Much has been written about “stress management” techniques that are primarily behavioral in nature — such as getting adequate sleep, regular exercise, and mental downtime; taking vacation; doing controlled breathing; practicing yoga or mindfulness meditation; or getting acupuncture treatments. But relatively little has been written recently on the benefits of self-disciplined articulation of a philosophical worldview and core values that help us weather the storms and devastations that inevitably rock our lives and careers.
The value of self-reflection and self-awareness is well known in both Eastern and Western philosophical traditions. The exhortation from Socrates to “Know Thyself” reverberates across the history of philosophy, as a reminder to reflect on our life’s mission and the strategies we use to attain it. Confucius similarly urged the individual to engage in self-disciplined reflection upon one’s values, followed by action steps to implement those values in interpersonal settings. Management of complexity and stress in
Socratic and Confucian traditions depends heavily upon self-awareness, an ethical value system, and a capacity to act on core values (such as kindness and humility) in social relations.
While this ancient wisdom hardly requires validation from empirical science, contemporary cognitive psychology and neuroscience research interestingly reveal how self-reflection manifests itself in our brains and behaviors. Recent neuroimaging research shows that self-reflection lights up the brain’s anterior and posterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is linked to regions that mediate emotion and decision-making. Cognitive psychology research shows that one of the most effective methods for reducing stress is to engage in self-reflection directed toward appraising it as a challenge rather than a threat.
You and Your Team
Many executive coaching clients use this approach successfully. In my own coaching practice, I ask clients open-ended questions about their philosophy of the “good life,” or what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia. The conversations that ensue help clients to define the fundamental values and goals that underlie their careers and personal life decisions. These conversations can be deepened by the completion of style assessments that focus specifically on human motivators, such as the Individual Directions Inventory (IDI). The IDI is a well-validated and useful tool for assessing personal preferences and values, such as social affiliation and irreproachability.
Attaining clarity on core values and a philosophical worldview, helps individuals develop steadiness in the face of stressful events. They embody what Stoic philosophers, such as Marcus Aurelius, championed centuries ago: use of contemplative self-reflection and development of virtuous character traits to withstand stress and uncertainty. They become leaders who show others how to embrace eternal values regardless of current circumstances.
I encourage coaching clients to develop an effective and sustainable method for engaging in philosophical self-reflection, such as daily journaling or thinking regularly on these questions during an already scheduled, convenient, mundane activity (such as while brushing their teeth). Their self-reflection helps them to identify and reinforce their self-chosen core principles — such as being kind, gentle, humble, respectful, and generous. Later on, they can intentionally draw upon their self-reflective stance when striving to avert a crisis or manage a stressful life event.
My client Melanie is an example. She came to me after years of maneuvering to be promoted to a C-suite role didn’t pan out, and after having an affair with a man she met on a business trip. She felt burned out, unproductive at work, and irritable with colleagues. Our conversations led her to realize that much of her stress was related to her infidelity — both to her husband and to her current job role. Melanie came to see that she valued her current job and had taken it for granted, believing a promotion would improve her life.
After deepening her self-reflection about her fundamental values, she decided to make fidelity to her self-chosen life roles as a VP and a wife her top priority. She adopted the motto of the U.S. Marines — semper fidelis (always faithful). This steadfast decision about how to conduct her life going forward resulted directly from thoughtful self-reflection on the values and principles that were the underpinning of her entire life structure.
Everyone can benefit from this kind of disciplined and sustained self-reflection — both as a good thing in itself and as a powerful stress management tool. Nowhere is this more true than in stressful business situations, where it can be incredibly challenging to pause and reflect on essential values. So we ought to make a special effort to incorporate philosophical self-reflection as a meaningful, yet convenient, part of our ordinary routine.