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How I gained my self-awareness

Justin Shelley Leadership & Life Coach.

For this month’s blog, I had planned to write an article on the power of self-awareness. However, as I began to collate my ideas, it struck me that there might be a better way to explain what self-awareness is, and that is by telling you the story of how I gained my own.

You see I wasn’t always so self-aware, quite the contrary in fact.

My story wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience for me at the time, but it does have a happy ending, else I probably would not be sitting here writing about it. Like all stories, mine needs to be told in a manner that is truthful and honest, so that it may in turn help other people who have or possibly are currently experiencing similar pain.

An introduction to Brian

Before I begin my story, I’d like to introduce you to Brian. Now, Brian isn’t a real person, but he is a significant part of me and I like to think of him as an entity in his own right. You see, Brian is my inner critic (my ego) and he plays a key part in my story. It has always been Brian’s job to keep me safe ever since I was able to think for myself and, for many years, he did a pretty good job.

It wasn’t until much later in my life that I became aware of Brian. You could say that we were forced together. I’ll explain how I met Brian in a later blog but for now, you just need to know that he exists.

My story begins

I guess you might call me a bit of a perfectionist at work (still true in many aspects), where throughout my career everything I produced had to be just so.

I had been employed by Credit Suisse for almost ten years and had just been promoted to VP. I was a hard worker; I put in the hours and thought I enjoyed my job.

Shortly after my promotion, there was a change in management (spanner control). As a result, I was given a new set of responsibilities and a ‘career-changing opportunity’. The thrill of promotion was soon short-lived, however, and the reality of my so-called success began to sink in.

Why the hell did I go for this promotion?

Not long after being promoted, I would begin to work a ridiculous number of hours; I was presenting a perfect corporate face and delivering way beyond any of my peers. I was also always striving to be the perfect version of myself in the workplace, probably to compensate for my persistent imposter syndrome.

As the months progressed, my working hours started to get longer. Every day I would get up earlier, my inbox would get fuller and my days would keep extending. I remember looking over the office and realising everyone else had gone home for the night, but I was still working until 10:00 pm. The work was relentless.

I also remember feeling constantly tense. I wasn’t able to relax and when colleagues would speak to me, I wasn’t really there, my mind would always be on my project, or focusing on what I hadn’t done and ‘What if I didn’t finish this piece of work?' What would ‘they’ do to me it was found out that I couldn’t cope with my workload?

Failure was not an option and I was not about to let anyone find out about my concerns.

God forbid!

There were times when I would be sitting at my desk feeling so overwhelmed that I could sense the tension crawling up my body like a negative, dense electric charge. My brain was fuzzy, I could not concentrate, and despite sitting in a room full of warm friendly faces, I felt completely alone and isolated. In hindsight, I now recognise that I was experiencing acute anxiety, but this was back in 2009 before anyone openly talked about anxiety or stress.

I just thought this was normal for me at the time, even though I should have reached out for help. But I was too scared to ask.

My head would be telling me that if I reached out, everyone would find out I was a fraud, that I could not do my job and I would lose everything. I did not see that I had a choice.

Cue Brian

‘Oh, the shame of it' (he would repeat in my head).

So it seemed that I was right, after all; I was a fraud.

'You’re just a stupid boy from Luton with no degree,' Brian would say. 'You cannot tell anyone you hear me, I forbid it. Just keep pretending, Justin, or they might find you out’.

As the months went by, things gradually got worse and, even though I had more work than I could manage due to my tenacity and drive (induced by my fear and Brian’s constant voice in my head), I continued to deliver my workload (on time and budget), only to find that even more expectations were put upon me by the business.

Does this sound familiar?

It is important to point out that at this stage that I was not overtly conscious of Brian’s influence; although by this time, it was pretty much ruling my life. I was oblivious to my behaviour or the turbulent emotions that were constantly eating away inside me. I was not brought up to push back or question authority (that was not part of my nature or nurture). In fact, questioning authority was probably what scared me the most.

I had therefore accepted my fate.

After months of tolerating an excruciating level of self-doubt and emotional turmoil my body began to give in. Cracks began to show, anxiety began to manifest itself; eczema would appear on my face in patches and my sleep pattern began to suffer.

Whilst on a business trip in Zurich, I have a vivid memory of leading a project meeting with two of my Swiss peers. I recall partway through the meeting I began to freeze. Something strange was happening to me. I could see people talking, but I could not hear them. The more they spoke, the more I would freeze. A tingling sensation started in my arms and began to creep its way through me as sweat began to pour out of every pore in my body. Then the shaking started. I couldn’t breathe, and my head felt like it was going to explode.

I felt like a terrified child.

And then my brain went pop!

I was so frightened and ashamed at this point that I could not cope. I wanted to run out of the meeting, charge out of the office, and never come back.

Fortunately for me, I somehow didn’t.

I do not recall how I managed to get out of that meeting without breaking down and crying, but somehow, I did.

I had just experienced what it was like to have a full-blown panic attack. I thought I was going to die. Unfortunately for me, that Zurich episode left me with a paralysing trigger that would force me to partly relive that mental and physical experience every time I felt the slightest amount of anxiety at work.

I do not recall how long it was between this first episode and the moment I hit the floor. I was at home at the time with my partner. I had just got out of the shower and was getting ready for work when I broke down on the floor, sobbing my heart out. I don’t remember banging my hands on the floor, but I do remember screaming 'I just can’t cope any more.'

I had finally fallen apart. I was a broken man.

Gaining consciousness

My road to recovery was a slow one. I was signed-off by my employer immediately and told to rest and not think about work (though for anyone who has worked in a fast-paced industry such as financial services that is not as easy as it may appear).

As part of my recovery, I took it upon myself to understand what had happened. Although I had probably been living with a level of anxiety all my life I had never really heard of it, let alone understood it. Panic attacks were something we never talked about at work, and what was this term ‘burnout’ that people were beginning to talk to me about?

During that first month of recovery, a friend of mine gifted me a copy of The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. It is this book that started my road to recovery because it taught me how to be present in the moment, not in the past or the future, but just now.

I remember reading the book in awe because I managed to stop for the first time in years. I recall looking up and seeing a tree moving in the wind. It was like I was looking at the world with a fresh pair of eyes. I had not had time to look around me like this for a long time.

The time that I spent with myself over the next six months was precious. It was exactly what I needed. I was looking after myself and reading self-development books I would never have dreamt of reading before. As I did so, I gradually started to learn more about myself and gained a level of empathy regarding what I had been through.

I woke up

Before my breakdown, I didn’t fully understand my feelings. I did not know why I reacted so quickly in a particular situation or why I would get so angry or scared when faced with a challenge, criticism or confrontation. As I began to explore myself more, my hunger for insight and knowledge increased. I had woken up, I had become conscious.

Despite this birth of my self-awareness, when I finally went back to back to work the deep trauma was still there. At it’s worst, whenever triggered I couldn’t speak up in meetings. Whenever I was put under pressure or became the central focus of a meeting I would stutter and stumble over my words. I could no longer be trusted in meetings because my experience would repeat itself over and over again.

However sad this may sound, I had gained something invaluable from my experience, despite my nervousness and a new speech impediment (which I can laugh about now); I had gained choice. From this point, I knew I could do something about the situation.

I had the power to make changes.

Every experience is an opportunity

Looking back, what happened to me was inevitable. I was pretending to be someone I was not and I was not equipped with the tools and knowledge to cope with what was happening. By gaining insight, I learnt to navigate my thoughts and emotions and, as a result, I have now carved out a career that aligns with my true value.

As coaches, we are taught that every experience presents us with an opportunity, whatever the perspective of the situation.

So what insights did mine provide me with?

  1. I got to know myself properly again, the real me, not the version of myself that I was projecting or the version everyone wanted me to be.

  2. I experienced a brain reset (though I’d like to call this a spiritual awakening). I was functioning on autopilot for such a long time that I was ignoring the signs. My body was telling me I was on a course for destruction and telling me to stop. I learnt the hard way.

  3. Before my crash, I had zero self-awareness. Post-crash I gained this awareness and was gradually able to understand myself. It was this awareness that gave me the power to pick myself up and to do things differently.

  4. Without awareness, I could not have been able to change anything externally because the emotional baggage and Brian (that voice in my head) would have kept me where I was in life.

  5. I got to stop and, as a result, the understanding this pause generated was priceless.

My story was about extremes and one that I am now grateful for. However, the road to transformation could have been much easier had I gained self-awareness sooner.

In my case, my body forced me down an unavoidable route. I look back now and acknowledge my journey as part of my human adventure and as a gift.

What I want to share with this story is the message that it does not matter where you are or where you’ve been. With awareness and support from the right people, you can achieve anything.

You do not have to remain trapped; you don’t have to allow your journey to define you.

Your past is your past. Do not let it hold you back.

That is yesterday’s news.


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