Monday, February 16, 2009

My thoughts on moving towards excellence.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is a habit, not an act (ion).” Aristotle—Parentheses are mine. How do I move from ineffective behaviour, like anger, fear, sulking and withdrawal, the helpless victim, feeling ashamed, feeling I’m totally at the mercy of the situation, which I repeatedly do, towards more effective behaviour? My states of anger, fear and withdrawal, shame, not good enough, are habits. I want to change them. I want to move towards excellence. I want to repeatedly do something different from what I’m repeatedly doing when I feel threatened. I don’t want to feel I’m at the mercy of the situation.

Over and over I find myself reacting to anger with anger, becoming fearful and feeling threatened, regressing into childish victim state when the situation is nothing more than a disagreement over something trivial! Someone calls me a wuss, in a moment of anger, and I hit back in anger or regress into “poor me” state with, “That’s unfair. Give me a chance to explain.” For God’s sake, I know I’m not a wuss! Why do I behave like one when confronted? Where does it come from?

When we are children we do not have the emotional, physical and financial resources of adults. We are little, have no money, very little experience and feel helpless often. We react to perceived threats with childish behaviour, frustration and anger, tears and pleading, wanting sympathy and understanding, withdrawing and hiding. It is all we can do with our limited resources. What’s more, it often works. Although we don’t freely admit it, these threats are frequently caused by the very parent(s) who are our only caretakers. As children we may resort to becoming busy with other activities, withdraw into fantasy in order to escape the feeling of being betrayed by a parent.

The actual situation is of little importance. What is important is that at some stage we habituated certain behaviours because we had no other way of responding. As we all know, old habits die hard. Long after the childhood situation has changed, in adulthood, even in middle age, we find ourselves still acting out the old childhood behaviours although we are capable of behaving more effectively. Something triggers our insecurity, we shrink back into helplessness and we react with behaviour from some primitive habit that’s lying right on top in our toolbox of behaviours, the more effective response lying unreachable at the bottom. How do we move it from the bottom of the toolbox towards the top?

Can we achieve it through better knowledge and understanding? More knowledge can help. What l’ve written here is not new. Most of us already know it, maybe not in these words, but at some level we already understand it. At some level we already have this knowledge. How will more knowledge make it better? I believe that just like we can become stuck in ineffective reaction to problem situations, we can become stuck in seeking more and more knowledge, hoping that one day we will know enough to bring about change. Reflect on Aristotle; “We are what we repeatedly do …”, not we are what we know. We go to school we collect knowledge, we memorise the new knowledge and we recall it in the exam and write it down. We are rewarded with a pass. With that reward comes the illusion that we are competent at the process! Wrong model, we are experiential learners. We don’t become competent drivers by accumulating knowledge, we have to move gradually from knowledge to doing to competence. But we apply the knowledge equated to competence model over and over in other areas of our lives. We don’t even acknowledge that the knowledge equals competence model often don’t work. If I want to turn a chair leg in a lathe, I have to select a piece of wood and prepare it, measure out the profile, select an appropriate speed and tool rest position. Then I have to cut the wood using several of a whole array of chisels. I’ll probably have several failed attempts before I can repeatedly turn an excellent chair leg. We are experiential learners. A doctor accumulates knowledge, then shadows experienced doctors, then does procedures while supervised by experienced doctors. Finally, after doing it several times, he is considered competent. We are experiential learners.

So, more knowledge is, at best, only part of the answer. You know you are no longer a child—Stop behaving like one when you feel threatened or weak. How about compelling yourself into different behaviour when you feel at the mercy of the situation? Come on, you’re a big girl, or boy. Be mature! Snap out of it! We all know that does not work. When you are at the mercy of the problem situation, you are at the mercy of the situation. You don’t even realize that you have regressed into childhood behaviour/habit. Once you feel helpless, you are already in the old habit behaviour. Part of that old habit is there-is-nothing-I-can-do-about-this! You are in the habit and there is nothing you can do. You have to interrupt yourself before you are in the habit behaviour. You have to “snap out of it” before you are in “it”. You cannot learn a new reaction to a scary or threatening situation when you are in full flight or fight already! Your survival mode self does not have the ability to switch mode. In survival mode you are surviving, not thinking. Remember, your weak little self, your angry and frustrated self does not have the resources. I’ll say that again, because it’s important. Your survival mode self does not have the ability to switch mode. In survival mode you are surviving, not thinking.

I had a session recently with a therapist. He said to me, imagine a situation in which you felt helpless, vulnerable. Feel the fear, the frustration, the shame, whatever. Now step away from that helpless, little, afraid child-like you and look at him with compassion and understanding. Look at him from your higher, resourceful self. You have wisdom and you are competent. The little character you have regressed into cannot handle the situation, but your higher self can. Shield the little one. Come between him and the problem situation. What is the adult response to the problem situation? Is the situation as threatening as the little child thinks it is or is the little child stuck in an old habit? It was easy to do because the problem situation was simulated; it existed in my imagination only. I could make the switch.

Practice this every day. Use different problem situations in your imagination, where it is safe. Gradually move towards trying it out in real situations. Experiential learning! Repeatedly do it! We become what we repeatedly do. If we want to move towards excellence we must repeatedly do something different to what we are now doing in problem situations, repeatedly not behave in old, un-excellent ways of handling our problem situations.

No comments: