Every once in a while, I ask a client a very interesting question – “What gives you your sense of self-worth?”

I’m often met with a blank stare.  

What usually prompts me to ask that question in the first place, is the coaching client is struggling with one of what I call the 3 reactive traps.  These are the places we go to when our sense of identity or worth is threatened, our amygdala gets hijacked, and we feel we are under attack. 

The Three Reactive Traps

Approval – I define my self-worth based on whether people like me and approve of me.  I aim to please and will turn myself into a chameleon.  Whatever I think the other person wants and needs I’ll be!  Boundaries, what are they?  It’s more important that I do whatever it takes to win someone over.  Recognition and appreciation – it’s more than a nice to have, it’s a must.  It’s my drug.  It’s only then that I’m safe.  Conflict is scary and I’ll do anything it takes to avoid it.  Conflict is for difficult people.  I’m a people person.  I’m flexible.  Other people do conflict.  I do what it takes to make it work. 

Knowledge – I define my self-worth based on my smarts.  I’ve got the answer – so you’re better off listening to me.  If you don’t, I’ll tell you defensively or with an air of arrogance why you are wrong.  You’re criticizing my work?  No way!  How dare you!  It’s not my fault, someone else is to blame.  Or apathy is the name of the game when I’m feeling challenged or ignored —  I just can’t be bothered, you didn’t listen to my advice, so I’ll stay away and disengage.  The project is doomed anyway, and I don’t want any part of it.  The less I’m associated with this crappy piece of work, the better off I am.  You made a mistake?  I’ll be the first one to point it out and only highlight only the negatives.  If someone receives the feedback badly?  Who cares?  Most people just aren’t that good at their jobs and they can’t take criticism.

Accomplishments – I define my self-worth based on my achievements.  I’m out to prove that perfectionism isn’t an illusion, and I will get there or die trying (and take the entire team down with me in the process).  If the proverbial ‘you know what’ hits the fan, no problem, I’ll just do all the work.  And if I think about it, it’s easier if I do, because then I know it will be done right.  You have an idea on what would work best?  Forget it – we don’t have the time and it’s better if you just do what I say.  Celebrating success – what’s that?  It’s on to the next thing!  There’s always something next to do and we can’t drop our pace.  It’s about getting ahead.  I need to get ahead and prove how successful I am.  The next degree or certificate will prove it, the next promotion or successful project delivered will ensure that I’ve finally arrived.

In case you were wondering, these are all strategies we use to avoid the discomfort of not feeling good enough and low self-worth.  You’ll notice that in each of the above traps, the aim is to prove one’s worth to others and especially to ourselves.  And if you’re leading a team, too much of any of the above will kill your career.  Why?  Because these reactive tendencies spread like a bad smell and will kill the performance of your team.  You the leader always set the tone, and the rest of your team will respond accordingly. 

Lack of self worth will tank your ship

The approval seeking shows up in organizations as passivity and pleasing.  Being “nice” is prized over anything else.  Feedback doesn’t get given; opinions aren’t voiced.  Poor performance is tolerated.  New ideas aren’t shared.  It’s a recipe for mediocrity and walking on eggshells, not a high performing team.  In fact, the high performers will leave, as performance isn’t being properly managed, and they are tired of picking up the slack.

My knowledge is my power shows up as being overly critical, arrogant, or distant if I don’t get my way or feel I’m being ignored.  Characteristics of a team experiencing a lot of this from their leader results in a culture of sarcasm, blame, ridicule, shame, and mistakes being penalized.  If you think you have your finger on the pulse, think again.  Everyone is tip toeing around you and afraid to tell you what’s really going on.  Fear rules the day and is a recipe for absenteeism and burnout.

The team of the striving perfectionist is a team of yes men and women.  Because the perfectionist is busy calling the shots, no one else has time to think for themselves.  Employees often feel micromanaged and lack autonomy as they are waiting for the perfectionistic bottlenecker to tell them what to do next.  Motivation plummets and employees complain of things like lack of opportunity and growth because they aren’t being challenged enough, or they suffer from burnout due to the frantic pace.

The antidote to the 3 reactive traps – build a healthy sense of self worth

We all have our reactive moments from time to time, we are human after all.  It’s important to be compassionate with yourself when you find yourself in one.  But if you’re not grounded in a solid sense of self-worth, you’ll be easily triggered and fall into your trap of choice most of the time.  And we all have one.  Most of us are a combination of all 3 when we get trapped but we tend to have a favorite proving poison, so to speak. 

Mine is knowledge.  And I found myself on the defensive the other day with my business partner when I sensed my coaching skills were being challenged.  Was he challenging me?  Maybe a bit.  But not really. He was ultimately trying to solve a problem with a client we’ve been working with. Does he know that I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread?   Yes he does.  In fact, he knows it a lot more than I do.  I had forgotten my worth in that moment, and that’s what led me to get defensive and lose the plot. To be fair to myself I didn’t lose it that badly and the compassionate Shelley can acknowledge that and just how far I’ve come.  And yay for me – heightened awareness is a good thing and even this leadership coach still has her work to do!

Coaching questions for thought

  • Where does your sense of self-worth come from?  Accomplishments are fleeting, praise can be empty, and knowledge ultimately can’t fill you up.  Does it come from your values? Spirituality? Your worth doesn’t have to be earned. It’s your birthright.
  • What is your reactive trap of choice? 
  • What are the situations that send you there?
  • What would it take in these moments to tap back into your worth?

Shelley Pernot is a leadership coach who is passionate about helping her clients discover their strengths and talents and step into their greatness.  Reach out to me here for a free consultation to learn more about the coaching process and how it may benefit you!