How To Finally Stop Being So Hard On Yourself (and get some more sleep at night, too)

I had one of those nights last week. Perhaps you know the kind. When you repeat a conversation over and over in your mind, trying to find the exact moment it went wrong, and wishing desperately that you had responded differently.

Or maybe you said too much and regret a few unnecessary words. Maybe you feel that there was a much better way to handle a situation than the way you handled it.

Usually, when I can’t sleep, I can suddenly craft the perfect response in my head as I’m tossing and turning. Too late, of course. Why didn’t I think of that earlier today? The agonizing is only made worse by the crystal clear quality of what I SHOULD HAVE DONE.

This is the heavy feeling of making a wrong move and not being able to move forward. This is what it feels like when you are too hard on yourself. It’s exhausting. I decided that I wasn’t going to let my mistakes haunt me at night. Here are the strategies that have helped me deal with post-flop regret.

Create a simple statement that you can grow from. I am much more likely to accept my mistake when I reflect on it and clearly state one specific and actionable thing I will do to move forward. Here’s one I am trying now: Listen two minutes longer before I speak. If you repeat a bold, simple statement like this often, it can put you on the path of making peace with your blunder. Think of it as a mantra that guides you through your day.

Fix it- and then let go of the details. I once delivered a presentation and failed to anticipate the questions my audience might ask. As a result, I was unprepared for the Q and A session and unable to speak knowledgeably to a few questions at the end. For a long time, I couldn’t let go of these last few minutes, even though the majority of the presentation was successful. I belabored the awkward moments in my head, wondering what the participants were thinking about such an unprepared presenter.

Finally, I wrote a revision of the presentation that included detailed, thoughtful answers to common questions. Then I filed it in my “next time” file and released the details from my mind altogether.

Reframe the Situation As a parent, one of the most useful books I’ve read is The Danish Way of Parenting by Jessica Alexander and Iben Sandahl. I found it so helpful that I applied the principles to all areas of my life.

The author spends an entire chapter on the power of reframing, or the ability to see the truth in a new way. Danes find this shift in perception so important that they cite is a cornerstone of resilience.

The authors described people that are able to do this as “realistic optimists.” These optimists are aware that things go wrong, but habitually filter out the unnecessary negative information.

I thought back to some uncomfortable situations I had experienced. Sure, there were a few awkward exchanges and missed opportunities. However, when I reframe them, I see them as potent lessons in leadership. And when I start to think like a realistic optimist, I feel relief that I now have the tools to avoid that approach again when the new situation might have more at stake.

Be aware of imposter syndrome. Just the research alone helps me sleep at night. Yes, you are too hard on yourself. Yes, you are so much more capable than you think. In the past few months that I have been writing about leadership, I have discovered that our audience ranges anywhere from educators, coaches, and administrators, to bar managers, athletic directors, and entrepreneurs. Such a diverse skill set, but the recurring theme that surfaces most in conversations is the feeling of self-doubt. Yet, they are viewed as leaders and masters of their field by their peers. Other people can easily recognize their strengths, but they can’t.

It’s easy to see how a few simple mistakes can make you feel like a fraud, or worried that people will finally see that you are not as experienced or talented as they thought you were. The first step in overcoming this is being aware that this exists in the first place. Then, flip the scene. For every scenario that you feel exposes your weaknesses, think about how the same scenario reveals your strengths. Chances are, that is what people are seeing anyway.

Others feel the same way you do—about themselves.  A good friend and I struggle with these feelings often, and we pass this same piece of advice back and forth to each other when it’s needed: Nobody goes home thinking about the mistakes you made. They are too busy losing sleep over their own.

We all mess up from time to time. We are human, and we are imperfect. In fact, we will experience missteps time and again. That’s what happens when you put pen to paper, or share an innovative idea, or take the lead when others need a guide. And while we can’t avoid minor setbacks, we don’t have to lose sleep over every single one of them. I think I am finally ready to believe that.

After all, who’s keeping count anyway?

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why people don't see you as a leader

Why People Don’t See You as a Leader

As an educator in teacher leadership positions for the past 6 years, I am pretty confident that the people around me don’t see me as a leader. Perhaps you’ve felt this way, too. You are probably right.

I’ve often thought to myself, I don’t look like a leader. I don’t command any kind of attention when I enter a room. I trip over my own words when I’m faced with uncertainty. I suffer from an extreme case of imposter syndrome. Even now, I just wait for someone to call me out as a fraud. That girl writes about leadership?

For a long time, I harbored a deep insecurity about how others around me perceived my supposed leadership. Was I an imposter? I became frantic, doubting I was enough for this thing called leadership. And for those around me, what did they see?

A Mentor’s Feedback

I turned to a trusted mentor, a colleague that had always defined and modeled leadership for me. I asked for her feedback. I wanted to know what she thought. Did I look like a leader when I facilitated that training? Did I sound like one when I gave suggestions to the teachers?

It turns out, I was asking the wrong questions. This mentor helped me realize the glaring error in my reasoning. She flipped my whole idea of leadership on its head.

“I’m really not sure about that,” she said easily. “I wasn’t watching you. I was watching the teachers.”

I looked at her, about to repeat my question. I wanted feedback on my leadership.

She continued, “The teachers were smiling. They were pushing each other to be better, celebrating each other’s victories. They had the space to grow.” She didn’t mention anything I did at all.

And then it was clear. She couldn’t answer my question because it was the wrong question. I cringed at my glaring mistake. I had leadership all wrong.

I used to reflect a lot about my impact as a leader, and I still do. But I no longer ask myself, What do they see when I walk into the room?

Instead, I ask, How did they feel after I walked out?

Great Leaders Create a Trusting Culture

My mentor’s message stuck with me. I shifted to a new mindset. I’m really not sure whether people see me as a leader, and it doesn’t matter. People don’t see leadership, they feel it. The true mark of leadership shines through when you stop looking at the leader.

Shortly after this talk with my mentor, I came across Simon Sinek’s TED talk, Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe. He talks about how leadership is not a set of instructions. You can’t tell people to be inspired, cooperate, or trust. They have to feel it. Sinek says that remarkable things happen when people “feel safe and feel like they belong.”

This is the very reason why leadership defies rank and title. The person who makes others feel the most safe and the most cared about creates the most change.

I thought about some mistakes I had made the previous year: giving advice when I should have been listening, forgetting the nuances of daily life as a classroom teacher, making assumptions. My first instinct was always to gloss over these mistakes, pretend they weren’t important.

Now, I allow my mistakes to be transparent. Yes, this could affect the way others see me. It’s even possible they look elsewhere for leadership. I’m okay with that, as long as they trust that they too can make mistakes. That they are on this same journey, too.

It’s no secret that leadership is about serving others. Yet, when we assess our leadership, we tend to look for what people think about us. It’ s not about us, and it never was.

Great Leadership Breaks Barriers

Five years ago, I visited Brazil for two weeks for an international teaching experience to raise global awareness in education. During my visit to my host teacher’s school, I felt a strong connection with the teachers who greeted us.

I remember walking into the staff lounge, greeted by baskets of pão de queijo and a group of warm, smiling teachers. The principal introduced me. In a soft voice she practically whispered, “Please welcome Ali, our American teacher who wants to learn about our wonderful school.” Then she gestured for everyone to gather close around the warm, cheesy bread.

One of the teachers spoke Portuguese only, and nodded and smiled as we conversed about the school. Halfway through the conversation, she pulled me close to her and wrapped an arm around my shoulder. She smiled warmly at me, and despite the language and cultural barrier, I felt like I belonged.

The soft-spoken principal did not say much more, and she stood back as we swapped stories full of similarities and differences. She created a feeling of trust and acceptance in her building that was so strong, I forgot how far I had traveled to get there. I realize now this is what my mentor was talking about.

leader

Whether you have an official title as a leader or not, chances are you have wondered how others see you. Do they see you as a leader? Perhaps you wonder if you are leadership material, if people are about to call your bluff, or if you have it in you for others to follow you. But it’s not about how people see you—it never has been.

If you want to know how your actions will change the way people see you, instead ask, “How will this change the people around me?”

Because people don’t see leadership. They feel differently because of it.

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A Letter to the New Teacher: You Are a Leader (Yes, you)

Dear New Teacher,

It’s August. I’ve been thinking a lot about you.

I know you are anxiously waiting for the very first day that will commence your career in education. You are likely wondering if you are ready enough to greet the children who will soon spill through the doorway. You are not sure if your plan book is full enough, your classroom organized enough, your heart brave enough.

I want you to know that it doesn’t matter if you have one day of experience or 15 years, you will never feel completely ready to lead the young faces in front of you. I understand that the thought of being a leader while still trying to figure out how to group the desks in your new classroom may seem distant and irrelevant.

But we need you, new teacher. And whether you know it or not, you will be leading and inspiring somebody from the minute that first bell rings. Emerging leadership starts on day one.

An important thing about leadership is that it begins and ends with optimism. It must always begin with the strong belief that you can do something worth doing, and then the optimism and hope to try again when the first thing failed.

There will be failure, and joy, and a feeling like you are in way, way too far over your head. You will fall deeply, madly in love with teaching, and the next day you might want to crawl under your covers and not go back. This is the way it goes with anything that is worth doing. The key is being self-aware of that joy and disappointment, and recognizing when you need to reach out for help. This doesn’t show weakness–it shows you are human.

All teachers have bad days. What will set you apart as an emerging leader is what you do with those bad days. Will you let the obstacles define you as an educator, or will you reflect and move steadily forward? Remember, the children (and adults) around you learn immensely from how you respond to setbacks.

Don’t be afraid to eat lunch by yourself. If you feel a ripple of negativity around you, I urge you to take a step back and stand on your own two feet. There is nothing wrong with making a different choice, even if it isolates you for the moment.

Choose kindness every single time.

Collect data. You will encounter endless amounts of data, so make sure you make space for the data that will make a difference. Pay attention to your students’ struggles, motivations, interests, and what makes them laugh. Take notes and lean in to hear more. This data will tell you far more than any test score, and it will be the bridge to deep, meaningful relationships with each and every one of your students. Because teaching, like leadership, is all about relationships. You can’t move kids, adults, anyone–unless you engage their heart.

Be vulnerable. There is nothing wrong with a little bit of struggle. I can tell you this –you will inspire more people by being imperfect than you ever will having all of the answers.

Continue to acknowledge-openly and regularly- that you have so much to learn. Say you don’t know. There may be educators in your building who are relearning how to do this. Be a model for what it looks like to embrace imperfection.

Continually ask yourself, “Why am I here?” Hold on tight to your why.

There will come a day (sooner than you think) when you will want to share your beliefs to move and inspire others. So hold on to your struggles, your celebrations, your imperfections. Leaders rely on stories, and your story starts right now.

Before you take on your very first day, please let me tell you this:

You are a leader. Yes, you.

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Leadership

Lead with Fireworks

I’ll never forget watching my daughter experience fireworks for the first time. She stared up in awe, jumped up and down, clapped and shrieked as blue and red circles bloomed above the trees in our neighborhood.

“Blue, red, yellow!” she screamed joyfully. When the silence took over and only smoke lingered in the black sky, she was smiling quietly. A spark of wondrous excitement remained in her eyes.

My son, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with the light display. He covered his ears, closed his eyes, and asked to go inside. For him, fireworks are nothing more than a disruption. They are loud and usually occur well past his bedtime.

These opposing reactions made me think about leadership, coaching, and inspiring others…shouldn’t it feel a little more like that? Shouldn’t leadership feel incredibly joyful and just a little disruptive?

If you are a hidden leader, you likely feel compelled to share an innovative solution, take a next big step, or simply announce to others a joyful ambition that might, possibly, move your team forward. However, many of us don’t want to disrupt. We worry about how others will receive our contribution.

This is a problem. Leadership consultants Matt Kincaid and Doug Crandall address this issue of silence by explaining who does get heard. “Those who talk well, early, a lot, and loudly earn high status.” This is less of a strategy of how to be heard, and more of a warning of who is not being heard. I wondered,

What ideas remain in the dark because we are afraid to share them?

It’s time start lighting up the sky. Disruption causes us to change ourselves—in both small and dramatic ways. In Adam Grant’s TED talk about nonconformists, he explores the success behind original thinkers. They don’t just generate ideas, they speak up and talk about them. They stand out from others because they take action on changes that are disruptive—and may not even work. They champion these ideas anyway.

Disruptive ideas, like fireworks, are chaotic. They make our current understanding of the world slightly hazy. I’m proposing that we embrace disruption anyway and let it radiate through those around us. Big, passionate, booming ideas—why do we silence them in our own heads?

Leaders must be joyful without restriction. There must be a strong certainty that their ideas are important, even if they meet resistance. Even if people cover up their ears. Even if the idea may not work.

Go ahead and start shaking up the quiet sky—if you don’t, somebody else will.

Think of one thing you want to change that is within reach. (Or maybe not so in reach.) What small (or medium, or big) ideas remain hypothetical within your own internal thoughts?

Speak them so they light up the horizon in all of their vibrant colors.

Don’t worry for a second how much sound you make.

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summer bucket list

The Hidden Leader’s Ultimate Summer Bucket List

I absolutely love lists. I love to-do lists, to-read lists, to-dream lists. There is something particularly appealing about “bucket lists.” They have a meaningful excitement to them that reminds us that time is finite. Because the summer months are especially fleeting, I write a bucket list every year for my family. I post it right on my fridge on Memorial Day.

Lists like this help us focus on the things that matter. For my family, it’s watching sunsets and staying up late to see rocket launches. Camping in our backyard, spontaneous road trips, and lots of ice cream and sushi. Any list-lover will tell you that time is everything—use it wisely.

Right now, summer stretches before you in all of its finite glory. And if you haven’t read Kylene Beers’ beautiful letter to teachers to go ahead and embrace their truest self this summer, then read that first. It’s healing.

Then, recharge your momentum and find your hidden leader in the next two months. There is nothing extraordinary on this list. I have found that the most meaningful experiences challenge and teach us in the simplest of ways.

1. Choose to be imperfect.

If you toss and turn at night, replaying conversations and wishing you could redo a part of your day, then you will be pleasantly surprised to know that you are not alone. Even the most confident leaders fear they said or did the wrong thing.

When you fall short this summer, acknowledge the discomfort, and move on. Embrace imperfection by fully accepting your story reel each day, bloopers and all. Don’t waste time trying to edit your mistakes; more forward instead. Start by saying to yourself, “That didn’t go as planned. Let’s see what happens next.”

2.  Focus on joy.

There is just not enough of this. Take time this summer to find out what exactly brings you joy—and what takes it away.

3. Get strategic about something you care about.

There is never going to be a perfect time to take action. Start now. Choose one goal that is deeply important to you and set a plan. Truly commit by asking these two critical questions:

  • Why do I want this?
  • What is the very first thing I have to do to get there?

4.  Read

Read to reset your compass. Books remind us what matters. Start with our summer book list or revisit an old favorite that inspires you just by running your fingers over the worn binding.

Rediscover picture books to gain new perspective on leadership and the kind of leader you want to be. Read Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon. Learn what it means to truly embrace imperfection from Molly Lou Melon: a clumsy, buck-toothed, bullied child who doesn’t let anyone shake her belief in herself.

5.  Do one thing that scares you.

Do you have a chicken list? Move at least one thing from that list to your summer bucket agenda. In Beers’ letter to teachers, she tells us to “Find something you can’t do and try. Try and fail. And remember how that feels.”

The other important thing about failing is that you create stories in the process. Leaders need stories, more than anything, to convince others that they have been where others have been. Experience struggle this summer, and be ready to share what it feels like when you are encouraging others to jump into the arena.

6.  Find a new way to manage stress.

It’s impossible to tackle the biggest challenges when stress takes over. Take time this summer to really notice how you respond to stress and make a point to change your reaction. Resolve to keep this in place beyond the summer. Don’t allow “feeling stressed” to become your normal.

7.  Write another bucket list for the upcoming year.

The interesting thing about bucket lists is that it’s not really about what’s on the paper. It’s the idea of looking forward. The compelling reason to get up and lead, even when you feel uninspired or when making progress seems daunting. As you prepare for a new school year, go beyond your usual to-do, to-make, and to-plan lists. Write one more list. Because what you are really writing is your story. Make the chapters matter. 

Comment and tell us what is on your own summer bucket list. How will you find your hidden leader this summer?

Ali

Ali

I am a lifelong educator on a mission to start believing in myself. I write to inspire others to abandon perfection and lead anyway. I am attempting this daily at home as a mom with three toddlers in Berlin, Maryland.
Ali

 

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