Alignment to Self

Following up on my last post introducing the alignment model, I want to share how this model applies to personal development.

When I first met Jerry Weinberg in person in 2009 at the Amplifying Your Effectiveness conference, he talked a lot about congruence, and I had no idea what he was talking about. Admittedly, that’s my own fault – I just did a Google search for Weinberg and congruence, and found an article he wrote in 1996 titled Beyond Blaming, in which Weinberg writes: “Congruence is a concept that describes the human experience of alignment between the internal and external – what is thought and felt (the internal), and what is said and how it is said (the external).” I recommend reading that article as a brilliant explanation of how congruence acts as a self-reinforcing feedback loop that creates more congruence, so one person acting more congruently can influence a whole system to change and become more effective. Weinberg even shares a playbook for increasing one’s congruence to kick-start that loop.

Why is congruence hard? After all, I am me, so shouldn’t aligning with myself be easy?

What I’ve learned is that human brains are not as unified as one might think. Heck, I hypothesized in 2005 that our identity is just a set of cognitive subroutines bouncing off each other, and what I’ve learned in recent years as a coach reinforces that perspective. The model I currently like is called Internal Family Systems, which suggests that we have a number of “parts” in our head that were formed in response to our environment as a child to make sense of the world. Learning this perspective through the Aletheia coaching method was eye-opening for me, as I am continually discovering how different parts of me take over in certain situations to protect me from difficult feelings, leading to the behaviors “I” say “I” don’t want.

I’ve been using the Internal Family Systems methodology for my own personal development and with clients over the past year (e.g. in this coaching session released as a podcast), and it is incredibly powerful to feel the difference between “I’m so furious” and “part of me is so furious”. Acknowledging that we have parts who are triggered by certain situations gives us a little bit of distance from those powerful feelings, and we can start to see the conditions where a part feels like it has to take over. By identifying for myself the situations that trigger me, I can develop new strategies where I consciously choose how I handle those situations, rather than reacting unconsciously in the way the part was programmed.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this is what Jerry Weinberg did at that AYE conference, where he coached a woman to transform her absolute rule that “I must never ask for help” (which I would now identify as a part’s rule) into “I can sometimes be self-sufficient, when I have the resources available, and it does not cost me too much to do so”. This was in a session he called “Don’t let a 4 year old run your life!”, reminding people that is what they are doing when they let these childhood parts drive their actions.

So how does the alignment model apply to our parts? Let’s start by considering an alternative model like willpower, where we decide what we want to do, and then carry it out – we impose our will on ourselves and just make the change. We can judge how well that model works based on the (lack of) success of New Year’s Resolutions. Willpower alone is not enough to change behavior.

The alignment model differs by not trying to impose one’s will on the parts – after all, we often resist when we are told what to do. So instead, alignment starts with curiosity to understand the system before we take action. The Immunity to Change methodology is helpful here to identify what parts within us are resisting the change we intend. Once we understand what those parts are scared might happen, we can work with them to show how the change will serve us. In my example from the Immunity to Change post, I didn’t ask for help because I part of me feared feeling stupid or ineffective (and the subsequent feelings of shame and embarrassment). By coming from a place of grounded resilience, I can acknowledge this part’s fears, assure it that we will be okay even if I do feel such shame or embarrassment, and remind it that asking for help might actually help achieve its goals of looking smart and effective.

The Immunity to Change model also illustrates why it is often hard for us to achieve clarity and focus. We say we want one thing, but to focus on it requires saying no to other things, and saying no requires working through various unconscious competing commitments (parts) that are telling us things like “if you say no, people won’t like you” or “you won’t seem competent” or “you will seem arrogant” etc. We Our parts don’t want to feel that way, so we keep saying yes to everything, which means letting others set our agenda, leaving none of our time and capacity available for the thing we said we wanted.

So aligning to ourselves is a much bigger task than it appears to be when we assume that there is a singular “I” consciousness that controls our behavior. That assumption is a user illusion to trick our consciousness into thinking it’s in control, when it is more often rationalizing behavior that was chosen by an unconscious part.

What are some ways we can work to align ourselves internally?

  • Learn to use the language of parts to identify these unconscious routines and reactions taking over and reacting with powerful emotions. Work to understand the intentions of those parts, and honor their intended purpose while also steering them in more productive directions. Parents may recognize this as a technique that also works with toddlers, which makes sense since parts start forming in early childhood.
  • Invest in our resilience so that the parts trust us to be able to handle more than we did as a child. As I describe in this webinar, this involves:
    • Strengthening our body through exercise and sleep and good food
    • Training our mind through mindfulness to be more aware of when parts take over or we are getting distracted
    • Joining others in a community to support us, hold us accountable and illuminate what we don’t see in ourselves
  • Connecting to a purpose beyond ourselves that will bring meaning to our lives. Such meaning can help bring the inner parts into alignment because the drive for meaning acts like a magnet forming metal particles into lines.

This self alignment can admittedly be a lot of work, and it may feel easier to just live with our current state (“This is just the way I am – I can’t change it!”). And yet, if you find a purpose or community that is important enough to you, you will want to invest in this self work so that you can bring more of your undivided capacity and focus to serve others more effectively. As Parker Palmer puts it:

“Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.”

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