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Presence in Complexity Series #2: Identity on the Line

Our responses in complexity are often determined, in ways that are both debilitating and invisible to us, by our perspective

Our responses in complexity are often determined, in ways that are both debilitating and invisible to us, by our perspective

We experience situations as difficult when they call into question our sense of who we are.

Among most of the people I know, domestically and overseas, there is a sense of outrage about last week’s election. Among others, there is presumably a sense of vindication, of optimism, of finally being heard. Both of those responses are understandable. Both sets of people are equally convinced that they are in possession of the truth. Our response to the election is determined by its resonance with our identity, with our very sense of self.

“Challenging” isn’t a descriptor of the situation so much as a descriptor of our perspective on the situation. Our responses in complexity are often determined, in ways that are both debilitating and invisible to us, by our perspective.

We might believe that things should be otherwise. We tell ourselves: “I should have predicted this.” “I should be able to control this situation or solve that problem.” “I should be up to this challenge.”

When we believe these things, we will likely experience our situation as frustrating. Our identity feels on the line. We may tighten down and work harder. Paradoxically, these very understandable responses may make it harder to actually change the situation.

When we see that the situation is inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable, we relax. And, paradoxically, this relaxation can make it easier to see and make new moves. Being present to how our identity is being triggered is a key to this most useful relaxation and acceptance.

Our deepest drives feed a relentless, unconscious, and automatic life-long process of constructing and defending our identity

Our deepest drives feed a relentless, unconscious, and automatic life-long process of constructing and defending our identity

Let’s explore the notion of identity, and see where this leads us.

Our identity was formed early in life as we sought to discover how to survive and thrive in families of origin that were universally less than perfect. As young children, we navigated this less-than-ideal circumstance. We shaped ourselves to get what we needed from life, and to differentiate ourselves as a person. Successful strategies become embodied in our personality, and eventually come to define us.

(It’s fun to watch my four year old grandson, Max, doing this…. the amount of will this little guy possesses, and is willing to assert in pursuit of what he wants or doesn’t want at a particular time, is absolutely astounding! He is a force to be reckoned with!)

Identity is how a developing human becomes solidified as a personality. Our deepest drives feed a relentless, unconscious, and automatic life-long process of constructing and defending our identity.

The Buddhist notions of attachments and aversions speak to this. They are the self-correction mechanisms that keep identity in place. They are the underlying drivers of behavior.

Attachments are the pulls towards something (a glass of wine, the admiration of others, solving a problem) that gives us positive experiences. Attachments are what advertisements trigger when they pitch make-up, drugs, vacations, or a candidate that tells us what we want to believe, even if it doesn’t make rational sense. As leaders, getting things done is supported by our attachments to action and results, to being successful.

Aversions, on the other hand, are the instinctual mechanisms of avoidance. Originally designed to help us avoid predators, they work just as well as drivers to help us avoid embarrassment, looking stupid, or whatever our particular definition of failure might be.

Attachments are the pulls towards something that gives us positive experiences

Attachments are the pulls towards something that gives us positive experiences

Bottom line? We seek what we are attached to. We avoid what we have aversions to. Underneath, and preceding, every behavior and action is an attachment or an aversion. Look and you will see them. They are the internal self-correction mechanisms through which we organize ourselves in life to keep our identity intact.

So, back to complexity and suffering. Situations that are VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) challenge our identity as someone who can control events or make things happen.

Complexity activates our attachments and aversions. We are attached to solving the problem or making progress or achieving results (because our identity is linked to those things happening.) And, we have an aversion to looking inadequate or failing or staying stuck (because our identity is linked to those things not happening.)

Our experience of a complex environment is, in fact, directly correlated with the identity we have built over a lifetime, and now finds itself challenged by the very complexity in which we are leading.

Similarly, our view of the election results depends on our whether our identity is being affirmed by the victor’s rhetoric. If it is, our attachments are triggered: we feel seen and our energy and optimism increase. Our identity responds to these messages, and we move towards the victor.

If, on the other hand, our identity is threatened by the victor’s rhetoric, our response is very different. Our aversions will be triggered if we belong to any of the many groups he has insulted, or if our values and the people and things we care about are threatened.

We can learn to see how our identity is being triggered by the situations we are in

We can learn to see how our identity is being triggered by the situations we are in

Unfortunately our biological tendency when our identity is under threat is to tighten down, do more, and work harder. Paradoxically, as we shall see in subsequent blog posts, these may be exactly the wrong things to do when we are operating in complexity. Tightening down and working harder are the instinctual responses to identity threats, but they can make it more difficult to navigate fluidly and creatively and compassionately in complexity. Acting in complexity with conventional, identity-preserving behaviors often makes the situation more difficult, and real progress more elusive.

When our identity needs, and the attachments and aversions that keep them intact, are invisible to us, they sabotage our effectiveness as leaders in countless ways, small and large. This is true whether the situation is big (like the US election) or small (a difficult conversation with a loved one) or in between (like the teams and organizations we lead.)

We can learn to see how our identity is being triggered by the situations we are in. And, we can learn to stay present with the attachments and aversions that arise in response to our situation, no matter how strong they are. This is the key to resilience and choice.

  • How does your current context challenge your identity? What risks do you experience, personally, in this situation?
  • How does your current context enliven and invite you to be your best?
  • What attachments do you recognize? What aversions? How do you experience these as reactions to complexity and unpredictability?

Post-Election: 11/9 and the Throughlines of Resilience

Yesterday was a very difficult day.

I went to bed on Tuesday night with the election trend clear, but not knowing the outcome. I awoke at 6 a.m. yesterday to find out that the candidate that I felt scared by had won decisively. I understand that for many, this was great news, and I appreciate that there can be reason and caring behind this view.

I was in shock. I woke my wife, wanting to share the moment with her, but quickly headed out for day three of our Presence-Based Coaching retreat.

At breakfast, the group looked shell-shocked; some students were crying, others trying for humor, there was a sense of disbelief. Not everyone wanted the same candidate. Not everyone even voted. But together, we all felt the tsunami that crashed ashore Tuesday night.

I was working with my own emotions. Outside, it was cold and drizzly; inside me, it felt like all was lost.

9/11 had the sense of nov-9a seismic shift and the undeniable emergence of a world that I didn’t recognize. I had the same feeling the day Reagan was elected, when Kennedy was shot, during the Cuban missile crisis. In those seminal and traumatic moments, it seemed everything I knew was under threat. Yesterday felt the same: that deep existential dread. And, we were to be leading a coach training retreat?

By the end of the day, our group of 21 students and Sarah Halley and I had moved into a very different place. I think the container of our group and the structure of our retreat were strong enough to take the tremendous shock of the unexpected election results and use that energy to deepen our experience and forge something powerful and useful.

I want to share some of what helped; it’s generalizable. All of these had previously been designed into the program. And, we moved a lot around to serve what was needed in the moment.

Our practice, in PBC, is to be present and work with what is happening. These practices are personal and coaching-related. Yesterday they had new immediacy and relevance:

  • Community: We began the day by sitting together. We stayed present with each other, and with ourselves. All had time to voice whatever they cared to say. There were tears, anger, shame, fear, gratitude, caring. One person had to leave the room and return. The process took a couple of hours. By the end, something had shifted. Community and connectedness are key ingredients for healing. It begins with feeling heard and respected.
  • Meaning-making: In PBC, polarities are a lens for exploring tensions and competing commitments. We sense these dynamics within ourselves, in our relationships and teams, and in society. Yesterday, our students coached each other through a powerful somatic coaching exercise to illuminate and integrate polarities in service to what we care about. And, we understood, with greater compassion, the nature of the polarization that has rent the US in this election cycle. It is reassuring to have language and distinctions for interpreting and making meaning of disruptive events.
  • Grounding and settling: We (including me) began the day feeling shaken to the core, fragile, raw. We took reflection time in the afternoon to be alone on the land. Trees were still growing, the sun poked through clouds, kingfishers swooped up the river that has been flowing here for a half billion years. It was deeply settling to simply be outdoors. No requests, no drama. Nothing in nature supports the illusion of permanence. When we are outdoors, it feels easier to relax, to accept whatever is true, to settle and ground in the faith that everything runs its course.
  • Perspective-taking: Last evening, we did a coaching practice called the Grand Tour. This practice invites us into the perspective of big time, and we are able to sense ourselves as the inevitable product of everything that came before. We see ourselves as a unique person with an invitation to contribute to what happens next. This big context gives our commitments a new and deeper meaning. We are inheritors of our current situation. And, we each, in our little corner of the world, are an authors of what comes next. What we do matters.

These four themes provided the container for 23 humans to move through strong shock and grief, to come together, to practice some crucial coaching skills along the way, and to metabolize our shock and grief into intimacy, presence, and readiness for whatever is next. It was a privilege to share an extraordinary day with these extraordinary people. In the midst of shock and disruption, our process of being present together will stay with me and inspire me well into the future.

I know that this work isn’t done. I still feel waves of grief and fear. I suspect that some extraordinarily difficult times are ahead. And, I feel optimistic, awake, and ready.

All of us are in this together, whoever you voted for, or if you didn’t vote. Please share:

  • How are you resourcing yourself internally in this new reality?
  • How are you resourcing with others?
  • And, what might you share that would inspire and support others?