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Identity, Communication, and Confidence: How to recognize your reactive patterns and get out of your own way

May 14, 2021

Struggling with confidence? Most of us do. Lioness, Pride Global’s women’s equity initiative, recently invited Erika Gerdes, leadership advisor, speaker, writer, and coach to speak on how our own identities hold us back from the changes we want to make in our lives and in our work. This post from Erika captures much of what she shared with the team and is full of valuable insights for anyone hoping to improve their confidence and make positive changes.

Deb, an energetic and passionate mom, wife, and senior account lead at a publishing house, came to me for help elevating her presence with clients and management so she’d be able to eventually move into a formal leadership role in her company. Her goals were to feel more confident sharing her opinions in meetings and to let go of her need to micromanage projects in order to be seen as a leader. Even though her goals were important, Deb was struggling to change her behavior. And the more techniques she tried or new skills she learned, the more desperate she felt because nothing was working. As time went on, her attempts to increase her confidence backfired when she couldn’t make progress. By the time she came to me, she was burned out, overwhelmed, and exhausted.

Deb is far from alone: most women I talk to want to feel more confident. They have goals such as wanting to speak with more presence and clarity, apply for a new role, ask for a raise, or pivot their career, and they start by learning new skills hoping to increase their confidence to help them reach their goals.

The problem is, often, new skills and massive desire aren’t enough: they still struggle. They can’t figure out why they’re stuck or what new tips or skills to learn, which makes them feel worse. That almost inevitably leads them to decide “Maybe it’s just me…maybe I’m just not cut out for this.” The result? Less confidence, joy, and impact and more exhaustion, overwhelm, and disconnection.

Change is hard, but not impossible.

Organizations in the U.S. spent nearly $83B on training and development in 2020 alone, yet research shows us that over 90% of those skills won’t stick. And this isn’t just happening at work, it happens at home, in our relationships, and even with our health: 9 in 10 heart surgery patients, even facing death if they didn’t make necessary lifestyle changes, couldn’t change.

So, change is hard. But why? Do we need better training? Skills? A new technique? If change were as easy as tapping into the experts or turning to Google, we’d all be exactly where we want in life.

Here is what I want you to know: There is nothing wrong with you. You are not broken or incapable of change; the change-making process is broken. You can and you will make real change. For the changes you want to make to stick, you have to undo the power of the stuff that is keeping you stuck.

How to get un-stuck.

Imagine you’re on a boat at sea. You’ve set your sights on your destination, downloaded the directions, and watched YouTube videos for how to drive the boat. You start to head off. The boat won’t move. Frustrated, you check the manual again and try every tip it suggests. No matter what you do, nothing works. The engine revs and the boat might move a little, but the tide brings it right back to where it started.

As the data shows, this is pretty much how we go about change now.

Why can’t the boat move? Because there’s an anchor deep below the surface of the ocean working against all of your efforts to move forward. Once you realize the anchor is there, you can bring it up, put it in the boat and begin to move. You can apply all those skills and actually get somewhere with them. That anchor may not disappear, but it won’t keep you stuck. That anchor is your identity.

Identity is complicated.

Our identity is who we see ourselves to be, who we think we should be, and who we can’t be, but our identity is not us. It’s how we establish connections with others and the world around us. We literally can’t survive on our own, so we learn very early on how to act and who we need to be to belong and be accepted.

When we behave in ways that get us acceptance and approval, we begin to unconsciously believe those behaviors are necessary for our belonging. Those behaviors ultimately become our identity. Maintaining our identity, then, becomes critical to our survival because, without it, we fear we won’t belong. Anything that risks us being seen in ways that conflict with our identity causes us to react automatically in self-protection.

Most of us think of ourselves as rational beings motivated by logic and reason. The reality, though, is that 95% of our thoughts and behaviors are unconscious and motivated by our emotions, memories, and perceptions.

What keeps us from making change is that we are unconsciously protecting identities that prevent us from choosing intentionally. When we can recognize our unconscious reactive patterns, we can undo their power and begin to think, act, and live with more intention, authenticity, and confidence.

The reactive patterns of self-protection.

Reactive patterns of self-protection are the instinctive things we do automatically when we feel uncomfortable or stressed. Our unconscious goal is to prevent others from seeing the “cracks in our facade”: the ways we might be rejected and which risk our belonging, and thus our survival.

Shutting it down:
We do this when we isolate, avoid, or distance ourselves from others, either physically or emotionally. The idea is that if I’m further away from you, you can’t see the cracks in my facade. At work, this might look like not asking for help or speaking up because those might risk exposing what you don’t know.

Turning it up:
This is performing, perfecting, posing, and pleasing. I like to call this “dancing for my dinner” because if I’m constantly moving and shifting, you can’t see the cracks in my facade. In work situations, this might look like constantly trying to change yourself or please others in an attempt to “find the right way to be.”

Firing away:
When we use this pattern, we play offense and go on the attack. The idea is that if I’m firing at you, you’re too busy defending yourself to see the cracks in my facade. At work, this might look like blaming, shaming, judging, or being hypercritical of others. With Deb, our work together uncovered that part of her identity was to be seen as a smart and highly capable expert. Speaking up in meetings could leave her exposed for people to perceive her as not being smart. Letting go of control of the details meant she might be seen as incapable and moving into a new leadership role relinquished her position as an expert. Deb’s primary reactive pattern was to turn it up, leading her to take on more and more rather than letting go. This pattern made her less effective in her work and more burned out in her life. Though she did not consciously fear her identity was at risk, she unconsciously protected herself from being exposed in ways that risked her identity. This narrowed her range and kept her from growing and expanding.

When we can see the anchor that’s been keeping us stuck, it is much easier to understand why we’re having a hard time making a change: at some level, we believe our survival is dependent on maintaining this identity, which keeps these patterns fixed. True change, at its core, challenges us to widen our paths and broaden our range, and puts us at risk for exposure.

Recognize your repertoire.

Step one for changing is to take inventory of your go-to reactive patterns and identity triggers. How do you behave when you’re feeling anxious, exposed, or insecure? We can’t change what we don’t know, so awareness of how we unconsciously get in our own way is incredibly important. Learn how to recognize your physical tell-tale signs that you’re getting triggered (such as sweaty palms, reddening face, or ringing in the ears.) Once you can recognize your patterns when they come up, you’ll be able to Reflect-Accept-Redirect to shift from reaction to intention, which will, in turn, help you expand your range and your impact.

Reflect on what’s happening in your inner world when you notice yourself getting triggered. Ask yourself: “What’s going on here?”, “What’s the story I’m telling myself about this situation?”, “What assumptions am I making?”, and “How does this story implicate me and make me want to protect myself?” These questions will help you examine how a situation is confronting some part of your identity.

To be clear, this happens all the time. Let’s say your goal is to be more confident speaking up in meetings. One day, during a team meeting, you have an idea. But before you speak up, you stop yourself because, you reason, your idea is not good enough. The unconscious story that might be playing out in your head is, “If I share this idea and it’s bad, people will think I’m stupid. If they think I’m stupid, they won’t trust me. If they don’t trust me, I’ll get fired.”

This internal, subconscious thought process happens so instantaneously, you don’t even realize it’s happening, but the result is that you protect yourself from the worst-case scenario and don’t speak up.

When something like this happens to you, you might not notice the story, but you’ll probably feel yourself shutting down. How we react to our stories are our reactive patterns. So, if you have trouble noticing your stories, look for the situations where you feel yourself shut down, turn up, or fire away. Then begin working back from there.

Another tip: focus on your body’s physical response. When you feel your body start to tense up, that’s a clue to check in on the story you’re telling yourself.

Curiosity in the moment helps us shift perspective and keeps us from immediately reacting unconsciously and jumping to conclusions based on the stories we’ve told ourselves. The result of this step alone is better communication, greater understanding, and more creativity and innovation.

Step two is to accept whatever is coming up inside. Often, when we catch ourselves doing or thinking something we told ourselves to change, we beat ourselves up. I’ve asked hundreds of women who their worst enemy is and every single one has the same answer: themselves. Our inner monologue usually goes something like “Why am I doing this again? What’s wrong with me? I’m so stupid.” Instead, I encourage you to talk to yourself like you would your best friend. Treat yourself with kindness and grace. Allow whatever is coming up to just be there, without judging it or doing anything to it. This can be uncomfortable, especially if you’re not used to it. But this pause is the critical pivot point in moving from reaction to intention.

In a situation like the example above, as you feel yourself tense up while you consider sharing your idea, allow the discomfort to be there. Thinking about putting yourself out there can be scary. That is totally ok. It means you’re human.

When we acknowledge whatever is happening inside without shaming ourselves for it, we can process and neutralize it quickly. And, by giving ourselves space to recover back to our center, we free ourselves to be more deliberate, calm, and expansive.

The final step is to redirect, on purpose and with intention. Once we’ve recognized the story and allowed ourselves to recover, we can redirect ourselves to more powerful and intentional action. Being at choice and on purpose is the key to authenticity, so the more we act with intention, the more authentic we become.

Many people want to wait to take action until they feel more confident. However, confidence comes from action, not contemplation; we cannot think our way there. That said, it’s really important to begin with small steps; I call these microdecisions.

We tend to “go big or go home,” but taking big action when we’re first starting out can leave us feeling vulnerable and unsafe. For instance, if you were to share an idea in a big team meeting and your leader didn’t react favorably, you might interpret it as them thinking you’re stupid (exactly what you feared!) and that you should never share ideas.

Instead, if you were to make intentional microdecisions, you might start out sharing ideas with a colleague or small team, working your way up to your manager, and eventually, larger team meetings. The goal is to take small enough steps that the outcome isn’t important; the win is in taking the step. The more intentional microdecisions you make throughout your life, the more confident you will feel and the more you will change!

As for Deb, once she was able to see her reactive pattern and the source, she began practicing Reflect-Accept-Redirect with her leadership, in client meetings, and when working with her teams. This enabled her to speak up more and lead with more influence. The more she practiced, the more confident she felt. By the time we finished our coaching work together, six months later, she had been singled out by her company’s leadership to develop and launch a new national sales model focused on communication and authenticity.

Imagine what’s possible for you when you stop limiting yourself unconsciously and step into your authenticity and full range! This process is simple and profound. The more you practice, the more confidence you will have to change your life, your impact, and your world.