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All naked and confused: the problem of self-awareness

18 February 2015

In this second piece on AGL’s authenticity model we look at the first level: self-awareness – what we really stand for, what we really think and feel, and what we really want to say

Authenticity begins with self-understanding – which sounds simple, but can be hard, like dancing with wolves or synchronised swimming.

It’s a conundrum that plays out repeatedly on the world’s bookshelves and in the world’s theatres: whole compendia pivot on the sounds of scales falling from eyes, as a person sees that the self they thought they were is a mere figment of the imagination.

Think, for a second, of King Lear. With an air of benign nobility, he bequeaths his kingdom according to which of his three daughters loves him most – or at least is the most willing to fill the air with rhetorical fireworks.

Within an hour of stage time, this foolishness has undone him, and we find him naked, howling at the open skies in great mental confusion. Only now, at his most vulnerable, is he properly self-aware. He sees where he went wrong, and he feels devastated; but from this moment on, every phrase he speaks is simple and clear and true.

Now, most of us don’t spend our time running nude in the rain over sovereign land (though perhaps I should speak for myself). Nevertheless, we are all primed to be self-delusional. From childhood, we learn a partly written code that prescribes, and proscribes, what we should think and feel in certain situations. Spurred on by social pressure, we learn to suppress any thoughts and feelings, even physiological responses, that lie in the forbidden lands beyond the code (which isn’t meant to sound quite so Dan Brown).

The result can be what psychotherapist Carl Rogers called self-alienation: a state of being disconnected from our true selves. This makes us unhappy and less effective, especially when it comes to communication*. It’s like we’ve built a wall to divide the real us from the outside world, and we can only communicate by lobbing things over this wall in the hope of connecting meaningfully with other people. Eventually we forget where we end and where the wall begins.

Regaining self-awareness is an act of uncovering our own ‘personal narrative’: what we stand for, where we’re going, and why anyone else should follow. This takes a mix of reflection, experimentation and some gentle provocation, but it can be energising. Indeed, the leaders we coach at AGL have found it an invigorating process that takes the noise out of their communication, leaving a crystal clear signal that connects directly to what they really want to say.

In the next blogs on our Authenticity Model, we discuss how this gives leaders the means they need to express themselves in a congruent and compelling way so they can connect meaningfully with the people around them. And here’s the rub: you can’t be a transformational leader unless you do that.

* Wood et al. (2008). The authentic personality: A theoretical and empirical conceptualization and the development of the Authenticity Scale. Journal Of Counseling Psychology, 55(3), 385-399