July 8, 2012

Getting to know the little self

Written by Jennifer Garvey BergerJennifer Garvey Berger

Last month, I wrote about the difference between your little self and your big self, and I asked you to think about the times that big self shows up versus the times the little self rears his little head (because the little self has your gender—and I’m not sure what that gender is—I’ll alternate here). Today I thought I’d focus more on what makes that happen.

Lots of different theories point to why that little self emerges: there are ideas about the “amygdala hijack,” the “inferior function,” and the “shadows” (or dark sides) of our personalities. I tend to also think about this developmentally: if we grow a greater capacity to take perspectives over time, we also retain those younger parts of ourselves and particular contexts or events can shift us into those younger parts.

In all of these cases, the little self shows up during times of stress and strain. She is often there to protect us—which is why we can get so simple and defensive when she’s in control.  High stress shuts off the blood supply to the part of our brain with executive function, and instead shifts it to the part of the brain responsible for fear and aggression. This means that under our most stressful times, we are likely to not think well, and react strongly (and negatively) to news. This is bad news for folks in high stress jobs—like all the leaders I’ve ever met. Just when you need to be at your very best, the worst parts of you show up.

That’s in conditions of extreme stress, but even in regular, everyday stress some of these conditions arise. And there are other contexts that make us small. A boss or a colleague who is highly critical will raise our anxiety levels and decrease our capacities and our creativity. An organisational culture that confusingly pushes innovation and punishes failure will do the same. Any threat to our well-being (like an organisational review) will also elevate our stress and bring out our smaller, more defensive side.

Most of us will have some of these experiences—some of us will live with them daily. So what can you do? One thing is to get to know this smaller self of yours. Most of us hate that piece of ourselves and try to think about it as little as possible, but I’m encouraging another approach.  One key way of supporting your big self is to make friends with your little self.  Notice not only what he does that embarrasses you (afterwards), but understand—and develop compassion for—the reasons that self comes to the fore. He is trying to keep you safe. He is—in his own primitive way—making your world a better place.

Befriending this smaller self helps you learn to accept and recognize her when she inevitably shows up. That recognition alerts you to the ways you must be under great stress and strain. If you take her presence as an early warning system, you can do the things you know that calm her down: taking a walk, spending a few moments centering or just paying attention to your breathing, or whatever helps you come to a better place. If you pretend this part of you doesn’t exist—or you feel so defensive or ashamed you can hardly bear to think about it—you’ll find yourself controlled by the smaller self. But if you face your smallness with compassion—and even a hint of gratitude—you’ll find that your many selves can work together to support you to be at your very best.

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