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Columns , Leadership

Activate your latent superpower

When we are sincerely curious, we unlock new fields of possibilities.

Activate your latent superpower
When we are sincerely curious, we unlock new fields of possibilities.

Our most recent column [“Wholeness and Self-Compassion,” February/March 2019] explored the importance of acknowledging our wholeness as a first step to finding peace in the present moment. While presenting on the topic of wholeness at VMX 2019, what became clearer to us than ever before was that members of the veterinary profession struggle with the concept.

For many, external and self-imposed pressures to live up to someone else’s expectations, do things right and be in control have been going on for so long that they became a way of life. As a result, our session attendees reported busyness, stress, anxiety and comparison leading to self-judgment as common barriers to finding peace and embracing their wholeness.

Fortunately, effective tools are available to help us not only survive, but actually thrive, no matter what challenges life might present us. In this column, we focus on one ability that can dramatically alter our experiences for the better, which is our definition of a superpower.

Wherever we find ourselves, one powerful step we can take is to activate a latent superpower that all of us, as humans, possess. That superpower is curiosity. When we are sincerely curious, we unlock new fields of possibilities. We also begin to realize that the “facts” and the stories we kept telling ourselves were only perceptions that we had stopped questioning.

Here are a few ways to activate your superpower:

1. Adopt Beginner’s Mind

Curiosity is sometimes referred to as having beginner’s mind. Zen monk and teacher Shunryu Suzuki noted, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

In an interview in the magazine Strategy+Business, Harvard social psychology Professor Ellen Langer said this about beginner’s mind:

“To approach the world freshly, with a beginner’s mind, has an enormously positive effect. All the limits that people assume to be real — limits on creativity, innovation and even health — are often of our own making. Mindfulness is simply ‘being here now,’ holding an open frame of mind, and noticing moment-to-moment changes around you (from the differences in the face of your spouse across the breakfast table to the variability of your asthma symptoms). Inattention and autopilot behavior is the source of many of our problems. You want to cultivate the ability to notice more of what’s going on around you and within you. Noticing new things, in general, puts you in the present. That makes you more sensitive to context. Most important, it shows you that you didn’t know that thing you thought you knew, which makes everything new to you again.”

2. Apply Curiosity Inwardly

Being curious and applying beginner’s mind inwardly is a way to develop the self-awareness and self-confidence needed to understand ourselves, embrace our wholeness and appreciate our unique design. In his book “Search Inside Yourself,” Google engineer Chade-meng Tan makes an elegant case for the fact that, by applying curiosity and becoming more self-aware, we become able to separate the experiential (“I feel angry”) from the existential (“I am an angry person”). He illustrates the point using a powerful metaphor: “Thoughts and emotions are like clouds — some beautiful, some dark — while our core being is like the sky. Clouds are not the sky; they are phenomena in the sky that come and go. Similarly, thoughts and emotions are not who we are; they are simply phenomena in mind and body that come and go.”

Also in “Search Inside Yourself,” Meng notes that self-confidence is a strong sense of one’s self-worth and capabilities that comes with increasing self-awareness. He quotes Norman Fischer: “Self-confidence isn’t egotism. It takes profound self-confidence to be humble enough to recognize your own limitations without self-blame.”

3. Identify and Own Your Derailers

Fully accepting and embracing our whole self involves becoming more and more self-aware of our habituated behavior and how it might be working for or against us (that is, the behaviors that “derail” us and keep us from being effective). Sara J. Grady, president of the Bevens Institute, suggests that it’s especially important to notice our natural tendencies to avoid the pain of criticism, failure, weakness, rejection or exposure by creating defenses that keep us from perceiving and acknowledging reality and truth.

Grady explains that defensive behavior takes three typical forms:

  • Aggression: We resort to aggression when we don’t get our way, when things aren’t happening fast enough or when we harbor self-doubt but don’t want anyone to know.
  • Submission: We submit or appease when we don’t want to experience disapproval or rejection, or are afraid to assert our own authority. Often, when we submit, we expect protection in exchange for our submission.
  • Withdrawal: We tend to withdraw when we feel helpless or defeated, or don’t want to risk exposing what we really think, believe or feel.

We must learn to proactively seek and, ultimately, to be at ease with the reality of how our behaviors might be derailing us (instead of denying or collapsing in the face of it). We have to own our own “stuff.”

4. Are You Above or Below the Line?

In an October 2018 blog post, The Ready’s Mackenzie Fogelson shared a powerful curiosity and self-awareness tool you can practice anytime and anywhere. The tool is based on the Conscious Leadership Group’s “Above or Below the Line?” illustration. Check out the short video “Locating Yourself: A Key to Conscious Leadership” at http://bit.ly/2Tl5XeF.

Take a look at the characteristics of being above or below the line and consider these questions: Where do you typically find yourself during your day at work? At home? Where are you right now? Regardless of your answers, Fogelson reminds us, “The above and below the line language will help you name your ways of being, especially when you aren’t showing up as your best self. That’s OK. The goal isn’t just about getting above the line. The goal is to learn to get curious.”

Consider these concepts:

ABOVE THE LINE

  • Open, curious and committed to learning.
  • Responsive and present.
  • Feeling acceptance and trust.
  • Radical responsibility.
  • “Approval, control, and security are something I already have.”

BELOW THE LINE

  • Closed, defensive and committed to being right.
  • Reactive and prone to creating drama.
  • Feeling resistance and fear.
  • Finding fault/blame.
  • “I need another’s approval, and safety and security come from outside myself.”

What happens when you become mindful of operating below the line? Are you willing to forgive yourself for being there?

Here are some other self-reflection questions:

  • What are you becoming more aware about personally?
  • What underlying attitudes, beliefs, assumptions and narratives or stories are influencing how you think, feel and behave right now?
  • How can you stay out of judgment and be more accepting of your shadow side while still remaining true to your best self and being responsible for your impact on others?

Jon Kabat-Zinn offers a good reminder: “What’s happening is not what matters most. What matters is how we are with what is happening.” Are we in acceptance or resistance? Allowing and accepting any event or experience shifts our experience of it.

5. Navigate with Curiosity

Navigating with curiosity is an indispensable life skill. Activating your latent superpower will allow you to embrace your wholeness and build your self-confidence. It also makes life more interesting and full of wonder. When self-reflection is done with an air of curiosity rather than self-judgment, it becomes far easier to be vulnerable and courageous. It allows you to examine how you are showing up, understand your derailer, and expand your possibilities for action.

Navigating with curiosity will enhance every other relationship in your life, as you will seek first to learn, not judge, the words and actions of others. And, as Plato noted, “learning” (which we so desperately need today in our profession and in the world around us) “is by nature, curiosity.”

Be curious and create positive change!

Go With the Flow co-columnist Trey Cutler is an attorney specializing in veterinary business matters. Co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is president of VetPartners and founder of Gifted Leaders, a Phoenix company offering leadership and coaching services.

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