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  • Writer's pictureHannah E Greenwood

The Champion Mindset: free to soar

I was recently interviewed for a podcast and one of the questions I was asked was: ‘What’s a common theme you see among high achievers?’ My response was: ‘High achievers are motivated by the pressure of the ‘good boy/girl’ syndrome, i.e., our ‘Adapted Self’, to perform and prove ourselves to others.

From a very young age, high achievers are recognised/seen by our significant others not for who we intrinsically are, but for what we can do for them: effectively our achievements are an extension of them. This ‘parental pride’ is not a genuine celebration of the child, but a narcissistic basking in the glory. Not necessarily harmful in itself, but the damage starts when the child does not perform successfully. Then the disappointment is seen as a personal slight on the parent: how can you do this to me?

As high achievers grow into adulthood, this judgmental voice is internalised into what is psychologically called the ‘Critical Parent’. The outcome of this pressure can create great anxiety, hiding us from our ‘Authentic Self’, the person we were born to be, to the extent we no longer know who we really are. Ironically the ‘Adapted Self’ in psychology is also called the ‘Successful Self’ and that’s often what happens: we work very hard to achieve the necessary goals to gain external social recognition.

Cascãd is aimed at these high achievers. Here’s the introduction on our website’s welcome page: 'Cascãd works with international leaders and influencers to create the ‘Champion Mindset’: the alchemic combination of innovative thinking and positive energy. Our clients are successful transformational change agents. We focus initially on how to listen to their inner mind and heart and then how to communicate and connect with greater inspirational impact.’

In our current aggressive climate, I’ve been reflecting on this and the term ‘Champion Mindset’. I wondered if it had become old fashioned. Are we colluding with this individualist/competitive thinking? Is it wrong to focus on winning and excellence when it can potentially bring such harm to ourselves and also to others?

The opposite of the ‘Critical Parent’ is the ‘Smothering Parent’. This is the internal voice that doesn’t want us to soar, to stretch ourselves and find our highest potential. It wants to keep us safely stuck in our comfort zone, seemingly protective but really born out of a fear of change and being left behind.

The quest to grow, to expand frontiers, is human. If we don’t grow, we die, if not an immediate physical death, then definitely a psychological one There is nothing wrong with striving for excellence, for experiencing the pure joy of winning and stretching ourselves. But how do we know the difference between our joyous urge to soar and a critical-parent overstretching that ironically makes us too anxious to explore and grow?

In a recent Post, I asked the following question to the contributors:

‘Having reflected on your experience and observations of these last two years, what learnings/insights regarding your new behaviour and mindset do you want to bring with you into this new post pandemic world?’

Here’s how one contributor, a very high achiever, responded:

1. Motivation fluctuates: Life is cyclical. There have been moments in my life when I have been riding a wave of success. Pre-pandemic, I put pressure on myself to ensure that the ‘wave’ of success never crashed. And my motivation for the success had to keep increasing exponentially. Recently I have been quite hard on myself because I have lacked some motivation. There was this pressure to hit the ground running the moment the pandemic was over. I am trying to be gentle and bring kindness in by reminding myself that we have all experienced a trauma in one way or another and that if I hit the ground walking, then that is fine also.

2. I love bringing joy to others. But, in the past, I occasionally forgot to love myself too and would neglect my own needs. Moving forward I am trying not to over-commit myself and learn that is okay to simply say No.

3. The Job I do, does NOT define my success: What I do as a career does not define who I am as person. The frenetic energy of my pre-pandemic life was one that I convinced myself I craved and needed in order to achieve life success. I gained validation from each job I booked. This proved problematic once the pandemic hit. Not defining my success by the jobs that I book, has perhaps been one of the greatest life lessons I have learned: that it’s ultimately about who I am, not what I do. Leighton Sharpe The Arc

Look at Leighton’s focus on kindness and self-care. Leighton hasn’t stopped wanting to soar and fulfil his highest potential as a human being, but he’s learning to let go of his ‘good boy’ expectations and pressure. He is transforming that inner ‘Critical Parent’ into a ‘Championing Parent’ who is kind but not over-indulgent or colluding. And by allowing kindness in, he is also activating his ‘Nurturing Parent’, our healthy inner voice that loves us and enables us to self-care without stifling our growth.

And this is where the real growth happens: Leighton is moving from an external locus of evaluation i.e., people-pleasing, to an inner locus of evaluation, i.e., listening to his inner voice, transforming from a ‘good boy’ to the empowered adult, his ‘Authentic Self’, who makes wise and healthy choices.

As I continued to reflect on the term ‘Champion Mindset’, I had a linguistic breakthrough: when I move it from a noun to a verb, ‘to champion’, it becomes celebratory and inclusive of ourselves as well as others. I continued this thread of thinking. Servant Leadership is mooted as the counterbalance to aggressive, egotistical leadership. As a woman I slightly shudder at this. Serving is what we are trained to do from birth, be the ‘Good girl’. My work with many of my female clients is to develop their voice, inner confidence and assertiveness. But if we substitute servant for champion, it again has a lovely proactive and inclusive energy. This is what great leadership is.

As the exam season approaches, I’m often asked what would help navigate through this stressful time. It’s always challenging for a student but in our current climate, it’s not surprising anxiety is so high. Unhealthy stress is the result of feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities/expectations without the power to influence. What helps ground us, is focussing on what we can change or influence.

In our March Perspectives Post I wrote about our feelings of helplessness watching events unfold in Ukraine:

‘The people of Ukraine are bravely facing an unimaginable struggle. More than 11 million people are believed to have fled their homes in Ukraine since the conflict began, according to the United Nations. Against that backdrop of suffering, our own psychological wellbeing seems to pale in comparison. For those of us not directly affected, it’s tempting to put self-care on hold while we fix our eyes on the horror unfolding on our screens.

We watch the reports coming from Ukraine, we do what we can to help, but ultimately there is a general feeling of helplessness, manifested varyingly in anger, anxiety or depression. Following on so closely to the pandemic, with no respite to lift our heads and breathe, many are stuck in a ‘ruminative thinking’ loop, repetitively fixating on problems or feelings of distress and feeling out of control with no sense of how they can create positive change. It’s hard to see any purpose in introspection at desperate times like these because frankly, who cares?

Me. I do. While war rages on, I argue that it’s incumbent on each of us to examine and nurture ourselves more than ever if only for one reason: to keep us operating from a place of hope rather than fear. My constant advice now is: ‘Up your self-care to keep rebalancing your inner equilibrium.’ This is crucial for our physical and psychological well-being. It is also how we can best serve: the more we dig deep and come from a rooted, core stability, the more we can be of help in such times. Important for everyone, but crucial for leaders and anyone responsible for the welfare of others.

Here’s what I’m doing to up my self-care: meaningful connecting and fun with my loved ones; absorption of the Arts…soul food for me; creating moments of stillness including deep meditation practice; lots of exercise, including Pilates and yoga; healthy nutrition; restorative sleep. And I am also connecting to Nature, reminding myself that we are indeed in the seasonal cycle of Spring: birdsong is becoming more insistent and joyful as the birds call in their mates!

I am also surrounding myself with authentically positive people and I am very mindful of protecting myself from people who find it perversely comforting to wallow and complain how awful everything is.

And I am vigilant about not hooking into fear. Fear feeds from fear and it leaves us, rabbit-like, frozen in the headlights, reinforcing our powerlessness. Conversely, if we consciously make a psychological gearshift into a positive mindset and energy, we are giving ourselves the best chance to respond and influence accordingly.’ When Grace Springs

For many high achievers, learning is about the opportunity to show excellence and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get it perfect immediately. This results in playing it very safe: not seeking new skills, mindsets and situations in areas we think we won't be good enough. Ironically, it's only when we let go of those old habits and attitudes that we can relax into the learning, have fun and even surprise ourselves.

At my birthday dinner in February 2019, I was given a challenge: to complete a specific number of new things before my next birthday. Within two months I had almost completed the number and the high achiever in me knew that it had been too easy! So, I paused and thought about what the challenge was really about. I am always doing new things: meeting new people, going to new places etc. That was very known and familiar to me, and I was still in my comfort zone. The challenge was to explore ‘different’ new things that shifted my perspective and thinking.

That was much scarier! I began exploring things that I wasn’t sure I’d be good at, that might make me look foolish. It pushed lots of buttons for me and I felt everything in Stage Two of the Learning Curve above.

This is the ‘futile void’ place where we become conscious of all we don’t know and overwhelmed with all there is to learn. Our inner ‘Critical Parent’, that judgmental, harsh voice stemming from early bad learning experiences, can be very present making us feel deskilled and useless. We experience an anxious, tight energy, we doubt ourselves and are full of fear.

We can also feel shy and vulnerable, and it can be very tempting to give up and retreat to the ‘I know best’ place of stage one. Many do so and retreat into their fixed beliefs and habits. But it is this shyness and vulnerability that is our hope. Shyness is about showing something true of ourselves to others, which is why people who don’t normally identify as being shy, suddenly find themselves so: there is no mask to hide behind. Ultimately this stage is where we have the chance to let go of rigid thinking and behaviour, to connect more authentically to ourselves and to others and to be open to real change.

How prophetic that birthday challenge proved to be! By my next birthday in February 2020, we were 3 weeks before our first lockdown when our world turned upside down and any normalcy was jettisoned. Thank goodness I had been in training to adapt fast to the strange and new.

If we are wise and open, we become lifelong learners and go through the learning curve many, many times. A key motivation for each specific learning is reaching Stage Four: ‘Unconscious Competence’. This is ‘True Mastery’ when we are in our flow and cruising! It’s what I call my ‘Free to soar’ place, bringing a delicious feeling of inner pride and creating more confidence to open up to further learning and new experiences. Crucially, we have learned to accept our vulnerability in stage two as a healthy and creative turning point in the learning curve. And it is this self-acceptance and openness that allows us to connect authentically to ourselves and others, essential for great leadership and also for happy and healthy human beings!

Hannah Elizabeth Greenwood


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