The Journey of Unlearning

This is the first in a series of five posts on the journey of unlearning roles and life-scripts that interfere with effective leadership and personal fulfillment. If you like, you can hear me read this post.

I have begun to think that leadership in great part is a continuing journey of unlearning.

In an earlier post I described how leaders can fall prey to inaccurate self-assumptions. For example, I have the opinion of myself that “I’m not much of a risk-taker.” Or “I’ve never had a vision.” Or “I’m good at the technical stuff, not people.” These self-perceived labels and attributes become embedded beliefs, embedded in ourselves in a way that is fundamentally inescapable, so that no matter how hard I try to ignore or avoid them, their presence remains silently inside me, influencing what happens in my work and life — and usually becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. These self-perceptions can be groundless but feel like an absolute truth. In this way, they represent self-limiting inner voices and perspectives that actively prevent us from displaying aspects of ourselves that desperately need expression. Therefore, they are worth “unlearning” through the insight that “I am not that.” Once liberated from their power, I can begin to open up to new potentials and possibilities for my own action.

Unlearning these self-conclusions is particularly critical for releasing leadership capabilities. We cannot lead others well (let alone ourselves) if certain doors always remain closed, if our choices about how to address situations, people, relationships, conflicts, and opportunities are modified by erroneous self-views. One of a leader’s most important assets is accurate discernment of reality, and when that is at risk, we — and everybody around us — may surely be challenged. To complicate matters, the work of removing these filters, these chains in our perceptions, is often very hard work. Even with an awareness of the patterns of identity and behavior we hold within us, we are not likely to change quickly. I cannot simply decide one day that now I am a risk-taker, a visionary, or a “people-person.” Instant fixes lead to denial and self-deception. It is clear the voices that inhabit us are only partly in awareness, partly in our control, their roots tied back into deeper, less conscious domains. We don’t arrest them easily. Once they have moved in, like unruly tenants, they generally fight eviction.

Another factor in the challenge is that the voices of our self-conclusions may have actively coalesced into a personal myth, a story about who I know I am that has an almost fairy-tale quality. The myth may not necessarily be negative in overall character. It may appear as an archetype, such as magician, innocent, lover, king or queen, a kind of life script that somehow expresses a central “truth” about my life — and gives me a role to play. To understand this script, we must go on a journey into the underworld of our psyches, a path that by its very nature confirms its mythical power over us. I experience the script as my path, maybe my fate or destiny.

The notion of powerful scripts guiding human lives has been around a long, long time (think Greek tragedies) and has been re-interpreted in countless ways. In modern times, scripts received a significant surge in interest through the post-psychoanalytic writings of Eric Berne, author of Games People Play, and the work of his colleague, Claude Steiner, in Scripts People Live and other writings. Berne was clear that freedom means not only understanding our scripts, but shutting them down.

Or rather, achieving our liberation from them so I, as a person, can be fully present, fully discerning what is happening, which drives my capacity for effective decisions and effective action. For if I believe I am the “unappreciated iconoclast” in my life and work, I am choosing to live the role’s life, not my own. And indeed, what happens to this iconoclast except to find situation after situation in which I express my wisdom in a way that leads others to discount or discredit me, or otherwise leaves me alone and unappreciated. If I see myself as “the mediator,” I attract dispute after dispute that gives me my value as mediator and at the same time dooms me to circumstances where the conflicts never end. We invent a character in a story, and lo and behold, our life and our work become that story. Sometimes the effects are good; I become the hero or heroine, but even there, since the story is constantly relived, I will never be satisfied to come home to rest; I must find another dragon to slay or receive another task from Aphrodite to fulfill.

A simple example of this process is an entrepreneur/company founder whose script calls for being “the lonely king.” The king gets older and part of him wants to retire, but he cannot quite separate from the business, works doggedly, has a closed circle of friends who work like he does, loses his spouse and children to affairs and drugs, has piles and piles of cash yet must stay on year after year, always finding a reason — often the lack of an able successor — to keep on managing the kingdom.


In my own case, the “voices” for me have always been about isolation and temporary relationships in which I find ways to help others across whatever difficult river they are facing on their journey. Many years ago, a colleague dubbed me “the ferryman,” a label that seemed to accurately describe my role as a consultant and as a friend. Yet, eventually I noticed how the self-label was also influencing my relationships with significant others. I was the ferryman, alright, but the ferryman is a temporary part of others’ lives. When relationships ended I warmed myself with the comfort of believing I had played a role in helping someone else get across some sort of personal stream and this seemed to assuage the loneliness natural to the role. You may say, how arrogant a conclusion, and indeed you may be right. And, in truth, the relationships I chose, also doomed me to the part, to the temporariness, and then returning to the far shore to find someone anew. A terrible pattern, but the label ferryman explained my life in the way constellations describe the stars. Perfectly — a subjective space precisely paired with objective fact. After all, the real, underlying, but backward stated purpose of this role was for me to get across my own river. But, of course, I couldn’t do it as long as I was caught in the cycle. My escape from this script is documented via a series of meditations and photographs in This Raft of Self, free and downloadable right here. (For best viewing, display it “Two-Up”.)

Which leads to this question: how do any of us escape these roles, quasi-conscious as they may be, and so potentially controlling? Here are four thoughts — please share your ideas, too, and ask questions so that we can participate in a dialogue.

1. Determine the role. Identify every inner voice that represents a characterization and judgment of you, thinking especially of yourself as a child and young adult. Are you the one who breaks up the fights, defends his mother from his father, organizes the food drive for the family down the street, consistently wins at marbles while flunking mathematics? Break these images down. What is the story about? And what image of yourself does it lead to now as an adult? What is your role? Rescuer, Peacemaker, Rebel, etc.

2. Assess the impacts. Once the role is identified, and the behaviors that go with it, ask yourself what this is actually buying for you. What do you really gain in terms of pride, and what do you lose in actual costs to your possibilities? How does the role affect relationships, esteem, fulfillment? If this is a story-line, how much would you like to be free of it? I believe if you try to answer that question honestly, you will find a set of stairs leading down into some pretty big darkness. That’s perfectly okay. Stay with it. “What if I’m not the rescuer?” you might ask, or “the only responsible person,” or “the unrecognized genius”? What then will I be? If you get that far, that’s really fabulous. If you can’t have a role that you used to comfort you as a place to stand, well, then, the process is really working.

3. Realize how much is untrue. If you can see the role and the behaviors that support it, from Question 1, and the impacts from Question 2, and penetrate that darkness, willing to stay right there, you may begin to see how much is genuinely, deeply untrue about you. It could even be an emotional moment as you release all that pre-conception back to the universe and get cleansed of the notion that you are anything at all, that you need a role in order to be who you are. Because, you know, you don’t.

4. Live into Being. Spend some time considering that if you are “not that,” you now have new potentialities. What are they? What can you do if you are not the mediator, producer, embattled frog prince or princess in a tower? What can you be? (I once asked a question like this to someone in a seminar and she said, “Well, I could have a real life.” Best answer I ever heard.)

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  • Dan, another way that I have found to be beautifully simple and easy is this:

    1. Appreciate: When we recognise a pattern or script acknowledge if for what it is – a strategy of mind that at some point we took on board to help us. We often look at these patterns as bad, but we originally embraced them for something they give us – maybe a way to help us feel secure or placate a feeling of loneliness; or maybe they were a way of grappling what we wanted from a world that seemed competitive and unfair; or perhaps it was a way of enhancing or protecting our self image.

    2. Accept: Now that we no longer resist these patterns but instead see them as something that served us, we are free to recognise that they are no longer useful to where we are right now. We can accept that although they once served who we thought we were, they are no longer applicable to the new path that we are on.

    3. Heal: In this acceptance we can now turn our attention back on itself to ‘that which is aware’ of all these patterns, beliefs and scripts – to our Self, the awareness that witnesses them come and go – and see that this, our Self, is totally beyond being affected by any of these story lines it is aware of. In seeing that they are just that – story lines in the story of my life, they loose all power.

    We can now see that the problem is not these scripts themselves but in our loosing the sense of the awareness that is aware of them when we start to identify our ‘selves’ with our scripts. We see that the story cannot affect the story teller unless the story teller starts believing that the story is reality instead of the awareness that creates, struggles against and ultimately steps back and simply becomes aware of them. And in seeing this we are healed.

    Dan I hope this makes sense and is in someway useful. All the best to you my friend.

  • As always, Nick, so eloquent.

    For some reason, your words also remind me how all of us can help each other with this process of unlearning. Sometimes, it takes another person, stranger or friend, to say a word or two that unlocks the whole thing. It’s love in some form, I believe, that awakens — that is — the Self, that allows the “stepping back.” Love that is not different from realization. Sometimes another’s words trip the levers by reminding us just how untrue our scripts, and all they are based on have become. Thank you, Nick. Your observation is beautiful.

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