Here's a concept that has revolutionized my way of thinking, feeling, being, and doing more than any other. It's the concept of Self-leadership, a state in which you embody an empowered version of your Self. What makes it empowered is its capacity to access eight important qualities (i.e. the 8Cs of Self-leadership) that are naturally present within you when you feel physically and emotionally safe. The challenge for many of us is that we live an an overwhelmed, hyperaroused nervous system as a result of experiencing a traumatic event.
All trauma, whether it stems from one incident or a prolonged event, steals from us.
It steals a sense of agency and feeling of being in charge of one’s own body, mind, and self. It steals trust from us—we stop trusting not only others but also our own self. We doubt our own perception, reliability, and ability to act appropriately.And if you can’t feel like an agent of change in your own body and mind or trust your own self, chaos ensues.
Rarely do clients come to me knowing how they want to feel.
It is way more likely that they know how they don’t want to feel—they want to stop feeling at the mercy of their inner turmoil and chaos. The two most urgent core requests I hear are:
I want to stop feeling out of control over my own body and mind.
I want to stop getting in my way and making my life harder than it needs to be.
We can also rephrase these statements in the following ways:
I want to get rid of the part of myself that feels out of control and, as a result, makes me lose agency over my body and mind.
I want to get rid of the part of myself that makes life harder than it needs to be and, as a result, makes me lose trust in my ability to be on my own team.
Most of us spend so much time fighting off and trying to get rid of parts of ourselves that we spend almost zero time or effort exploring exactly who or what would be left over if we were to actually succeed in exiling our unwanted parts.
So let’s take a look at who and what would be left over.
For starters, we believe (consciously and/or unconsciously) that in losing these unwanted parts of ourselves we will relieve ourselves from the constant stress, tension, and physical and emotional overwhelm or numbness that is deeply rooted in our hardwired flight-fight-freeze survival strategies.
This begs the question: who and what would we look like without these life-restricting parts activating our evolutionary survival strategies?
In other words...
Who and what are we at our very core when our physical and/or emotional safety is not at risk?
My life’s work is dedicated to helping people discover and experience who they really are, what their relationships can feel like, and what their lives can looks like when they feel safe in their own bodies and minds.
Dr. Richard Schwartz, founder of Internal Family Systems Therapy states, “If you don’t have any idea of who you really are, you can’t become that person.”
Without having any idea for us to move toward, we succumb to the default of resisting or avoiding what is while rejecting our own pain and shame that demand attention and responsive care.
Having specific ideas of who you are when your physical and emotional security is not at risk can help you proactively move towards a goal as opposed to only reacting to your pain points and insecurities.
The goal is accessing your Self, a state of having agency over your own body and mind and a felt trust in your own perception, reliability and ability to “handle it.”
This is the Self that you experience during meditation, mindfulness practices, or a flow state while doing something you love or being with someone you connect with on a visceral level.
You feel a sense of pure joy and peace. You feel capable of empowered leadership, healing, and resonance with others.
When you feel that you are out of control or getting in your own way, you are not lacking a quality.
You are merely not accessing this Core Self, an empowered state of being.
The clinical implications of this approach are tremendous. Instead of needing some kind of external person or other force to provide something that is lacking within you, all you need is help and encouragement to access qualities you are already capable of when you feel physically and emotionally safe.
An expert on your own experience already exists and that expert is within you. All you need to do is reclaim a leadership role over your own Core self and parts. This is what’s called the practice of Self-leadership.
How do you know if you’re practicing Self-leadership?
Self-leadership is characterized by the 8Cs. When you feel safe in your own body and mind, you access these 8Cs and reclaim your empowerment in the form of Self-leadership. Remember, these are qualities that you already have but may not be able to access at this very moment.
They 8Cs are:
Calmness: When experiencing Self-leadership, you feel a sense of physiological and mental calm. The constant tension and hypervigilance that accompany trauma are no longer present. You feel less reactive and overwhelmed. Time may slow down.This is a very different state from dissociating, hiding, or numbing difficult emotions while appearing outwardly calm. It is a state of experiencing all emotions as they come and go like waves while being anchored to a calm center.
Clarity: Rigid, extreme beliefs and emotions that distort reality are no longer controlling your life. When experiencing clarity, you may see each situation with fresh eyes and feel open to new possibilities. You see yourself and others more clearly because your preconceptions and projections take a “step back.” You no longer re-enact the same cyclical story from your past. You let go of past roles you had to take on to survive and you stop recruiting people to take on a role they didn’t audition for.
Curiosity:This is one of the most underestimated qualities in my book. It is the process of calm, inquisitive witnessing of yourself and others as opposed to the process of striving, reactive hypervigilance that results in contempt, racism, prejudices, and self-hate. Curiosity rests upon a sense of security that you can withstand your own inner thoughts and emotions and others’ judgments, criticisms, and perceptions of reality.
Compassion: When you can be curious toward others’ experiences, you become openhearted toward their suffering. You can relate to their suffering as you would to your own without feeling burdened or depleted by it. You allow yourself to be affected by them because you can not only withstand their struggles but also play an active role in being there for them and with them. You become aware of the interconnectedness of the human condition and experience.
Confidence: You are confident in your ability to protect your parts from getting hurt and to comfort your parts if they do get hurt. If you do get hurt, you can move towards the hurt without being overwhelmed by it. You can be present without being consumed by survival or gratification. You feel a sense of control over a present situation because of the belief that you can handle or repair whatever may happen. You can nurture your boundaries and make a conscious effort to allow in your life what is deemed meaningful and to protect yourself from what is deemed an obstacle to your health and the health of your relationships.
Courage: With increased confidence comes the courage to act and be held accountable for acting. You can care for and stand up for both the vulnerable parts of yourself and the more vulnerable, disenfranchised people within your community. You actively choose to move toward pain and shame in yourself and in your community because you have courage to witness and act on what is being witnessed.
Creativity: You can have improved access to your intuition and the clarity necessary to differentiate a worthy idea from the noise of the “chatterbox” mind we all carry. You have the confidence and courage to think "outside of the box" and experiment with new ideas in all areas of your life. You are more likely to embody a “flow" state, in which you experience pleasure during an activity that feels effortless and automatic. You are attuned to your creative parts and feel the courage to act upon them and share them with others.
Connectedness: You experience “deep rest” from the various roles, masks, and survival strategies that were once adaptive but have now become a burden to you. What’s left over is access to a Self that can recognize others’ 8Cs. You feel more connected to others and help them feel safe to release their masks and access their Self-leadership and empowerment. You feel at home in your body and mind.
Many people read this list and feel inadequate or overwhelmed that this is an unachievable state for them. To be clear, this is not a state that anyone can achieve permanently.
It is a direction to move toward and, in practice, we are constantly moving in and out of this state as life comes at us in unpredictably diverse ways.
Self-leadership as a goal does not mean rejecting all other parts of our experience, our selves, or our survival-oriented biology.
In fact, it is necessary at times to allow our fight-flight-freeze survival strategies to take over as our emotional brain may literally save our lives or respond to situations that demand immediate action.
Being a Self-led person means accepting that you are a living, dynamic process that alternates between 1) straying from your Self to dance with different parts of yourself and your experience, and 2) returning to embodying your empowered Self.
If you’d like to practice Self-leadership, make sure you don’t miss out on my free audio training/meditation “How to Let Go of Stress and Lean Into Your Self.”
You'll not only learn the core issue that is at the root of so much debilitating stress and other life-restricting mental health struggles but also practice one key strategy to deepen your clarity, vitality, and self-compassion.
Comment below! I would love to hear your thoughts on the eight qualities of an empowered Self. Which ones resonate with you most? And which ones feel out of practice or absent in your life? What does Self-leadership mean to you and how can you imagine experiencing it for yourself?
Thank you, as always, for being here and sharing your voice, thoughts, questions and support.
If anyone you know — family, friends, students, daughters, sons or anyone else struggles with feeling out of control and getting in their own way, please share this blog post. It could be a game-changer for both their physical and mental health.