On Self-Confrontation

One could almost say the heart of reflective leadership is the capacity for self-confrontation.

It is not really a skill. It is more a “psychological move,” a mental and emotional re-positioning to look very honestly at oneself and one’s situation. Without it, we have no way to accurately judge or respond to situations, especially when those situations involve complex, real-world misunderstandings and conflicts and the powerful emotions that go with them.

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It’s easier to believe in self-confrontation when talking about other people. If only they would be honest with themselves, things would get better. In reality, of course, each of us must be honest about our contributions to the problems, or the problems between us surely will continue. Our mutual self-confrontations are the only way to withdraw from the persistent fantasies, assumptions, and the projections you and I make onto each other; to see things as they are. Without this process of withdrawal and understanding, how can I make the changes I need to make?

This seems straightforward enough but the truth about ourselves can be a very delicate (and slippery) thing, especially in those situations that challenge our blind belief that we’ve got a corner on what’s true. We can be absolutely certain of our experience of others only to discover, too late, how wrong we were. And then, making the discovery, we are predictably bad at balancing truth with self-care.

I recall working some years ago with a client leader who had received some very tough feedback about her style. She had days when her naturally edgy style merged into sarcasm and ridicule of her associates. One day, after sharing some difficult feedback I’d collected, I was helping her put together a personal development plan. Over coffee she read her plan to me, then looked up from what she had written and spontaneously said — with that characteristic sarcasm in her voice — “Oh my! Now I’m applying my very blind spots to writing my plan! I’m writing because I’m fully convinced other people are the only problem I have.” She turned the paper over in front of her and gazed off thoughtfully, deeply perturbed. I’d known her for awhile and it seemed to me she often used sarcasm to cover what was painful.

In it’s way, it was a beautiful moment of self-realization — this seeing the truth of how old habits put on new clothes to suit the circumstance, how with sleight-of-hand she was reinventing the very problem our coaching relationship was supposed to address. In an instant she had grasped herself — but the acid was still there.

I helped her parse what she meant and then complimented her on her discovery, but with a doubt. What she had done to others she was now doing to herself and I said as much to her.

These many years later, I still advise clients that the core of their work can depend on self-confrontation, but I guess I’ve learned (from my own experiences as much as others’) that self-confrontation only really works when it is wrapped in love. You can get to some part of the truth about yourself by pouring on the acid and watching it eat away at the metal of your own defenses. You can say you are scared about something and then criticize the heck out of yourself for it, creating even more anxiety. You can shame yourself for disrespecting another, then beat yourself up mercilessly. You can point to the mistakes you’ve made as objective truth and then use your energy to numb out the pain — as if you could. Especially if you are supposed to be tough or perfect or right all the time, the moment of self-knowledge can flatten you. But if you want the whole truth, you must open a loving, redemptive, forgiving door as well. You must acknowledge that whole truth as always bigger than whatever it was that flattened you. The love you need might come from a coach or a friend, but far better, of course, that it come from you yourself.

When it comes down to it, the capacity to confront yourself is more a part of love than the other way around.

I wish I’d reflected some of that back more definitively to my sarcastic client. Maybe it just would have been in the tone of the compliment and the observations I shared, or through some subtler aspect of presence, metaphorically passing her a candle in the midst of her dark self-critique. When you see someone finally tell themselves a truth, you know it for what it is, a hard moment. Maybe all you can do is offer sincere support (“That’s a tough place to be!”) or quietly embrace the person, if they are okay with that. Sometimes just being there is enough, unspoken love being the only kind at such a moment that can be heard.

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16 Comments

  • Another compassionate, and simultaneously probing and thought-provoking post Dan.

    Inner judgment is so easy for many of us…the critical voices in our early years easily become etched in our minds and play back like a tape recorder for the rest of our lives….if we don’t know how to ignore those voices and replace them with a more compassionate one.

    Personal flogging really don’t help. Flogging others doesn’t help either. I find that when I’m caught up in either, what I’m really wanting most is the acknowledgment that something isn’t right…connection has been broken or interrupted, and I want things restored in some way. Not in the old way. A new and improved way but when that is meaningful for all involved.

    Even when I’ve felt the most anger, underneath it all, I wanted someone else to care enough about me and the situation to want to make things right. More then I wanted their punishment.

    In the end, I don’t think all of us really want to ‘get away’ with everything in life and never be held accountable. Yet we do want the glance of mercy and compassion. We want to know that we are lovable and still worthy of love when we make mistakes.

    If we haven’t had very good compassion/mercy models in life, it can take longer (if at all) for someone to be able to learn how to have compassion for ourselves. Without mirroring, humans just don’t know how to very well. (children severely isolated and abused with little human interaction have revealed this as well as children found in the wild…)

    We really do need to model compassion for one another just as much as we try to extend it to ourselves. We just can’t do it all on our own.

    Again, love this post (as I usually do) and this is what came up for me in the moment.

    ~Samantha

  • Dear Samantha~

    Your comments always touch me. You have a great heart, one that knows exactly how to speak with those children (all of us) found in the wild.

    Thank you, my friend, for your beautiful words.

    ~Dan

  • Gurmeet Singh Pawar wrote:

    Hi Dan,

    As usual a beautifully written post from you. I always appreciate your belief on reflections & enjoy your experience on same.

    Self reflection is one path which is little unknown to most of us, and had it not been for nature we would have loved to ignore it for ever. Its a choice not many like to make, and its only because of THE LAW that governs the universe we are one day lead to the path of Reflection. People can’t escape their mirror how much they wish.

    I do understand your take on the pain involved with reflection & that an associated feeling of love can be a great balm to it.
    It is when we see love as a sugar and that sugar becomes another coat on our new found belief that next reflection hurts more when it tries to erode the that belief. Love will always be accompanied with hate, pleasure will bring pain along.

    I do not have the answer only experience like you my friend & maybe that’s the path.

    Thank you for sharing your profound thoughts, enjoyed going through them and I agree that samantha “has a great heart, one that know how to speak.” God bless you both.

    Have a nice day. :-)

  • Lolly Daskal wrote:

    A heartfelt post and one that speaks deeply to me.

    I love this thought: self-confrontation only really works when it is wrapped in love. and the capacity to confront yourself is more a part of love than the other way around.

    All profound statements and yet sometimes very hard to embrace.

    Confrontation is not simple. Looking in the mirror is not always pretty.

    The heart of who we are is laced introspection of self.

    The heart of who we want to become is the intersection of who we are today and what what we will become tomorrow.

    Self awareness, self confrontation is at the heart of all leadership. We each MUST lead from within if we want to get to the source of our soul.

    Dan you are an exceptional soul, when you confront yourself BE PROUD.

    Lolly Daskal
    Lead From Within

  • Dear Gurmeet~

    Thank you so much for commenting. You raise such important points. It is easy to fall into the trap of believing self-love can exist without self-confrontation. As you say, by nature the mirror is inescapable. It is precisely because of this, I believe, that we must appreciate how opposites arise from one another. When we know we can hold both sides — happiness and suffering, truth and deception, beauty and ugliness, depth and superficiality — just as they are, a different door opens, doesn’t it? To me, that is where real compassion lies.

    Thank you again, and you have a wonderful day, as well!

    Dan

  • Dear Lolly~

    Thank you for adding such depth, Lolly. Coming through self-confrontation is like going through a narrow place in one’s own life. On the other side we can experience a moment of well-being and accomplishment. That’s part of the love, too, honoring the will that got us through tight places.

    With gratitude,
    Dan

  • Gurmeet Singh Pawar wrote:

    Thank you Dan, Learning to appreciate how opposites arise from one another is the key in my opinion. Jotting a couplet from a poem by great Sufi saint;

    “Ho Rabba koi meray dil diyan kadraan pachanay!
    Mein sawali jinna naheen koi sawal!!”

    “Oh Lord, if only someone could understand the deliberations of my heart!
    I am a seeker who seeks nothing!!”

    You can check the full song here;
    http://lyricstranslate.com/en/hor-vi-neevan-ho-bow-your-head-further-down.html

    Thanks for the response.

  • Tom Rhodes wrote:

    Dan,

    Incredible post. The ability to look in the mirror, ask yourself tough honest questions, and find answers with empathy is definite something we should all master. We are first accountable for ourselves.

  • Dear Gurmeet~

    Thanks for passing along the song. I love the couplet you’ve shared. It reminds me of a poem by Antonio Machado…

    “Wanderer, the road is your
    footsteps, nothing else;
    wanderer, there is no path,
    you lay down a path in walking.
    In walking, you lay down a path

    and, when turning around,
    you see the road you’ll
    never step on again.
    Wanderer, path there is none,
    only tracks on the ocean foam.”

    Have a lovely day, Gurmeet!

    ~Dan

  • Dear Tom~

    I appreciate your stopping by. It is that “…with empathy” part that is sometimes so difficult!

    All the best to you
    ~Dan

  • I can relate to many of the insights shared here, especially the way my “old habits put on new clothes to suit the circumstance”. Lessons are repeated as often as necessary.

    I looked up the etymology of “confrontation”: in Latin, con = “with, “front” = face … so perhaps “coming face-to-face with your self”.

    Thanks for highlighting the value of compassion, and self-compassion, in working through the shadows that often emerge when coming face-to-face with one’s self.

  • Gurmeet Singh Pawar wrote:

    Thanks for sharing the poem Dan, its beautiful. :-)

  • Dear Joe~

    Yes, the lessons are repeated. That is for sure.

    I’m also trying to get at that dynamic of defensiveness that really is a reinvention of itself at a higher level. The very effort to overcome my defensiveness transmutes itself into another “higher” form of defensiveness! There’s an infinite regression here, defensiveness defending defensive behavior. To catch this process can create a moment of rare clarity and self-recognition.

    Thank you for stopping by, Joe!

    All the best
    Dan

  • Richard Saunders wrote:

    Dan
    I ran across your recent post, with thought provoking content.

    This reply is primarily to say HELLO, a voice from your BELLEVUE connection. I wish you well.

    Regards
    Dick Saunders

  • Dear Dick~

    It’s great to hear from you! Working at Bellevue in the “Personnel” Department seems likes eons ago — and it was, almost 24 eons.

    Many good wishes to you for the Season and New Year!

    ~Dan

  • […] Being authentic and truthful with oneself is vital but that doesn't fully happen without an attitude of self-love.  […]

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