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.

Construction Zone, New Development Underway

Construction zone
Construction zone, new foundations forming

A specific change within ourselves may be initiated for any number of reasons. Two significant motivations include recognising and consciously deciding to attend to an underdeveloped or absent role that we require; and a specific situation demanding responses that we are unable to sufficiently offer. Whatever the catalyst for personal change, the more dramatic the change and the urgency or drive to change, the greater the upheaval you will experience. It can look very much like your inner being is a construction zone. Internal structure are pulled down, old patterns and beliefs that have been dormant may be liberated and occupy your psyche, even if unconsciously, and groundedness may disappear while a new foundation is formed. This all depends on the magnitude of the change. Life crises can often stimulate such upheavals, with examples of such events being birth of a child or grandchild, divorce, illness, death of a loved one, or the proverbial “mid-life crisis”.

A recent example from my own experience has been recognising patterns I have around taking leadership roles. Based on my life and experience there is no question that I can step into leadership and do well. However, my journey into leadership often takes me through one of the following routes:

  • If others are seeking the leadership role, I step back and say to myself, “Let them have it.”
  • If no one wants a leadership role (or it is an initiative I have started), I throw myself in with energy and gusto.
  • If I am invited into leadership, there is some degree of internal resistance that doubts my capacity and pushes the opportunity away.

All of those being true, I have sometimes surprised myself and moved forward with a degree of ease, though internal resistance invariably manifests at some point.

Lately, as I have recognised these patterns more fully, I have decided to develop my capacity to gracefully claim leadership, step into the space and occupy it with a sense of ease and belonging, and allow myself to be seen. Sounds easy! What a journey it is so far. In a recent situation where I was facilitating I was feeling great, owning the space, and fully there, and then familiar voices sounded off in my head that I was inadequate, should not be there, and I would surely fail. I realised that the difficulty for me serenely and gently occupying space is that I then hear the cacophony of voices that pull me down and back. That moment became a process of choosing to stay in that space, recognising all my own internal nay-saying voices, expanding my capability for intentionally remaining in leadership and cutting, or at least acknowledging and loosening, the bands that hold me to past experience and beliefs. In the meantime my internal world is in a state of relative turmoil, with anxiety and shame being merged with excitement and hope of a new way of being. This is a great time for me to appreciate my fog, recognising it is a natural part of the process of change, and that at some point the dust will clear. Then, I will have easier access to the new capacity forming within me.

What do you do when the fog arises from within? Do you allow it to be, and recognise it as a natural and necessary part of the process of change, or do you avoid the change or otherwise attempt to suppress the fog?

What Crap Do You Create For Yourself?

A pile of crap
A pile of crap

The clearest indicator of our own limiting patterns of behaviour are those that arise when we are in a good space. It is always interesting when life serves up a plate that enables us to see our own deficiencies with clarity. I had a great experience of this recently. The summary is ‘When everything in life is excellent and turmoil arises from within me, I created that turmoil’.

I have had periods of my life where I experienced everything as a problem. At one particularly dark stage I trusted no one, including myself, was permanently anxious to the point of severe physical pain in my body, had no concept of what I could or ought to do, and carried a bag of blame, guilt and shame with me. If I could have photographed my inner world, it would have been dark, tumultuous and ugly. I experienced everything that happened around me or to me a serious threat. I sought certainty and control, and found surprises deeply unsettling. I was highly reactive and self-esteem was at an all-time low. I was unable to respond positively to opportunities and was quite miserable.

In such a state it is particularly difficult to extricate oneself from the crap. It is also very easy, and symptomatic of the state, to believe ‘lots of crap is happening to me’. Beginning to believe you can make a positive difference, and finding support from others can be a significant aid and is a key to reclaiming yourself from the darkness.

Life has changed for me since those days, and while the past couple of years have had some challenges in ways I have never experienced, I have been largely able to act with congruence to my belief that I get to choose how I respond and behave in a situation, and that I can create a better outcome as a consequence. Now I find myself in a space where most everything is improving over where I was a year ago, and I have plenty of reasons to be happy, full of joy, content, pleased to be alive.

In this setting it has been interesting to see the negative patterns that I still have. In fact in this space it is easier to see them. For example, my relationship with my wife is better than I have ever experienced a relationship before in my life. Recently I awoke with a feeling of anxiety that some accident might happen that would end my happiness. Wow! What a moment that was. I could immediately identify it as a thought pattern I have had before, such as in the early, black period of my life mentioned above. I also knew that if I allowed the sensation to fester within me I could get consumed by negativity, a little like an alcoholic having a drink might re-engage with a pattern they are attempting to leave behind. On this occasion, I shared the fear directly with my wife, expressed that as happy as I am some part of me fears the happiness being taken from me, me losing her. I was entirely clear that I was the source of that piece of negativity. I was able to treat the scared, hurting part of me that surfaced this pain with respect and love, and without judgement place a light on it, and let it be seen. In this way I was able to fully own my negative pattern and clear it, and reclaim my capacity to live more fully. It became a  self-healing moment that strengthened my capacity to receive whatever I create for myself and work with it for a lasting, positive outcome. I had generated my own crap, and I had also been able to resolve it positively.

How do you treat yourself when you notice something you are doing that doesn’t really work for you? Are you able to love yourself through the moment, or do you add judgement and criticism to it and make the situation even worse?

A Question of Esteem

Little drips of water over a very long period of time will wear away granite. Something that is more sure than water on granite, and far quicker in its process, are the voices in our head that mirror the words we received from our care givers as we grew up. Whatever they said about you, particularly the negatively charged emotional phrases when they were angry or mocking, resurface and repeat on a regular basis. Something may happen during the day, something remarkably insignificant, and you sense a growing anxiety, perhaps frustration, or get angry or into a rage very easily. You may find you are questioning who you are as a person, what you have to offer, and wondering how anyone could love and want you. These little messages which we dismiss mentally as small, irrelevant and to be ignored, undermine self-esteem and can leave us in an unproductive, grumpy, depressed place.

Recognise the voice that is undermining you, acknowledge it, and lovingly let it know that you no longer need that input. Treat the voice with the love you wish it gave you, and find your strength and courage to pick yourself up again. Smiling in recognition at the voice of negativity can open you up with warmth and love, and assist disarming the negativity more quickly. Friends who honestly know you may be able to support you in these moments, these internally generated episodes of fog.