February 19, 2020 Carole Levy

Autopsy of a Neurosis (Episode 2)

Summary Episode 1/Link (Optional)

Between what we genuinely want in the future and where we are presently, there is a learning gap to be closed. We can close it by “being in the flow*”, letting information circulate in and out through our learning zone. (* Here, I’m not specifically referring to the concept of Csikszentmihalyi (link). I’m just referring to the word “flow”)

In this space, we cultivate tolerance for failures and discomfort.  Even trivial and tiny life disturbances can become stimulants to propel us toward our goals. That’s option 1. (link)

In option 2, even trivial and tiny life disturbances can become platforms for us to sink into misery. In the blink of an eye… Let’s dive into the muck!

Let’s dive into the muck! (Please read!) 

Before sharing how I lost my learning mindset and got caught up in the heat of my neurosis at MIT, I want to clarify a few points:

  • I borrowed the particular interpretation of the psychological term “neurosis” from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (not Freud, just to be clear). It’s a “serious” word yet meant to not take ourselves too seriously. It refers to the common human experience of emotional upheavals – caused by three poisons – passion, aggression, ignorance – governed by our ego. A timeless teaching. Neurosis describes a state of anxiety through which we apprehend -filter and label- reality. That anxiety creates a feeling of heat, according to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche(link)
  • According to me: out of the heat comes the muck. When I’m in the muck, I go through five typical steps that I will illustrate (very soon). You might recognize them and use them to explore your own neurosis. Be brave. In order of first appearance:

Step 1: I enter doubt and fear

Step 2: I filter reality with “vicious thoughts” and/or familiar negative storylines

Step 3: I present hard core desired images*

Step 4: I inflate my power by deflating other’s

Step 5: Then I deflate myself and crash

(*PS: I  borrow concepts from everywhere. A particular big thanks to Learning as Leadership (link) – my professional birth place- and the powerful concept of Image Management)

  • If you have the impression that you’ve read the same narrative in my blogs before, it’s true. And it makes sense. It is the nature of neurosis to be incredibly repetitive and predictable. We repeat ourselves until we are radically bored and start learning from our experience.
  • The goal is not to get rid of the ego, but to study it and use it to create more sanity within and around us. 
  • Studying the ego is a privilege we can afford when our basic needs are covered. I try to never forget my privilege and to be of service. My goal is to encourage individual contributors, teams and organizations to find humor and a healthy distance from their individual and collective neurosis, so that we can all stop wasting time, show up as leaders in functional teams, and focus on saving the world. For real. It’s time!
  • So, please, make yourself comfortable. Here is my story…

The MIT Story

As I arrive at the MIT Sloan School of Management to attend my friend leadership workshop, I am excited, ready to absorb any new leadership content, relaxed to be in the participant seat (rather than the facilitator’s one), proud and grateful to be a guest at MIT. I have my usual nervousness when I’m in a networking situation, but my dominant feeling is excitement. 

At the front desk, an unexpected event occurs. There is no nametag for me, and I’m not on the official list of participants. It’s probably because I am a guest and didn’t register through the official circuit.

Here, I feel –barely perceptible – the heat – something unformed between thought and sensation.  It’s slippery. I slip. My sense of perception contracts, slightly. “It’s probably because I’m a guest” becomes “It’s probably because I’m only a guest”. You see what I mean? I’m adding a tonality.  I’ve just entered doubt and started to distort my reality. (STEP 1)

***

Not having a nametag in a workshop of 80 or 90 people where everyone else has one can legitimately be a bit undermining. It can create unnecessary uncertainty and confusion (more effort to introduce myself, more wondering about who I am for others). Furthermore, if I feel part of an under-represented group, it’s an additional obstacle to overcome.  In other words, not having a nametag is a problem – for real. But at the front desk, looking at all the rows of nametags on the table that don’t include mine, I’m not with reality. I am with something else

My automatic pilot is in gear. I start to have flashes of vicious thoughts, intermittent and subliminal, yelling: They are treating me differently –they are treating me with less care – as if I’m less important – as if I am less worthy because I didn’t pay – as if I don’t exist. (STEP 2)

As vicious thoughts tend to do, they hide from my conscious best self.

However, they will shadow and cloud my experience all day long, until the end of the day when I will realize that I’ve lost all my enthusiasm. And I will have no idea why. (STEP 5)

The workshop is about to begin. Now I am feeling a tiny bit frustrated at the staff member guy who doesn’t seem to take my nametag issue seriously. He seems reluctant to be at my service. I ask if my nametag is ready for a second time. I have the right to be treated like everybody else. Right? (STEP 2). He seems condescending and says that they will bring my nametag when it’s ready.

Since I don’t want to appear needy and anxious about a silly nametag, I let it go and enter the conference room, cool and smiley (STEP 3).

***

I stand up in the back for a long time, scanning the room and trying to assess which table would be the “best table” to join. The audience is predominantly male. Do I choose a table with other women and stay in my comfort zone? What if, choosing a table with other women is my comfort zone? 

I sit down at the table where there is an empty chair, and three men that seem to come from different ethnicities.

My new teammates are welcoming. They look at my chest – the place where there should be a nametag- and ask for my name. They don’t understand what I say – a familiar experience when I try to pronounce my French name with an American accent. I’m used to being called “Karen” at Starbucks. I repeat my name, distorting my mouth to make it like a “Kâaarrrol”. 

I feel self-conscious. Thankfully, my Image Management is taking over and I’m covering my embarrassment with charm and jokes (STEP 3). “I’m a guest” (intriguing); “They didn’t give me a nametag” (self-deprecation); “I’m from San Francisco as you can hear” (witty). 

The exchange is warm and lighthearted; it releases the collective nervousness, but it’s a bit shallow.

In wanting to be seen as likeable, charming, funny – to avoid being seen as insecure, inadequate, unlikeable and stupid- I’m inadvertently reinforcing my fears of not being taken seriously, and my own double-bind belief that I can’t be seen as likeable AND competent at the same time.

***

The session begins and the facilitator -my friend- invites participants at each table to formally introduce themselves to each other. I don’t want to start. The first person to speak is an executive from the finances industry (from Asia). The second person to speak is a VP from the aerospace industry (USA). The third person to speak (from India) is the CEO of a small tech. company based in the US. Now it’s my turn to speak… Oops, the facilitator announces that the time is over! 

It is incredibly awkward that all my male teammates, leaders of the 21st, had the time to share, but I did not.

Truthfully, I’m relieved. The round of introductions amplified my doubt about belonging here. I am just one more executive coach. Okay, I’m the co-founder of a tiny organization (two members) with an ambitious name – The Trust Factory – but frankly, who am I kidding?

I’m angry at the nametag guy who makes me feel like a nobody. If I had a nametag, I wouldn’t be in a downward spiral of self-doubt, questioning my value. I shouldn’t be in this situation. 

Now I’m thinking that I can’t go to lunch and mingle with other participants.  In this state of mind, it will be pathetic – a public humiliation. Perhaps I shouldn’t have come at all. Yes, the timing was perfect because I had a facilitation on the East cost the following week, but it was a big sacrifice to be away from my family for 12 days. I couldn’t resist the “MIT opportunity”. I am vain. Once again, I chose work over family. But I’m also responsible. Hard worker. Brave. Who cares?

***

The second round of sharing makes me emerge from my vortex of negative narratives (STEP 2). We are instructed to talk about our business challenges. One of my male cohorts immediately asks me to share first. I turn the situation to my advantage and take the time to introduce myself. I am a consultant, executive coach, facilitator, culture change partner, blogger, cartoonist, wife, mother and mission-driven entrepreneur. I’m here to learn new tools for my clients. I stop my introduction here – to consciously leave them enough time to speak about their business challenges! I am back to being myself, clear and self-assured. It feels good. 

No, it feels yummy. 

***

The third round of sharing is an exercise in which to give feedback to each other. This is my chance to shine. I offer feedback to my financial partner, asking permission first. Instead of dumping my remarks, I ask “questions”, like: “How customer-focused is your mission”? “Do your board members care more about their bonuses or their customers?” 

My feedback recipient says: “It’s good Feedback. You’re a good coach”. I doubt the sincerity of his compliment because I know that it’s not good coaching; it’s judgment and opinion disguised in inquiry mode. I can’t help myself but to continue and explain.

I’ve been working with clients in the financial industry on the East coast who avoided the 2008 financial crash because they had a conservative approach and a strong focus on customers. They were ethical and purposeful. 

I drop the name of one of these important clients, assert my credibility and expertise, refer to the 2008 financial crisis, demonstrating my comprehension of it, and elevate my morality by putting his down. (STEP 4) I’m showing all of my partners that I’m not a dumb shallow petite French woman (STEP 3). I don’t have a nametag, but I’m likeable AND competent! (STEP 4)

Not for too long.  As we all switch tables and change partners, I am rapidly and neurotically nobody again (STEP 5).

One could think that once we have succeeded in re-establishing our authority and confidence, we could hold on it for at least one day. Or one hour! Not at all. We can’t be grounded in the muck. We can just sink in it.

Therefore, I have to work again on showing my credibility, my expertise, my name, my voice, proving, doubting, hiding, demonstrating, judging, smiling, and sincerely trying…  

***

The content of the day is very stimulating. It is about the leadership capabilities necessary for leaders, teams and organizations to be successful in a fast-changing world. For example, the importance of being externally focused, seeking to reach out outside of our field of expertise, and the ability to learn from others are all addressed.

I meet a dozen very interesting people in need of leadership development tools and to whom, my work could add value. That should be very exciting for me. But at the end of the day, I’m feeling overwhelmed by the opportunities, and too small to undertake them. I’m exhausted. 

I know it’s suspicious that I was so enthusiast in the morning and defeated at night.  I take a piece of paper and journal. It’s crystal clear. As soon as I realize that the malaise started with my nametag projection, the muck lifts up and I can reconnect with the clarity of my goals. 

On day 2, I engage with others, share, listen, and don’t filter. I’m nobody and I’m somebody. I’m 100% with the rest of the content. I have a fantastic day and make meaningful connections. 

***

Conclusion: Thanks for reading this long story. Four pages and a half to describe being in the muck and five sentences to describe getting back to the flow… It’s a lot of time spent in the muck!

The only way to get out of the muck, is to know it well.

In the next episode, we’ll spend even more time in the muck, but I promise, it will be shorter.

Reflective question: Do you remember a situation in which, despite your best intention you lost your learning mindset, and slid into the muck of your fixed mindset? How did you get out of it?

Comments (4)

  1. Kathy Makowski

    Thanks for sharing your “muck”. It seemed all too familiar to me, and I’m sure to many others. Being reminded that my mind chatter and internal insecurities are often similar to those experienced by others is incredibly helpful in motivating me to take stock, explore my feelings and beliefs, and realign my perspective with my value of continuous learning. 🙂

    • Carole Levy

      I’m so happy to continue sharing the muck with you Kathy! I love your takeaway of this post…

  2. Bill

    The continual struggle with self is so real. Self-check ins always seem to disappear when you need them the most.

    Also, I found your statement about studying the ego as a privelege to be interesting. It is a reframing concept that I have never applied but so relevant in today’s environment! Thank you Carole!

    • Carole Levy

      With everything going on in the world, it has never been as urgent to work on our egos, but at the same time, with everything going in the world, it’s important to frame it as a privilege… thanks for noticing Bill!

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