IN the last several decades, it’s become an almost axiomatic truism that you should accept yourself as you are; that you should love yourself unconditionally.  That’s not quite true, as it turns out.

While it is true that acceptance precedes self-esteem, and that you do have to love yourself before you can love anyone else, neither self-esteem nor love-of-self (two sides of the same coin) are a given.  Neither is unconditional, because both, like all values, need to be earned.

Accepting who you are now includes understanding where you have room for improvement and committing to change. 

Nobody grows up completely “undamaged”.  We all “carry baggage”.  We all have personality and behavioral traits that we’d like to change; to improve upon.

Effective leadership depends on it.  If you are going to inspire others, you not only need to manage your own behavior, you need to be seen to be doing so.  That’s setting an example worthy of following.  The thing is, it’s hard.

First you have to have sufficient self-awareness (through introspection) to identify the element of yourself that you’d like to change.  Then, the really hard part: actually changing.  It’s hard because most personality traits and behaviors are habitual, and old habits die hard.

So with that preamble out the way, I’d like to tell you a story.  It’s one I’ve told before, perhaps too often, but it had such an impact on me, and produced such a powerful technique for change, that I think it’s worth sharing.

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As a student I tended bar in a large, busy cocktail joint.  It was customary for staff, as they finished late in the evening, to take up a place at the bar and have a few “knock-off” drinks.

By the time all the customers were gone and the front door was locked, there’d be a dozen or more staff at the bar merrily getting tipsy and having a grand old time.  Not me.  I had to close the bar.  As I was eager to join the party I’d work fast to clean and close, but would get interrupted frequently as my colleagues, now quasi-customers, would ask for more drinks.  They were actually allowed to get their drinks themselves, but far easier just to ask me.

That used to frustrate me.  After 10 hours in the bar, the last two watching a growing group of friends having fun, all I wanted was to join them, and every extra drink I was asked to make delayed that pleasure.

Sometimes I’d show my frustration; I’d snipe.  “Oh get it yourself”, I’d huff.  It was a dumb reaction, because the time it took me to fix a drink was next to nothing, and I made no mess – which the do-it-youselfers invariably did – but that’s the thing with irrational emotional responses… they’re, well, irrational.

It would annoy me afterwards, that I’d allowed myself to be annoyed, rather than just gracefully making a few more drinks.  A couple minutes more or less wasn’t going to make a difference.

So one night I decided that I wouldn’t get annoyed anymore.  Good, that’s settled, I thought.  Just smile and make the extra drinks.  Problem solved.

Unfortunately though,  It wasn’t. I discovered that emotional responses are based on deeply entrenched values and beliefs, and my sense of injustice at being denied my “right” to finish work and relax was seemingly founded in deep concrete.

Despite my intellectual decision that the emotion was silly and I needed to respond differently, in “the heat of battle”, I didn’t.

I was going to need to work harder, or at least smarter.

That’s when I discovered what I called “bookmarking”.  I made a mental note, reinforced each evening just before sleep, that I would look out for the angry response and “nip it in the bud” as it were.  I reminded myself that there was no injustice involved – no one was maliciously trying to keep me from finishing work.  They were just taking for granted that I’d be happy to get them a drink, and, anyway, it was easier and quicker if I did it.  So, the rational response, I decided, was to happily make the drink.

As a physical reminder, I resolved that I would tap my thigh as soon as I felt my gall begin to rise, and that would be the trigger to launch, “smiling, graceful me”, the friendly bartender to all.

It worked.  Over a couple weeks I found myself “pulling the trigger” earlier and earlier in the process, and then less and less, until it wasn’t needed at all.  The irrational reaction to making a few extra drinks, was gone.

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Wow.  I now had the means to create my own character.

We are what we habitually do, and now I not only knew that I could change my behavior, I knew how.

I’ve used the technique ever since.  Whenever I find, through introspection and review of my day, that I’m habitually behaving in a way that I think is not good enough, that is, my emotional response and subsequent actions are not in keeping with what I intellectually think is a proper and rational response to a given situation, I “bookmark” it.

As an organizational leader I have found no more important and useful tool in engaging with others.  In order to manage and engage with other people justly, you need to first manage yourself.

“Bookmarking” based on careful review and introspection, applied consistently over time, allows you to create your character, to be who you want to be, rather than being a product of your circumstances.

Like to try it?

Take a few minutes to think of some behavior of yours that you’d like to change or improve upon.  A silly frustration is a good place to start.  What annoys you and gets you upset that really shouldn’t?

Starting tonight, decide what your proper response should be, and commit to responding that way from now on.  Develop a physical trigger if that helps.  Consistency is key.  You need to re-commit regularly – every evening before sleep works for me.

With a little consistent effort you’ll establish a new habitual response, and will have a powerful tool for becoming the best possible you.

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For more on understanding what emotions are, where they come from, and how to change inappropriate ones, please see: “What Are Emotions“.  It’ll take you about 15 minutes to read, but could be the most valuable thing you read in a while.

Understanding, controlling, and leveraging your emotions is an absolute fundamental in leadership and in life.