What Story Do You Carry?

You get to choose which stories you use!
You get to choose which stories you use!

I felt moved as I read the transcript from a Ted Talk given by the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie, titled “The Danger of a Single Story”. She spoke of her early love of reading, initially always Western children’s books. When she wrote stories in school they mirrored what she had read, not her experience. Later she went to university in the USA. Her roommate met her and voiced stereotyped expectations of her, a view developed from the stilted view portrayed in Western media of the African “country”. A professor even rejected her writing, now of her experiences in growing up, as not being authentically African, because she wrote of reading and speaking English, having a happy childhood, and not to his flawed idea that all of Africa was war torn, starving and destitute. She shared other stories of a similar ilk.

We all carry stories. A few may be inspiring, liberating and expansive. These rare gems will act to open the mind to possibilities and lift judgements placed by others to uncover potential. I am all for this type of story.

Generally, the stories we naturally carry are restrictive, declaring the nature of groups and individuals based on their fit to some specific characteristic. As such they cloud our ability to see others as they are when the stories we apply (without even realising it!) rule out any other possibilities as being reasonable. They get in the way of us appreciating the diversity of others. They are essential for bigotry to occur. The stories separate people, cultures, groups, nations, political parties, gangs and peer groups. Their liberal use stops us seeing others for who they really are, and connecting in a meaningful manner. With a story clouding our perception we tend to mentally validate our story by finding any matching attributes, and filtering any mismatch. It is a mechanism the brain uses to simplify processing the complex data. It leads to erroneous and limiting judgements: “This person is a … therefore”:

  • they are …
  • their experience and background is …
  • they judge me as …
  • they expect …
  • they cannot …
  • they don’t know …
  • they value …
  • They are different from me because …
  • they should be [pitied / hated / loved / shunned / included / excluded / listened to / … ] because …

And so the list goes on.

The really interesting thing is we also can and do carry stories about ourselves. All the above may be rephrased with “I” instead of “they”. We then have a belief about ourselves that indicates the story we hold about who we are, what we can achieve, our strengths and weaknesses. This story is often inherited from our childhood, and we then fail to update the story as we grow and develop. We can hear old stories of ourselves from inside that are long out of date. Unchallenged, they persist. Even when they are challenged, these old familiar stories return on the slightest indication that they will be tolerated.

A great thing about coaching is the powerful assistance it can provide in recognising and adjusting the stories you work with.

How Can I Respond Usefully to a Story I Carry?

First, recognise that any of the above sample scripts, or others similar in intent, are running. Whether about you or someone you are meeting, these statement of judgement are a clear indication a story is running, that you are generalising about this person based on some arbitrary criteria.

Second, acknowledge to yourself that this process is limiting your perception and there may be a different or broader perception to be had of this person. Again, this applies as much to stories about ourselves as it does of those about others.

Third, ask questions of yourself that open your mind to alternatives. Examples include:

  • What [does this person / do I] bring to this situation that is of value and different from what I know (I.e. my current story)?
  • What do I notice about [this person / me] in this situation that is outside my previous experience (I.e. Different from my story of them)?
  • What is one thing of value [this person bring / I bring] that I hadn’t recognised and acknowledged? What’s another one?

Each of these questions serves to challenge the mind in a way the mind likes to be challenged. They are open questions asking for investigation and inquiry. The mind will respond with answers, and in so doing will have to adjust the story it was carrying. That said, some stories are so deeply burned into our psyche that it will take many such intentional challenges to create a shift to a new one.

Forth, actually engage with the person in an open dialogue, mentally holding the possibility that your story is incomplete or incorrect. Become a ‘naïve inquirer’ and ask questions of them to understand who they really are and what matters to them.

One of the stories I carry about myself is “I am inadequate.” That shows up in almost every context, is generally thoroughly unfounded, and the monotony of repeatedly retraining my brain can be frustrating. However, the breakthrough of doing so is worthwhile because then I shift mentally and emotionally into a free space where productive action becomes possible. In fact, when I step out of my story of inadequacy the question about success does not show up. I am in the “zone” and make things happen as a matter of course, the mind not interfering.
What is getting in your way with yourself or others? What groups or individuals do you exclude because …? Are you prepared to entertain the possibility that the stories you hold may be invalid, even if only for the person in front of you?

Freeing yourself of the limiting effect of stories opens the possibility of new and exciting opportunities, relationships and outcomes. Which of your stories needs to be dropped? All the best with the adventure of redrafting your world through changing your stories.

Tuning Your Sea Anchor

Wrong turn somewhere
A working sea anchor may have made a difference to this outcome.

A sea anchor stabilises a boat in heavy weather by increasing drag and providing a breaking mechanism. It also supports the boat from turning broadside into the waves, reducing the risk of being swamped or capsized.

We have our own form of internal sea anchor that reduces our speed and keeps us moving in consistent direction. Two components of our sea anchor are our conscience and our inner critic. While our habits, patterns of behaviour and beliefs also tend to keep us following a consistent line, they function more as a corral that limits our movement rather than slowing us or bringing us back in line.

Our conscience is the voice we hear within us that informs us of the right and wrong of what we are doing. This is quite distinct from guilt, which is a condemning voice that comes after an act, refers to the past, and reminds us, from a basis of what we have been taught, of what we should have done. The conscience is a voice we hear in the present moment about what we are doing. It may be overlooked and dismissed, or encouraged and developed. By tuning into and adhering to our conscience we remain more consistently true to ourselves. We are congruent. This is a beneficial sea anchor. Our conscience is often overshadowed by other contributors to our decision-making process such as pressure from others, learned behaviours, habits, or actions arising from being emotional hijacked. One way of tuning our conscience is meditation. As you sit and observe your inner world without judgement you can delve below the din of day-to-day life, observe yourself in your current situation, and gain insights into what really matters to you.

Our Inner Critic also acts as a sea anchor. It tells us we are wrong, whether that is measured as inadequate, evil, stupid, inappropriate, clumsy or a vast array of other possible negative judgements. The familiarity with our Critic stems from its development in our formative years, its voice gleaned from the messages of our parents or other significant people. A lucky few have little to no critic. Unfortunately, most of us have a somewhat noisy, incessant and repetitive voice that goes off any time we move against what others taught us to expect of ourselves. The Critic is not a voice based in any truth. We may believe it is true because we are so familiar with its messages, having heard it all our lives. We can be sailing through life, enjoying the sun, the sea air, skimming the waves in a carefree manner, and suddenly … come to an abrupt halt as our mind is filled with negativity. The Critic is a sea anchor in all the wrong ways. We may have found a zone of productivity, where we really are humming with excitement and ease, creating the results we have wanted, and suddenly we lose all momentum, founder, and have to deal with the impact the negative messaging has on us. The Critic brakes us when we are ready to race, and brings us back to the direction the negative messaging would have us go.

The Critic is a mental habit. Neuroscience highlights that rather than “changing old habits”, it is easier to implement new habits. The underlying principle is that habits, particularly long-term ones, have cut neural pathways in the brain that are deep and fixed, somewhat similar to the channel cut by the river in the Grand Canyon. Attempting to fill in that river would be futile. By implementing a new habit, our focus and attention shifts. The brain doesn’t need to change the old pathway. The more strongly the new habit can be installed, the better. Changing habits requires adjustments to mind-set, motivation and intent. The old habit loses traction as its relevance is diminished by disuse.

To adjust the habitual Critic, it is important to implement another way of thinking and being. One way of doing that is by creating an emotionally-charged, positively-phrased affirmation that you anchor with repetition, and connect with whenever you recognise the Critic is ‘speaking’. Or, reassign the Critic a new role. Imagine the Critic is a member of your internal orchestra. The Critic is currently playing a trumpet at full volume and out of time and tune with the rest of the orchestra. Reassign your critic to the triangle, and coach him to only play when called on by the conductor. It is a matter of asserting yourself against that inner bully. Other approaches can also be used that bring greater inner peace and freedom to be yourself. By adjusting the behaviour of your Critic, you have greater freedom to chart the course in your life that matters to you, and will spend less time foundering or on the rocks.

Are you doing what is meaningful in life? Are you congruent across your thoughts, feelings and actions, and with your values and beliefs? If you want support to be more fully who you are, coaching can be a valuable avenue.

Reclaiming Self

The innocence of children
Children, relatively free of protective patterns of behaviour

When we are born into this world we are innocent (in my belief system) and unfettered by protective patterns of behaviour. As we experience life, encounter pain of varying kinds, we learn to erect protections to keep us safe. These become increasingly complex as layer upon layer of protection is established in response to all that life throws at us. Each protection requires energy from us to support and maintain, and as a consequence robs us of our life force and capacity to freely respond to life. It is often a crisis that makes us aware of how our behaviours interfere with our ability to engage with life in a meaningful way. We may experience ourselves as “too…”, an indication that our internal Critic or Judge (or external, when heard from those around us) considers us as having wandered from appropriate expression. Examples include “too volatile”, “too reserved”, “too pleasing”, “too aggressive” and any number of other judgements, singularly or in combination. These behaviours, when the judgement has some merit, have typically been developed in response to our needs being unmet and us seeking to satisfy them to the point that the behaviours become patterns that are applied without conscious thought, long past their use by date.

In becoming aware of such behaviours, perhaps through the failure of relationships, difficulties fitting in, negative feedback from multiple sources etcetera, the question then arises ‘What should I do about me?’ The process then becomes a matter of reclaiming oneself and finding ways of freeing our life force, returning to a spontaneous, creative and adaptive way of living, being better able to respond positively to the present.

In my own life this process started with a crisis of identity in my early 30s and has subsequently seen me free myself up and how I live and present myself to the world, an ongoing process. Earlier this year the surprise need for life-saving surgery plunged me into a whole new cycle of self-reclamation. The process of recovering from surgery required adapting to the loss of hearing in one ear, and developing physiological strategies to compensate for impairment in my balance processes. The physical recovery, while being a challenge, has been easier in many respects than the process of reclaiming my concept of self. In many respects it is as if the surgery sliced through significant protective mechanisms and unleashed old patterns of thought and feeling that I haven’t seen since I was a teenager and that I found particularly difficult in the first instance. Now, it is difficult seeing poor concepts of Self return, but at least they do so in an environment where I know I can process and work through them in a constructive fashion. In a sense, a very real sense, I’m back to dealing with old issues all over again. The reality however is that I am now working at a much deeper level, as if I have taken the head off and am cleaning out an infectious boil, rather than dealing with a superficial spot. While the issues are similar, feel very familiar, and are, I am better equipped to deal with this new level of emotional healing than I have been previously. The act of staying engaged with what arises within me, riding the wave as it forms rather than trying to escape it, will eventually lead to me being freer than ever before.

Some ways of engaging in the process of reclaiming Self include:

  • develop capacity to identify and observe behaviours in yourself that do not fit well relative to how you would prefer to be and what would work best in your context
  • develop love and acceptance of self that is free of needing to understand why you behave as you do and that opens you up to being able to forgive yourself unconditionally
  • define your core values, life purpose, vision and mission which will provide you with clarity about how you would prefer to live and present yourself to the world, something to aspire to
  • establish goals for moving forward into new, more productive, behaviours
  • find trusted individuals who are able to provide you with love, support, and constructive feedback
  • recognise that life is an ongoing journey and while you may have a preference for where you end up, and how you behave, perfection is out of the question and any vision you hold is a guide rather than an edict that must be obeyed at all costs
  • appreciate the fog that arises when life serves you growth opportunities, and allow that fog to water your life as rain does fertile soil

Through these approaches we can reclaim our lives, incrementally bring ourselves back to a fully free and available space to manifest our full, unfettered potential.

Walking the Talk

It is all well and good espousing a way of being, and suggesting there is power available as we engage with others in a love-based responsive way and not from a fear-based reactive mode but putting the philosophy into action can sometimes be really challenging. Recently I hit one of those “character building” episodes.

Hair-pulling turmoil
Hair-pulling turmoil

Having spent significant energy redesigning and redeveloping my business web site I met a series of roadblocks to going live that related to supplier misrepresentation or incompetence. One example was a hosting provider, before sign up, stating I would be able to load my site and test it prior to going live. This proved false. After signing up I loaded my site and was then told, on asking how, that I could not view the site without changing my domain pointer to the new site, effectively putting my untested site live and taking the live site on-line. Misrepresentation!

Having found a suitable hosting provider and being ready to go live I then approached my original, then current, provider and indicated the steps I wished to follow for an ordered transition. On their recommendation I decided to leave my Domain Name Server (DNS) record with them. When I cancelled my hosting account, in line with their recommended change to my approach, they destroyed my DNS record. I had no email or web site. All gone.

Within hours of losing my email and web site I flew out-of-town with my wife on a holiday to attend a wedding and had significantly reduced capacity to follow-up and pursue a solution. I found myself anxious, furious and frustrated, with bouts of powerlessness and helplessness. I work in the IT and Telecommunications industries. If I were to cause a client severe (or any) inconvenience or was negligent in any way then I would be held liable, and would be expected to resolve any issues with all expediency. Not so for a large supplier with a small client. They showed no interest in resolving the situation, and had plenty of excuses. I found my emotional turmoil magnified. It turned out that I was without a web site and email for five days. The provider updated my file to include “sorry” but there was no personal acknowledgement.

At the height of this crisis I was totally without my power, consumed and crippled with emotional turmoil, leaving me in a highly reactive, fear-based state. What to do? This was a thoroughly unhelpful and unproductive way of being. I could not positively resolve my hosting issues, and was not enjoying my holiday.
In my book “Appreciate the Fog” I write about power-based, thrive responses (Assert, Attend, Act and Authenticate) that are positive alternatives to the fear-based, survival reactions (Fight, Flight, Freeze and Fabricate). I was well and truly reactive, not really even surviving. The key question for me was “How do I reclaim my power?”

For me, in that moment, awareness that I needed to shift was key. My second aid was to share my struggle and that I wanted to reclaim my power with my wife. She listened, allowed me to vent as a way of clearing myself emotionally, and then asked, “So what can you do now?” Great coach! Within minutes I was in a place of clarity, had taken a couple of small actions that positively moved things a little and I was largely free of my turmoil. I had reclaimed my power, and I had a great weekend. Yes, I still had to wait for the Telco monster to take their steps and resolve their incompetence, but I did so in a better place than if I had remained worked up. It can be difficult walking the talk, but it is worthwhile.

Birthday Reflections

Unrelenting Magnificence - Each day is a new birth
Unrelenting Magnificence – Each day is a new birth

Yesterday (January 29th) was a fantastic day. The weather was hot with a clear blue sky. I took a day off from an otherwise busy work month so prosperity, utility and leisure felt beautifully balanced. I spent the day with my darling Juanita, and had the pleasure of lots of birthday wishes flowing in. I had breakfast at a beach café, enjoyed a massage, and was taken out to dinner. All in all, I had a fantastic day.

The main reflection of my day was how blessed I am in terms of the relationships I have. I have a fantastic wife who is my friend, confidant, fan, and fills so many other fabulous roles. I have friends and family who I enjoy in my life, who I can and do turn to in times of challenge, and from whom I receive unique blessings and gifts because of their presence. The quality of my relationships can also be measured by the progress I have made with some that have been difficult, or how some unexpected difficulties within some of these relationships have been addressed and worked with.

As I look back over the past year it has been one of the toughest, most challenging I have ever experienced, with significant hurdles on a number of fronts that covered various aspects of my identity – father, partner, active and healthy man, and productive contributor to name a few – and for much of the time I had no idea how it could work out positively. I did hold a belief that it would. The key really has been founded in the quality of the relationships I have and trusting that whatever I was facing I would learn, grow and benefit from, and that I would ultimately thrive.

I am also very aware of the Buddhist concept of impermanence summarised as “and this too will change.” Nothing is permanent. Everything is fleeting. Whether suffering or joy, pain or pleasure, it will change. There are no guarantees about when, how or in which direction change will occur, only that everything will change. At the end of this very wonderful day I get to celebrate that regardless of what yesterday has been, and without knowing what tomorrow brings, I am alive in this moment, and I feel fantastic. How many fantastic moments can I string together through the web of experience that makes up my life? How can frame those moments I don’t enjoy into something I do appreciate and make meaningful, and move them closer to being experienced as fantastic? Can I approach every day in serenity and with appreciation for the fact I have life in me? That is indeed a challenge worth living for.