How to Not Lose Your Soul In a Crazy World
The middle path is the way to wisdom
I’ve always tended to be an extremist. If I got involved in something, I went all in.
Years ago, my college best friend and I started one of the first natural foods stores in Boston. Long days, short nights, very hard work. And very rewarding. Then I joined a personal transformation movement and was asked to be the President. I picked up the guitar for fun. The next thing I know I’m writing songs, taking voice lessons and recording three albums. Tennis- same thing. From hobby to obsession. Corporate sales and leadership roles. Workaholic. Addictive behavior.
Sure, I’m proud of a lot of things I accomplished. I did more than I ever thought I could. I pushed myself and challenged the self-limiting beliefs that followed me around. And, at various times I lost my soul. I had my moments of being arrogant, short-tempered, short-sighted, impulsive, unkind and self-centered.
As I look back there are some things I am not proud of. And they all involved how I mistreated people on those occasions when I was far from the best version of myself.
There are five things that have really helped me deal with the fallout of having extremist tendencies, rediscover my soul and live a more equanimous life in pursuit of my dreams. Here they are:
Have a Crisis
From my experience, a personal crisis will either tune things up for learning, growth and positive change or it will send you into a long term, seemingly never-ending tailspin. You don’t have to ask for these events. They will show up when it’s the right time. But when they do, pay attention. There’s a big message in there. For me, they usually have come when everything has been going relatively well on the surface. Down below, however, things weren’t quite right. Enter the Universe and its infinite wisdom to course correct and get things back in balance.
I’ll give you an example. A few years ago my professional work life was on cruise control. I was having a great time. The sales team I was leading was hitting the numbers, the company was doing well and I was part of a solid team of colleagues. However, my personal life was another story. I was in a ten-year marriage that I knew was not serving me. I was settling for convenience and mediocrity. I had given up on believing I could have a deeply fulfilling relationship with my wife or anyone for that matter.
I had hit the moral and ethical bottom but wasn’t taking the action I knew I needed to take. I was having dinner in a wine bar in Austin by myself when two sisters sat down next to me. We were soon chatting away. One of the women asked me if I was happy in my relationship and I said no. From there the conversation got very personal and she called me out, bluntly, for not being truthful to my wife. I left devastated and upset at her. Then, the next day, I realized she was dead right.
A few days later I spent many hours on my knees asking for the help, guidance, and strength to do what I knew I had to do. The help came instantly. I met, in a seemingly random encounter, a life coach who spoke to me for fifteen minutes, sharing tools that enabled me to shift my mindset from, “I can’t deal with this,” to “ I have everything I need to speak to my wife now.” Soon after my wife and I spoke. It was not near as difficult as I had imagined it would be. We used a mediator and are now peacefully divorced.
This is the classic Hero’s Journey, described by anthropologist and author Joseph Campbell in his book, Hero with a Thousand Faces. Below is a visual showing the universal pattern of crisis, learning, and redemption.
I had to hit bottom to get back in line with my soul. I prayed. I asked for help. I shifted the energy from my head to my heart. The heart knows what to do. Heart trusts. From the moment I got back in alignment with my own inner Self, my life completely changed. I was back into the magic. It had never left. I left the magic.
And now I am happier than I have ever been and I’m fully living my life in alignment with my highest values. The message for me: align with my soul, my inner purpose, my highest Self.
Own What is Yours: Deal with Your Shadow
I’ve learned that if I got upset it was usually because something important to me was stepped on. A value, a core principle, or a wound. And, I began to understand that the experience of being triggered is a learning opportunity. If I’m getting triggered, getting emotional, or getting upset, that means I’ve got some internal work to do. I can ask myself: What’s triggering me? What is really going on? What wound in me is being scratched? The answers to those questions will begin to unlock the root cause of why I’m getting triggered and move me towards getting back to my center, getting back in balance.
For instance, if there is a breakdown in a relationship, whether it be work or personal, I can blame others, I can blame myself, or I can own my part and encourage the other party to do the same. When I understand what I contributed, the learning can begin. The key to getting the process started is embracing my own contribution, being brave enough to admit that I am not perfect, I don’t have all the answers, I don’t know everything. This ignites the learning process which can help me be more effective in the future. If I can’t learn something from a breakdown, then it will likely happen again, and again, until I learn what I have to learn. And if there is no learning, there’s no growth. No growth means being stuck.
The deeper dimension of owning our stuff is shadow work. It’s too big a subject to cover fully in this short article but I will mention a few things. First, our shadow is that part of us that we don’t see or don’t really know. It’s the dark part of our psyche. Not acknowledging it or dealing with it simply forces it underground. This is exactly what I was dealing with in my relationship example above. I was full of brightness in one part of my life and darkness in the other. This is the human condition. Learning about, and doing personal shadow integration work is essential for true growth, happiness, and success.
Be Kind to Yourself
Extremism is often linked to trauma or wounds from childhood. I had my share and I realize now that my extremist tendencies simply became addictive behavior. They became a way to numb me up and not really deal with the underlying issues. I couldn’t see the patterns at the time, because I was a junkie, filling up every minute of the day with activity, looking for the next buzz, the next total immersion experience. Once I hit the bottom, I saw the pattern. Then the healing started. Lots of reflection. Lots of suffering. Lots of guilt and shame regarding some of my less than admirable behavior.
And I began to realize that I really, really need to accept myself, bring that shadow self into the light and love myself deeply and just stop trying to be the perfect son, the perfect husband, or the perfect leader. If I am unkind to myself, I will inevitably be unkind to others.
I started paying more attention to self-talk. If it was negative I cut it off. I soothed it with meditation and positive affirmations. I began to practice the principle of “thoughts become things.” I re-framed negative self-talk with positive self-talk. I could feel the peace enter my being as I did this. I really practiced acknowledging that I did the best I could, given where I was mentally and emotionally at the time. I got on better terms with my shadow, my imperfections. I practice being kind to myself on a daily basis now.
Be of Service
I’ve had plenty of leadership roles. Big title. Big paycheck. Big office. Lots of important meetings. Hiring, firing, deciding people’s raises, salaries, making decisions about their lives. Very easy to get caught up in people treating you with deference because of the power position. Easy to forget the essential reason I am in that role which is: to be of service to others.
Joseph Campbell, when discussing the Hero’s Journey, talks about the ultimate aim of the Hero’s quest “must be neither the release nor ecstasy for oneself, but the wisdom and power to serve others.”
This quote reflects one of the most important issues for anyone in a leadership role: How do we effectively respond to the onslaught of issues and challenges and not lose sight of the core purpose of leadership: being of service to team members, colleagues, customers, and key stakeholders?
To help myself remember the essence of my role I created a mini vision statement: My job is “to create an environment where people want to learn, grow and succeed.” The key here is “want to”. Meaning, there is an internal commitment that has been fostered. It is my role as a leader to elicit internal engagement and willingness to pursue the mission of the organization. My business card may have said one thing, my internal business card said this.
Walk the Middle Path
We live in a world of opposites: acid-alkaline, dark-light, aggressive-passive, win-lose, right-wrong, blame others-blame self, arrogance-deference, sacred-profane. The middle path, a Zen principle, means being able to embrace two seemingly distinct opposites and integrate them to bring about a condition that takes the individual to a more complete, effective and whole state of being.
As a recovering extremist, I have had my struggles finding the middle path. It was often easier and faster to move to the edges, to the extremes and cut to the chase, particularly when I was under pressure or stressed out.
Telling someone what to do, or being overly direct, seemed at the time to be more efficient than slowing down and being more deliberate, intentional, curious and or caring. Holding on tight to my position in a disagreement appeared to easier than exploring underlying interests with the other party. Acting like I’m smarter than everyone else felt safer than admitting that I actually didn’t know something.
And the irony of it all! We are not attracted to qualities like arrogance, stubbornness, or in-authenticity. We don’t find it attractive in others and we don’t find it attractive within us when we behave that way.
We’re attracted to real authenticity, humility, graciousness, confidence, compassion, and kindness. We seek it. We crave it. So the very goals we seek in life and work: being effective at what we do, being highly engaged, feeling satisfied and proud can actually be sub-optimized by binary, black and white, one dimensional, extreme beliefs. Those beliefs may look superficially attractive but they actually undermine us.
How do we find the middle path if we aren’t already on it? The first step is to understand the link between how we think, our behavior and the results produced. For example, if my intention (my thinking) is to actually help a colleague learn, grow and succeed then the feedback that I might share with them is in service of that goal. Being brutally honest with zero compassion or respect will not accomplish the goal. However, being very honest and direct while being respectful (my behavior) will likely have a much better chance at achieving learning, growth, and success. (the results)
Once we understand the principle that our thoughts drive our behavior then we can dig more easily into the inner transformation work: shifting mindsets. We have the capability within us to choose where we put our internal focus. We get to choose what we believe, what thoughts we want to give energy too.
This means we can shift our mindset from looking good and being right to learning and doing the right thing. We can stop blaming others and own our own contribution. We can let go of false stories, assumptions, limiting beliefs and self-doubt. We hold the key to peace, fulfillment, and happiness because we have the ability to choose our response in any given situation. We create our own inner world by the thoughts we feed ourselves.
When we have a generative, expansive mindset our behavior will transform. We discover that we can:
Create agreements-not just making demands or dropping hints
Be confident-not simply arrogant or passive
Be courageous-without being foolhardy or cowardly
Be direct and respectful not brutally honest or passive
Listen with openness, speak our opinion truthfully, and mutually problem solve in any interaction
Push hard and achieve the seemingly impossible and create an environment where people thrive
And we can do all of this and not lose our soul.
Don Johnson is an executive coach, facilitator, mindfulness warrior, and Partner at Evolution- a boutique coaching and culture firm that supports iconic, world enriching companies. https://www.evolution.team/
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