We all face times when we feel like we’re in a hole – whether it’s a deep dark hole or just a bit of a dip – and it can be hard to drag ourselves through the quagmire when we are faced with chronic or multiple challenges and our mental, emotional and physical resources are drained. Strong leadership and direction are vital to support teams through tough times. But how can we support our teams and exercise self-leadership to get out of a slump, especially when we’re in the thick of it?
“Know thyself”, the ancient Greek inscription states. Yet self-knowledge or self-awareness is, in itself, a challenge. We are complex ever-changing beings – from the impact of our experiences and our health status, to hormonal fluctuations, relationships, job situation, etc. So, it is important to regularly take time to pause and reflect. But this can be hard in a profession where self-compassion is hampered by perfectionism, and we have precious little time for what can be perceived as “navel-gazing”.
We need to understand the good, bad and ugly to lead ourselves and realise our full potential
Veterinary teams face particular challenges: a competitive environment, client complaints, “caring” too much to let go, high expectations (of ourselves!), lack of control over our day (never knowing what might come through the door), anxiety around always performing and being seen to perform to a high standard, etc. However, when a coach joins a club or a conductor wields the baton with a new orchestra, they must probe the individual strengths and weaknesses of their team to be able to lead the group to achieve its collective potential. This is true for ourselves as well – we need to understand the good, bad and ugly to lead ourselves and realise our full potential.
Develop your EQ
Pause for a moment and write down how you feel right now. Are you curious? Bored? Stressed? Our emotional vocabulary is often limited to headline terms such as angry, happy, bad or worried. I find it helpful to have an emotions chart to unpick the complexity of what I’m feeling. For example, what may initially manifest under the blanket term of “anger” could be the result of frustration, jealousy, incivility, or feeling provoked, annoyed, disrespected, humiliated, betrayed, etc.
Our emotions are signposts; once we accurately name them, we can respond much more appropriately and look for solutions. In this sense, there is no such thing as a “bad” emotion. Instead, we need to approach how we feel with curiosity and without judgement, to “feel all the ‘feels’” and then find out what they’re telling us. I caveat this with the fact that we need to leave a space – even if it’s just one long breath – between a stimulus and our response to avoid immediate primitive “chimp brain” reactivity. If anger takes hold and boils over, it’s hard to override the adrenaline overload and engage our forebrain to uncover the nuances driving the emotion.
We need to approach how we feel with curiosity and without judgement, to “feel all the ‘feels’” and then find out what they’re telling us
This is where journalling can help. Not only does the very act of writing down how we feel provide a way to vent emotion and improve our mindset, but it also enables us to track our emotions and responses over time. By highlighting patterns and triggers we may be able to take positive pre-emptive action in future. This enables us to learn from our patterns of behaviour as well as from our mistakes.
Once we’ve decoded our own symphony of emotions, the next step is to widen it into situational awareness and empathy – to approach the feelings of others with curiosity, in the knowledge that they have a different lens and perspective. (This is another article in itself but is a hugely powerful tool for managing relationships and human interactions.)
Be kind to yourself
Once we know ourselves better, we may not always like what we find! In fact, a lack of self-esteem may even prevent us from starting a journey of self-discovery. We all strive to be “better people”, and there’s nothing worse than feeling we’ve let ourselves – or our friends and colleagues – down. In truth, things are rarely as bad as we make them out to be in our heads, but we often need help to put things into perspective. This help usually comes from the people we confide in; however, it is all too easy to dismiss their kind words when we have already judged and sentenced ourselves more harshly.
We know we need to learn from our mistakes and move on. It’s simple to say, but incredibly difficult to apply when we’re deeply invested in what we do as caring professionals. This is where self-compassion is key – if there’s one thing you take away from this article, please be kinder to yourself!
Practise self-compassion. Self-compassion is an enabler of resilience; if we’re not kind to ourselves, it’s much harder to bounce back from tough times. Speak to yourself as you would a friend. Learn from your errors, but don’t judge yourself for them. Allow yourself to take breaks from work and the demands of life. Lower your self-expectations, and comfort and care for yourself in tough times. Recognise when you’re suffering and understand that’s OK. Ask for help, forgive yourself and accept your flaws because nobody is perfect.
The mental and emotional effort required to practise self-awareness and self-compassion can be compromised when we’re overwhelmed by demands on our time and resources
The mental and emotional effort required to practise self-awareness and self-compassion can be compromised when we’re overwhelmed by demands on our time and resources. This is where we need to take action – self-leadership – to provide the space in our lives to practise self-compassion.
Dial down the overwhelm
When we feel overwhelmed, we need to take practical steps to reduce the load. Fundamentally, this is about resource management.
Our resources will wax and wane through life – whether emotional, mental, physical or financial. So, it’s essential to recognise what drains us and what energises us to address any imbalance. For extroverts, being with people will energise, but the converse is true for introverts. Some find running energising, but for others it may be dancing. Find what fits for you.
It’s OK if your boundaries need to be pared back at times. Remember, our resources are dynamic, and we can’t “do it all” all the time
Your go-tos when you feel overwhelmed should include:
- Saying no!: stop saying “yes” and volunteering for things – even if no one else does – because you always show up. We need to set healthy boundaries that enable us to function optimally. It’s OK if your boundaries need to be pared back at times. Remember, our resources are dynamic, and we can’t “do it all” all the time
- “4D” your tasks: write out everything you have to do at the start of the day. Then prioritise tasks – consider what you need to do versus what you can delegate, ditch or duo (share with others)
- Tick off your tasks: once you’ve completed a task, acknowledge that you have done so and congratulate yourself. This helps to focus the mind on what you have achieved and stops you from rushing straight past it and on to the next thing before you’ve had time to breathe
- Prioritise “me time”: prioritise time for yourself. Block out time in your diary to ensure it happens. It might be a sacred half-hour yoga session every other day, group sports sessions or a day at a spa. Just put it in there as a non-negotiable and something to look forward to
- Lower your expectations: you cannot achieve perfection in everything. Let good enough be good enough. The perspective of others can really help here – not the social media façade of perfection, but open honest friends who share their imperfections and acknowledge their areas of compromise
- Be flexible: try to roll with what the day brings, even if you don’t get everything done
- Ask for help: asking for help is not failing – it truly is the bravest thing you can do. If it makes you feel better about asking, the beauty is you can pay it forward and reach out to help others in the future
Self-leadership for life
Self-leadership is a lifelong journey of self-discovery. It’s not just about firefighting and staving off overwhelm – it’s about building a positive trajectory for our lives. This includes goal setting (for the short and long term) and feeling a sense of belonging in the workplace. It moves beyond a sense of purpose and alignment with our values and provides autonomy and control over our destiny.
Who doesn’t want a leader who understands our emotions, shows us compassion and leads us onward with a sense of purpose towards goals in line with our values? Ironically, it’s often easier to do this for others than it is for ourselves. But here’s the rub – as we all know, we can’t pour from an empty cup. We have to care for the carer; the leader must self-lead and invest in themselves to be able to invest in others. So, if there’s one thing you take away from reading this, let it be that you do one SELFISH (Supports-Emotional-Leadership-For-Intelligent-Self-Help) thing for yourself today.