How to Get Out of Your Own Way …and Help Others Do the Same

Success: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back (Figure 1)

From your first breath to your last, you are stepping into the unknown. Your first baby step is daunting, yet exhilarating. The real challenge to your evolving personality occurs when you take that first step and fall down. To be successful throughout your life, you want to make sure you take two steps forward and one step back, instead of no steps forward or one step forward and two steps back.

Think of an infant taking his first step. He crawls, then stands holding onto a chair or his parent's leg, and then ventures out into the world of homo-erectus. He steps away from any supports, balances precariously, and looks back at his parent (developmental psychologists refer to this stage with the French word, rapprochement, which means "looking back"). He feels reassured and ventures forth.

Sooner or later he falls and cries. One minute he felt like Superbaby; the next he found himself a helpless little creature. He turned out to be as fragile in the next moment as he felt powerful in the first. He looked back at his parent for reassurance (in other words, coaching--see far right column in Figure 2) that what he had experienced was a slip--it doesn't mean he has fallen through the cracks and can't get up and try again. Taking in his parent's reassurance, he does get up and try again. This occurs over and over, until one day he is able to walk on his own.

When a child internalizes this new skill, a little piece of self-confidence develops and he integrates it into his evolving personality. As his personality develops into his own distinct identity, he becomes more and more an individual, and a confident one at that.

One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to
lose sight of shore for a very long time.
Andre Gide

This process continues all the way through life. Our personalities and identities are constantly evolving in this two-steps-forward, one-step-back dance of learning--falling, pausing, refueling, retooling, and retrying. Along the way, we make mistakes and learn from them; over time, we can develop perseverance, persistence, and effectiveness.

When you make forward progress, you feel vital, effective and empowered. You seek out opportunities to test your mettle in the world. The world is one giant opportunity and your oyster to explore and enjoy.

Self-Defeat: What Goes In, Comes Out (Figure 2)

So what happens to you when you defeat yourself? As a baby, if you take that first step into the unknown, go to take a second step, fall, look back, and your parents do not respond to you with encouragement, you become stalled. Worse, you may slide further back and regress. You feel tentative, ineffective, disempowered. You seek out any mitigating behaviors that give you relief from these feelings. You adopt so-called "quick fixes"--ways to cope that give you momentary relief from the trauma of falling from Superbaby to Powerless Baby. The problem is that quick fixes fix nothing, and actually hurt you in the long run.

What happens when Superbaby is criticized (and feels as if he has done something wrong), ignored (and feels alone in his helplessness), or coddled (and then feels confused when not coddled)? Superbaby's reaction is fear, guilt, shame, anger and confusion. Negative messages about the meaning of what he's experiencing begin playing in his head. He is suddenly knocked off the resilience track. He doesn't have the self-confidence he needs to get up and try again on his own.

And instead of becoming effective, he seeks relief. Anything and everything he does in reaction to feeling "upset" triggers a negative coping reaction that works to make him feel better in the short run, but in the long run turns into a self-defeating behavior (SDB).

What's done to children, they will do to society. 
Karl Menninger

These behaviors waste time and squander his potential. Instead of seeing the world as a terrific place to explore, he views it as a terrifying place that can trip him up at every step. This causes him to stall in his life and his career. If he repeats these behaviors often enough, they become habits. Eventually they become internalized parts of his personality that are very resistant to change. That is why you must not become discouraged if you are not able to stop and overcome these self-defeating behaviors overnight. Becoming impatient with yourself is in itself self-defeating. 

When you run into adversity in your adult life, the trick is to cut the endless playback loop of the old negative messages so that you can develop the inner strength and resolve to become effective in your life and work. This means replacing the abusive, critical, avoidant, neglectful, or overindulgent and authoritarian voice in your head with the voice of the supportive, authoritative role model, mentor or coach. 

At first, you may want to conjure up the image and voice of that supportive person telling you to pause when you most feel like reacting or doing something impulsive. In my case, I brought to mind the image of Dean William MacNary. Dean MacNary, who passed away fifteen years ago, was an advocate for me during some difficult times I had in medical school. When I would run into stress and was about to do something foolish, I could see him in my mind's eye making a Rabbinical shrug (despite his being an Irish Catholic) and saying to me in his Bostonian accent: "M-a-a-h-k, c'mon; take a deep breath and don't do what you're about to do. Let it go." I would occasionally get into an argument with him in my mind, but "Mac," as I and my fellow medical students called him, would usually win and prevent me from shooting from the hip and then shooting myself in the foot.

Over the years I have internalized his voice as part of my personality, but on those occasions when I want to dip into the gratitude I feel towards Mac, I'll still imagine his Rabbinical shrug and steadying voice keeping me in line. 

You might want to do the same with the people who have helped you along the way. It will help you feel less alone, and fortify you when you're battling those impulses that could derail you from your goals. In addition, you can enlist the help of a coach so that you can begin to internalize that supportive, authoritative voice. And ultimately, you'll replace those self-defeating messages and behaviors with confidence, motivation and determination to succeed.

Adapted from Get Out of Your Own Way at Work… and Help Others Do the Same (Perigee, $14.95)

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