Two Selves, Together and Apart: Practical Consequences

The “I” and the “Me”

William James long ago distinguished two selves, the “I,” the active, experiencing agent of the present moment, and the “me” or narrative self, the storied agent with a past and future.[1] It has been thought that they are naturally linked in experience and are most distinguished in terms of their temporal aspect.  

This is all quite simple on its face, but it becomes more complex when we consider the dynamics of adaptive development and change. Insofar as the narrative self (me) brings to each new moment a point of view, beliefs, and assumptions it preconditions how the “I” will experience and interpret the now. 

Some psychologists[2] refer to this conditioned way of seeing the world as being “embedded” in one’s own presuppositions and habits of thinking, feeling, and relating. That is, we’re embedded or centered in the subjective stream of experience, the living "I", which is constitutes the “me.” It's our common way of being, usually no problem. 

But what if our familiar ways of seeing and responding to the world include self-limiting beliefs about self, others, situations, and relationships? In that case, we may benefit from “dis-embedding” in order to see the situation with fresh eyes, more objectively, without the filters of legacy beliefs. 

Mindfulness as Dis-embedding

This brings us to the power of mindfulness meditation as a means of “de-centering” or “dis-embedding” ourselves. Neuroscience research and psychological science[3] has been learning more about how the “I” and “me” modes of self are activated in the brain as the physiological correlate of how we attend to things in our mental experience. 

From research by Farb et al (2007)

From research by Farb et al (2007)

So, although the “I” and “me” areas of the brain usually and by default function in a closely linked manner, the brains of those trained in mindfulness meditation work a bit differently: They exhibit a capacity to see the here-and-now with little or no influence from the “me.” They suspend the judgments usually provided by the "me."

Thus, for those who have tendencies to ruminate on negative or self-limiting thoughts and beliefs, and to generate negative or troubled moods (anxious or depressive) as a result, greater emotional freedom is purchased by the “mindfulness effect.”[4] Beyond mood issues, research also shows that mindfulness is able to enhance problem solving.  

In either case, this additional cognitive flexibility and emotional freedom enhances our potential to adaptive learn, problem solve, and cope with peak moments of challenge more resourcefully. And this explains why mindfulness training is finding its way into professional and personal development practices. 


[1] In traditional grammar, we would call “I” the first person “subjective case” (the subject in a sentence) and “me” the first person “objective case” (the object in a sentence).

[2] See Attachment in Psychotherapy by David Wallin, Guilford Press: 2007. Also, Attachment-Based Psychotherapy by Peter Costello, APA: 2013.

[3] See Farb et al, 2007, Attending to the present: mindfulness mediation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference, in SCAN, (2) 313-322.

[4] See Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy by Segal, Williams & Teasdale, Guildford Press: 2013. Also, see Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Bantam Books: 2013.

On Willing Avoidance

Avoidance is not inherently bad. When we avoid unhealthy temptations in the bakery, or when we avoid reacting too immediately or harshly to others at work, both may be virtuous examples of avoidance. But when we consistently avoid certain kinds of challenges or issues that cause us discomfort, avoidance can not only be unhealthy, it can lead to stagnation, block our development, further reinforcing the fears that underlie our avoidant reactions. In that case, avoidance serves to strengthen a “flight” reflex. 

What we may not as readily appreciate, however, is that such unhealthy avoidance tendencies can be the product of our willing. We usually think of willing (volition) as a conscious, determined, assertive act, often in the face of resistance, adversity, and perceived risks. As such, an approach orientation arises from a conscious act of will. On the other hand, the avoidance orientation, may also be willed, but we may be less inclined to own our authorship of this act. We may prefer to see it as natural necessity. 

An Example  

John was launching his own professional practice as an IT consultant. He had developed some niche skills that he believed could be better rewarded outside of the large consultancy in which he had been employed. He dreamed of greater independence. With support from his wife and encouragement from a few friends, he made the leap, and the first few months were exhilarating. He prepared his website, created a compelling bio that conveyed the power of his experience and abilities. Prep went well. 

Where things slowed down was in attracting and developing clients and business. Some of the work he had done with the larger firm was embedded in larger projects, work that clients were not as inclined to break out. They liked the ease of dealing with a one firm. Still, he was convinced that he could serve some smaller clients, but it required proactive marketing and selling of his services. He prepared to do so, he struggled with taking action – he avoided the feared situation. 

His wife recognized that John was not ready to call it quits; he really wanted to spread his wings and make a go of it. However, she also noticed that he struggled with approaching prospective clients and with asking for their time, and for their business. She suggested he see someone who could help him understand what was getting in his way. It was like he was stopping himself. John knew in his heart that she was right, that she loved him and was telling him what he needed to hear. 

Relational Coaching

John saw a psychologist. They took time in the first two meetings to get a clear an accurate picture of him and his situation, the strengths he brought to his work and the challenges associated with his new role as entrepreneurial professional. They then examined the situations and activities he feared and avoided. They did this in more detail than he had ever thought possible: When he pictured himself in the situation, what did he feel, think, do, struggle with? What happened, what did it mean, and then what?  

They discussed which of these feelings and thoughts were longstanding, a part of who he believed himself to be. They examined the notion that adult identity development is ongoing, perpetual, and largely stimulated by the roles we take on and the challenges we face. John came to see that he could choose to approach or avoid taking roles and facing challenges. It was really up to him. He also came to see that he would benefit from testing his desire to take these roles, but that meant approaching them. 

From these conversations, John achieved a fresh perspective, greater confidence in himself, and in what he might be able accomplish through his coaching relationship. He needed to set stretch goals, create action plans, experiment with graduated levels of challenge, and process his experience and problem solve issues with someone who at this point really knew who he was, could readily empathize with his struggle, and could offer support and a bit of “tough love” to keep him honest in his attempts.  


John had illuminated his less conscious and fearful tendencies that resulted in willing avoidance. He found relationships (his wife and his coach) in which he could confess his fears, discover that they are normal emotional reactions that need to be understood, honored, and then overcome with intelligent action. He recognized that he, like all human beings, will face adaptive challenges, and must further evolve his self-identity when he chooses to take on new and challenging roles. 

It did not for John, and it does not for any of us, happen overnight. Nor did it happen all at once; it was a step-wise process of reflection and discovery, insight and decision-making, and risk-taking and learning. All of this would have been difficult if not impossible to pull off by himself, in the privacy of his own mind. You might think of the small cadre (John, his wife, and his coach) as the nucleus of a network; not simply a social network, but a developmental network.

Behavioral Integrity and Culture Change


INTEGRITY. This idea or construct in leader development is often mentioned as a fundamental element of character, a basic requirement. It includes what might be distinguished as “behavioral integrity” and “moral integrity”. The former concerns “walking our talk” or acting in accordance with our expressed commitments in routine, practical ways that yield the expectation in others that “if she says she’ll do it, you can count on her doing it” or “if he espouses these norms of behavior, he will enforce them.”

In this respect and relevant to shaping cultural norms, I came upon a study[1] that investigated the effect that leaders have on promoting a family-friendly work environment. It found that “When organizational climates support the work–family balance of employees, supervisors provide considerable work–family guidance to their subordinates. Yet, the extent to which climate and supervisor guidance influence employee outcomes depends on supervisors’ work-family behavioral integrity.”

What does that look like? If a leader verbally advocates work-family balance in his/her spoken guidance to employees, but then in his/her actions shows special recognition to those who arrive early and stay late, the leader may be perceived in lacking behavioral integrity: “He recommended that I make sure the doctor visits for my child are in my calendar, or that I modify my schedule to accommodate a need to do school drop-offs, but when I do these things, I fear that he sees me as a slacker.

We could probably apply this same principle to any organizational value or cultural norm that we are say we honor, e.g. expressing dissent, communicating dialogically/laterally versus hierarchically, taking risks, etc. Employees in organizations who’ve become acculturated to a hierarchical climate in which dissent may arouse defensiveness, in which lateral communication may spawn turf issues, or where trying something new and failing meets with a punitive response face a challenge, as do their leaders.

The challenge for both parties involves learning and unlearning. Employees must learn from experience, must witness, that management has really changed, that it is really safe to behave differently, that doing so will be not only be accepted but respected. As for management, they must anticipate that acting on such norms for employees may involve risk-taking. Therefore, they must show some patience and a readiness to reinforce early displays of the desired behavior change.

[1] Paustian-Underdahl, S. C., & Halbesleben, J. B. (2014). Examining the influence of climate, supervisor guidance, and behavioral integrity on work-family conflict: A demands and resources approach. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 35(4), 447-463.

Why we struggle with conflict

Most leaders laud norms of moral courage, speaking truth to power, and a variety of other forms of “telling it like it is.” Most also, if they're really honest, will confess that such norms are sometimes more aspirational than actualized.

Why? Because acting on these norms with assertiveness is not without practical, emotional, and social risks. Even quite confident and assertive persons, if they have a modicum of emotional intelligence, will act cautiously, even hesitantly, in situations of emotionally-charged conflict. They’ll seek to mitigate these risks.

It's not so easy

I have been a consulting psychologist for over 20 years. Before that, I had extensive experience in clinical settings with individuals, couples, and families. And across the hundreds of clients that I have worked with, most cases involved themes of conflict and hopes of coping more effectively with conflict. It’s fair to say that most of us struggle to some degree, at least in certain situations and relationships, with acute levels of discomfort when facing conflict – let’s call it inhibition, even fear.  

One reason for this struggle is that we’re “wired” to be relational creatures. We want to be loved, cared about and cared for, even if we're not so comfortable expressing these needs explicitly. So, conflict that puts valued relationships at risk can feel threatening.

To complicate things further, some of the inhibitions we feel in interpersonally tense moments actually reflect positive, prosocial sensitivities and aspects personality. It is both functional and appropriate to be concerned that our actions not hurt or alienate others. So, dealing with conflict, let alone mastering it, is neither quite so simple nor quite so easy as are readiness to talk about dealing with issues head-on!

We form natural patterns of approach/avoidance. Sometimes these habits of mind and social emotion are helpful and appropriate. Other times they may err in being either too excitedly reactive or too excitedly avoidant. These extremes reveal a brittleness often governed by fear. Both the too-much and too-little paths lack a moderation we acquire from fully conscious awareness, rational appraisal, and from mature judgment. 

What does good look like then?

Let’s begin with emphasizing that our emotions are vital, immediate, and often very telling sources of data. The lower brain (limbic system) processes affective experience, i.e., immediate felt impressions, twice as fast as our upper brain (prefrontal cortex), which contributes reflective, rational thought. So, what “good” looks like in processing felt reactions to perceived fear and threat is the capacity to first notice these sensations and feelings, recognizing them as data - a metacognitive state of mind. 

This attitude is less one of automatic and declarative rational processing, and more one of curiosity and openness. In involves dialectical interaction between prefrontal cortex and limbic system . The upper brain can be governed by patterns of interpretation and attribution of meaning that are habitual, or it can be trained to prompt reflection, declare moments of “not knowing.” This a virtuous ignorance.

In these moments we recognize the need to ask, “what am I feeling, and what’s this about?” This is a mode of metacognition. It’s a self-directed intervention. It involves problematizing felt reactions, making their meaning a matter of explicit, critical inquiry.

This good or virtuous mode of responding to our emotional experience is called for when the experience in questions has become a source of frustration or a trigger of ineffective reactivity. As metacognition, it is being called out as a situation-specific exception, a situation in which we cannot afford to indulge our action biases.

Such biases are guided by habitual patterns of thought, interpretation, and action. These ways of functioning are usually reliable - that's why they've become habits - but they are not unerringly so. Tagging certain emotional experiences as exceptions helps us notice them, self-monitor in the situation, inhibit immediate reactions, prompt reflection, and gain freedom to choose how we wish to respond.   

It causes us to treat our emotional experience as a valuable source of data and meaning. It's an act of restraint, holding back. And as we make use of this intervention, we come to see restraint as a powerful kind of action in its own right. We recognize it as creating time and space (literally creating lived time and space for reflection). When it registers in that way, reflective restraint becomes an attractive, go-to modality of functioning. 

How to get started

We all form patterned (habitual) ways of thinking, feeling, and relating to others. They’re largely shaped by early life experience in our family of origin and social-cultural context. Then, as we enter the larger world, broaden our affiliations, complete our education, and enter the adult world of work and family, our role-taking presents us with new requirements for adaptively functioning. They often imply different ways of thinking, feeling, and relating. 

As indicated, reflection is a critical resource in navigating these moments of adaptive change. But the leading thread of change could stem from and be motivated by: 1) insight (fresh perspectives, ways of thinking); 2) emotion (a significant instance of emotional meaning); or 3) action (new or novel options for action). Some combination of all these factors inevitably characterize viable change, but we may each be activated by one factor more than another as a "hook" based on our personality.

In any case, no matter what get's you started, action and risk-taking will be required. We must face the difficult conflict situation, and we must initiate action in a noticeably different way. After repeated trials of initiating a changed course of action, we become more competent, confident, and capable of dealing with conflict. Felt levels of struggle becomes less daunting, our confidence and competence grows, and we are able to generalize these capacities to handle more situations with greater ease.   

I hope this analysis of the experience of conflict and how we acquire greater freedom to self-manage our response to conflict helps you recognize your personal opportunities to grow in this regard.

Leadership as Idenity Work

There are some who like to challenge idea that people can change. In some cases, they will characterize personality as something trait-like and fixed. They may say, “You are who you are.” At the same time, many of these same people will passionately insist that we must “embrace” the changes that are external to us. They seem to believe that what’s outside of us and what’s inside of us are somehow disconnected. They are wrong.   

First, there is ample evidence that not only can we change aspects of personality and identity over the course of our life, but it is perhaps the most distinctive marker of effective adaptation, i.e, intelligence. Knowing and believing this based on my professional education, research, and professional practice, I recently developed the Leader Identity Questionnaire™ (LIQ) in order to facilitate this deeper level of adaptive development.   

But my purpose here, is not to describe or promote the LIQ. Rather, I’d like to simply offer the rationale for conceptualizing and approaching leadership and leader development as identity work. It makes a difference. It’s within reach. And it sticks!   

What is identity?

Identity is the coherent, differentiated wholeness of meaning that defines an individual person as a self and agent of action to oneself and to others. Persons are differentiated by their physical appearance and distinctive patterns of overt behavior; also by acquired capabilities to think, do, and act; and, finally, by their personality, values, judgment, and ways of relating to others. All of this continues to evolve, i.e., develop, over the course of one’s life and in response to one’s experience, choices, and role-taking. Therefore, identity is an inherently personal, social, practical, and relational phenomenon.   

Leadership and leader development as identity work

We either grow, adapt and thrive (prosocial development) or we stagnate, either by retreating from life or by defiantly reacting to change and challenge with maladaptive recalcitrance. What makes the former prosocial and adaptive and the latter anti-social and maladaptive are the normative values that motivate action and shape attitude. The prosocial path seeks the common good, respects the dignity of all, and empowers others to assert aligned acts of agency. Those taking the latter path choose to check out or to dominate others. I believe the prosocial approach is to be preferred based on moral and pragmatic considerations.   

Leader identity development is important because:   

As leaders, we are free to implement our self-concept (the leader we would like to be) and promote the flourishing of our enterprise and its people. Indeed, doing so is a vital expression of leader responsibility, which is fully compatible with but goes far beyond honoring our accountabilities.[1] I also offer a few other research-based facts and reasons that argue for this approach to the practice of leadership and leader development:   

  1. Leader authenticity promotes trust, engagement, and performance, and it’s grounded in knowing who we are and cultivating more effective ways of being who we are.     
  2. How we express who we are as leaders must adaptively change as we take on new roles and face new challenges originating from within or without the organization.      
  3. Management must learn to look for and explicitly specify the indicated needs for adaptive change, the “learning curve” implied, and the expectations for leader development.  
  4. Over and above adaptive changes in role-based identity, the leaders must clarify and hone expression of their moral core as persons in order to inspire trust and confidence.       

As you can see, leader development thus conceived goes deeper than skills training. It does so in order to activate sources of meaning and motivation that move us forward and give us the reasons and the courage to persist in our efforts, even in the face of the adversity and setbacks we must expect along the way when navigating steep learning curves.

[1] I’ve written elsewhere about the difference between and complementarity of responsibility and accountability. In simple terms, the former is a principle-centered, value-based, self-authored core of beliefs that guide judgment and action from within (moral agency), whereas accountability concerns what we owe to others in virtue of our role and the fiduciary duties specified in our agreement to take the role and act in the interests of the organization.