personality tendencies if he or she raises self-awareness and applies self-regulation. When people try to change, others often notice and give credit for their efforts. Small behavioral and attitudinal changes really stand out. While old habits may die hard, die they do with repeated practice and good outcomes.
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