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1. The first self, which appears as soon as we’re born, is our child self.

It’s the most helpless, under-resourced, and easily threatened of our three selves. It’s also the most playful, curious, and full of wonder.

As children, we are often powerless, counting on others to take care of us. As we develop more awareness, capability, and autonomy, our child self’s experience of powerlessness and vulnerability becomes increasingly intolerable to us.

2. To cope with the threats we face, we begin to form a second self: Our defender.

Our defender ultimately becomes the dominant player in our lives. It doesn’t show up just when we feel threatened and we move into fight-or-flight. Rather, it’s the primary self we inhabit for most of our lives.

Think of it as the persona we wear in the world. In the absence of stress, our defender can be focused and productive, even compassionate and winning. But it’s also hyper vigilant and highly reactive to any perceived threat to its value.

3. Our most capable and mature self is our adult self. It shows up in moments when we’re at our very best.

Only our adult self, for example, is capable of observing when fear or anger rise up in us, but rather than acting on those emotions, treats them with care and compassion.

Only our adult self has the capacity to see and accept all of who we are. By creating a safer internal environment, our adult self can also free up our child self’s best qualities: spontaneity, curiosity, creativity, wonder, and joyfulness

The adult self is also in charge when we can sit with a colleague, a direct report, or a friend who’s struggling and hold space for whatever they’re feeling without judgment. But it’s surprisingly challenging to access our adult self, especially under high stress, when we need it most.