Inner Worlds, Outer Actions

At the second conversation with a new client, she said to me, “I really got the point of what you said in our first session. It was kind of, ‘Stop whining and get back to work.'”

This was way off. I’d said no such thing. This was clearly the inner world of the client acting out preconceived notions — her mental model and belief system projecting something onto me.

I waited in the conversation to tell her that. We explored other things and then eventually we got back there. In the end, we discussed a pattern of imagining everything was on her shoulders and somehow asking for help and accepting it was showing inadequacy and, therefore, a kind of weakness.

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Imagining. That’s the key word. Our imaginations are driven by our conditioning. We can’t see another’s imagination, but often we can certainly feel it.

I once gave a presentation at a community college and asked participants to do some work identifying sensitive topics that needed attention at the college. One of the table groups had formed a list that began with the words: “Inept top management.” The President of the college was in the room. She became so destabilized emotionally she couldn’t speak to close the event and people wondered what was going on. Her inner world had gone a little crazy — she was so sure this inept management thing was about her, even though the event had begun with the audience of managers awarding her a plaque for her exceptional leadership. It turned out those critical words referred to a time before her arrival at the college, but in the moment her imagination had been deeply triggered.

A technical manager leading a professional team became hugely upset when some of the members complained to HR about favoritism in the unit. In his inner world he had been betrayed in such an egregious way they all needed to be punished. Betrayed! Betrayed! One by one he pushed them out of the organization, attempting to humiliate them.

We see it in others but less in ourselves. I don’t get an email back from somebody important to me. In my inner world I think I’ve been rejected. Then it moves to “I deserve to be rejected.” Then I’m angry. I’m hurt. Then, finally, I get an email: “I’m sorry for not getting back to you. I’ve been helping my son through divorce.”

The inner world. They say that’s where the gold is. But there’s a lot of shit there, too. There are a lot of triggers there, triggers sometimes we don’t even know we have — until we are triggered in some mysterious way and have to deal with the mystery.

This is not to say none of our reactions have validity or truth in them. They mostly do, but not always, not infallibly. So we need the “observer self” who can take a step back and question whoever it is in our interior world that’s stepping forward with some programmed emotion. Maybe it’s that pitiable prince figure again, the one who was rejected by his father, the King, in that same old fairy tale assembled as a small child to explain why the boy felt alone. Seeing that I can reclaim the boy’s sensitivity, understand and melt some of the pain.

Unfortunately, all too often the inner world of a leader becomes the culture of an organization. Because leaders induce and replicate their own stories in the world around them, the world they have some control over, that story begins to be the organization, too.

It isn’t hard to imagine the inner world of a leader who’s gone paranoid, who responds to staff mistakes with bullying and criticism, who’s become so self-referential that any mistake is felt as a personal attack. And imagine the culture that creates, that sense of oppression.

It’s not hard to imagine the inner world of someone who is always trying to please, whose inner world is made up of one ruthless, guilt-inducing demand after another. And imagine that culture of martyrdom, too.

As leaders, we live out our inner dramas and are jarred once in awhile when our estimation of reality isn’t consistent with a plot we thought was unfolding. We aren’t necessarily compassionate with ourselves, about that. This keeps our delusions in place.

Life is such that if we start listening more deeply, we may come face to face with these strange scripts we’ve written for ourselves. Once we see them for what they are, I suspect, the gold is not far off.

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