I’m guessing that when you read that headline, you might have had a thought like, “How does Jeff know my boss?”
I don’t know your boss. And I’m not talking about your boss.
I’m talking about you. More specifically, who you were as a child.
At our most critical moments, a child is often in charge. The person we were as a child. Because it is at our most critical moments, when we feel least safe, when we feel like we might be kicked out of the tribe if we make a mistake, that the person we were as a child reemerges to try to protect us.
The child in us knows what it’s like to feel unsafe. And a long time ago, she mastered a strategy to protect us.
Have you ever gone on automatic pilot, triggered by something you may not even understand?
Your inner child wants to keep you safe
That’s your inner child protecting you.
You might lash out, or argue, or defend your position, or say cruel things to coworkers.
You might withdraw or leave.
You might work unreasonable hours in an attempt to fix things.
You might make sure everyone around you is happy, even to the detriment of your own happiness.
And any of this could be triggered by a work situation that feels like something that was unsafe in your childhood.
You’re an adult now. A successful one, too. But maybe this child is getting in your way. How can you move from that unconscious trigger to developing the capacity to choose between this option and another that might work better?
Releasing old patterns
Last week, I was working with one of my clients who is responsible for a major function at a $10 billion company. She was having trouble, falling into what she called “my old patterns.”
We spent some time talking about what that looked like for her, how it felt in her body.
She said when she was in that place, she was “ready for battle.”
And I asked her to take the physical posture of “ready for battle.”
She was tensed up, hunched over, protecting her core and her heart. She was ready to lash out, ready to yell. She had a lot of energy and focus when she was in that coiled position.
I asked her if she associated this with anything, and she immediately had a memory of a former job, years before, where a colleague was trying to get her fired. She jumped in to action, defended her position, and not only kept her job but got a promotion. “Ready for battle,” had, in this case, worked for her.
I asked her about other times, maybe earlier, maybe younger. I ask her about her family, about whether there were times growing up when she had taken that position.
She had. Her parents had divorced when she was young. There was a lot of yelling. She remembered being in that position to protect herself from the yelling, and doing a fair amount of yelling herself.
It was the way she kept herself safe.
We all have memories like this, of a time in our childhood when we felt unsafe, when we doubted that our parents loved us, when we were afraid that somehow we didn’t belong, or that there was something wrong with us.
And we all developed a strategy to respond, to at least temporarily ease the pain.
My client developed a combative strategy, “Ready for battle.” Maybe it’s different for you. Maybe you work on relationships, or you work harder, or you save the day by figuring things out.
If you see yourself using the same strategy over and over again, often without realizing it, the chances are very good that you learned this when you were a small child.
That it kept you safe. That it got you love. That it helped you belong.
Because it’s unconscious, it comes up whenever you feel danger. And because you have been as successful as you have been, there is a very good chance that this strategy has worked for you.
But at some point, it might not be the right strategy anymore. In fact, it might keep you from doing what you really should do. It might even keep you from advancing in your career.
And while it’s easy to say that, it’s not always easy to do that in the heat of the moment. Because it’s hard wired into our bodies and we’ve been doing it for decades.
I asked my client if “ready for battle” ever limits her. She said that it absolutely did. That she could be so focused on what she thought was the right answer, and defending that answer, that she could miss other solutions. She could miss opportunities to partner or collaborate. And as her responsibilities broaden, it becomes more and more important for her to do that instead of simply advocating for her position.
So we did an experiment. I asked her to choose how she wanted to come across in these conversations where she is combative today. When she would rather see the opportunity to collaborate.
From “ready for battle” to “open and present”
She said she wanted to show up as “open and present.” I asked her how that would look physically. Instead of bent over and flexed, she was tall, relaxed, and open. Her heart was exposed. Her face was relaxed.
She was a person who I would be happy dealing with, not a person girding for a fight.
And we had her flex between positions. Between “ready for battle” and “open and present.”
If she practices that enough, she will learn to take a new posture in the moment. It will first become an option, and then become instinct.
She is embodying a different style of communication, of leadership.
She is no longer the scared child protecting herself. She is an adult choosing what’s best in this moment, rather than constrained, like so many of us, by the wounds of childhood.
Using the body to release the past
That might sound like magic. But I encourage you to try this for yourself. We are so used to using language to create what we want in life, to the idea that we can try to be a different way simply by using different words. But some things are beyond, or in this case, before language. Some things are deep in our history and deep in our bodies. And often, our bodies are the key to changing them.