Developing Our Inner Life as a Leader

As we grow in mindfulness, we develop our inner life – realising a deeper self-awareness, developing increased understanding of the nature and strength of our personal triggers and building a greater understanding of, and tolerance for, other people’s differences.  This enriched inner life builds our capacity for insight, resilience, creativity and integration of our words and actions with our life purpose – all essential traits of effective leadership.  Ginny Whitelaw, in her book The Zen Leader, describes this reframing and reorientation of a leader as a flip from “Out There” to “In Here”.

We create our world “out there”

Ginny explains that what we consider to be “out there” (external reality) is, in fact, a projection of our inner world.  Drawing on her study of biophysics, martial arts and Zen philosophy, Ginny marshals her arguments to demonstrate that our external world as we perceive and experience it, is mostly of our own making.  Her argument revolves around several key insights:

  • Limited perception – Ginny points out that our human capacity is to perceive external reality in two or three dimensions (the latter achieved mainly by artists and architects).  She maintains that our external world exists in ten dimensions, most of which are outside our awareness.
  • Cultural filters – our national culture, the world we are raised in, creates filters that shape our perceptions, beliefs, words and actions.   Naomi Osaka (Japanese tennis star), for example, explained in an interview for the Brisbane International that she was bemused by the enthusiasm, boisterousness and naturalness of Australian tennis spectators – which she pleasantly experienced as a sharp contrast to the “politeness” of Japanese tennis spectators.
  • Personal triggers – what we experience individually and differentially as negative triggers is shaped by our early life experiences which heighten our sensitivity to different interactions – a sensitivity that can be reflected in a constant need for control, an overwhelming drive to prove that we are “better than”, an obsessive need to please so that we are liked, or the continuous perception of criticism of ourselves by others.  These negative triggers are often the result of distorted perception of our external world – for example, we see criticism where none is intended or where the opposite is intended.
  • Expectations – our expectations reflect our self-image and influence how we experience others’ interactions with us.  Ginny maintains that through our expectations “we’ve pre-tuned our senses to notice only certain things and to place certain interpretations on them”.  Our expectations that reside “in here” create the world we experience as “out there”.

So, what we experience as “out there” is highly subjective and is of our own creation – we are constantly making our own world.  There are inherent deficiencies and dangers for leaders in assuming that what we perceive and experience, is “real” and is the only reality.  Reg Revans, the father of the action learning approach to leadership development, warns us that if we assume that we know what is real we are going to cause trouble for ourselves and others.  Politicians frequently attempt to shape our perceptions of reality by stating unequivocally that “the reality is…” (invariably something of their own making that serves their purpose).

Developing our inner life (as a leader)

In her book on Zen leadership, Ginny offers some penetrating exercises that address our individual distortions of “out there” and enrich our inner life (what is “in here”) thus empowering us to “lead fearlessly” but attuned to others’ reality and own purpose.  These reflective exercises fall into several categories:

  • What World do You Make? – this exercise built around personal skills and traits as well as values that you hold strongly, develops an insight into how you shape your world in a typical week. (p.86)
  • Turning a Difficult Relationship – involves reflecting on an interaction with curiosity and openness to ascertain what you personally brought to the interaction (in terms of perceptions and triggers).  It entails looking into the mirror, discovering the fear at the root of your perception and behaviour and “claiming your power” by naming and facing your fear. (p.97)
  • Sitting Meditation as a Core Practice – Ginny offers a guided meditation based on sitting and grounding that releases tension, develops deep body-mind relaxation and provides the opportunity to gain greater awareness of what is “in here” and “out there” for you. (p.101)

Ginny’s book is rich with insights and personal exercises and reflections to deepen self-awareness, enhance self-regulation and develop ways to empower yourself to take your place fully in the world (not constrained by distorted perceptions, unfounded assumptions and projections or unexposed fears).

Reflection

Our life experience and our personal responses provide a rich store for reflection and insight.  Developing our inner life is not a luxury for a leader – it is an imperative because leaders are able to influence others and to enrich their lives.  The starting point is acknowledging and accepting that the world we experience is something of our own making and that we can remake our world (and help others to do likewise) by growing in mindfulness through meditation (such as the sitting meditation proposed by Ginny), by reflection (such as focusing on what we brough to a difficult interaction) and by open exploration (seeking with curiosity to identify our personal “imprint” of our world).

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Mindfulness: An Antidote to Narcissism

The experts in the area of narcissism inform us that narcissism is not a single state but is a spectrum ranging from exhibiting narcissistic tendencies to having a narcissistic personality disorder.   They remind us that we all have narcissistic traits to a greater or lesser degree – shaped by the prevailing culture, our neurological/psychological makeup and/or the experience of being in a relationship with a narcissist (in a personal or work situation).  Whatever way you look at it, we have influences that can engender narcissistic behaviour on our part – the culture of individualism, entitlement and materialistic values is a seedbed for narcissism.

How can mindfulness help to reduce narcissism in our lives?

Experts in the area of narcissism and its impacts on psychological welfare identify a range of mindfulness meditations that can assist us to reduce narcissism in our own behaviour and to cope with the negative impacts of relationships (both work and personal) with people who are high on the narcissism spectrum.

  • Challenging self-stories – our negative self-stories can be compounded by experiencing the impact of a narcissist either in a personal or a work relationship.  The narcissist sets out to prove their superiority by diminishing other people and their achievements, by projecting their own weaknesses onto others and by criticising others relentlessly and sometimes publicly.  Their words and actions attack our self-esteem and sense of self-worth.  This aggressive behaviour is driven by a deep sense of vulnerability and a highly fragile ego.  The danger for us is that we can perpetuate this aggressive behaviour in our own lives through our acquired deep sense of unworthiness and fragility – we can become narcissistic ourselves by trying to protect our increasingly fragile egos.  Mindfulness meditation, focused on surfacing our negative self-stories and their origins, can help us to achieve a more balanced view of ourselves and our self-worth.
  • Cultivating healthy confidence – to offset deficit thinking and craving for attention.  Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness, maintains that early childhood experiences, compounded by a relationship with a narcissistic person (either a boss or intimate partner), can undermine our sense of self-worth  He suggests that we can rebuild our self-esteem and self-confidence by being fully mindful of positive experiences – embedding them not only in our brain but also our body.  This involves paying attention to a positive experience, enriching it with feeling and bodily awareness and taking the time to absorb it so that it becomes part of our neural pathways.  Some of the positive experiences that can be the focus of mindful attention are being appreciated or cared for; experiencing at a very deep level our common humanity and interconnectedness; forgiving ourselves by “letting go” of criticism; or recognising our own knowledge, skills and competence.
  • Developing sympathetic joy to overcome envy and “I’m better than” thinking or acting – these attempts to establish “superiority’ reflect a central trait of the narcissist.  Bonnie Duran, a Professor of Social Work and Public Health, employs the Buddhist framework of “conceit” to explain the behaviour of a narcissist.  In Buddhist terms, conceit can be reflected in different forms – equality conceit (I’m as good as}, inferiority conceit (I’m worse than) and superiority conceit (I’m better than).  She maintains that narcissism is the extreme form of superiority conceit and that people who have experienced narcissism in their relationships can often display inferiority conceit.  While narcissists exhibit behaviour designed to demonstrate and/or gain superiority, we are each capable of exhibiting a need to prove we are “better than”.  Bonnie recommends meditation practices such as loving kindness (extending to ourselves as well as to others who have injured us), sympathetic joy, compassion and equanimity, to deal with narcissism in our lives.  Sympathetic joy meditation helps us to recognise the envy that underpins the need to appear superior and to replace this with appreciation for the success of others.
  • Enhancing self-awareness through meditation – a way to counter narcissistic bosses, partners and parents.  Sandy Hotchkiss, clinical social worker and psychologist, is the author of the book, Why Is It Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism.  She describes workplaces as arenas of power where bosses carve out their piece of turf.  Sandy stresses the need for self-knowledge as well as an understanding of narcissism and its impacts on psychological welfare.  Experience of a relationship with a narcissistic person (boss, parent or partner) can lead to a distorted self-perception through their manipulation, shaming, projection and exploitation.  Sandy recommends mindfulness and mindfulness practices to deepen self-knowledge to counter this self-distortion.   In this way, we can learn to identify our triggers, discover our habituated responses and develop self-management strategies to reduce the psychological harm we have suffered.
  • Meditating on the “need to please” – this neediness can arise from the abuse suffered at the hands of a narcissistic person.   Terri Cole, psychotherapist and expert in dealing with narcissistic relationships, maintains that psychological harm experienced as a child of a narcissistic parent leaves a person open to traumatic experiences when engaging in intimate relationships, especially with a narcissist.  Terri suggests that the childhood experiences of being the “scapegoat” can be reflected in later behaviour in taking on the role of “key enabler” through the disease to please.  She stresses the need to establish boundaries and develop true self-love.  To this end, Terri provides a series of meditations, a Boundary Bootcamp, a video channel and podcasts.
  • Meditations for dealing with trauma from an intimate relationship with a narcissistRhonda Freeman, a clinical neuropsychologist and creator of neuroinstincts.com, experienced an intimate relationship with someone who suffered from a narcissistic personality disorder. She suffered trauma as a result and after leaving the relationship, she researched why it was so hard to leave despite the psychological abuse.  She set about to research and practise ways to heal herself from the resultant post-traumatic stress.  Her experiences healing herself and the related research are captured in the resources on her website, her video channel and her online course, Caring for the Brain After Psychopathic & Narcissistic Abuse.  Rhonda explains that the narcissist abuser engages in three key strategies that can have an enduring negative effect on the brain of the abused – idealize, devalue, discard.  She reinforces the value of addressing the psychological harm by engaging in self-compassion meditation, meditation for shame and mindful walking in nature.  While she recommends developing mindfulness, she suggests that this process should be supported by other activities such as developing healthy bonding through social contacts, cultivating creativity through music, art or journaling and engaging in purposeful movement (e.g. yoga and dance).

Reflection

Mindfulness meditation, in its many forms, can help us to redress the negative psychological impacts of a relationship with a narcissist, become aware of our own narcissistic tendencies and develop enhanced self-awareness and improved self-management.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can better understand the forces shaping the behaviour of a narcissist, and our own behaviour, and be able to extend loving kindness to them and ourselves.  As we reflect on our own narcissistic tendencies, we can begin to offer compassion and sympathetic joy to others.

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Image by Devanath from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.