An Easter Ego…

An Easter Ego…

Learning to live, lead and love with a healthy ego

 

Ego gets a bad rap. We are told to transcend the ego, release from ego, fight the ego. And it has been singled out as one of the biggest hurdles in the discovery of the ‘true self.’  Yet, the majority of us don’t live on a mountain in the middle of the Himalayas where it might seem feasible to ‘starve the ego and feed the soul.’ We live in a world that incessantly provokes the ego. An ego that can protect and motivate us. As well as enrage and hijack us.

Developing and nurturing a robust and healthy ego is key to personal development and professional growth as it helps you to: lead from a place of vulnerability and courage; create a culture of openness and honesty; learn from mistakes; embrace failure; accept praise; become a systems thinker. We’re not interested in the size of your ego: this is about the state of your ego and how it can help you to live, lead and love with intentionality.

Ego triggers and traps

I’m in the midst of an ego-fuelled email exchange, and every line- no every punctuation mark- is pushing my buttons. I feel like I’m being baited to fight back, with provoking and petty messages reminiscent of a primary school playground. I’m trying my utmost to ‘consciously communicate my impact’ and yet I can’t seem to get through to this other human being. I’ve tried using all of my 4D tools and tricks to somehow connect and collaborate but every reply I receive back is like a concrete brick wall. Now a few years ago, I would have probably joined in with the same spiteful email exchange, adding even more fuel to the fire. However, thanks to a recent ego ‘health-kick’, I’ve been able to stop myself from ‘cutting off my nose to spite my face’. But what even is a healthy ego? And how can you get one too?

The Healthy Ego

 

Your EGO can be a wonderful thing. It is our developed sense of self in the world. And yes, an unhealthy defensive or fragile ego can be troublesome. It can lead to victim mode, contempt, scorn, defensiveness, undermining others, passive aggression, or straight up aggression. It is often coming from a place of fear. The ego believes others have the power to diminish it so either crumbles, self-punishes before someone else does or try to diminish someone else’s state to protect itself. The goal, however, is to use your intentionality to develop your HEALTHY EGO. A healthy ego isn’t dependent on other people to be whole and safe. It might enjoy praise or winning but it will not be devastated if these things don’t always happen. With a healthy ego you will be strong, resilient, confident in your abilities and honest about your amazing talents – as well as available to growth, happy to receive constructive feedback, curious in the face of conflict and able to acknowledge mistakes with a clear mind and open heart.


Here are 5 ways of developing and nurturing a healthy ego:

 
1. Co-create Conversation

 

Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, Dr. Daniel Siegel describes the brain as a ‘relationship organ.’ He’s spent over twenty years researching the profound influence of those around us, or what he calls “the neurobiology of ‘we’” and has discovered that emotions are what fire and wire neural interaction patterns in the brain and enable us to learn. Therefore the core drivers for human beings throughout life are relational and thus inseparably emotional in nature.

But what does this have to do with the ego?

What Siegel’s research shows us is that in order to nurture healthy, happy egos we need to make sure that our ego drives are linked to relationship goals. One simple way of doing this is by actively listening. Take the time to listen to others by being present as opposed to predicting what they are going to say. It’s simple yes, but not easy, particularly when we consider the fast paced, distraction-heavy, instant gratification culture that pervades our lives. Even if we’re not speaking over another person we may find ourselves thinking over them, by planning what we’re going to say next or thinking about how their story relates to us.

Someone with a healthy ego gives others the space to speak. And they don’t need to say what’s already been said. Instead, they build on ideas and co-create conversations as opposed to dictating and directing them. To quote Carlo Rovelli, author of ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics’ (which is as scientific as it is philosophical and political): “To better understand the world, I think, we shouldn’t reduce it to things. We should reduce it to happenings; and the happenings are always between different systems, always relations, or always like a kiss, which is something that happens between two persons.”

A great place to co-create conversations is during Q&As. In fact, I tend to love this part of a workshop as long as I lean in, stay curious and really listen to what is being said. This simple shift takes away the pressure to know all the answers and transforms questions and answers into collaborative conversations.


2. Accept praise

 

When I was around 12 years old I really struggled with my self-esteem. I’d recently started secondary school and anything that sounded remotely like a compliment had me turning bright red and feeling a deep sense of shame.  During this time, I remember my grandma telling me: “it’s rude to reject a compliment. Accept it properly, let it reach you and then say thank you.” Wise and wonderful advice that continues to help me develop a greater sense of self-worth to this day.

I’m sure many of you have had some experience with the embarrassment that so often surrounds praise. One of the more obvious ways we express this embarrassment is by batting away compliments. Perhaps a colleague praises you on your presentation and you find yourself saying: “oh it was nothing really. I had loads of help!” This is example of what I like to call a ‘compliment cringe’: you’re refusing to take in the praise (and are also unintentionally telling the person they are wrong!) Christopher Littlefield, recognition expert and founder of international consulting firm Acknowledgment Works, has uncovered a scientific explanation to why we find receiving compliments so hard. His research revealed that 88 percent of people associate recognition with a feeling of being valued, yet 70 percent also associate it with embarrassment. As he says in his Ted Talk: “We love recognition, but we suck at it.”

One study showed that people with low self-esteem “have difficulty accepting and capitalising on compliments.” This was primarily due to the fact that they doubted the compliments’ sincerity and believed that they were- on some level- being patronised. Interestingly, when the people were not thinking about a compliment in relation to their relatively negative self-theories or stories of themselves, they were able to accept and capitalise on compliments. In addition, there is now scientific validity showing that people perform better after receiving a compliment.

Learning to accept compliments helps to boost your performance and also helps to build healthy relationships, as it opens up the ground conditions upon which relationships can develop and grow. Lean in, stay curious and see what you can learn from another person’s compliment. Maybe you find it hard to comprehend why someone would like your crazy curls, or your energised hand gestures! But your story of yourself is just one story in 7 billion. One perspective. So why not use the next compliment you receive as an opportunity to explore the other positive narratives of You that are out there.


3. Make friends with failure

 

I’m so thankful for many of my so-called ‘failures’. Like not getting into drama school (three times!) At the time this felt like the biggest failure imaginable, personally, professionally and socially. Personally, because I wanted to prove to myself that I was good enough. Professionally because I was working in the industry and believed training was a right of pass; and socially because so many of my friends, family members and worst of all- fellow actors- knew I was auditioning. However, with hindsight I can see that this ‘failure’ wasn’t an end point, but a wonderful new beginning. It fired up another, totally unexpected adventure. To use the words of monk and author Robin Sharma: “the most successful people on the planet have failed more than the ordinary ones.” So, if you want to be successful you might as well start making friends with failure!

Failure is a big threat to the unhealthy ego. It undermines self-worth and can produce feelings of fear and powerlessness. Research has shown that we are more likely to blame failure on external factors like luck or the difficulty of the task. Yet, someone with a healthy ego sees failure as an inevitable part of life and as a unique opportunity to learn and grow. In his book ‘Black Box Thinking’ Matthew Syed states that: When failure is most threatening to our ego is when we need to learn most of all!” Someone with a healthy ego seizes these moments and sees them not as failure in the traditional sense, but as fuel for a greater fire because “a progressive attitude to failure turns out to be a cornerstone of success for any institution.”

In an interview for the Wall Street Journal, cartoonist Scott Adam’s, shared his wonderfully playful approach to failure: “If I find a cow turd on my front steps, I’m not satisfied knowing that I’ll be mentally prepared to find some future cow turd. I want to shovel that turd onto my garden and hope the cow returns every week so I never have to buy fertiliser again. Failure is a resource that can be managed.” Teacher and writer Jessica Lahey goes further, seeing failure as a gift. In her aptly titled parenting book, ‘The gift of failure’ she writes: “Out of love, and desire to protect our children’s self-esteem, we have bulldozed every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of their way, clearing the manicured path we hoped would lead to success and happiness. Unfortunately, in doing so we have deprived our children of the important lessons of childhood. The setbacks, the mistakes, miscalculations, and failures we have shoves out of our children’s way are the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative, and resilient citizens of this world.”

For the healthy ego, failure is a gift, for themselves and others. So, join us in reimagining ‘F.A.I.L.’ as an acronym for: Forever. Acquiring Important Lessons.

 

 4. Embrace vulnerability

 

Stand-up comedy has taught me a lot about the power of vulnerability. On one occasion I tried my hand at musical comedy, attempting to sing, play guitar and be funny… all at the same time! A triple threat that had me feeling much more nervous than usual. So, I decided to own my nerves, by singing all about the things that were wrong with my performance (like the fact that my guitar playing is pretty sub-par in spite of 10 years of lessons!) And I’m proud to say that my openness and honesty- presented in musical form- had the audience in stitches!

The unhealthy ego often self-identifies as a perfectionist. To use the words of Brené Brown Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: if I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimise the painful feelings of shame, judgment and blame.” Perfectionism acts as a great big wall that stops you from being seen and is in many ways the antithesis of vulnerability. The healthy ego encourages vulnerability and sees it as a strength and a powerful tool for connecting people. Because as some wise person once said: ‘love is giving someone the power to destroy you but trusting them not to.’ In order to create a culture of trust within our families, teams and organisations we must embrace the power of vulnerability.

Research by Paula Niedenthal, which tested the authenticity of a person’s smile, revealed how deeply we resonate with each other. This is why we are able to tell when someone is ‘putting on a show’ because we are able to register their surface level inauthenticity at a much deeper level. This is particularly true for leaders, as research has revealed that we are sensitive to trustworthiness and authenticity in our leaders.

Furthermore, vulnerability also positively affects how we see ourselves. Studies revealed that a state of authenticity “centres on contentment and social ease; or, in the case of inauthenticity, a lack thereof plus anxiety.” Tara Brach talks to this ‘social ease’ that comes with vulnerability in her latest podcast- ‘Releasing Ourselves and Others from Aversive Blame’: “We know that a lot of the humour in our society actually focuses on people’s mistakes because it relieves us when other people make mistakes.” So, reject perfection in favour of connection by embracing your human side- warts and all! It will help you develop a healthier ego, build deep bonds of trust and – as I discovered- might even provide you with some funny material for a stand-up set!


5. Look through a systems lens

 

A system is a group of interdependent entities aligned around a common purpose or identity (CRR Global). And systems are everywhere. There are more obvious systems like families, teams, a cast of actors. And less obvious systems in places such as:

  • The cinema: here we find lots of individual systems until the movie starts. Suddenly everyone stops talking and switches off their phone. It’s an unspoken code of conduct.
  • Up in the air: everyone on a plane is going in the same direction. This is their common purpose. But they are also all interdependent. Everyone has an individual purpose and also a shared

As the 4D model shows, we don’t exist in a vacuum: we are always being affected by cultural and environmental contexts. Another way to put this would be to say that we are always operating within systems. We are simultaneously interdependent and co-dependent. The unhealthy ego celebrates individualism, often at the expense of community and co-dependence. Take for example the air travel example above. As soon as the plane lands, everyone jumps out their seats, pushes to get into the aisle so that they can get their bag and claim their place in the queue to disembark the plane. However, everyone is wanting to disembark the plane. Everyone is heading in the same direction. But unfortunately, the passengers’ heavy focus on their individual goals quite often slows down the system and undermines its shared purpose. 

Someone with a healthy ego thinks about our relationships like a 3-legged stool.  

  • 1st Leg- I, Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
  • 2nd Leg- YOU, Social Intelligence (SI)
  • 3rd Leg- WE, Relationship Systems Intelligence (RSI)

The stool will lose its stability if one of its legs is wobbly. Or it will become unbalanced if one leg is longer than another. We need to nurture all 3 legs: our relationship with our self, our relationship with others and our relationships with our wider communities. The healthy ego recognises that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and sees themselves as a part of whole network of systems. This is what is known as systems thinking, as it offers us a wider lens and a helicopter view of the ‘systems’ within which we exist. 


Have a healthy happy ego!

 

Ego health is the difference between the world happening to you and you happening to the world.  When we have a healthy ego, we are driving the show. And whilst there are many things out of our control- like other people’s responses on email- we can control our response, if we develop a robust and healthy ego. I can promise you that if you keep stepping in and ‘living in the arena’ (as Brené Brown likes to call it), your ego will be threatened time and time again. However, if you’ve developed a healthy ego, it will withstand these triggers and traps. If you don’t like the game that someone else is playing with your ego then you can change the game. Which is exactly what I did with my angry e-mail exchange. I ‘killed them with kindness’ so to speak, responding with relatively pleasant and proactive emails. And eventually, they started to do the same.

Be a game changer by developing a healthy ego for a happier world. Let’s make a positive impact, by changing the planet…one ego at a time!

Naughty but Nice…

Naughty but Nice…

There was a little girl, Who had a little curl,

Right in the middle of her forehead.

When she was good,

She was very good indeed,

But when she was bad she was horrid. 


– Henry Wandsworth

 

We can become conditioned into ‘being good’ from a very young age. And our experience of ‘goodness’ may often be subjective and gender-specific. One may be called a “good girl” for being ‘sugar, spice and all things nice’ and a “good boy” for being bold and brave. As adults, our understanding of what it means to ‘be good’ is likely to depend on the messages from childhood that we have internalised. And this definition of ‘good’ influences much more than our moral compass: it affects our day-to-day interactions with our co-workers, family and friends and also, with ourselves. So, what does ‘good’ mean? Compliant? Well-behaved? Talented? Successful? Top of class? Kind? Avoiding eating the donuts?! The list goes on….

For some of us, ‘being good’ means being obedient and following the rules (something that is conditioned into us throughout our education.) Yet, in Silicon Valley I’m sure ’being good’ is also much more about ‘disruptive innovation’, thinking out of the box and breaking conventional norms. Which makes me wonder whether our ideas about ‘goodness’ are somewhat archaic and misaligned with the fast-paced and ever-changing landscapes of our lives. One article encouraging parents to embrace the rebel child, asks if childhood obedience is “a cause for concern or celebration?” And another, commending rule breakers in the workplace, goes so far as to say that “What is really dangerous these days is safe thinking.” So, could it be that our rigid, outdated understandings of goodness are holding us back?

In this article we’re looking at how conditioning around ‘being good’ might be limiting us at work, in our relationships and with ourselves and exploring ways we can accept and embrace our own unique inner ‘goodness’. Let’s take charge of our own definitions of goodness, instead of allowing society’s multiple (and often contradictory) definitions to direct our lives. We can be the author of our own life narratives, and whilst being good for some might mean going for an 8-mile run, for me, ‘being good’ this year, is simply about being true to me.

New Year, Same Me

I typically start January with a New Year, New Me resolution, in the hope of being ‘more good’ in a certain area of my life (last year it was to run twice a week.) But like 91% of all New Year’s resolutions- I didn’t even make it to February. And so, I find myself feeling ‘bad’ for failing to stick to my challenge. But, who is defining this idea of ‘goodness’? My colleague Katie spent several years running and ended up having 4 knee operations. So, in this instance running was not so ‘good’ after all. This is why it’s important to take charge of our own understanding of ‘good’, instead of being influenced by everything and everyone around us.

Be Good to Yourself

As with my 2018 resolution, a lot of our ‘being good’ revolves around not being good enough. So, this year, why not focus your ‘goodness’ efforts internally? Instead of trying so hard to live up to someone else’s’ vision of good, why not focus on being good to yourself?

“If I am not good to myself how can I expect anyone else to be good to be?”


 -Maya Angelou

Self-compassion has been shown to help promote healthy behaviours and positive thoughts. In one study, an increase in self-compassion correlated with an increase in health-promoting behaviours, such as eating habits, exercise, sleep behaviours, and stress management. Another study, looking at the effect of self-compassion on ‘restrictive and guilty eaters’, showed that self-compassion helped to reduce distress and helped people to adopt healthier eating patterns. So being good to yourself can actually lead you to being ‘good’ in more conventional ways, like diet, exercise and sleep. In fact, scientists are now arguing that “self-compassion attenuates people’s reactions to negative events in ways that are distinct from and, in some cases, more beneficial than self-esteem.” We live in a world obsessed with the idea of being self-confident and having positive self-esteem but perhaps it’s much more important to cultivate self-kindness. Which brings to mind a quote from author and Buddhist practitioner Jack Kornfield: “If your compassion does not include you, it’s incomplete.”

Inside Out

Instead of defining goodness from the outside in, we’re flipping the formula and starting from the inside out. To quote the wise words of the 19th century monk Swami Vivekananda: “You have to grow from the inside out. None can teach you, none can make you spiritual. There is no other teacher but your own soul.” If we don’t define our own values and understandings of what it means to be good then they may become ungrounded, disconnected and vulnerable to negative, outside influences.

“You have to grow from the inside out. None can teach you, none can make you spiritual. There is no other teacher but your own soul”

 
– Swami Vivekananda

So, using the 4D2C model (see below) let’s take a look at how we can take charge of our own definitions of goodness. First, let’s look at the two contexts in which we live – our culture (people) and environment. As we’ve mentioned above, the world around us can affect our ideas of goodness in numerous ways and this starts from a very young age. So, we’ve got the outside pushing in, often influencing our internal dimensions. For example, we may create an autopilot of goodness within our physical dimension, with ideas of goodness being linked to ‘going to the gym’ and ‘eating healthy.’ In the emotional dimension goodness might be linked with ‘being kind.’ And in our intellectual dimension being good might be connected to ‘getting top grades’ or ‘being top of the class.’ The autopilot goodness narrative will depend on multiple cultural and social circumstances. But sometimes these autopilot narratives don’t serve us. As we develop and grow, these ‘goodness’ narratives may become outdated, limiting and stop us living from our true values. So, this is when we have to fire up our intentional self and look inward for answers. Asking ourselves questions like: what does goodness really mean to me? What elements of good will be useful to live by to be my best self? And how does being ‘bad sometimes serve me? As Michelle Obama said: “I have learned that as long as I hold fast to my beliefs and values — and follow my own moral compass — then the only expectations I need to live up to are my own.”

 

When we live with intention we can push back from the inside out and learn to love all of our parts. Intentional living isn’t about being perfect: it’s about being integrated and connected to your whole self. To use the words of Swiss psychiatrist Karl Jung: “I’d rather be whole than good.”

For Goodness Sake

Once we’ve begun to take ownership of our own values of goodness, the real challenge is acting on them. Why for many of us is it so hard to invoke our inner rule breaker when we are faced with opposing forces in the real-world? Because of a deep-set desire to people please.

 

American Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory around the stages of moral development can help us to understand why we can struggle to embrace the rebel inside, particularly when faced with a moral dilemma. Kohlberg theory suggests that the majority of us remain in level two, Conventional Morality, so called because it is where we conform to conventions and rules of society: “Good behaviour is that which pleases or helps others and is approved by them. There is much conformity to stereotypical images of what is majority or ‘natural’ behaviour. Behaviour is frequently judged by intention. ‘He means well’ becomes important for the first time. One earns approval by being ‘nice.’” What Kohlberg is saying is that at this level we are more concerned with group approval than we are with taking charge of our own moral compass. We self-sacrifice our own values in order to please the group.

So, how can we begin to step out of this conventional level and into what Kohlberg calls ‘post-conventional morality’? We can look to our inner creative or our inner child. The free spirit who wants to push boundaries in a playful, curious and flexible way. This doesn’t mean throwing around chairs in your next boardroom meeting. But it could mean, putting the desks to the side and setting up your meeting in the circle. Small changes that can create huge waves in organisations. One only has to consider the theory of ‘disruptive innovation’ to see this in action. And thanks to companies such as Uber, Airbnb and WeWork, the way we travel, work and play has completely changed. These companies have not only changed the game. They’ve rewritten the very language of the game. (I wonder how long the word ‘taxi’ will remain in circulation given that we now are all ‘Ubering’ everywhere!) Yet, this didn’t happen by following the rules. In fact, they ‘did good’ by redefining what it means to ‘be good.’

So, like these disruptive innovators you too can relax your boundaries around what it means to be good, in order to give yourself the space to be curious, creative and think out of the box. Instead of living by the hard lines of right and wrong, learn to love the space in between. Because it is in these unknown, grey spaces where we find inspiration, innovation and unbounded potential…and perhaps your next big adventure!

Good Enough

Atelophobia is the fear of imperfection. The fear of never being good enough. Something that I’m sure touches many of us on some level on a daily basis. However, if you practice being good to yourself, connect to what goodness means to you and allow it to be an open, unbounded concept…then you no longer need to fear being good enough because good is no longer in the equation. You are quite simply enough.

The next time you find yourself feeling bad for not doing something, seeing someone or being something check-in with your own goodness barometer. Does this definition of ‘being good’ really sit with you? And, how might your ‘being bad’ actually be really useful? Last week I cancelled dinner plans with a friend and I felt really bad as it’s something I rarely do. But this was also an example of ‘being good’ as I was – for the first time in a long time- prioritising self-care and sleep after a very hectic week. It really is all about perspective. Flip the story, fire up your intentional self and start writing a goodness narrative that works for you and your life.