On Self-Trust, Part I — the River

Recently I wrote about the essence of leadership as responding to “the call to stand in an exposed place and bring change to the order of things.” I used the example of someone with less power and stature speaking up at an important meeting where she risked the possibility of her ideas being dismissed — and maybe losing some personal credibility as a result. Yet she did it anyway, an act of leadership that changed the “order of things.”

All of us have faced such moments of truth. Either I say it now or I keep quiet. Rosa Say in her comment to the post talked about how this “inner call might be silently voiced in our self-talk each day without us choosing to act on it.” What she is referring to is the personal fear that holds any of us back from doing what is meaningful and right for us. Such fears are not limited to speaking up. They can inhibit us from doing any of the things we want to do with our lives. If you sense that you are living in only a corner of your possibilities rather than living large and fulfilling your potentials, chances are you are living with fear. Typically understanding this fear, legitimizing it, learning to observe its impacts, and practicing small, everyday acts of courage reduces fear to something manageable. The reflective turn to do so is often the starting point of a new kind or level of self-trust.

In presentations, when I’ve put the question before audiences of how it is that some people seem to feel they can step into “exposed space” at work, almost universally the first response I get is that the individual taking the risk somehow already trusts the situation and trusts the others who are there. Yet when I’ve asked people who have spoken up, made a tough decision, or took action and initiative, the answers I get have almost nothing to do with trusting the situation or others. It has to do with “what’s right” or “what was needed at the time” or explanations such as “Well, I couldn’t just sit there and watch this happen.” It was the circumstance that called the person to lead, even when being in the safety of a trusting environment was not at all an option.

So the answer to me is much more along the lines of self-trust. This is not to say that when a lot is on the line — and sometimes the stakes are very high at work — that the goal is to jump blindly from the cliff. Genuine self-trust is not like that — it is much more of a stand that comes from the core of a person, an inner strength that transcends fear more than conquers it. So how does someone actually develop that inner strength?

First of all, I believe the strength is naturally there. The soulful potential has always been there. It’s born in us and is part of who we are. But there are a million inner voices the come from our past conditioning that moderate and inhibit this birthright. In fact, it can be a highly enlightening exercise to examine these voices — actually write them down and take a look at them.

This will be a mistake.

Who am I to think I can do this?

This will just create a lot of trouble for people.

I’ll ruin my reputation.

It won’t do any good.

If Mom were here, she’d say I was being selfish.

If Dad were here, he’d say I was too big for my britches.

I’m just not ready.

All of these voices were learned. They have protected us from risk and possibly for good reason at an earlier point in our lives. But today they probably just add up to self-criticism, inner conflict, and stuckness in the face of the real opportunities we have to make a difference. In fact, we may feel a true personal need to make that difference, to stand up, to lead, and just as surely at the moment of truth face walls of hesitation and self-dismissal. All of which leads to depression, blaming self and others, cynicism and, let’s call it out for what it is, the death of our true potentials (another word for soul) in the chains we’ve learned to wear.

Everybody I know wants to understand how to get past such stuckness and out of the chains. Those who promise it, from coaches and counselors to organizational pundits to spiritual gurus, can get considerable attention on this issue. If they are smart and have sufficient testimonials they can make quite a bit of money selling their secret formulas.

Except, over time, this stuff often wears off. The chains come back. I sense this is so because the stuckness is frankly, a personally sacred place, part of the ineluctable meaning of our lives that we must discover for ourselves. Stuckness is given to us as exactly the thing we most need to listen to instead of trying simply to get around, avoid, or escape from, as the ferryman’s words in Siddhartha illustrate. “The river knows everything,” he says. The river itself is holy. So then the question is how do any of us “listen” to the river, the thing that keeps us stuck? How do you and I actually do that?

If you haven’t noticed the subtle shift of perspective from the ferryman, here it is: in listening to the river we’ve moved from overcoming personal fear to engaging personal mystery. There may be many cultural issues here. Americans like quick fixes and how-to’s. River? Hell! Dam it, pave it over, blow it up! Mention what is sacred or mysterious and not easy, and we’re likely to run for cover. Quick answers, better technology, simple personal solutions, that’s what we need. And yet, the center, the core of what we might most need to get at is right there standing in front of us, mostly like an oracle or temple, inviting us to enter in. This is really the place of the Unknown, where others don’t have the answer for you and you don’t have the answer for yourself, either. Listening to deeper intuitions is all you can do. It’s your whole job. That’s where the gold is.

Right here perhaps you might like to hear some success stories. If you listen in this way what will it be like? What can you hope to gain? How will you know when you’ve listened enough and don’t have to anymore? But I would do you no favors in trying to tell such tales. Every story is different. Every story would only be a reduction and distraction from your own experience. The way is unseen.

Just know that you now sit on the steps of a temple.

*If you didn’t see them, the ferryman’s words about the river are at the bottom of the page.

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One Comment

  • [This comment was accidentally deleted during moderation. My apologies to Annahid.]

    Hi Dan,

    This is beautifully written…. I think the re-framing of stuck places from sites of personal fear to be ‘fixed’ or gotten rid of to the mystery that leads us deeper toward ourselves and our life’s meaning, is so wise and so NECESSARY in this culture.

    Thank you for sharing. I’m looking forward to checking out your book “Driving fear from the workplace.”

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