Self-care and self-awareness in managing

Laura Freebairn-Smith and Tony Panos
Date Published: 2018, Organizational Performance Group

Does managing both exhaust and excite you?

Based on our experience with teaching thousands of managers and leaders, we estimate that only 10% of people are naturals at managing and leading, which are psychologically demanding responsibilities.

Often it is the lure of higher compensation or more status that causes people to say yes to managing and leading. Only later do they realize that they have left behind the very activities and content that made them happy in their field.

The accountant no longer balances books; as a leader, she spends all day in meetings on strategy and performance reviews. The architect no longer designs building; instead he spends his days reviewing budgets and interviewing job applicants.

Before taking on a management or leadership position, ask yourself if you really want not only the psychological load of leading and managing, but also the daily content. As Annie Dillard, the writer, said, ““How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives.” Choose to spend your days doing things that give you as much joy as possible.

If you say yes to managing and leading, your need for self-awareness, self-management, and self-care escalates. What really matters now is your ability to work with people and manage yourself.


 “The most powerful relationship you will ever have

 is the relationship with yourself.”

                                                  Steve Maraboli


In this article we share a few of many tools we use to help our clients self-manage and develop self-awareness.

 “Oxygen and the air pressure are always being monitored. In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person. Keep your mask on until a uniformed crew member advises you to remove it.”


Your prime directive in any situation is to take care of yourself. Self-care is a pre-requisite for organizational health; you are the primary source of balance, direction, vision, and energy for your group. There is a direct correlation between your organization’s success and your well-being – never doubt it.

However, this seems to be one of the hardest areas for many leaders to attend to; the list of reasons our clients at OPG give us as to why they can’t improve their self-care and work-life balance is long, and frankly sometimes tedious to listen to. It’s as if they have abdicated all control over their lives.

  • “Once this project is done, I’ll start working out again.”
  • “If I don’t work 90 hours a week, then my staff won’t.”
  • “I’m too busy at home to exercise.”
  • “I can’t say no to _____.” (fill in the blank)

As Bob Newhart says in one of his classic skits, “Stop it or I’ll bury you alive in a box.” If you truly can’t find your way to take better care of yourself and create better balance in your life, and your health and relationships are suffering, it is time to see a counselor.

But, it’s okay to be mildly out of balance for intermittent periods in different domains in your life. When we are in graduate school, sometimes our spiritual life takes a back seat. When our children are young, our social relationships can take a back seat. There is no such thing as a perfectly in-balance life.

It is the conscious choice to focus on one area over another, for a limited period of time, without inflicting long-term damage on others or on a different aspect of your life, that is the mark of someone who is consciously practicing self-care.

Here’s a ‘wheel of self-care.’ Take a moment to look at the six domains. Are you okay with the current emphasis in your life? What might need more attention? Less attention?


The greatest gift you can give others around you is self-awareness – awareness of how you come off, what your triggers are, what matters to you, what you love, what you hate. One test for your level of self-awareness is how surprised you are when you hear critical feedback. As one of Laura’s professors once said, “After a certain age, if you are surprised by the feedback, you haven’t been listening.” We would add that you haven’t been doing THE WORK. Self-awareness takes work.

And the benefits are enormous. The more self-aware you become, the more you are in full choice in every aspect of your life. Self-awareness is often focused on changing problematic behaviors but it can be even more powerful when it is used to affirm strengths and allow you to use problematic behaviors in better ways.

We do say often to our clients, “You get paid too much to be yourself.” What do we mean? Work to decrease inflicting the hurtful, counterproductive behaviors you have on others. At the top of the organizational food chain, you can get away with all kinds of bad and hurtful behaviors because no one can risk being fully honest with you. Self-awareness might not eliminate all your less-helpful behaviors but it will help you reduce their frequency of appearance, and allow you to talk about them when they come up.

No one is asking you to be perfect; just be your best loving self.


Monkey Mind and Comparative Mind

We want to share two other habits that are profoundly detrimental to human beings, especially managers and leaders, and those around them – monkey mind and comparative mind.

Zen Buddhists refer to the constant chatter of the mind as monkey mind. The Buddha held that the human mind is filled with drunken monkeys flinging themselves from tree branches, jumping around, and chattering nonstop. He meant that our minds are in constant motion. Typical mind chatter sounds like the following:

  • Your mind reading off a laundry list of to-do items
  • Your mind listing its fears, both real and imaginary
  • Your mind recalling hurtful things that have happened in the past
  • Your mind judging the present
  • Your mind creating catastrophic “what-if” scenarios of the future

Source: Tame your monkey mind


Reduce the monkey mind chatter with ‘spheres of influence’ thinking.

Focus primarily on what you can control so you can have greater influence, focus less on what you can influence, and not at all on what you can’t control or influence. You will improve your opportunity to influence outcomes by focusing on what you can control – you.

And, by the way, you cannot control other people’s thoughts or feelings at all. Period. Full stop.

Comparative mind contributes to our pain and imbalance. We live in a competitive culture where status is determined by who has the most money, who won the game or the argument, and more. We are also plagued by self-criticism, often harshly judging our life experiences.

These mental states generate much suffering. Comparative mind often sounds like, “She’s got more money,” “I didn’t do enough today,” “Why can’t I get as good grades as he does,” “I’m not as thin as that person,” and on and on it goes – the mind in full negation of the moment and the beauty of what is right now.

The problem with this thinking is that it detracts from self-confidence, takes your eye off the present moment and the possibility of enjoying that moment, and takes you out of your own immediate experience. Comparative mind also creates aggression and fear.

Actions you can DO to make things better

  • Meditate and practice mindfulness
  • Go to counseling
  • Talk to yourself in the mirror
  • Keep a journal
  • As comparative mind arises, notice the comparisons and let them float away
  • Acknowledge what is great about right now
  • Practice the 4 Ds: Do, Delegate, Drop, Delay; and most of all, don’t raise your hand
  • Recognize aggression as a sign that you are trying to control something you can’t
  • Be assertive; not aggressive, assertive; it helps build influence


“We are what we pretend to be,

so we must be careful about

 what we pretend to be.”

                                 Kurt Vonnegut Jr.


About the Authors: 

Laura Freebairn-Smith is Partner and Co-Founder of Organizational Performance Group.  Her specialty is assisting leaders in realizing the full potential of their organizations through humanistic and analytical practices, while offering guidance in the redesign of infrastructure, the creation of strategic plans, and with organizational development.


Anthony Panos is Partner and Co-Founder of Organizational Performance Group.  Tony specializes in executive and team coaching and training. Tony teaches, consults, and facilitates group meetings to improve organizational culture and streamline operations.Tony brings a wealth of business management and training experience to his workshop programs, facilitation, and coaching.


For more information on Organizational Performance Group and our work with exceptional organizations, please visit us on the web at www.orgpg.com or email us at info@orgpg.com.

[1] https://www.orlandoinsightmeditation.org/2011/comparing-mind/

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