Often in my coaching practice, when people are amenable to going a little deeper into “what it means to be human” I introduce my client to the Phil Harker model of:
Know yourself < > Accept Yourself < > Forget Yourself
Just recently I went over it with an executive. I argued that it was empowering to know yourself and accept yourself and not have to put on a façade to try to portray yourself as something different from your authentic self. He struggled somewhat with the concept. I came away from the meeting feeling a little inadequate. I sometimes have difficulty in enunciating clearly and convincingly to others that which is clear and convincing to me. (I wish I had the intellectual clarity of the good Dr Phil!) In closing he asked me how long it took me to complete the process of knowing and accepting myself.
It was a good question! I responded that this seemed a continuous journey for me. I am certainly continuing to learn about myself. And as I discover more foibles my ability to accept myself is continually challenged. Notwithstanding that I suspect I have a reasonably high level of self-knowledge and self-acceptance. Consequently I normally maintain a reasonable sense of equanimity.
But I could never say that there weren’t aspects of my “self” that I was blind to. And of course (and I’ll come back to this shortly) there are also aspects of my “self” that I certainly would prefer to be otherwise.
When I was a child, my father, true to his Scots ancestry would often quote these lines from Robert Burns’ poem, To a Louse:
“Owad some Pow’rthe giftie gie us … To see ourselves as others see us!”
Sometimes you get this opportunity! As an executive having to deal with the press, I undertook training to help me manage this. Consequently I did mock radio interviews and television interviews. It was enlightening, (and sometimes embarrassing) to have these interviews played back on tape. Is that the way I really sound? Is that the way I really look? It gives a new perspective to see how we present ourselves from the outside! I thought my voice, the way I heard it, was more authoritative! I thought my persona, as I saw it from my side of my eyeballs was more assured! But plainly not when I saw the physical evidence. Here was a great lesson in humility!
I had always been fortunate in my executive career to be surrounded by people who were insightful and robust and often quite forthright in providing feedback to me. Under such an assault it is difficult to have an inflated ego!
Undergoing a range of psychometric testing is also helpful in gaining self-knowledge.
So then, we do have a variety of mechanisms available to us to build a reasonably complete picture of who we are. But as the popular Johari window suggests it is inevitable that we will still have a “blind spot” – how large it might be is likely to be determined by how well we have gone about the self-examination process.
We do, however, encounter a large obstacle in the acquisition of self-knowledge. The good Dr Phil often states the problem thus: “We can’t afford to know that which we are not prepared to accept!”
If I have a fragile self-concept, and as a result hide my real self from the world and attempt to project a different persona in the belief that that will somehow make me more acceptable, I will strenuously resist acknowledging any evidence that threatens this façade. We must remember that the mind is not rational but is instead rationalising. The ego will co-opt the intellect into finding ways to discredit such evidence.
Let us look at a hypothetical example. Suppose I desperately want to be seen as a great negotiator. My boss sends me off to clinch a deal with a big company we’d like to do business with. The negotiation goes badly and I return to report to my boss that not only have I not been able to clinch a deal but some concessions that the other company had previously made have been withdrawn. My boss is angry and in a spiteful tirade accuses me of being a “lousy negotiator”. This is a major threat to my ego. How then does my mind respond? Here are a number of rationalisations it might resort to:
- Well, I am usually a very competent negotiator but I was feeling a bit off-colour today
- The other company turned up with a new principal negotiator so all the work I’d put into building a relationship with his predecessor was of no use
- Market conditions have changed in the last month therefore our offering is less attractive to them
- What would my boss know about negotiating – he is hopeless at it
- My boss should have given me more notice about this negotiation so that I could have prepared properly
My fertile mind could no doubt find many more excuses for my poor performance. Now some of these reasons may be perfectly true – but whether they are true or not I will be compelled to believe them rather than have my ego exposed. It stands to reason then, the more robust my sense of self, the more I am amenable to taking on board information that will enhance my self-knowledge.
Let us now look at a couple of the consequences of utilising this powerful little model.
Despite my inability to convince my client otherwise, as I reported at the beginning of this essay, it is empowering to accept yourself and put aside the façade. Erecting such façades is a futile exercise. It is like erecting a high stone wall around your castle to keep the dragon out only to find that the dragon has always been within! Whether this is a conscious or a subconscious defence mechanism it requires a huge psychic input. Such effort will lead to better results if directed to more productive strategies.
“But,” my client said, “if people see me as I am, they may not like me.” Well that is true. But do you feel any satisfaction that what they are liking is not you but how you falsely portray yourself. It’s a bit like them saying, “I really can’t stand you but it’s a nice shirt you’re wearing!”
Robust people don’t need their selves to be authenticated by others. And as usual in matters psychological, there is a wonderful paradox that self-authenticated people are eminently likeable. Such people have integrity. They are the people that we refer to when we say colloquially “what you see is what you get”.
In conclusion let me say a little more about self-acceptance. When we look at a person’s self-development, so much of it is due to random circumstances beyond the individual’s control. So much of who we are is determined by our biological history and our early socialisation which are factors beyond our personal control. Therefore it should not be difficult to accept “ourselves”. We largely could not have chosen to be otherwise. But this does not entail a passive surrender to the status quo. Authentic self-knowledge informs intelligent self-development. I cannot change my personality, but being aware of my strengths and weaknesses enables me to better anticipate problems and deal with issues associated with my behaviour. Authentic self-knowledge reveals my skills deficits, which if I so desire, I can correct. All of this helps me be a more competent human being.
But then to “forget yourself”?
Obsession with self is perhaps the most debilitating thing I can think of. Depressed people, for example, are unduly self-obsessed – not in a narcissistic way of course. They continually ruminate over their real and imaginary problems. If I ask you to think about the most enjoyable time in your life, I can be absolutely confident that it wasn’t a time when you were thinking unduly about yourself. As I have quoted elsewhere, the Dalai Lama said, “If you want to make other people happy, be altruistic. If you want to be happy, be altruistic.”
When you get the self out of the equation you can actually see the world more objectively, largely as it is, rather than as an instrument to advance your fragile self-concept.