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Self-direction - How good is your internal compass?

#emotionalintelligence #empathy #eqfit #purpose #self-direction Feb 27, 2023

Recently we have explored self-awareness and self-management, two of the three major categories of emotional intelligence competencies and skills. Now let's look at self-direction. Self-direction is the ability to stay on course. To do that, we need a clear purpose for our life. Standards that we hold our decisions up to. Think of self-direction as our deep why...why we do the things we do.

Drifting or Shifting

I see many people who score lower in the measure of self-direction on a well validated EQ assessment that we use (the SEI assessment from Six Seconds). What does that mean or look like? Most people who have lower levels of self-direction would admit that they feel adrift. They focus on uncertainty and changing circumstances. They struggle finding an anchor they can hold on to that allows them to focus more on the future with hope and possibility. They are not able to express an overarching goal or purpose for their life that would provide clear direction. Here are some of the comments I have heard when discussing this with people:

  • There is so much uncertainty that I don't even know which direction to go.
  • I feel like I have been just drifting through life with no real direction.
  • I keep cycling around the same thoughts and feelings that are going nowhere.
  • I just feel stuck.

All of these are feelings that have a significant impact on people's lives. Without a clear purpose and set of standards that act as a compass, then being productive and having a sense of balance and well-being are going to be a real challenge.

Shifting is not the same as drifting. Shifting has intention. It is moving in a specific direction by choice. It does not mean that the uncertainty has gone away. It means that even in the face of uncertainty and the unknown, someone is choosing to move forward in a specific direction.


One of the EQ competencies/skills in the category of self-direction is empathy. Empathy is a two way street. What do I mean by that? We usually think of empathy as "putting ourselves in someone else's place", understanding their perceptions and perspective. Giving them "empathy" by listening to them with the purpose to truly understand what they are thinking, feeling, and how this is impacting them. People's perceptions are the reality they operate in. Whether this is accurate or not, it is the environment that they will make decisions and take actions from.

But do you do that for yourself?

You are a person. You have your own perceptions and perspective. You have things you believe to be true about yourself and your place in the world. You have rules you have created to live your life by. From those things, you generate your self-talk.

How much empathy is included in your self-talk?

If you are like me, there are times my self-talk is not very forgiving or empathetic. I think we all might be that way at times. Being self-critical is something that most of us experience. The challenge with being self-critical is that it can easily turn into us judging ourselves and then becoming resentful of ourselves for the way we said or did something. This can easily lead to regret, doubt, a loss of confidence, and if it goes on long enough, can become something more serious like discouragement, disappointment in ourselves, or even depression.

Empathy is a two way street. Yes, we need to increase empathy toward others, but we also need to do that for ourselves. How is empathy a part of self-direction? Because it is the fuel that allows us to move forward. To build trust. To trust yourself. To connect with others in a deeper and more meaningful way. To free ourselves from thinking and feelings that keep us stuck or hold us back.

Self-direction, the ability to be true to ourselves and what is important to us, must include empathy so that we can better navigate the emotional environment in ourselves and in others. Staying true to your convictions will be tested. You will experience distractions, disruptions, and detours. Emotional detractors can easily derail us if we allow them to. Here is another way to look at this:

  • When you start to feel like judging, either yourself or someone else, turn that into curiosity.
  • When you begin to get frustrated, find a way to turn that into excitement.
  • When fear rises up in you, practice courage (not the absence of fear but the willingness to keep moving forward even in the face of fear)

Some practical tips: To practice empathy with yourself and others, start by reflecting on these things:

  • What do I observe to be true?
  • What do I not know?
  • What is a good decision to make to stay in alignment with my standards and the rules I live by?
  • Take action, then begin this process again...Observe, Orient, Decide, Act...what is called the OODA loop.

The OODA loop with provide you with a process that gives you an objective approach. (For more on the OODA Loop, check our "Making Your Best Decisions" on YouTube.)

Now add to that the emotional component. Identify, name, and define the emotions you are having. Try to do that with other people as well. How do we do that? We are equipped with "mirror neurons" in our brains. Think of these as your network of emotional radar, picking up emotional signals from other people. These insights will provide even deeper understanding of how to practice empathy with yourself, and with others.


Can you express the over arching purpose for your life? Think, what legacy do I want to leave? Or maybe, what is/are the non-negotiable standard(s) I choose to live my life by?

Many people will call this your "WHY". Why you do the things you do. Why you make the choices you make. Why you take the actions you take.

This is a critical competency/skill in EQ (emotional intelligence). The more defined this is for you, the more likely you are to have strong self-direction. In a world that rewards short attention spans and shallow reflection, coming up with what your true purpose is can be a challenge. But it is definitely worth the investment of your time and effort to do this.

In times of pressure and stress, those who have a well defined purpose for their life will be able to make decisions more quickly and stay true to their chosen direction. This over arching purpose is an important anchor in the storms of life. It provides direction even when the way ahead is unclear. That is why I have referred to this as a compass. How well is your compass serving you?

Self-direction or Self-leadership

I have also heard self-direction called self-leadership. So which is right. Actually, both of these are right.

When I train, coach, and consult, I share a belief that I have. Everyone is a leader. You may not agree with that statement but let me explain what I mean by that. We learn to lead ourselves well first, then we can lead other people. I have seen some of the lowest level people in organizations display more leadership than executives withing the same organization. How? Leading by example.

If we are going to become strong in our self-direction, that happens from the inside out. We need to have a clear purpose, a measure we hold our decisions up to. We also need to practice empathy, toward others, and toward ourselves.


Several years ago, when I was working with someone who was struggling with their life choices, we had a very open conversation about all of the mistakes he had made in his life. I could sense the self-judgement and regret this individual was experiencing. He had built patterns in his brain to reinforce this negative self-talk. It created roadblocks to building trust, good relationships, self-worth, belonging, motivation, and a host of other important elements in their life. That was when the topic of empathy came up in the conversation. This individual looked at me and said, "You sure have a lot of empathy to listen to all of my messes." To which I replied, "Thank you, yes I try to practice empathy as much as I can...I wish you could do that for yourself." Silence. I could see him processing what I had just said. Then a smile. It was one of those rare moments when something you say cuts through all of the noise and resonates deeply with another person. Then he asked the most interesting question..."Do you think that the way I think about my choices and mistakes is keeping me from doing better?" What I wanted to say was, "what do you think." But that is such a stereotypical response. Instead, here is what I said, "If you could turn the judgement you are living in to curiosity, what would that do for you?" A long silence. Then, "It can't be that easy, can it?" No, it isn't that easy, but it can be done.

Self-direction is a choice. How many people do you see that seem to simply drift along through life at the mercy of their circumstances? In truth, I think we all experience that at times. Self-direction takes effort and energy. It is tempting to switch on the auto-pilot.  That is much less effort, but are the outcomes what we want them to be? Probably not.

We started by exploring the question, "How good is your internal compass?" I am not talking about your sense of direction geographically. Instead, how well does your self-direction compass keep you on the path you want to stay on? The beauty of all of this is simple and have total control of building your desired level of self-direction. What does your journey look like?


For more, check out our other resources:

EQFIT® YouTube Channel


EQFIT® Podcast

 Copyright © 2023 EQFIT® - Author: Steven Goodner. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except as permitted by U.S. copyright law. For permissions contact: [email protected]

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