In 2010, I had a conversation that changed my life.
That conversation occurred with my therapist. I’ll never forget the moment when he said, “Teresa, it’s not your fault”.
For so long in my leadership career, I was besieged by the question, “why”. Why do I worry so much? Why do I always assume that other people are smarter than I am? Why do I freeze when men in power question me. Why, Why, WHY.
He introduced me to the concept of core emotional needs. Having them met is not only critical to childhood, but the absence of these core emotional needs is what leads to problems navigating adulthood. The 3 core emotional needs my therapist and I discussed were safety, love, and autonomy.
It wasn’t my fault. I was asking the wrong question. I grew up conditioned to operate in a normalized state of anxiety and distress. My early years were fraught with an abnormal degree of volatility and tension, coupled with extremely patriarchal, damaging, and limiting views on what leadership meant for a woman. My therapist’s reassurance led me down a path of asking a new question:
What do I need to heal?
Over a period of 5 years, I went on a healing journey figuring out how the absence of these 3 core emotional needs affected how I led, both myself and others. Once I understood how I overcompensated, I was able to develop healthier coping mechanisms, and actually enjoy leadership. Let’s explore the three core needs and how a coach approach can help.
The Need For Safety:
As children, it’s critical that we learn the world is a safe place. Safety meant having a caregiver, someone who held us when we were upset and a home that was free from violence or high stress. As a child, both of my parents were often stressed and very tense. My father was prone to rage, anger, and unfortunately, violence. My mother was often overwhelmed and afraid of my father’s rage. As a result, my nervous system was set to a default state of fight, flight or freeze.
As an adult, and especially as a leader, this can show up as rage, anger, or high anxiety which results in behaviours such as micromanaging or overachievement. For me, it showed up as Perfectionism. Imposter Syndrome. Escape By Overwork.
The Coach Solution: We have to learn how to regulate our nervous system. Learning how to shift and reset the default system of overreaction, anger, panic. Breathing, self compassionate inquiry, executive coaching, and other somatic modalities such as the work we do as Trainers in HeartMath can be used to engage the client in how to cultivate safety within the body and the mind.
The Need For Love:
The word “love” can trigger many people. All of a sudden, we have entered vulnerability territory. But this need simply asks: did you feel special and adored? Did you feel nurtured as a child? Did you feel like your caregivers were genuinely interested in your day? An absence of love can show up as self criticism, rejection, argumentativeness, blame, victimization. In my leadership, it showed up as people-pleasing, deferring to men, and avoiding conflict.
The Coach Solution: We work with clients emotional states and help them cultivate a moment to moment awareness of what is causing the stress response. We explore alternate possibilities, we become emotionally literate, and we focus on how to minimize the “stories in our head”, work with distorted perceptions, and development of leadership self trust.
The Need for Autonomy:
Autonomy, authority, agency. Women are often not taught how to meet their own needs and use their voice. Kristen Kneff suggests we use the simply powerful question, “what do I need right now?” and yet, most women I coach are asking “what do others need from me right now?”
All leaders need edges, boundaries, no-go zones. My childhood environment was very strict, disciplinarian, and highly focused on obedience and servility. Especially to men of authority. An absence of boundaries can show up as “no talking at dinner” or “don’t question me”. We can see the impact a lack of freedom or autonomy has on leadership. It shows up as extreme self-discipline or frequent lateness to a meeting or working yourself to burnout. For me, it showed up as burnout, hyper over-achievement, and abdicating my own needs in favour of others. Watch my crucible moment story.
The Coach Solution: We must learn how to create boundaries that are both self-honouring and organizationally intelligent. I might start by asking clients why they are doing what they are doing. Does it make sense and does it actually contribute to what is important to them and to the organization. Too often, I see clients either enforce boundaries that are too rigid, when the perfect boundary is flexible and dynamic. I offer a free guide to boundary resource here.
My hope is that this provides you with more clarity on how core emotional needs impact your leadership journey. This is an invitation to cultivate self-trust and a sense of personal safety within yourself. If you would like to learn more about how I work with women to change the inner narrative, consider booking a discovery call with me.