Self esteem and playing personas. Bowie, Ziggy Stardust & Churchill

A lot of coaching in organisations is helping people deal with organisational change or change of role. For instance, when I coach managers moving into leadership roles they struggle with the increasing complexity of their stakeholders, the increased uncertainty of working to longer time horizons, the ambiguity from having looser job roles, and the need to lead others through change (in fact, the modern workplace has been termed a ‘VUCA’ – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – workplace). To deal with this transformation in their roles, I coach clients to become more fluid in their thinking and behaviour. And one of the things we discuss are personas. 

Our work persona

We each have several personas, a spectrum of roles we play to serve the various environments in which we live and interact: father, team mate, lover, friend. And in our work place, we put on a work persona. Our work persona is necessary for us to function effectively, and to lesser or greater degree to safeguard us. 

But the problem comes when we tie ourselves to a certain work persona. For instance, the (successful) persona of a manager is quite different to that of leader. To move on up through an organisation, you need to be flexible in your mindset and behaviours. And a great way to move on from old, defunct personas is to ‘play out’ new ones. 

Before I look at how we try out a new persona, let’s first look a little deeper into why identifying with just one persona can be so unhealthy. 

When personas become rigid

In Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, the banker Jarvis Lorry is introduced as a man leeched of his personality: 

“A face habitually suppressed and quieted was still lighten up under the quaint wig by a pair of moist bright eyes that must have cost the owner, in years gone by, some pains to drill to the composed and reserved expression of Tellson’s Bank.” 

There are plenty of Mr Lorry’s in the real world, and just like in Dicken’s day, workplace personas tend to be industry and role specific with stereotypes of expected behaviour: 

  • hedge fund managers are expected to be resilient, direct and tough; 
  • female MD’s masculine and hard-nosed; and
  • scientists analytical, detailed thinkers.  

From my experience coaching in organisations, big and small, people over-identify with a specific work persona. They act like puppets controlled by all the things they’re told a good leader, manager or employee should be. They’ve put on the blinkers and have tied themselves to one way of being. 

In my coaching, I see three negative consequences to over-identification with a persona:

  • our behaviour becomes rigid and we become closed to change; 
  • our emotional range of expression narrows; and
  • we hide away many of our strengths.

And for Jung the danger with over-identification with one persona is that we become “the shallow, brittle, conformist kind of personality…with its excessive concern for what people think… (with) little or no concept of themselves as beings distinct from what society expects of them”. 

Churchill’s portrait & redundant personas

For those of you who’ve been watching Netflix’s The Crown or saw Simon Schama’s The Face of Britain: The Nation Through Its Portraits, you’ll have come across the story of Churchill and Sutherland…

In 1954 one of Britain’s most eminent artists, Graham Sutherland, was commissioned by grateful members the House of Commons and the House of Lords to paint wartime hero and statesman Winston Churchill’s portrait. The portrait Sutherland chose to paint was not the one Churchill wanted: a portrait of himself in all his pomp, with his cigar, in his robes of the Knight of the Garter flaunting his bulldog scowl. Rather Sutherland painted Churchill as he was: an ageing yet magnificent ruin, an allegory of the post-war British Empire. When the painting was revealed to Churchill, he was to hate it, calling it ‘malignant’ and ‘filthy’. At the presentation ceremony at Westminster Hall he publicly ridiculed Sutherland’s work ‘as a remarkable example of modern art’, to which there was sycophantic laughter from the audience. His wife was to burn the portrait just weeks after receiving it at Chartwell. So at 89 and nearing death, it was clear that Churchill was still worried about what people thought of him and still yearning to present the world with an idealised image of himself, his bulldog persona. Churchill’s bulldog persona was undoubtedly critical during the Second World War, but post war it was redundant.

When people become so attached to a persona when it is threaten it can cause great anxiety. Indeed, Churchill suffered many bouts of depression – what he called his ‘black dog days’ – until his death.

When playing personas can be a healthy way to explore who we are and change behaviours

By exploring what our different personas help us to do, their positive intent, we can start to unpick how they help us and in doing so work through them to bring ourselves out the other side. As the therapist Oliver James wrote in The Guardian, David Bowie’s character Ziggy Stardust was a prop to help him better understand and confront — not hide from — his family history of mental health. Bowie was able to embrace and confront his fear, a fear that had indeed led him to drug abuse and sex addiction in his early career, and to come through this he was able to move towards his authentic self.  By being aware of the notion of personas and by consciously playing with the role of Ziggy Stardust, as Oliver James writes, “Bowie’s half-brother passed through the door marked Madness. Bowie opened it, took a good look around and then passed through to the adjoining one, marked Artistic Self-Expression.”

Exercise 

We must think about which personas we have for what situations, what positive intent they serve, and how we can use them towards our goals. Take a look at these questions to help you understand your personas and how they serve you:

  1. What is your dominant workplace persona? 
  2. What the behaviours you find yourself demonstrating? 
  3. How are these behaviour necessary and helpful in your role and organisation?
  4. In what ways are these behaviours limiting you to moving forward – how are they holding you back?  What things do you feel you ‘ought’ to or ‘should’ be doing? What expectations does this persona have that drain your energy?
  5. How are you different at home than at work? 
  6. How might you bring more of your home persona into your work life?

These last two questions are very interesting. Recently I asked a client these questions and consequently he took a different part of himself into work – he approached his team management as he might organising a day out with his kids, and it had a marked improvement in his relationships with several of his colleagues.  

Acting as-if – a method for trying out a new persona

Let’s say you really want to improve your assertiveness. Perhaps you need to be more confident in front of senior leaders and to have more impact. The most common method (used by coaches) to bring about this type of personal change is to drill down and analyse what beliefs you hold about yourself, others and the world at large, which are causing you to think and then act in a fragile way then to develop more empowering beliefs.  The problem is that in my experience of being coached, coaches fail to identify dysfunctional core beliefs (not an easy skill) but also many of us hold tight to a belief, however harmful, because it can have a secondary gain for us. If we think we’re worthless, then what’s the point even trying, and hey presto, you can never fail cos you never even tried – so, in this warped way believing that we’re worthless has a plus-point. 

So on place of belief change, when we are finding it hard to change our behaviour there is a simple yet for many, daunting exercise: to act out the persona we need to become to make the change. In other words, step into the person we need to be. By acting out a role we experience what it feels like to demonstrate certain behaviours – it gives us a felt sense of being someone different. We can act “as if” with our intentions, emotions, and physicality. 

Psychoanalyst Alfred Adler developed the acting “as if” technique, and his process asks clients to pretend and emphasises that they are only acting. He wrote: 

“When people have difficulty speaking assertively or responding with some measure of empathy, the clinician might encourage them to act “as if” they were assertive or empathic several times a day until the next session. As people begin to act differently and to feel differently, they become different.”

Acting “as if” gives people opportunities to enact best possible outcomes or to create new stories about their lives. By simply pretending it helps overcome resistance – in other words, by acting we overcome trying to think our way past problems. By “trying on” new behaviours we can simply learn what works and what doesn’t but other people reactions. It’s an instant feedback look.

Acting as-if exercise 

Let’s continue with our example of you trying to be more assertive persona…

  1. Imagine you that you came into work tomorrow and a magical transformation had occurred and you found yourself a changed person – a person who is assertive. Think now about this assertive you. What behaviours are you demonstrating – how would you be acting differently? Imagine yourself watching a videotape of your life as this assertive person and see what is different – look at how your different and how others react differently to you.
  1. Now think of somebody who you see in a positive light that acts assertively. (Observing how an assertive person acts and then copying can be a straight forward learning method). How are they standing or siting; listen to the volume of their voice and the pitch and tone; what specific words do they use; and watching how they respond to others in a conversation can all allow you to develop a sense of what it can be like to be assertive. Which of these behaviours do you admire / can you sue? 
  1. List all the behaviours. Aim for at least three or four behaviours. Rank these in order, from the behaviour you would find least challenging to those behaviours you’d find most challenging. Now you’re ready to try on these new behaviours, and over the following weeks you should try one new behaviour a week. 

So, in week 1, practice acting out this first behaviour, this least challenging behaviour. In week 2, act out the second behaviour and so on. 

Tip: In your own time and in the privacy of you own home, try on this new coat. In other words, do a dress rehearsal before you perform in public. Feel what it’s like to “try on” a new conversation in which you’re more assertive. 

Looking at rigid, dated personas and trying out new ones can help you develop new behaviours, especially ones that will help you improve your self confidence. For information, exercise and tips, take a look at our How to Build Unbreakable Confidence course. 

 

Best regards and happy acting!

Peter Willis, Co-founder and course tutor at Unchainyourbrain.org

 

Thanks to Diane Lee for use of the photo.

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