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Jez Cartwright

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Self-awareness and the inner child

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Continuing an exclusive series of articles exploring the leadership lessons that can be gleaned from everyday life, Jez Cartwright highlights how leaders can overcome their insecurities or performance anxiety by coming to terms with the experiences of their childhood.

There are some useful lessons that leaders can learn from young children. Children, for example, have curiosity; they're resilient, determined, spontaneous, trusting and imaginative. They also laugh a lot.
Interestingly, as any parent will tell you, when children feel rejected, they need to feel the love and support of those around them. Yelling "pull yourself together" or "stop being stupid" is not the most constructive approach. Yet that's exactly what we say to ourselves when our own behaviour disappoints us.
Leaders in particular should appreciate that we all have an 'inner child' inside us, who strongly influences our thoughts and actions. You wouldn't let a six-year old drive your car, yet some people will allow the six-year old within them to drive everything that they do.
 
"Leaders should not be afraid to put themselves under the microscope. My challenge to any leader is: if you're not prepared to do that, then why are you in charge?"
The inner child is a recognised concept in psychology, which refers to the behaviour and 'emotional baggage' that we carry around with us because of things we experienced in childhood.
Psychologists often talk about the need to embrace your inner child. But why is this relevant for leaders? Firstly, your inner child could be holding you back. Secondly, no-one is the finished article. We can all improve and enhancing our self awareness is a great place to start. Besides, leaders should not be afraid to put themselves under the microscope. My challenge to any leader is: if you're not prepared to do that, then why are you in charge?

Loneliness at the top

Leaders, as a general rule, tend to be alpha types. Many appear very confident on a surface level, but underneath their tough exterior they can also be very insecure.
Just about every leader will feel pressure because of the performance expectations that come with their job. Being in the spotlight can create anxiety and fear, because you have to achieve and constantly deliver. Also, there is no move up from number one; you can only move down.
Most leaders are reluctant to reveal any fear or doubt that they may feel. They worry that they might be perceived as weak or that their fear might ripple down and infect the rest of the organisation. So they bottle up their anxieties - adding to the pressure. Trying to perform under those conditions can be incredibly stressful and potentially disastrous.
Dealing with these feelings of isolation - the 'loneliness at the top' - can be challenging for any leader but it's even more difficult if you have an inner child who is constantly questioning your self worth.
Resolving the issues of your inner child can be a scary prospect for people, as it means revisiting experiences that they may have kept under lock and key for many years. However, those who are able to do this find that it's like releasing a hand-brake in terms of their performance. Suddenly they can really move forward.

Some key questions

There are a lot of good coaches out there who can point leaders in the right direction and provide the support necessary to help them through the process of understanding their inner child.
The needs of your inner child will be individual to you. They can be revealed by exploring both your own journey and the recurring behavioural 'patterns' that keep cropping up in your life. These will have led you to where you are.
Exploring your past in this way will really open up your self-awareness (all leaders should aim to become more self-aware). You can't change your behaviour if you're not aware of what you're doing in the first place.
 
"Analysing yourself - in terms of the patterns that have run through your life - can help you to come up with strategies about how to make that change."
Changing your behaviour is not easy. It might help to ask yourself: what do you actually want to create in your life? This can act as a trigger for you to go and do something about it. Another technique is to ask: What would a person who is very successful do in this situation? How would they react? Could I try to emulate some of the things that successful people might do?
Have a go at this. Trying new things can sometimes feel a little uncomfortable, particularly if you're looking to alter actions that are somehow connected to your past. But do you really want your past experiences to control your life anymore? If the answer is 'no', then you have to find a way to do things differently. Analysing yourself - in terms of the patterns that have run through your life - can help you to come up with strategies about how to make that change. Keep your end goal in mind; work towards it and you can achieve it.
In my experience, many leaders don't truly accept themselves. They don't fully appreciate who they really are. Some like to think that they are better than or different to others but this often stems from a deep-rooted fear of being judged or rejected. At the end of the day, we all need to learn to love ourselves in a healthy way. Embracing your inner child is an important step on this journey.
Jez Cartwright is Chief Executive of Performance Consultants, the leadership development and coaching specialist. Drawing on its experiences in elite sport and business, the firm develops tailored programmes and events that enable leaders to enhance relationships, improve their effectiveness and achieve their goals. Jez can be contacted at jc@performanceconsultants.co.uk

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