Dr. Rebecca Heiss uses her degrees in biology in a non-traditional manner, helping people overcome evolutionary limitations that are hardwired in the brain and improve their self-awareness and leadership skills. She’s also an ornithologist, which means that she can tell us what we can learn about this type of human behavior by studying birds. As it turns out, we’re not all that different.
Rebecca created the app Icuiety to help users foster self-awareness by showing them the gap between how they perceive themselves and how others perceive them — and what they can do with this information. She’s continued her investigation of the human brain with her new book “Instinct: Rewire Your Brain with Science-Backed Solutions to Increase Productivity and Achieve Success.” If you’re interested in improving your performance by learning how to see yourself more accurately, discovering methods you can use to rewire your brain and live more positively, and hearing about how birds fit into all of this, you’ll enjoy this episode.
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What Birds Are Telling Us About Our Own Self-Awareness
I live in a wooded area that’s besieged by crows, and I can tell you that the more their habitat is disrupted by construction, the angrier they become. They’re making it clear to us humans that they don’t appreciate what’s going on around them. Rebecca tells us that crows are indeed acutely affected by their surroundings. “One of my first big academic papers was about the difference between urban and rural crows. And true to form, the urban crows behave more like urban humans,” she says. “They’re not as healthy. They’re actually more stressed out.”
The awareness that crows possess carries over into many facets of their social lives that mimic our own. “They live socially in family groups. They visit the little local grocery store where multiple families mingle and gather together the compost pile,” she explains. “They are incredibly social and smart.”
So what can we take away from studying our similarities? One thing is the power of working together to achieve things that are greater than ourselves. “When we look at the American crow, cooperation wins out over competition frequently, because what ends up happening is these groups of crows can team up and work against their much bigger hawks,” says Rebecca. “The power of cooperation, the value of family and belonging, I think there’s a ton of stuff we can learn from birds.”
When we think about self-awareness, it seems to always go one of three ways. There are people who overestimate their abilities, there are people who sell themselves short and experience imposter syndrome, and there are people who would just rather not reflect at all. Rebecca’s work focuses on why it’s so important to gain an accurate reflection of who we are and where our actual strengths lie.
“When I first started developing Icuiety, which is this way to measure our self-awareness, I rated myself as being really funny. ‘I’m going to give myself a 7 out of 10,’” Rebecca recalls. “I sent it to my family, and I immediately got back 2s.” She discusses how jarring it can be to discover that the qualities that we tend to focus on in ourselves may not be the strongest points that others see in us.
But learning harsh truths about how the world sees us doesn’t have to feel demoralizing. According to Rebecca, it can actually be empowering to get an accurate read so that you can know what your strengths are and where you need to improve. “Real, true self-awareness is sitting with that discomfort and saying, ‘That’s OK. I don’t have to be [strong] on all of these traits.’ But it’s really important that I know how I present so that I’m not showing up with humor to a challenge. I can show up with an actual strength of mine.”
Replace ANTS With PETS
I often hear from HR practitioners who have so many great ideas that they bring to an organization. They feel that they know their own worth but constantly receive pushback from executives and leaders. It’s hard not to internalize these negative messages. Part of self-awareness is learning about the systems in place that we operate from and what we can do to rewire our own brains to avoid negative thinking.
Rebecca explains that from an evolutionary perspective, negative thoughts actually once kept us vigilant and safe. She refers to these as Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANTs. “It’s the thoughts that kept us alive: ‘I shouldn’t challenge this because the system will beat me down. Maybe I should just keep quiet because this feels a little bit dangerous,’” she explains. “Those are thoughts that, for the ancestral environment which was much more dangerous … were good thoughts to have. But today, no. These thoughts are pervasive. They’re swarming us constantly and we’ve got to start smooshing them.”
By her own admission, getting rid of ANTs is no easy task because of how ingrained they are. There is a fix, but it takes effort on our part. Rebecca says that we can replace them with PETs, or Practiced Enlightened Thoughts. Here’s an example:
- Have an ANT: “I’m not valuable.”
- Replace with a PET: “I’m not valuable for whom?”
Stopping to investigate why we are holding this narrative is key to correcting those harmful internal thoughts. It helps to differentiate our own values from what we believe is expected of us by others, and these moments become opportunities for growth. “If we’re not valuable or worthy as we are for ourselves first, we can’t change the system,” Rebecca adds. “Those kinds of positive mantras, those reinforcements, actually change the connections in our brain.“'There's this tension constantly between what the world wants of us and who we are. And I think that true awareness is finding a good balance between the two.' ~ Dr. Rebecca Heiss. Hear more about self-awareness on this episode of Punk Rock HR! Click To Tweet