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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