We all know someone who does not believe in their self-worth. Perhaps it is a family member or friend or colleague. Perhaps, it is you. Be it you or another, our full potential will remain untapped until we come to know ourselves as self-worth. Robert McGee in The Search for Significance identifies four ways in which we trade out our identity:
- The Performance Trap: placing our self-worth in our performance and other people’s opinions;
- Approval Addiction: seeking the approval of others in order to feel good about ourselves;
- The Blame Game: believing that those who fail, including ourselves, are unworthy of love and deserve to be punished;
- The Shame Trap: trapped in the belief that one is hopeless and deserves to fail.
For far too many of us, our sense of self-worth is tied to performance and other people’s opinions. Our lived beliefs get in the way of experiencing our core identity as fearfully and wonderfully made. From the cradle, we are trained to place our identity in that which can be taken away. This is why it is essential for leaders to be attentive to the stories that shape and form our understanding of self.
Jim Loehr speaks to the importance of leaders knowing their stories: “Stories impose meaning on the chaos; they organize and give context to our sensory experiences, which otherwise might seem like no more than a fairly colorless sequence of fact. Facts are meaningless until you create a story around them.” Narrative knowing is different from analytic knowing.
Narrative knowing helps us to deal with the complexities of human experience unable to be understood by the rational mind alone. Stories provide the means by which to live with contradiction, compromise, conflict, and even crisis. Leaders cannot help others make sense of the present chaos unless they have done so themselves. We are what we remember. But our remembering requires a willingness to engage the whole of our stories. In a society that shuns weakness and rejects failure, this is risky work. Yet it is essential work for those called to lead in this threshold time.
The challenge is that we all carry within ourselves false stories. Unless we take the time to name our false narratives, we will likely impose our biases, blindness, and fears upon others. “Unhealthy storytelling is characterized by a diet of faulty thinking and, ultimately, long-term negative consequences… hardening of categories, narrowing of the possibilities, calcification of perception.” False stories literally reconfigure our neural pathways. We cannot lead from strength when our beliefs are rooted in a flawed understanding of self and world.
Intimacy, generatively, and integrity are all born of claiming the entirety of our stories. We are able to nurture compassion for both self and others only as we engage our shadows and accept the reality that we carry within us both weakness and strength, good and bad. As Jung reminds us:
There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection. To round itself out, life…calls not for perfection but for completeness and for this the ‘thorn in the flesh’ is needed, the suffering of defects without which there is no progress and no ascent.