I am the angel of reality,
Seen for a moment standing in the door.

–-- Angel Surrounded by Paysans, Wallace Stevens

On Personal Change

As a coach and consultant, I often find myself helping clients with changes they would like to see themselves make. It is quite natural for the client, after quickly identifying what the change is about, to rush immediately to the next question: “How do I do this?” Yet, truth be told, the emphasis can be so strongly on the “how-to” part, which is behavioral and action oriented, that it begs the question of whether a true first step in self-change has been completed. What is that step?

This is not as easily answered as it might sound. One could say that “self-awareness” or “self-knowledge” or even “mindfulness,” the word of the day, needs to be present as a first step, but I believe it might be closer to “self-grok.”

For example, personally I have always struggled with two very important personal tendencies: 1) I can feel very different from other people in a debilitating way and 2) I can project negative explanations onto situations that are ambiguous. When these two patterns collide I can all too easily put myself into a feeling state that is devastating — put-down, shunned, isolated, and existentially worthless — over literally nothing. Sure, I can see the downside of these patterns for my work and for my life, and have for thirty years, but do the patterns actually change? They are, after all, powerful fundamentals of my temperament, and for all the contemporary notions of neuroplasticity, I find, like most people do, that it is not so easy to shift dynamics that have been in place most of one’s adult life. I can feel and see the patterns, and I can intervene, but the dynamic continues to happen, especially when under stress. It’s my reality.


The self-grok that makes it far easier for me to own this difficulty, talk about it, and relieve some of its pain is related to Carl Jung’s archetype called the Shadow. The Shadow is the area of our being that is “dark,” having become so as a product of inherent make-up and caregiver conditioning. It represents the sides of us that are unacceptable to express. If I become aggressive, for example, as I grow up in a family where overt displays of aggression are punished, I learn quickly and painfully that I must throw my aggressive thoughts, feelings, and actions into the Shadow. They are still there, just locked in a hidden place I have taught myself doesn’t exist. Of course, it does exist, and others may see it quite clearly, especially when aggression “leaks” out through inadvertent behavior. Robert Bly called this phenomenon, “the long bag we drag behind us.” The long bag is filled with all the parts of who we are that it is not okay to be. Socially unacceptable stuff goes there, like aggression, but also parts of us that might have been useful and fulfilling but not approved of in our early social environments. A person’s creativity, for instance, might be thrown into the bag if it was too disruptive to a family system. The Shadow operates, in part, as an unconsciously designed process of self-protection from instincts, feelings, and actions that are somehow “dangerous” within a child’s world. Later, as adults, we gradually learn to reclaim those lost parts of ourselves.

The self-grok recognizes that the missing pieces of me related to my desired change are part of what’s in the bag, that they are in fact here already, if unconscious, and even if an ongoing pattern of behavior seems to contradict that belief. In terms of my own tendencies, therefore, the critical recognition that makes change accessible is knowing “the answer is already in the Shadow.” My desired growth is not entirely about practice of a new behavior. That practice has to be founded in the “discovery” of the new behavior as already part of who I am, perhaps as truly who I am.

It is true some people only get to that discovery by trying a behavioral shift, but it isn’t the shift alone that works; it’s the seeing that “the shift is me.” If the behaviors I try on remain “outside” of who I believe myself to be, I am likely to have a great deal more trouble fully owning my patterns and doing much of anything about them. To keep pushing in this way would be, in effect, simply trying to throw more of me into Shadow. As an adult that just doesn’t work very well. It feels disingenuous, and it is. Moreover, the critical recognition of my unconscious strengths helps me dis-identify from the patterns I don’t like. Yes, they are part of me, but they are not all of me. I can see them as a structure, an artifice, that at one time may have had value, but not so much now.

The old brain grooves are there, but the capacity for self-grok is a magnificent antidote. It is like a photographer’s flash that, although lit only for the briefest moment, fully reveals the scene. The self-grok is understanding intuitively, and “in a flash,” what’s in the bag, and it is this that creates the actual capacity for change. If the answer isn’t already “in me,” how could I make any shift at all, except through force? In terms of my own patterns, it is the realization that my connections and my similarities to others are already truly here, if invisible at those moments when my ideas of difference from others overtake me, and that another more accurate and worthwhile reality is present even as I make depressive projections onto others and my situation.

Suppose you wanted to write a book. Many of us do, but more than some do not. But let’s say the inner writer is in the Shadow. Instead of sitting down to force the writing, let the inner writer, still in the Shadow, still unconscious, but here, inform your fingers on the keys. Let the Shadow writer begin to wake up. See what happens.

So that’s what I believe may be helpful to you in order to begin making your own changes — an intuitive presentiment of who you fully are. Without that, there’s only the painful discipline of trying in the face of what can feel to be a very large and demotivating task. This presentiment comes, in turn, from trusting your perceptions of your own psychological and spiritual reality, your own sense of a unique world and cosmos independent of what others see. This is the you that lives beyond language itself. It is intuition, pure and simple, and yet is also knowing in a most visceral way that the water of the stream you touch is as cold (and refreshing) as you feel it to be. No one has to tell you that, just as no one needs to tell you how to change; you already know how, for yourself alone.

Following this path, change always seems to come with some robust personal meaning, which is to say it cannot be reduced to a strict, easy formula, but always acts as a completion. It is more like the morning shadows among the trees, beautiful and shifting, and diminishing as the sun rises higher, heralding a day meant to come.


RSS and email subscription, monthly Unfolding Leadership newsletter, search and other functions may be found at the “Further Information” tab at the bottom of this page.

Pinterest users, you can pin pictures from this weblog via this Board.

Cowardice at Work

This is a tale of two higher level managers — the first all but terminated, shuffled into a secondary job without an explanation except the unstated, very real message, “your time is up — find something else.” By comparison the second is offered a dignified opportunity to leave the organization with significant feedback and as […]

Breaking Patterns

My very smart wife, Carmen, noticing my restlessness, gave me an assignment: “Go photograph a still life using light from a window.” While she worked in her office, I rummaged around the kitchen looking for items, chastising myself. “I should be working,” I thought. “I should be writing. I should be making calls and sending […]

Leadership and Co-Design

Although the term, co-design, has more specific, formal meanings, I like to think of it very informally as two or more people thinking together as equals about some specific change they want to make. In my field of organization dynamics, that could be shifting how the work is done or how an organization is structured, […]