I recently read about something called the Stockdale Paradox when I was doing research for an upcoming workshop on building resilience in the early childhood education profession. The Stockdale Paradox first mentioned in Jim Collin’s book Good to Great, cautions readers to acknowledge your current difficulties intermixed with a positive belief that you will triumph in the end.
In a discussion between Jim Collins and James Stockdale (a former vice-presidential candidate, who, during the Vietnam War, was held captive as a prisoner of war for over seven years), Stockdale speaks about how the optimists fared in camp. The dialogue goes:
“Who didn’t make it out?” “Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.” “The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.”The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘ We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”James Stockdale
Now it might be how I was feeling about the resurgence of Covid-19 in our New Zealand community, however, I must admit that reading this really triggered me. I have learnt over the years that when I am triggered this is when I need to probe a bit deeper with curiosity.
My curiosity was prompting me to ask “why?” It is my “why” I would like to discuss in this article today.
Why did my reading this cause a triggered emotional response in me?
Well to answer this question I first have a confession to make. I am an optimist. I am a naturally positive person. You may even say that I am a glass-half-full kind of gal.
I must also confess that this latest move in Alert Levels for New Zealand has thrown me. Just like the optimists in James Stockdale’s account, I, like so many Kiwis, I had firmly put Covid-19 in my rear-view mirror. I optimistically told myself with every ounce of my positivity, rose-tinted glasses firmly in place, that Covid-19 was something we had won the battle over. That it was no longer something to worry about. “Covid-19 is something that is happening in other countries, not in New Zealand,”
I allowed myself to plan, hope and embrace the future. Making plans (all be it local plans) for the next months… And then it all came crashing down around me. When I received the news about the latest community transmitted cases in Auckland, I must admit, I was shocked. Feelings like sadness, fear, anger, frustration, disappointment and even shame swirled around inside of me. Was I heading for death from a broken heart?
The other reason that I realised that I was feeling this way was that this account had awakened my unwanted identities.
What is an unwanted identity?
We all have our ideal identity, a way that we want the world and others to perceive us. Our ideal identity is nurtured in us from a very young age. When we are young children and we rely on others to feed us, clothe us, love us and accept us in order to secure our survival. During this time we are constantly asking ourselves “Who do I need to be in order for them to treat me this way?” (Weaver, 2019). Unbeknown to us this is who we become. This is our ideal identity. We set about proving, by behaving in alignment with our ideal identity, that we are good enough and worth loving.
We also receive from those around us, information about what loses us acceptance, love and approval and this becomes our unwanted identities. These are the traits that you would rather die than let others perceive you as.
Every choice that we make stems from us wanted to win approval (AKA love) of the significant adults and later peers. This is also a powerful motivator for us to avoid behaviours where approval is lost.
What is your ideal identity?
Think back to your childhood.
How did you want your parents and other important adults to see you? What kinds of praise set you aglow inside?
What meaning did you make up about this or yourself by the way you were praised or treated?
How did this praise prompt you to behave?
How did you want your school peers to see you? Were you the “kind one”, the “clever one”, the “sporty one”, the “funny one” the “hard-working one?”
Where did your work ethic come from?
Your desire to do things perfectly or to not let others down?
In her book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown, recounts how she comes across her unwanted identities of sick, unreliable, and undependable when she has to take time off after sustaining a concussion. How her German Texan upbringing leads her to have the unconscious belief that illness was a weakness. She talks about the shame and fear she felt when she perceived that others saw her in this way.
Which leads me back to my original “why?”. Why was I so triggered? On reflection, I realised that although I see myself as an optimist, and I want to be perceived as such, I do not want to be seen as weak or as a victim. These are two significant unwanted identities for me.
Why you should be aware of your unwanted identities?
Left unconscious our unwanted identities can dictate our thoughts and behaviours. These identities appear in all the areas of our life that matter to us. Left unchecked these identities can cause us to inflict hurt and shame on ourselves and others.
Once we make the unconscious, conscious we can get real about them. As Joseph Campbell famously said,
The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.Joseph Campbell
When you get curious about your unwanted identities, you’ll see that the perceptions you are working so hard to have and want to avoid are
totally unrealistic and can cause you unnecessary fear and shame.
The exercise below will help you to figure out how you want to be perceived around a specific identity.
For example, with regards to being a good leader, you might want to be perceived as organised, calm, knowledgeable and educated and not perceived as overwhelmed, stressed out, unreliable, lazy and disorganised.
When we reflect on our unwanted identities and get curious about them, we begin to understand the perceptions that lead to self-doubt, stress and shame. In doing this we can examine the hold that this has over us and create compassion and flexibility in how we see ourselves and allow others to see us.
Over to you…
Pick an area of your life where you know that you have ideal and unwanted identities. (Examples of this might be motherhood, work, body image etc)
List 3 ways that you would like to be perceived in this area of your life.
List 3 unwanted identities in this area of your life.
Looking at each of the unwanted identities on your list, ask yourself the following questions:
What does this perception mean to me?
Why is this identity so unwanted?
What experiences or messages are the source of this unwanted identity?
Is this showing me something that I’m frightened of?
Can you look at yourself with the kindness and compassion your reserve for someone whom you love?
Now ask yourself,
How is this serving me now?
What do gain from holding onto this unwanted identity?
What is it costing me?
Is there a way that I can create some flexiblity around how others see me?
Can you let this go and be happy knowing that you know you are a good human? That another’s perception of you is based on how they see themselves and world, based on their life experiences, not who you actually are?Dr Libby Weaver
Was this exercise challenging for you?
Do you feel that this is something that you would like some support with identifying and working through?
Why not book a free discovery call with me where we can discuss how a coaching partnership could help you to relieve stress, and restore confidence, energy and balance to your life.
Brown, B, (2018) Dare to Lead – Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts, Penguin Random House UK.
Weaver, L, (2019) The Invisible Load – A Guide to Overcoming Stress & Overwhelm, Little Green Frog Publishing Ltd.