I’ve been promising the steps of a self-leadership playbook for thousands upon thousands of words now, spanning across 7 long stories. In an act of unprecedented brevity, here they are in 4 numbers and 4 words:
Logically progressive. Beautifully efficient. And not mine.
I wasn’t the one to figure out these steps, but that’s a good thing since the utility of these 4 concepts in the pursuit of self-regulation has been well-validated across multiple disciplines including psychology, neuroscience, biology, and even philosophy and spiritual traditions. While these steps may not go by these names or appear in this specific combination or at all in other frameworks, I combined them because they incrementally build upon each other in a way that will see us through from the beginning whisper of a disruption to the productive return to the challenging situation at hand with a more useful response or at least more insight than would otherwise have been the case. A formula for self-leadership, in other words, of which there are many other useful models.
What’s different about this playbook, though, is the context in which these approaches are put into action. In the decade plus I have been researching approaches on how to advance my optimal self — or at least keep it together — while sustaining the everyday and crisis-level slings and arrows of life, I had a continuous sense of something being missing in the methods I encountered. I kept looking for something more encompassing that would pull it all together in a contextual way so it wouldn’t be so hard to remember what I’m supposed to do. That is, I was looking for a process that would align with the natural order of things such that the steps would automatically follow, like the way we pee first thing when we get up in the morning. I was looking for an approach that would be so embedded in the way life is that deployment would happen with essentially no thought. Instead, what I kept finding were techniques that required the presence of mind to remember the steps you are supposed to execute just when you have the least presence of mind. Even a minor disturbance requires a fairly skillful presence of mind.
Take an infuriatingly slow and chatty Starbucks barista making you later for work by the minute. A slow line can be all it takes to highjack command of ourselves because being late can easily look like the proverbial tiger to our throwback primitive brain. The limbic brain just doesn’t always know how to reasonably scale back for what now passes as a threat in our lives. And then when a more significant and enduring disturbance than slow coffee service happens, our threat system really does a number on us because it isn’t built to deal with issues that just hang around. This is our modern dilemma: most all of our disruptions don’t resolve in the swift way of a tiger encounter because they likely involve ongoing interpersonal or circumstantial realities of our life. Fraught relationships. Health problems. Health insurance haggles. Retirement savings fears. Maintaining a job. Work stress. Finding our purpose. Over-stimulation. Fatigue. Poor self-esteem. Inability to stick to a plan. No time to do everything that needs to be done. The list is endless.
This is not the kind of stuff that either pounces and finishes us off cleanly or that we outmaneuver, enabling our return to berry foraging or whatever it was we used to do. That sort of crisis with a clear beginning and end is what our neurochemistry is designed to respond to with an immediate flood of stress hormones that quickly flush from our system once the event is over. Without that clean finish, now we just walk around with a steady drip of cortisol and adrenalin continuing to leak into our system while our organs start to smolder, our minds ruminate and we quietly begin to implode or we explode, making an uncontrolled ass of ourselves and plummeting into embarrassment and regret.
Fortunate though it is that true and immediate physical threat to our person is only a tiny fraction of the challenges we face off with now, it does leave us kind of high and dry when the need to think in more nuanced ways comes into play, which is all the time, and exactly why it became so essential for me to figure out a system that naturally flowed out of the disruption rather than a method that has to get jammed on top all because it has nothing intrinsically to do with the disruption. Take the time-honored method of counting to ten. Counting to ten is very useful when you can remember to do it, but counting to ten does not naturally flow out of the situation unless there is a flight of ten stairs between you and the person you want to punch in the face.
That’s where this playbook’s metaphor of the stage comes in: a play tells a story — which is what our life is — and the flow is the same as life: there is a context in which something happens, those involved react, the interaction intensifies until it finally comes to a head precipitating some sort of finish, for better or worse, after which everyone goes away. Act I, Act II and Act III, in other words.
This is exactly how the Starbucks example arcs, with an overly chatty barista and a long, slow-moving line being the storyline. Our initial response is irritation rooted in the fear of being late which we express in an edgy and mostly silent relationship with our surroundings save for the occasional release of a few furious huffs as we painfully inch closer to the barista with whom we are then aggressively tight lipped, giving him nothing more than our terse order. The story peaks when he finally hands over the coffee and resolves as we slam out the door and race off to work.
So that’s why the stage metaphor: it’s a context in which the steps of a self-management system can easily be embedded within the story since the flow is exactly the same as in life.
How the system works
There is a wee little difference, though, in terms of what we see on the playbook’s stage. Instead of characters passing across the stage as ordinarily happens in a play, on this stage it’s our thoughts and emotions that do. Thought and emotion, after all, is what we’re concerned with.
This might seem a stretch at first, and possibly also boring and dumb to try to watch something invisible pass across a stage (which is what I probably would be thinking if I were reading this instead of making it up), so really quick before you shut down, I want to reassure you that the thoughts and emotions still behave like characters in the way they make an entrance, interact with the cast, collectively reach a turning point which leads to the resolution after which they exit. So we’re good, okay?
And from the mechanical standpoint of seeing the invisible thoughts and emotions…it doesn’t visually take long to get past oddly enough. While they don’t have a body to carry them around, they sure do have a very palpable charge and presence. Because of the very felt-kind of energy associated with thoughts and feelings, their presence is sensed more than seen and so “seeing” thoughts and feelings in this way is simply an adjustment. It’s just a matter of focusing your eye on the physical place on the stage each step is positioned as the thought and emotion progresses along and feeling the thought/emotional charge’s presence in that spot.
There is also another reason to keep the physical forms involved in our situations off the stage. In addition to there being no point in replaying on stage what we can already see happening perfectly clearly right in front of us as we’re living it, there’s nothing good coming from bringing the very people or environment onto our personal stage with whom or with which we are in conflict. It not only crowds the stage but interferes with the kind of distance we are attempting to get from these people and environment to achieve an essential level of perspective.
So, to sum it up, the plot twists and turns of the situation at hand flows across the stage embodied in the felt-more-than-seen charge emanating from our own thought and emotion. Our involvement with these thoughts and emotions of ours follows the same predictable arc as the physical action in a play would: the thoughts and feelings make their entrance, we have an interaction with them, a resolution is reached, then we all go on our way happy as clams. Or at least better off than we would have been without the benefit of self-leadership.
Here’s how it all comes together in step form:
Act I, Step 1 – Anchoring
Once the thought/emotion makes an entrance stage left, the players on stage respond by Anchoring, the players in my case being me as the director of the whole production, plus my cast which includes Sissy, Bug, Owl, Guard Dog and Rabbit, who I introduced in Scenes 1 – 5. You’ll figure out who your cast members are later in the playbook.
Anchoring is just like what it sounds: it means getting grounded in our bodies. The process is simply physically locating ourselves onstage and locking in. Firmly anchoring in this way reinforces our presence of mind by tethering our emotions to our body which can keep us in place. Otherwise, it is very easy to get sucked into the drama of our thoughts and emotions.
Our physical location which had been blocked out in Scene 1 is the back half of the stage. This section of the stage is raised a good several feet off the ground to create distance and a good vantage point for seeing the thoughts/emotions clearly. We’ll call this back half of the stage the “High Stage.”
The name of the game in this playbook is awareness, which allows us to get out in front of the thought/emotion before it gets ahead of us. This awareness means developing an automatic alertness for the appearance of the thought/emotion stage left so we can freeze them in place for a moment while we anchor.
The diagram below shows the High Stage where our cast members anchor themselves in Step 1.
Act I, Step 2 — Identification
Once we are firmly grounded on the High Stage, the thought/emotion advances to the Identification position where we figure out “who” we’re dealing with: Anger? Sadness? Shame? Something else? Or maybe a combo of several?
By detaching the thought/emotion in this way, it may seem like I’m trying to pass them off has having nothing to do with us. They do, of course, because we own them. However, objectifying them in this way allows us to have the necessary conversations we need to understand everything about them: why are they making an entrance, who do they belong to, what is their history and what are their patterns of behavior? For instance, if it’s shame, then we know we are looking at a feeling that originates with Bug. Anger is Guard Dog. Fear is Rabbit. Pride, judgement and jealousy are Owl and insecurity and longing are all Sissy’s.
The diagram below shows where the Identification process of Step 2 is positioned, which takes place in the front and lower part of the stage and which we will refer to as the “Low Stage.”
Act 2, Step 3 — Integration
Once we have identified the thought/emotion, it takes center stage where the real action of the play unfolds during Integration. This is the point in our interactions in which our duality really becomes apparent. Not only do we have the physical separation with the thought/emotion being on the Low Stage up front and we, the owners of the thought/emotion, situated on the High Stage in the back half, but we are now going to have a true back-and-forth exchange with them.
Our objective in the back-and-forth is to get the thought/emotion to fully express itself in order so we can thoroughly understand the specific situational context bringing it onstage at this minute. We have a big advantage in understanding them, though, in that we already know a great deal about the origin of thoughts/emotions and through the original discovery process of our cast members back in Scenes 1 – 5. This is where we were able to put names to them after uncovering their history, their patterns of behavior, their biases and their objectives.
In this Integration step, the cast members and I initiate this interaction by prompting the thought/emotion to monologue because before anything productive can happen with the thought/emotion, it must first be given full voice. We will have to encourage them over and over to coming forward in an overly polite, managed voice in an attempt to skim over what is troubling them. We must get their complete, full vocal expression, swears and slurs and all, whatever is necessary to get the full, messy story out because we don’t want any unexpressed residue interfering with a clean resolution due to an incomplete evacuation before getting on with it. Just think of how unsatisfying it is to be pushed to move on and “just get over it” before a troubling experience has even been respectfully acknowledged. And then once it has been, how much more willing and able we feel to move on when someone has been patient and empathetic enough to listen and actually see and care about what we have gone through and what we think about that.
Once this thought/emotion has had the opportunity and encouragement to fully express itself loudly and vigorously enough to tap off a good hunk of the emotional energy, then the next phase of Integration can happen. This is the getting-down-to-the-deeper-truth part which is where we find the answer. It is this turning point that sets the stage for the resolution.
This piece, too, is where we have an advantage because these answers have already been pre-established based on all we know about the characters. A lot of the work has been done in that discovery process. There will be more explanation for how these deeper truths and answers have been arrived at and what they are in my case as an example in the upcoming scene, but I will say right now that for me the value of having these ready-made answers has been a big surprise for one reason: it means I just don’t have to be so confused. Once we’ve gotten through getting the emotion/thought fully expressed and worked our way down through the truths, I can know pretty quickly what I need to do, most of the time, anyway. Not all of the time; I’m not going to claim to never be confused, because that would be a big fat lie, but for the day in/day out kind of muddles that come along, and even some pretty good whoppers, knowing the answers and what I need to do automatically brings the experience down from say a 10 to a 7 or a 5 to a 2. Sidestepping the confusion part de-escalates the situation significantly even before the resolution is carried out, at which point the good (or better) outcome improves the situation even more. This is self-leadership.
The Integration of Step 3 takes center stage, of course.
Act 3, Step 4 — Act
Once the deep truth in Step 3 has delivered the answer, the thought/emotion can just head right over to stage right to carry out the resolution in the form of Action. This is exactly like what it sounds. If the truth happens to be authenticity, then bringing forward this authenticity is what happens over there at stage right before exiting the stage. If the authentic action is something you have to actually go do in the real world instead of how you come to an internal resolution in your head, then thinking through how that is going to play out in the real world interactions happens at the stage right position so we can exit with solid knowledge and a plan for what we’re going to go do.
The Step 4 part can happen pretty fast in that the answer has already been pre-determined. Not being confused about what to do, after all, takes us a fair amount of distance. But for longstanding disturbances, then progress is more incremental as we chip away at the core of fear or resentment or sadness or whatever it is that has built up over time. Of course, we’ll get relief each time we return to the stage for this longstanding issue, but it will take a while to get it to settle down. This is a process. But when it comes back around again, we just walk it through the playbook again. In time we will likely see it less and less though this is also where a good therapist is very useful to bring into the equation.
Wrapping it up — I bet I know what you’re thinking: I don’t have time for this
If the playbook seems like a pretty slow way to think and feel, don’t go away. Not all thoughts and emotions require this level of intervention nor would we be able to take a time out to put all of the 68,000 average number of thoughts we supposedly entertain over the course of the day through the playbook. The thoughts and emotions that get the full treatment are those that are problematic.
These crop up in one of two ways:
- When the situation causing them is happening right now, or
- When we’re thinking about something that already happened or that we’re afraid is going to happen.
If we’re in the middle of an active situation, we’re probably not able to call for a time out to run the process, but we can anchor and bring presence to the situation, knowing that the thoughts/feelings aren’t going anywhere and will be waiting right there when we’ve got the time to pick it up. It’s never too late to run the situation through the playbook and it’s a mistake not to because if the thoughts and feelings are ignored they are likely going to just drop under the surface where they will express themselves in ways we no longer are able to connect to the event. They just become part of the deep, underground swamp of unresolved stuff dragging us down, turning us by degrees into an angrier and more troubled, dysfunctional, maladaptive version of ourselves. Better to try to keep the landscape as cleaned up as possible.
That being said, we could easily dedicate our entire lives to cleaning up all the niggling problematic thoughts and feelings we’ve cultivated over the years or to even get to all of the thousands of daily ones passing through our consciousness. We’ll get to the big ones in due time, no doubt, because they’ll insist upon our attention, but for all the low level pangs and stabs, just getting into the habit of watching the grippy ones pass across the stage in that familiar arc (entering from the left, peaking in the middle once they have been fully expressed and before they get distracted by something new to think and feel about, then exiting to the right) reinforces our understanding of the natural flow of thoughts and feelings and helps us maintain self-awareness and a useful distance.
Give it a go
Now it’s time to hop in and start practicing. The first skill is the honing of awareness. Start off just by seeing how often you are aware of what you are thinking and feeling before it has you in its grip. If this kind of awareness isn’t top of mind, that’s okay. Just noticing when the occasional thought and feeling has gotten a hold of you is big. And when you notice its presence, just drop anchor right then and there to ground yourself.
Gradually you’ll become sensitized to the feel of a thought and sensation in your body — the way you aren’t breathing, how fast your heart is racing, the sudden flash of heat, the frenzy of activity in your head, how you want to jump out of your skin. However your body tends to express a feeling, this is the sensation that serves as the flag. The more in-tune you become with that sensation in your body, the earlier you’ll become aware of the thought/emotion’s arrival on stage so that you can do something healing and productive with it. So you can become a better leader of yourself.
Once you become aware of the feeling, remember the first thing to do is drop anchor and then move onto identifying it. Step 3 is where there is more nuance which is what we’ll dive deeper into in Scene 7, the next installment, so we can find out what’s driving all those thoughts and emotions.
You may wonder what the heck the top photo has to do with this playbook. It’s just me leading my life with better self-leadership — in this case, painting my kitchen floor with the talented help of my dear friend Denyse and her daughter, Franny. It was a really fun project, but one which also created all kinds of stress and havoc in my life — perfect fodder, in other words, for the playbook, on which I relied heavily.
Along with Denyse and Franny, I was also able to recruit the talent of my daughter, Ellen, my partner, Gary and my wonderful co-worker Jen, in addition to taking inspiration from my granddaughter, Zoe’s, artwork. Here’s what we did!