Heartstyles blog

The key to growth? Breaking your vows


Dr. Mara Klemich – Founder & Consulting Psychologist

As we've said before, developing strength of character increases our capacity to choose effective behaviours - even under stress. Unfortunately, it's not just the stresses of the present we have to contend with. Often, experiences in our past can drive us below the line.

In this blog, we'll dive a little deeper into how prior experiences shape our behaviour...

A super-simple, highly-complex formula

At Heartstyles we often make reference to the following equation: S+T=B.

The 'S' stands for 'Situation', the 'T' is for 'Thinking' and the resulting 'B' is 'Behaviour'. In essence, the formula simply states that certain situations prompt us to think in certain ways, and we act accordingly. If that sounds simplistic, you probably won't be surprised to learn there's quite a lot more to it.

At different times, the 'T' can also stand for 'triggers', 'templates' or 'truths'. These three things are all slightly different, but there's a lot of overlap between them. In combination, they go a long way to determining how we see the world.

Breaking each down quickly, they could be defined as follows:

Triggers: These are usually stimuli that - based on a negative past experience - cause us to feel threatened.

Truths: Far from being objective, these personal truths are the conclusions we've arrived at about the world. We may not even be aware of what our 'truths' are - to us, they just seem to be facts of life. However, when we hold them up to scrutiny, they generally turn out to be responses to specific episodes in our pasts.

Templates: These are strategies we develop to help us avoid discomfort - be it emotional or physical. When our triggerscome into play, we use our templatesas a coping mechanism. Unfortunately, our templatesoften lead us into below the line behaviours (which we rationalise using our truths).

Let's illustrate these ideas with a real world example:

Badly bitten as a child, Jane is terrified of dogs. In a situation (S) that brings her close to a dog, her T's would be as follows:

Trigger: Barking or any movements that could be interpreted as aggressive.

Truth: Dogs are dangerous.

Template: Get away from the danger.

Naturally, faced with a dog, Jane is likely to run. That's as understandable as it is predictable. But that doesn't make it necessary. After all, most dogs are harmless - regardless of whether they bark or jump. (And that's the essential difference between the truth and ourtruth).

In Jane's case, her pattern of behaviour is unlikely to hold her back in life to any great extent.  But what happens when the stakes are higher - and the sources of our triggers, truths and templates are more obscure 

Voids, wounds and vows

The three elements in the heading above all play a pivotal role in shaping behaviour. Let's turn to Above the Line: Living and Leading with Heart to clarify what we mean by those first two terms:

"Voids are best seen as a lack of - usually a lack of love, esteem, self-worth, security, education, a parent, or achievement. The wounds come from attacks on our hearts: rejection, criticism, being made fun of, failures we never move past."

Jane's wound (being a dog bite) was very literal - and its impact on her future behaviour is therefore easy to spot, understand and accommodate. But when it comes to emotional matters, it can be hard for us to grasp how things that happened a long time ago - and may have been of little consequence in hindsight - can, nevertheless, continue to influence us years later.

Our own co-founder and neuropsychologist, Mara, is a case in point. She recalls how spoiling the preparations for a special dinner by dropping her mother's family glassware (and other such accidents) impacted her as a young child:

"[I] developed an inner truth [...] If you want to be loved, don't make mistakes."

Furthermore, she can see how this 'truth' went on to affect her work as an adult:

"There were so many moments when, driven by fear of criticism and by pride to prove my worth and reputation, I became stressed, abrupt, negative, and critical. [...] In those moments I was fulfilling an inner vow: I will never make a mistake again. I have to do it right."

It's near enough impossible to start shifting your behaviours without a deep understanding of the kinds of vow Mara describes above. And while the Heartstyles Indicatoris a great tool for showing where you're at, that's just a first step. Figuring out how you got there is something that can only be achieved by taking time to reflect on the formative experiences of your life.

It could be that you've vowed never to take another risk in business. Or never to show vulnerability at work. Whatever it is, it's probably designed to narrow the paths you can take in life. And that makes growth very difficult. 

Put the past in the past

To navigate life successfully, we have to be able to deal with what's in front of us. If we're hanging onto a vow made years before - even one we've made subconsciously - we limit our ability to do that. We'll base our actions in the present on feelings from the past and, as a result, get stuck in cycles of ineffective behaviour.

Building character provides a way out of that cycle. But doing that depends on leaving our comfort zone. And for many of us there is no territory so foreboding as the voids and wounds in our past. That's why our process puts so much emphasis on supporting participants as they come to grips with their triggers, truths and templates - then break the vows that hold them back. 

Ready to start your own Heartstyles journey? Contact us.