Reflection as a constructive habit: “ok, so what’s my part in the mess?”

In this blog I want to introduce the technique but also share how reflection has enabled me to become ‘authentic’ and helped confront the stigma associated with ‘burn out’ and mental health.

The theme of this piece is self awareness and personal accountability for outcomes that have occurred, and more importantly those that have yet to occur.

Needless to say this is also the hardest and potentially conflicting element of the process, as it can be very uncomfortable, as it forces us to be brutally honest with ourselves, consider our shortcomings and recognise how our behaviour has a direct impact on our outcomes and our relationships with others.

But before getting into the detail it’s useful to recognise that the purpose of this stage is two fold:

  1. When applied to an immediate situation, it allows us to determine how things develop by consciously choosing our behaviour and responses and;
  2. When used as part of retrospective reflection, it shows us where our behaviour impacted on the situation and where, if changed, could have delivered a different and potentially better outcome, that can be used in future situations.

This is extremely useful in a professional context, as we are now operating far more strategically, using our increased self awareness and ‘balcony view’ to make far better decisions and plans.

It is also useful in a personal setting, where we are far better at negotiating personal relationships, because we now understand the impact our behaviour has on others.

Too commonly this is a major gap in our pressured and time limited lives, where we charge from one crisis to the next, often failing to notice the chaos we’re creating, simply because we’re too engrossed is saving the world.

The best analogy I’ve heard for this is that “in 20 years of driving I’ve never had an accident, but I’ve seen thousands in my mirrors…”

I’ve certainly been guilty of this in the past, where I’ve made horrendous assumptions about situations and people, been rude or dismissive and failed to recognise that I was the common denominator in things that things that went wrong.

Thankfully, since practicing this approach these instances have significantly reduced but now at least I’m prepared to consider and act on ‘my part in the mess’.

I still don’t always get it right but now I can quickly assess the situation and make amends where required before things get too out of hand.

So how do we use this as part of our reflection work?

Simple really, when we have challenged ourselves on what we’ve seen and heard in our ‘balcony view’ (see previous blogs) we now have to objectively consider what impact, positive or negative, your behaviour had on the situation.

It’s vital here that you are brutally honest with yourself, as otherwise it’s all too easy to paint a false picture for yourself that fails to recognise and celebrate the good, as well as the not so good aspects of your behaviour.

This is hard when we have been preconditioned by our backgrounds to view ourselves in particular ways but once you start to get past this the magic starts to happen.

This understanding has opened up an entirely different aspect of the value of reflection, which for me, is the real ‘gold’, as this has enabled me to finally become ‘authentic’ with both myself and others.

This is often referred to but what does authenticity actually mean?

During the AIPM program my syndicate leader would challenge me to really try to get under the skin of why I interpreted situations in the way that I did.

Everyday I’d work on my reflection journal, working my way through what I’d seen and heard, getting on the balcony and asking myself what part I’d played in the mess?

Every other day Col would take it in, read it, make his observations, give it back and simply say “Go deeper”.

Over 3 intensive weeks, I felt that I was being peeled like an onion and every time I thought I’d made some kind of breakthrough, the response would simply be the same “Go deeper”.

What happens in practice is that by doing this you confront the things that you don’t like about yourself, that you’ve locked in a box, wrapped in chains and thrown into the deepest ocean.

By dragging these out and not only confronting them, but doing so in public, you realise that the things that you think define you in the eyes of others actually have little or no power, as nobody really cares, as they have their own lives and stresses to worry about.

This means that usually the only person who gives the situation any negative power is you and unfortunately too often, we allow this to prevent us taking opportunities to develop because we think we are defined by things we don’t want people to know about and are too worried about what others might think rather than simply saying “this is me, I’m not perfect, but hey I’m ok about that!”

Now you’re most likely wondering why anyone would want to expose their inner fears and insecurities to complete strangers in this way, but the AIPM works on the basis that if you can’t be authentic with yourself, how on earth can you be authentic with others?

This is the crux of authentic leadership, which is the objective of the program, as it seeks to develop self aware, empathetic leaders who are equipped with the strategic skills to make and deliver on very difficult decisions, but to do so with professionalism and compassion.

What the reflection journal does, in starting out as the vehicle that captures what you think you saw and heard, then let’s you look again through the ‘balcony view’ and self awareness lens on individual personal and professional situations, becomes an incredibly powerful means to really look at ourselves and work out what it is that makes us the way we are, what drives us and most importantly, what it is that might be that’s been holding us back from achieving our true potential.

So what happened next?

For me, this culminated in a life changing conversation with one of the instructors towards the end of the program.

On a balmy night, over a glass of wine and literally being ‘on the balcony’ overlooking Collins Bay in Sydney Harbour, I was asked the simple and what I thought was a fairly innocuous question “ok, so who sets the height of your bar?”

Without hesitation I replied “why me, of course! I’m my own person and I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it…” – or something like that!

What happened over the next twenty minutes completely changed my perspective on just about everything, as through gentle questioning Phil challenged my assumptions and got me to recognise that due to an unresolved situation from my childhood, I was subconsciously still trying to gain recognition and affirmation from someone who I’d actually forgotten about and was giving them the power to set the height of the bar that I measured myself and sense of self worth against.

In that instant I saw that not only was this accurate, but it was also futile, as the person involved was no longer relevant and that I was seeking some kind of affirmation that would never come or ever be achieved.

By understanding this, over the coming months, I was able to mentally and physically take control of my ‘bar’ and break through a self imposed glass ceiling that had been holding me back for years in terms of defining my values and aspirations.

Has reflection helped in other areas?

As I mentioned in the first blog, in 2016 I ‘burned out’ and had to take time off work to recover and although back working in high pressure environments I have had to change my approach, as the old model Jim was broken and isn’t sustainable any more.

Fortunately being equipped with reflection, when I got I’ll, I was able to effectively assess my illness and ensure that I was able to find interventions and help that worked for me and which got me back on my feet again.

This stopped me looking to blame others for my situation or see myself has having failed in some way, allowing me to take responsibility for my recovery and my future.

On returning to work I naturally felt incredibly insecure as I had allowed myself to become subject to the stigma that can exist to mental illness.

Fortunately I understood that as part of my recovery I was going to have to do what now comes naturally to me and to be authentic about my condition.

This meant being prepared to proactively share my experience, so that stigma no longer had any power and that others could begin to accept that mental health affects 1 in 3 of us in any year and that it’s ‘ok to not be ok!’

I realise that is all sounds a bit ‘fluffy’ for a ‘rufty tufty, silver back, law enforcement’ type, but this genuinely was the moment when I stopped chasing my tail and trying to be someone and something that had never really felt genuine.

It also marked the point when I began to be myself at work and really start to express myself as the kind of leader, husband, father and person that I knew I could be consistently in all aspects of my life.

And strangely enough, other people began to notice too and respond positively.

It turns out that being authentic about my condition has given others the confidence to share their own experiences and move forward to get help that they’d denied themselves because of their own fears of stigma.

It has also allowed me to become far more effective in my professional and personal interactions, as I now am able to manage myself better, prioritising decisions strategically and recognising when it’s time to say ‘no’ and stop over extending myself.

This has helped me understand that this approach to life is incredibly empowering and far more effective, as being yourself takes much less effort than trying to be something we’re not.

It also showed me that authenticity builds credibility, which in turn builds trust.

As they say “trust arrives on foot but leaves on horseback!” so trust should always be something we set as a fundamental a goal as it increases effectiveness, as when people trust you they naturally want to help and be associated with you, meaning relationships get better and more stuff tends to get done, without all the grief that might have happened previously.

A seemingly small observation but an essential part of being an effective leader and member of society so something that’s actually very important to all of us.

So there you are. Over 4 blogs I’ve introduced you to how I practice reflection and how this has significantly improved my ability to think strategically and become an better authentic leader.

I fully recognise that this takes time and effort and that elements of this can be hard to deal with, especially when confronting ourselves and how we look at life, so you might need to get some help to work through things that need some extra support but believe me this is worth the effort in the long run.

Good luck and give it a go, you never know what you’ll find.

If you’ve found this series useful please give it a try and share with others who might also find it useful.

As ever feedback is welcome as I’m always looking for ways to make these articles better and more relevant to others.