Mentally fit leaders do something truly remarkable: They can move through their day as if they are two different people. One person—the person we can see—is in action, fully engaged with people and situations. The other person is invisible to us, a detached observer, quietly watching and noticing what's happening in the leader's own thoughts and reactions.
While the leader is outwardly engaged in conversations, work and meetings, her unseen observations note any of her inwardly shifting moods, physical sensations and thoughts. It provides her with valuable self-assessment information; for example, "Am I shifting into catabolic mood? Feeling tension? Frustration?" And perhaps most powerfully, she can tune into her own internal "running commentary" with a detached clarity and objectivity. As an example, let's suppose she is sitting with one of her direct reports, Bill. Her inner commentary might go something like this: "Why the heck can't Bill get to the point? He's been talking for 20 minutes—and I still have no idea why he is so upset!"
But using the muscle to self-assess—tuning in and actually hearing her own inner commentary in real time—the leader then self-corrects: "Oh. Wait. He's only been talking a few minutes. I must be really stressed about that board presentation I need to create. Okay. Deep breath. Concentrate on what he is telling you."
What we are talking about here is the skill of self-awareness. As you develop the muscle to self-assess your internal state, you learn to continually gather three data points about yourself:
- Physiology (Body Sensations)
- Core Thoughts
Data Point #1: Your Mood
At any given moment, can you name what you are feeling—in an accurate and nuanced way?
You probably have only a handful of general moods that you can readily recognize and describe. You might feel "worried" or "anxious." Or maybe it's more "annoyed" or "ticked" or "frustrated." You could be someone who prides yourself on keeping a "positive outlook" on things, so you find that your mood is often "good" or "fine" or "great."
As often as you can, check in with yourself, and continually ask the question "What is my mood right now?" In the beginning, you may find it helpful to have a reference list of feelings or emotions. Without using a list, you may not be able to readily name what you feel, but you might recognize it when you see it in a list.
When you identify your mood, you are gathering data about yourself that, later, you will be able to use to rapidly shift out of a triggered mood that's hindering your performance.
Data Point #2: Your Physiological State
Your body can be tremendously useful in assessing your internal state. Think about when you are angry. What happens? Your heart races; your breath comes faster; your face may flush with increased blood flow; and your muscles tense up. Your body is getting ready for confrontation.
When you are nervous or anxious, you could experience these same signs; or, you might find yourself holding tension and stress. The point is, catabolic energy creates physical discomfort. We call this "somatic distress." It can be acute, as when you are severely triggered. Or, it can be more of a chronic experience, such as daily headaches, backaches, digestive problems, fatigue, and the like.
When our somatic distress becomes chronic, we often adapt by becoming numb to it. When we do, we only occasionally feel any uncomfortable or painful sensations. Or, we know that they are there, but we find a way to ignore them and push through. But if we are to become mentally fit, we have to start listening to the body and accept that at all times it provides us with meaningful data.
You learn to self-assess physical sensations in much the same way as you did when you were self-assessing your mood: you have to check in with yourself. Your key question is now: "What sensations do I feel or notice anywhere in my body right now?"
Data Point #3: Your Thoughts
Now we come to the most challenging, but rewarding, part of the self-assessment muscle: learning to identify your thoughts.
Our thoughts are what create our response and are the reason for our reactions. It's not the event that actually causes our response; it's our thoughts about the event. So, you need to understand your predilections for thinking in habitual ways. Otherwise, nothing will change.
When you can begin to identify your thoughts, you can start to see your underlying patterns, and identify the core perspectives, beliefs, or attitudes that you have. That's why making the effort to develop this muscle is so important.
Almost all of the time, you have a dialogue going on inside your head.
You think of this voice as "me" and you might have thoughts such as:
• That was annoying!
• How will I ever get this done in time?
• Why does she keep doing that to me?
• That sucked!
• Does he think I'm stupid?
• Maybe I really am stupid.
You need to get past the running commentary in your head and go deeper, to your actual internal core thoughts. This stream-of-conscious exercise is one good way to tune in to find out what is going on with you, and it could not be simpler. All you need is a piece of paper and a pen. You just start writing down everything you are thinking at that very moment, even if it's nonsense, such as "I hate writing this." As you go, you're not editing anything; you're just writing free flow.
You will find that there is a whole lot of useless—and repetitive— garbage in your everyday thinking. But, you will also find:
1. clues to what is actually going with you, and
2. potential patterns that are impeding your progress.
Save the paper. Don't throw it out. Repeat this exercise two to three times. Do it at different times of the day over a period of a week or two. When you are finished, go back and read all your thoughts over multiple days. Then, I'd like you to analyze the data dispassionately. No judgment. Simply look to find repeated thought patterns.
There should be repeated threads that emerge. When you're finished doing that, you'll move to the next level. You'll now start to hunt for your core lenses. These are deep-seated beliefs that may or may not serve you. That lens will be a catalyst to habitually shape the thoughts you have with yourself. For example, a common core belief people have about themselves is "I am inadequate." That underlying belief can spring repetitive thoughts—having you question your competence, your worth, or yourself in comparison to others. A common core belief people have about others is "People cannot be trusted." Thoughts that arise from this lens would question and assign negative intent to the actions of others. Look carefully for what lenses are shaping your perspectives, behaviors, and quality of life. These lenses are very valuable data to mine; they will help you get a glimpse into your underlying operating system. They will help you identify your helpful versus impeding belief systems.
Now, some of you may have trouble hearing your thoughts. You may get frustrated, listening—and hearing nothing. Be patient. You've been suppressing your thoughts or pushing them away, probably for a while, so you need to keep working at this.
It's essential that you learn to hear and articulate your internal monologue so that you can begin to create some internal separation from the parts that are not helping you. Once you've made the start by identifying any of your thoughts, you can then refine your skill by further examining what is going on with you in any given moment. What I really want you looking for—trying to identify—are the core thoughts that are generating your current mood and physiology. Those core thoughts could be catabolic or anabolic, and of course it is the catabolic ones that we ultimately will want to challenge and change.
Adapted from the Wall Street Journal bestselling book LEADING LIGHTLY: Lower Your Stress, Think With Clarity, and Lead With Ease (Greenleaf, 2022) by Jody Michael. Reprinted here with permission from Greenleaf Book Group Press.