Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Self-Awareness and Self-Regulation

Through advances in neuroimaging, we can identify various regions of the brain that appear to activate when we are aware of what we are sensing within us and around us. This same neuroimaging also helps us to, in essence, track our thoughts in our brain so we can see which areas of the brain are activating when we sense, feel, suppress our feelings, reason with our feelings, and move towards decision-making.  The question is, are we are aware that all this is happening within us.  Brain neurioimaging doesn’t help us become aware – it only provides us with validation of what part of the brain is becoming activated when we sense, feel, or think of something, whether we are aware of it or not.

The good news is that there is something available to each one of us that is far less expensive than a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine that takes pictures of our active (and inactive) brain.  Through the practice of mindfulness, we can develop our self-awareness muscle - if you will. In essence, by engaging in practices that develop meta-awareness, we can become more aware of what we are sensing, how it is influencing our non-verbal behaviors (sweaty palms, flushed faces, or facial expressions) and how what we are sensing and feeling is influencing our thoughts and vice versa.  This is the practice of self-awareness.

Self-awareness is beneficial to leaders because through self-awareness, leaders can begin to take responsibility for how their humanness is affecting those around them.  Taking actual responsibility for how I show up as a leader requires self-awareness and it also requires self-regulation. 

Self-regulation is enacted once I become aware of my sensations, feelings, and thoughts via self-awareness.  When practicing self-regulation, I can choose how to respond in any given situation.  The practice of self-regulation involves emotion regulation and cognitive regulation. For example, once I become aware that I am feeling an unwelcomed emotion such as anger toward a colleague who missed a deadline, I then recognize that now means I have to work into the night to make my assigned deadline (and meeting my assigned deadline required getting the piece of work from her).  Working into the might means I will miss my yoga class and an opportunity to be with a loved one.  Recognizing now why I am angry, I also recognize I have a choice in how I express my anger. 

Without practicing self-awareness, I may not even realize I am angry and say to my colleague how stupid she is for missing the deadline – really believing that is what I think and feel – all the while missing an opportunity to see another possibility that exists.  If I react out of a lack of self-awareness and a lack of self-regulation, I crush my colleague’s sense of well-being and harm our relationship.  (I know this because I have, unfortunately, spent a good deal of my career not practicing self-awareness or self-regulation.)

With self-awareness, I recognize that I am feeling anger and that it is an unwelcomed emotion, as it does not align with my life’s purpose for promoting peace.  With emotion regulation, I can turn toward the anger and accept it without attaching judgment to it.  Attaching judgment would be feeling like I don’t want to feel anger right now, as it is not in accordance to my beliefs for peace.  When I attach judgment to that feeling, I get caught up in the cognitive process of judging, rather than being with what I am feeling.  

Once I recognize that I feel anger and accept that feeling, I can then move into cognitive regulation – another aspect of self-regulation.  In cognitive regulation, I can inquire into why I am angry, discovering that I am not angry with my colleague for missing the deadline, I am angry that I now have to work into the night to make my deadline which means I will miss my time with my beloved and my yoga class.  Once I recognize the source of anger, I can move into problem solving.

One potential solution is to ask my colleague to report to our boss that she was three days late on meeting her deadline, and asking her to request a three-day extension for my deadline so I don’t have to work into the night.  Such demonstration of self-regulation means that I can feel the anger, be aware of the anger and the reason for the anger, and still be of sound mind to propose solutions that may result in me not feeling victimized by someone else having not met their agreement.  This process can be incredibly empowering for all.  My colleague is now being asked to take responsibility for her choice not to meet the deadline.  And if she had a reason that she was unable to meet the deadline - perhaps she is experiencing a personal crisis or she did not have the workforce or developmental resources to meet her deadline - it opens up an opportunity for her to seek the support she needs to be more effective and most likely more happy from the supervisor who can provide those resources to her.

Of course, not everyone in your work environment will want to practice self-awareness and self-regulation for it heightens our awareness of how we impact those around us.  And quite frankly, not everyone wants to be reminded of how they impact those around them.  Nonetheless, what I have learned in my over 27 years as a university administrator is that people around me are impacted by my behavior and my choices whether I am aware of it or not.  Becoming self-aware and practicing self-regulation provides me with more opportunities to empower myself and others to be their best - even when I am not practicing well.  For when I am not practicing self-regulation well, my colleagues are practicing and they empower me to return to my practice.

Powerfully motivating – yes?  Yes!

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