The fear in dilemma

Day 3 of this Critical Friends Group coach’s training and again, so much to think about.

We spent a fair amount of time today talking about professional dilemmas. I was able to workshop a dilemma of my own, and help some colleagues workshop their dilemmas. In this context, a dilemma is “a puzzle, a problem seemingly without any desirable outcomes.” It’s something that keeps you up at night, that you have some power to solve (if you knew what to do!) and is important enough to keep at it.

Going through the dilemma protocols, we asked and were asked probing questions. Questions that pushed our thinking, that made us consider what might really be going on here. And at some point or another, the presenter of the dilemma was asked to share one or two probing questions that really resonated with them. And I noticed something.

The question “What do you fear about…” came up in every single round I participated in. (Ok, so that question stem was listed in the stems for probing questions that we were given.) But also, every single round, the question “What do you fear about…” was one of the questions that the presenter wanted to think about more deeply. (Caveat: I only have four data points right now.)

So I wonder.

How big of a role does fear play in our dilemmas? I don’t think that this is limited to my professional dilemmas. If I think about all the different things that bother me and keep me up at night, how many of them have a component of fear embedded somewhere in that frustration and worry? And how many of those fears are really the fear that this dilemma has the potential to reveal to me that I am not who I thought I was?

From my current perspective, dilemmas seem to threaten identity. If my students really aren’t learning, then does that make me a bad teacher? If what that person said is true, does that make me a bad person? Did they treat me like this because I am not likable? And perhaps, on some level, we already know what we should do to address our dilemmas, but the risk associated with unearthing a threat to identity make us run in the other direction (and spend a lot of time/energy in that running).

I want to think more about identity and the impact it has on our interactions. (Really, right now I should be sleeping, because these days are maxing me out mentally.) This past year, I read through the book “Difficult Conversations” with some other KSTF fellows because we wanted the tools to have those difficult conversations at work. The authors point out that one of the main reasons that conversations are difficult is because they threaten our identity – I don’t want to talk about that because it makes me seem like a jerk and I believe I’m a good person. I don’t want to talk about this because it makes me look incompetent and I believe I’m more than competent. What is the impact of this situation on my self-image, my self-esteem?

I think we react viscerally to threats to identity. Which might be why dilemmas are dilemmas. If this situation threatens my identity in some way (even if I’m not conscious about it), then I’m definitely going to stew about it. So I guess, if I find myself in a dilemma, I need to ask myself – is there something that I fear about this situation? How might that threaten my identity? And then, how do I acknowledge that threat, accept the disruption, and find a way to move forward?

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