For all intents and purposes, Sam is a smart, upbeat and warm family man in his mid-fifties. Anyone who is around him for a few minutes can see that he truly loves people. However, there is another facet to Samuel. He can sometimes be a vicious pit bull in an adversarial negotiation. The slightest show of weakness and he locks on with an iron grip. Heaven helps the person who gets the worst of his pit bull side.
For those who don’t know Sam’s background, those who’ve only seen the warm family man side, the abrupt shift can be disconcerting. “Where in the hell did that vicious pit bull come from?”
It came from what Sam learned was “normal” business behavior from his own father, James. On several occasions, I was given the opportunity to observe James negotiate deals and in every negotiation, big or small, in business and in his entire range of relationships one thing was clear: James was going to get his way. Even though James could be, like his son, warm and even kind, it was always obvious that he had to win. In fact, in several conversations, he told me that he loved the fight and how vitally important it was to win… even with his own son, Sam.
From his dad’s behavior, Sam learned that being a pit bull, sinking your teeth into anyone who crosses you, is “normal.”
However, as a consultant brought in to assist the organization in developing strategic communication skills for a stronger corporate culture, we were standing on the outside of their “normal” and something was glaringly obvious. As much as Sam could and would smile about his father’s behavior in the context of negotiations, he totally missed that this was exactly how his father was with him.
When they disagreed (even over the smallest thing), James would go after his son with the same ferociously as he would a perceived competitor. Furthermore, when we first brought this up with Sam, he blew it off saying, “He’s not usually like that with me.” Of course, through observation, we saw that this was not a one off but was in fact “normal” behavior for James.
When you think about your own family of origin, it is worth reconsidering whether some things you experienced, while normal or familiar for you, were in fact healthy, because familiar and healthy can be vastly different. There are many things that go on inside of a family that we normalize that are actually unhealthy, disempowering and to a varying degree dysfunctional. But if someone is looking for, and in any way committed to safety in the context of what they know, then they will directly or indirectly perpetuate the “normal” dysfunctional behavior.
To help you see what you might have been normalizing, I’d like to segue to the four psychological stages of what used to be called “Battered Woman Syndrome.” I can tell you that they are in no way exclusive to women and no way exclusive to physical violence. For example: Have you ever observed a situation where no blows were struck, but someone ended up feeling beaten? An individual can be beaten without ever being physically struck because not all violence is physical.
Here are the four psychological stages:
The person refuses to admit–even to himself or herself that they have been beaten or that there is a “problem” in the relationship. This individual may call each incident an “accident.” This person offers excuses for their abuser’s violence (physical, mental, or emotional) and each time firmly believes and states that it will never happen again.
At this stage, the “battered” individual now begins to acknowledge that there is a problem but considers themselves responsible for the problem that somehow in someway they “deserved” to be beaten. In speaking with the individual, we come to realize that they believe the reason the abuse is happening is because the abused person has defects in their character, that if they were ‘better’ the abuse wouldn’t happen.
The individual no longer assumes responsibility for his or her abuser’s treatment of them, recognizing that no one “deserves” to be beaten. However, this person will usually still remain committed to the relationship, listing out a long list of reasons why they should stay. It’s at this point that the abused individual starts to feel a little power in hoping that they fix the other individual and can work things out.
Accepting the fact that the abuser will not, or cannot, stop their violent behavior, the battered individual decides that they will no longer submit to it and takes the steps toward starting a new life.
Many individuals in these situations never reach the fourth stage, and will in fact cycle through the first three stages repeatedly.
Why does it take so many steps for a person to leave an abusive situation? The simple answer is that they have normalized the abuse, but the deeper reason is that all of us, in our own ways, are looking for what is going to make us “safe”. However, what makes us safe is not what we would think.
Typically, we all feel safe with that which is familiar to us. The word, familiar comes from the Latin familia, meaning family. So what is familiar to us is whatever we got used to, what is normal for us, usually within our family of origin, as we were growing up. Just as being attacked by his father was normal and familiar to Sam.
It doesn’t have to be bad behavior. If you grew up in an environment of family wealth, then that’s what is normal and familiar for you. If you grew up in a family that valued education, then that’s what normal and familiar for you. If you grew up in a deeply religious family, then that’s what normal and familiar for you. Normal simply is what you accept as “the way things are.”
Stepping out or away from the familiar, whatever it is, will probably feel uncomfortable and possibly “unsafe.” This is the important paradox of safety that we all need to remember. If you are feeling unsafe as you move away from the familiar, you may actually be moving yourself closer to the safe place for your heart, mind and even your soul. You may be becoming more fully aligned with a greater sense of who you truly are and who you need to become.
In my work with clients, I ask a series of questions that I would encourage you to ask yourself in order to examine your ‘familiar’. Be honest. The answers you give yourself can point you toward your own personal North Star of authenticity.
I encourage you to take your time and write out your likely many answers.
- What is familiar to you?
- What is normal to you?
- What have you normalized in the framework of family, that may not be totally healthy?
And most important—what are you going to do about “normal” if you realize it really isn’t “normal” or healthy?
My Authentic Leadership Matrix is free this link! Why? Because one of the questions I’m most often asked is; What authentic leadership is and how do we define it? As a result, with years of experience and extensive requests, I created Authentic Leadership Matrix. It’s designed to give you a clear process of how to perform in each of the five main areas that are required for you to become a world class authentic leader. Start your yes and no evaluation to discover your leadership traits here: http://matrix.fullmontyleadership.com
Want to retain your top talent? Then my “Fiercely Loyal” book is for you! Plus get your free: “How to instantly bond any team” infographic.