“We shape ourselves to fit this world and by the world are shaped again.” David Whyte

All of us have behaviors shaped by factors outside of ourselves.

Leadership developer and founding co-president of the U.K. chapter of the International Coach Federation Aboodi Shabi talks with us today about how we can identify and transform our learned behaviors. Enjoy!

From Apartheid to Great Expectations

In the introduction to Peter Senge’s book “Presence”, there is a powerful story from a leadership workshop Senge was running in South Africa in 1990 during the last days of the Apartheid system.

During the workshop, which was for both blacks and whites, the participants were shown a video of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which had been banned in South Africa, and which many of them had never seen before.

After the video was shown, one of the participants, a white Afrikaans businessman, turned to one of the black community leaders, Anne Loetsebe, and said to her: “I want you to know that I was raised to think you were an animal.” And then he started crying. Anne just held him in her gaze and nodded. (You can read the full story here.)

Similarly, Estella, the adoptive daughter of Miss Havisham in Dickens’ novel “Great Expectations”, is depicted as being unable to love because she was brought up by a mother who had hated men after being jilted at the altar.

Learned Behavior: It Can Change

Stories like that illustrate that people aren’t “racist” because they are fundamentally evil or bad, nor are they “unable to love” because they are inherently unemotional. We are the way that we are because that’s what we have learned. And the things that we assess as character “deficiencies” might simply be things we have or have not learned.

“We are the way that we are because that’s what we have learned.”

When I work with people, in all kinds of contexts and situations, I frequently hear statements like “That’s just the way that I am,” “I’m really bad at asking for help,” or, “I’m never going to be any good at leadership.”

On further exploration, we usually discover that, at some point in their early lives, they were trained to be a certain way, or not trained in a particular competency.

Suddenly, what initially seemed to them as a character flaw becomes simply a recognition of a lack of learning or training, and then a different kind of possibility occurs – the possibility to train in a different way, to learn a new way of being.

“What seems a character flaw can become simply a recognition of a lack of learning or training, and then a different kind of possibility occurs.”

Of course, as with the stories above of the Afrikaner businessman or Estella, this realisation can bring with it a lot of pain, regret over what we might have missed or sadness over not having realised this earlier. There are so many things I wish I’d known when I was twenty, rather than having to wait until I was thirty or forty or fifty, to discover!

Feeling Freedom

Once we realise those things, there’s a new kind of freedom as well as a compassion that sets in when we realise that we’re not intrinsically flawed, but that we have been trained to live, think, or be a certain kind of way. Then, we can be available for learning – for re-training – in a way that we were not before this understanding.

Girl Running, Aboodi Shabi, Goaly Blog


That awareness can bring about a powerful shift in our mood – we’re not doomed to be the way we might have been all of our lives. We can learn something new – in much the same way as we are not doomed to only being able to speak our native language because that’s what we learned growing up, so we are not condemned to being unable to love, or to not being able to ask for help, etc.

Simply put, once we understand that who we are is, to a large extent, who we have learned to be, we can learn to be something new.

Questions for Reflection

  • You might like to take a look at “who you are” – at your characteristics and personality, and reflect on how you might have learned to be that way.
  • If you have aspects of yourself that you see as ‘flaws’, can you see them as simply ‘things you have learned’?
  • What do these reflections open up for you?

© Aboodi Shabi – 2015
aboodi@aboodishabi.com - www.aboodishabi.com


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