Holistic Leadership Development: Four Common Internal Barriers that Hurt Relationships and Hinder Efficacy (and Ways to Transform Them)

Most leaders, especially those of us interested in contributing to the “Great Transition” desire to be in “right relationship” with our family, friends, loved ones, coworkers, and hopefully, the entire Earth Community. However, many of us may find that as simple as it sounds, it is not always easy to consistently actualize. Furthermore, many of us may find that WE are our biggest obstacles! In other words, unconscious internal barriers may be hurting our relationships and hindering our capacity to fulfill our deepest desires to contribute to a better world.

These internal barriers or scripts are unconscious feeling-sensation-thought-action loops that can be activated by difficult people or circumstances (i.e., triggers). Bodily sensations and emotional responses to “triggers” happen much faster than mental responses or thoughts. In such difficult circumstances, our thoughts tend to lag behind our bodily sensations and emotional responses, and we are in danger of slipping into “automatic pilot” with our thoughts racing to catch up with justifications.

While these habitual patterns differ, there are four common scripts that leaders may recognize:

  • self-absorption,
  • fault-finding,
  • parental-childlike patterns, and
  • overidentification with ego defense

Self-absorption is an internal pattern with full attention on ME as THE reference point. Thus, my desires, thoughts, feelings, wants, comforts, etc., are all that matter. And, in this state, I will say and do anything that satisfies ME and my wants. I imagine most of us realize (when not stuck in autopilot) how destructive and hurtful this pattern can be in our lives. We can contrast this self-absorption pattern with the more desirable and helpful pattern of seeing oneself as A reference point while also considering the wants and needs of others and our world.

Fault-finding or critical mind is an internal pattern that places full attention on the faults or shortcomings of a person, place, circumstance, or space. Again, I imagine most of us can see the potential for unproductive and destructive outcomes of this script. A constructive alternative to this seductive pattern is the practice of “seeing the good” in a person, circumstance or space. This is similar to the practice of Appreciate Inquiry at group and organizational levels.

Parental and childlike states arise from collective memories or permanent recordings of unprocessed life experiences primarily from one to five years of age. The parental state is often recognizable by absolutes of “should,” “ought,” “must,” “never,” and “always.” While our childlike state is often recognizable by strong feelings of both delight and despair. While there can be positive expressions of these states and styles, Adult: Adult relationships are the aim in many professional environments (for more on this topic, please see my essay, “Using Transactional Analysis for Self-Awareness and Self-Management”).

An ego defense pattern typically arises out of an overidentification with a cherished self-identity associated with a belief, personality, role, or demographic (e.g., race, gender or political affiliation). Indications of being in a state of overidentification include feelings of defensiveness, anger, resentment, self-pity, and self-indignation.

The good news about these unhelpful and potentially hurtful internal patterns is that thanks to the neuroplasticity of our brains, we can reprogram them with constructive alternatives using practices such as the five Rs!

The five Rs to reprogram internal barriers that can hurt relationships and hinder efficacy are–recognizing, refraining, releasing, reorienting, and replacing.

  • Recognizing: Recognize your internal signals of a trigger person or event which may include a tightening sensation in and around the heart or stomach, an increase in heart rate, or a rush of bodily heat.
  • Refraining: Refrain from speaking or acting. Allow your internal signals to be while you mentally note them with compassion and nonjudgment.
  • Releasing: Release the energy or charge with a few deep breaths while you gently shift your attention to your hands or feet. If on your hands, gently open and close them while you take your deep breaths. If on your feet, gently press them into the floor as take your deep breaths. If you can take a walk, do so while placing light attention on your feet as they make contact with the ground.
  • Reorienting: Reorient your intention and attention on something or someone constructive and centering. This may be an affirmation, mantra, or value statement (e.g., May love guide me.)
  • Replacing: Replace an automatic reaction with a constructive response.

However, as many of us well know (I sure do!), in a difficult moment or exchange, the Five Rs or any other tool for more constructive relating is frequently overtaken by the force of long-standing habitual patterns (i.e., the amygdala response). Thus, for this type of inner development, it is imperative to integrate highly supportive or “transformative” practices into one’s life such as concentration and mindfulness meditation . Over time, these meditation techniques help cultivate the inner witness or observer self. They also help calm the typical human “monkey mind” such that inner mental space starts to grow and offer the practitioner more time to activate the Five Rs and begin dismantling our internal barriers to right-relationship and personal efficacy.  

Psychosynthesis: A Much-Needed Holistic & Hope-Filled Framework for Healing and Self-Transformation

Psychosynthesis is a holistic approach to psychology, developed by Roberto Assagioli (1888-1974) that incorporates psychoanalysis, but significant transcends it by emphasizing health, development, and spirituality. Assagioli illustrated his view of the human psyche in his “egg-diagram” (see Figure) with seven elements:

Figure. Assagioli’s Egg Diagram

Source: Kenneth Sorensen, https://kennethsorensen.dk/en/. Used with permission.

1.   The Lower Unconscious

The lower unconscious, according to Assagioli, contains the basic psychological activities that conduct the operative and intelligent coordination of the body and bodily functions. This dimension of the psyche also holds one’s foundational drives and animalistic urges, as well as emotionally intense established thematic patterns (i.e., psychological complexes), dark dreams and fantasies, and some pathological disturbances such as paranoid delusions, uncontrollable urges, obsessions, and phobias.

2.   The Middle Unconscious

The middle unconscious, according to Assagioli, includes psychological dimensions comparable to waking consciousness with ready access to it. Life experiences are integrated, and standard cognitive and creative intelligence activated in a type of psychological incubation before entering the field of conscious awareness.

3.   The Higher Unconscious or Superconscious

The higher unconscious or superconscious is the region that holds our highest inspirations, aspirations, and intuitions for ourselves, humanity, and our world. This realm is also the source of our higher emotions such unconditional love and higher intelligences. It also holds the deeper experiences of insight, contemplation, and bliss, as well as potentials for higher spiritual experiences and psychic abilities.

4.   The Field of Consciousness

For Assagioli, the field of consciousness, a term he thought useful but not quite precise, referred to the part of our personality of which we are conscious, including the thoughts, bodily sensations, emotions, desires, and impulses we are able to see and evaluate.

5.   The Conscious Self or “I”

The conscious self or “I” is the term Assagioli used to refer to the “the point of pure-awareness,” not to be confused with the field of consciousness highlighted above, which refers to the content of experience. The conscious self or “I” refers to the experiencer. He compared the “I” to a projector light and field of consciousness to a screen onto which images are projected.

6.   The Higher Self

Unlike Freud’s psychoanalysis, which only includes a lower unconscious, Assagioli’s psychosynthesis includes the Higher Self or soul depicted above the conscious self in the egg diagram. According to Assagioli, one can experience the Higher Self through the use of psycho-spiritual practices such as meditation.

7.   The Collective Unconscious

Assagioli’s collective unconscious, similar to Jung’s conceptualization of the term, refers to universal, nonpersonal common forms or archetypes that surround and influence us on a collective level. Assagioli distinguished between primitive, archaic forms and higher, progressive forces of a more spiritual nature.

Although not depicted in Assagioli’s original egg diagram (though some contemporary illustrations do include it), another key element of psychosynthesis is the concept of subpersonalities. Subpersonalities, similar to Jung’s persona, refers to parts or formed habit patterns in the human psyche, conscious and unconscious, that we repeatedly express in our lives. For the healthy person, subpersonalities are conscious and in the field of self-awareness and self-regulation. In psychosynthesis, subpersonalities may reside in the lower, middle, or higher unconscious, unlike Jung’s persona or false self. Additional fundamental concepts of psychosynthesis, which highlight stages of Self-realization, include self-knowledge, self-control, disidentification, unifying center, and psychosynthesis, as the peak stage in his model.

Disidentification refers to the necessity of separating oneself (the conscious I) from overidentification with everything outside or beyond oneself. Overidentification can happen any time we identify with an aspect of our life experiences such as a subpersonality, our ethnicity, fear, anxiety, or a role to such an extent that it dominates our lives. Thus, healing and growth opportunities lie in seeing when and where one overidentifies and, with the help of exercises and practices, severing the control of the overidentification on oneself or “I.”

Over time, former objects of overidentification can be healthily integrated into the middle unconscious and accessed more intentionally. The unifying center refers to the discovery or creation of an ideal around which one can reach or reorganize one’s life. Psychosynthesis, in addition to referring to Assagioli’s entire approach to psychotherapy, refers to the peak of the developmental process that establishes a new personality around a primary unifying center: one that is “coherent, organized and unified” (2000, p. 23).

Consequently, personal will (the Will) is a highly significant concept in psychosynthesis such that Assagioli dedicated a book on the topic entitled, The Act of Will. The will is an element of Assagioli’s Star Diagram of Six Psychological Functions (see Figure 5-2/Not included in this essay), which he developed later in his life to complement the egg diagram of the psyche. Lamenting the state of psychology in 1958, Assagioli is quoted as stating, “After losing its soul, psychology lost its will, and only then its mind and senses” (2007, Foreword).

Furthermore, Assagioli held the view of the existence of a transpersonal will, which he viewed as a dormant potentiality for most people. Assagioli’s transpersonal will aligns with what Maslow referred to as “higher needs” and the growing field of transpersonal psychology refers to using a variety of terms that include Christ consciousness, unitive consciousness, peak experiences, mystical experiences, spirit, oneness, and other such similar concepts.

As mentioned above, psychosynthesis proposes a dynamic five-stage healing and realization process (see Table—Not included in this essay). Stage zero highlights the predominate stage of humanity, characterized by what Assagioli called, the “fundamental infirmity of man.” John Firman (?–2008) referred to this human condition as “primal wounding”; wounding resulting from not being seen and heard for who we truly are by significant others in our lives. Stage 1 relates to the tuning in of one’s inner experience and the cultivation of greater self-awareness. Self-awareness is the foundation of all growth and development. Without self-awareness, we tend to react out of instinct and habitual responses or what Firman referred to as, the survival personality. As self-awareness expands, we start to see our tendencies, preferences, and shortcomings.

Eventually, we (often with the help of supportive practices or a skilled guide) begin to free ourselves or disidentify from our habitual thoughts, feelings, reactions, and roles, thereby cultivating the witness or individual observer “I” (Stage 2). Over time, we may start sensing a more expansive identity or connectedness to life and begin to feel new vocational urges, creative impulses, or directive promptings (Stage 3). From a psychosynthesis perspective, this involves surrendering and inviting a more intimate, conscious relationship with the Highest Self or soul. The fourth stage of psychosynthesis corresponds to a period in which we are formally responding to the invitations of the Highest Self (in contrast to the personal self or ego in its contemporary usage) and developing more spiritually.

Survival of wounding, exploration of the personality, the emergence of I, contact with the Highest Self, and response to the Highest Self represent the five stages of psychosynthesis. However, Assagioli and others (e.g., Firman & Gila, 2002 and Brown, 2009) cautioned that these stages do not represent a set developmental sequence, but potential responses to the human condition that can occur at any age.

It is important to note that Assagioli presented psychosynthesis in two subcategories: personal psychosynthesis and transpersonal psychosynthesis. The emphases of personal psychosynthesis are self-awareness and self-regulation. The foci of transpersonal psychosynthesis are on the realization of one’s Highest Self/soul and the actual psychosynthesis, the reformation of the personality around a new unifying center or ideal.

Numerous practices and exercises align with psychosynthesis overall and in these two categories. Thus, to identify a narrow set of core practices is inconsistent with this reality. However, it is fair to say that visualization, drawing, self-observation, and meditation are common practices among psychosynthesis-oriented counselors, therapists, and coaches. In addition, as highlighted above, disidentification is a core concept of psychosynthesis and activities aimed at freeing oneself from overidentifying with a dimension of our being or life other than the center of pure awareness or “I.”

Given today’s pressing global challenges and the subsequent demands on human beings, psychosynthesis offers a holistic and hope-filled paradigm for the journey toward healing, well-being, self-actualization, and Self-realization.

Note: Modified excerpt from my book, “Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders”

This Week’s Mindful Living & Leading Reflection

Ten Developmental Themes Audiobook Excerpts Now Available on my New YouTube Channel!

Greetings! I am excited to share that excerpts from the new audiobook version of Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders are now available on my new YouTube Channel. I invite you to check one of my first offerings: