On “Identity Theft”

In a vivid dream I was lost in a for­eign city. I did­n’t speak the lan­guage and, although I had my phone with me, I did­n’t know who to call. There seemed to be some sort of civ­il war going on and for a few min­utes I was trapped in a build­ing with gun­fire only a few feet away. Escap­ing, I hur­ried along crowd­ed streets, mak­ing my way through a jum­ble of walls, wind­ing stair­cas­es and twist­ed alleys. Every­where I turned there were crowds of peo­ple and noise — and no way out. I did­n’t want to attract atten­tion to myself but even­tu­al­ly sev­er­al men sur­round­ed me, one came up behind me, whis­pered some­thing to me and put his arm around my back as if as a friend, but it was then I felt total­ly pow­er­less and ter­ror­ized because I knew I was going to be abducted.…

I woke up remem­ber­ing that I had been think­ing about some client work just before I fell asleep. And — OMG! — the dream rep­re­sent­ed in a par­al­lel way the sit­u­a­tion I had been think­ing about and try­ing to bet­ter under­stand. Has that ever hap­pened to you?

What I’d been reflect­ing upon was a sto­ry, told to me by a client a few years back, of being “washed away” in a sit­u­a­tion where sev­er­al of his team mem­bers seemed to be attack­ing him. He found him­self becom­ing ner­vous and tense and not respond­ing well, essen­tial­ly shut­ting down into unman­age­able feel­ings of inse­cu­ri­ty in the face of what he expe­ri­enced as aggres­sion.

So you prob­a­bly already get that the “abduc­tion” in the dream resem­bles that process of shut­ting down in the clien­t’s sto­ry. I was reliv­ing his tale! And it just rein­forces my own sense that this moment of inse­cu­ri­ty (ter­ror in the dream) — of want­i­ng to fight or flee but not being able to do either — is a lead­er­ship top­ic worth con­sid­er­ing. It is in these moments, after all, that there is a “theft” of iden­ti­ty, not of the cred­it card kind, but of the psy­cho­log­i­cal kind. Maybe this is an uncom­fort­able sub­ject to think about, but we have all met aggres­sive peo­ple, some very can­ny in their intim­i­da­tions, and the ques­tion is can we pre­vent the moment of abduction? 

So how would we go about that? Well, I think we can begin by track­ing the gen­e­sis of the theft. It did­n’t just hap­pen at the staff meet­ing fif­teen min­utes ago. It hap­pened first as a child. 

A child’s sense of self is frag­ile and depends on being seen by the care­givers in a pos­i­tive and affirm­ing way. That’s often what kids get from praise, espe­cial­ly praise that is spe­cif­ic and affirm­ing of them as new indi­vid­u­als, a kind of first-order recog­ni­tion of the per­son. The oth­er side of that coin is a dif­fer­ent kind of see­ing by care­givers and, by exten­sion, any­one in author­i­ty that feels like expo­sure — usu­al­ly through threats, embar­rass­ment, guilt, sham­ing or repeat­ed­ly ques­tion­ing and under­min­ing of the child’s judg­ment, espe­cial­ly in ways that con­tra­dict the child’s actu­al expe­ri­ence. “I’m hun­gry, Mom.” “No, you’re not. You just ate three hours ago. You’re fak­ing it again to get into those cook­ies.” Expo­sure has the oppo­site effect from recog­ni­tion — it aims to wash away the iden­ti­ty of the child, to be replaced by some­thing more accept­able to the care­tak­er. Some of that devel­op­men­tal process is actu­al­ly good when used appro­pri­ate­ly — Mom tells you to stop play­ing with a ball in the street. It’s for your own pro­tec­tion, although the tone may be some­thing dif­fer­ent, “Did­n’t I tell you nev­er to play in the street? Did­n’t I? Well?” Just so, some of that expo­sure was not for our own pro­tec­tion, and through these under­min­ing expe­ri­ences we also learned we could be stolen from — some­times in order to bol­ster some­one else. All of us, for exam­ple, quick­ly learned the play­ground was­n’t all about play — it was also about social stature, in-groups, and power.

Now, the wash-away expe­ri­ences do not have to be a big, trau­mat­ic deal to have an effect on adult life. They can just be a back­ground thread. What peo­ple com­mon­ly labelled as bul­lies do is access that thread of expo­sure. Some­times it does­n’t take very much to access it. As adults we love to cov­er this stuff up. Why would­n’t we? But an effec­tive­ly con­trol­ling per­son can intu­itive­ly sense where the but­tons are that breach nat­ur­al defens­es. And they may only have to hint about it. They “whis­per in the ear,” as my dream char­ac­ter did. He did­n’t have to point a gun to tell me I was a goner. 

At one lev­el the lived the­o­ry of our cul­ture is to “get tougher” — about nev­er feel­ing intim­i­dat­ed or inse­cure. By fac­ing dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances and tough peo­ple, we’ll learn to buck up, stand our own ground. When need­ed, we’ll access our inner Clint East­wood (as Dirty Har­ry) or Meryl Streep (as Miran­da Priest­ly). Our cul­ture includes a cer­tain wor­ship of con­fi­dence and clev­er­ness, and as a result there is often fear of the moment when inse­cu­ri­ty might show through. 

Now I think this is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent than say­ing, oh yeah, it’s bet­ter when lead­ers are vul­ner­a­ble. The moment of inse­cu­ri­ty is real, and dis­play­ing inse­cu­ri­ty is a lot dif­fer­ent than dis­play­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty — in the sense that vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty is cho­sen. Inse­cu­ri­ty, by con­trast, hap­pens, par­tic­u­lar­ly when peo­ple feel intim­i­dat­ed. And that might be a response to direct aggres­sion, but it might also sim­ply be a response to pow­er, stature, or author­i­ty. All of these things seem to be able to induce the moment of pan­ic, the iden­ti­ty theft, the abduction.

There’s anoth­er way to look at this moment and I think the dream shows it very well. The fear expressed there was real­ly a fear of oth­er peo­ple and what they can do.

So a “what if…” ques­tion here might be: What if we were gen­uine­ly not afraid of one anoth­er? Gen­uine­ly not afraid? Think­ing about this from a lead­er­ship stand­point, how many prob­lems would go away in our orga­ni­za­tions? Well, it’s an inter­est­ing thought. And it brings me back, full cir­cle, to the work of my life facil­i­tat­ing high­er lev­els of trust among peo­ple in their work­places. In this sense trust can be defined as the choice to over­come that fear of oth­ers as well as the fear oth­ers have of us and what we can do. And beyond these things to awak­en real care.

In prac­ti­cal terms, then, my work “dri­ving fear out of the work­place” has become about the act of reach­ing out to active­ly build trust with one oth­er per­son at a time. Might solve a lot of prob­lems for us if we all worked on that.

I’ve been exper­i­ment­ing with a nine-step method­ol­o­gy to over­come fear in this one-by-one way. If you have time to take a look, it begins on this web­page and is linked to twen­ty-four oth­er pages. It is still very much a work in progress so I’d love your feedback.

I hope this tool opens an oppor­tu­ni­ty for any­one using it to turn and meet the “abduc­tor,” to find out who that is, real­ly, and then to wake up from the dream.

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