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Do you need to sit down with your Ego?

Change requires us to admit a few things to ourselves…

In PART 1 of this Make sustainable change series we discovered a method for figuring out what you love to do — what a prime driver is. In this article, PART 2, we will discuss how your ego is preventing your growth and how individual egos are perhaps the main blocker to creating lasting change within teams. In PART 3 find out how to unearth passionate leaders across an organisation.

Managing personal change has fewer parts than in business, but the same approach can be applied. A team, in business or otherwise, is fuelled by individuals working together. In order for change to be possible, something needs to happen to BOTH the way individuals work and teams work.

Before I acknowledged what was the main thing in my way, I dealt with the uncomfortable feeling of anxiety by running away from it (using exercise). But change doesn’t happen if you repeat the same patterns and behaviours. In order to change how I was operating in my life, I needed to address something in my internal ‘operating system’.

To continue the computer analogy, my memory was malfunctioning and anxiety was the symptom (not the cause). My journey didn’t stop after writing this article about anxiety. It’s a continual practice, but through trial and error of experimentation, I highlighted a constant that kept habitually cropping up to block my growth. My ego.

  1. your sense of your own value and importance
  2. (psychology) the part of the mind that is responsible for your sense of who you are (= your identity)

Above is the Oxford dictionary definition of Ego. I find the use of the word ‘sense’, misleading. Different methods of neurological classification can yield up to 21 senses but to my knowledge, up to the point of writing this, we have five: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. They happen in the body and the mind converts what is sensed into thought — or rather the ego does. Therefore, 2. (psychology) [the ego is] the part of the mind that is responsible for who you think you are (= what you think your identity is).

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow”, states that our operating system has two parts: system 1 (knee-jerk and subconscious) reactions and system 2 (slow and conscious) thinking. It’s system 1 that drives our emotions and ultimately it’s that which shapes the choices we make. We think it’s system 2, but that’s our ego talking. It justifies our actions with post hoc logic in order to make us believe we have more agency. When, actually, we don’t control anything.

Our operating system has driven us since we were born, and like computers, glitches can occur in our memory. We’ve all seen ‘the blue screen of death’ or the ‘spinning rainbow wheel’. They are essentially a computer having an anxiety attack. The operating system is overwhelmed and shuts down because the glitches or ‘blind spots’ in its memory mean it can’t access the correct information it needs to.

For example, have you ever been in a relationship that’s going great, and all of a sudden you or the other person feel the urge to bail? That’s often self-sabotage and likely stems from a blind spot; a person’s ego feels vulnerable and in turn tries to protect them from getting hurt because of past trauma in their life, one where they perhaps felt abandoned.

The innovation path, personally or in business, will expose vulnerabilities. As well as cheers and pats on the back, it’s full of pitfalls and failure. It’s not an easy journey. To survive the turbulence of change, and sustain it, forgiveness and support are needed. The environment in which people live and work must promote behaving in a way that’s open and honest. For that to happen, people need to be aware of how they work internally and hold space for others to do the same. It’s vital we observe what might be subconsciously triggering our behaviour and affecting how we operate.

For a computer to run effectively, you have to ‘defrag’ the memory, do something about the glitches which have built up over time. Therefore, in order for our system 1 to operate effectively, in turn, for us to be able to choose to act rather than react, we need to ‘defrag’ our memories too. To do that we need to create space to allow the blind spots to surface.

In my practical experience, creating space comes through observation. Discoveries I’ve found useful:

  • Situations that cause anxiety are flags for potential growth, not necessarily a signal to stop. What’s the feeling underneath the anxiety?
  • Sentences that start with ‘I’ are just thoughts and are not fixed.
  • There’s a gap between system 1 and system 2 thinking. It can feel like there isn’t but there always is.
  • Blindly adhering to any definitions, positive or negative, create boundaries that limit the potential for growth.
  • If you can remember it, it’s likely an emotion was linked to it.

I used to think “I can’t handle situations out of my control, they make me anxious,” but in fact, that’s not the case. It was a blind spot stemming from a time when I was about thirteen, which triggered that specific panic. I knew I was going to school with the threat of being beaten up. I was so scared, I was sick in the sink before I left the house. I had no idea what was going to happen, it was totally out of my control.

In the present, when faced with a situation that feels out of my control, my operating system accesses that school feeling from my memory and does a beautiful reenactment, one Mr. Shakespeare would be proud of, like it’s the first time. Not. Fun.

Knowing that doesn’t completely stop the feelings, then thoughts, cropping up but noticing the blind spot, and moving it from my subconscious to conscious, means my system 2 has the correct information. I could now choose to act on what is actually happening rather than react (from the past). Over time the anxiety feeling lessens through shifting from being reactive to active. Ultimately, we reprogram our nervous system. A specific type of breathwork helps with this also — visit BREATHPOD and hellolove.org for more info.

When you’re a kid, if someone said “Don’t touch that stove it’s hot” at some point you’d touch it. However, you’d only touch it once because you’d physically get burned. The same rule applies to thoughts. I now realise there is no difference between a good or bad thought — they are just thoughts. When a good thought occurs people just accept the feeling and at some point, it dissipates. The same will happen for a bad thought but we like touching the stove over and over again. The reason we do that is because our primal ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mechanism is constantly trying to keep us safe. It can’t just accept there’s danger there and do nothing about it. If we feel unsafe our ego is programmed to habitually keep trying until we figure out whatever it is that’s causing the problem. But if we are blind to what’s really making us feel a certain way we get ‘burned’ a lot, our system crashes, and we end up in an anxiety spiral. More on this here.

“In order for something to contract, it has to expand first” — Lao Tzu

From experience, both personally and in business, in order for the ‘anxiety of change’ to contract, it has to expand first. When I found myself with the anxious feeling, my personal practice was to sit with it and take steps to expand it. Observing the thoughts which came up as just thoughts gave space for the uncomfortable feeling to dissipate — which it did in time. It wasn’t/isn’t comfortable by any stretch, but that’s the thing about change, it never is. Find more on governing energy here.

For a team to change, all the individuals who make it up need to acknowledge that they may have subconscious behaviours, caused by blind spots, which are holding back progress because their ego is being fed incorrect information.

Take innovation (or in human speak ‘something new of value’) for example. It requires sticking your neck out and risking failure. As soon as someone decides to do this, or quite often simply when they think about it, their system 1 kicks in and the nerves start, then the ego is off to the races telling them “Don’t do it, it could be embarrassing, you’re not good enough, you might fail, etc”.

“The ego wants to be ahead of where it actually is in the maturation process” Alan E Shelton

Why does the ego do this? Because it doesn’t like to appear immature and less than others; it hates appearing like it doesn’t know something. In my experience, that’s often what stops a lot of people/teams/companies from trying new things and growing. Someone’s, or often more than one person’s, system 1 is being fed incorrect information from their past and because trying new things is a journey into the unknown, with no guaranteed plan or return on investment, they would rather stay still and ‘safe’ than risk the discomfort of change. Coupled with that, the fear multiplies and mutates and before you know it, the whole business is scared to do anything without a steering committee signing off.

Personally, when the ego bubbles up difficult thoughts, the best thing to do is observe and talk about them. That’s the reason I started Plight Club. Practices like breathing exercises, meditation, exercise, yoga, etc. will help the excess energy dissipate. Again, it’s not easy and is a continual practice. The good news is that with practise it eventually becomes second nature.

In a business setting, taking this approach of acknowledging the ego will result in an increase in communication, and the uncomfortable energy of change will decrease. Using practices like Agile retrospective, sprint planning meetings, etc. are simple techniques to communicate better and help this process. Ultimately though, the best way to get over the anxiety of change is to move towards it, to confront the thing that is causing the anxiety — feel the fear and do it anyway!

All these methods will enhance any innovation, personally or in business. But, in order to make lasting, sustainable, change, a few ego-aware people communicating well isn’t enough.

In ‘Make sustainable change part 3 of 3 —It’s not climate change it’s people change?’ we will discuss a formula for sustainable change plus, how it requires having self-aware leaders inspiring teams distributed across an organisation…

Change consultant + Founder of Plight Club

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