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Narratively Stuck: Are Your Stories Limiting Your Potential?

Oh, the stories we tell.

Lila’s boss moved to a new city, and Lila was promoted to replace him as Director of Sales Strategy. Once the initial excitement wore off, Lila immediately became stressed. Not only was she on a steep learning curve, but also, she dreaded her company’s weekly executive meetings because, “The other members of the executive team don’t trust me.”

Hmm. How could she be sure of that?

Well, she couldn’t. She made it up. Why?

Lila worked hard for her promotion and thought she was ready for it. But then, she hit a few roadblocks. The job was more difficult than she’d anticipated. Her confidence was shaken because her desired reality (a seamless transition from manager to director) didn’t match her actual reality (big learning curve). So, in her fear of not being enough, she made up a story – no one trusts me.

Whenever I hear a client assert that they somehow know the internal thoughts and feelings of other people (especially when those thoughts and feelings are about said client), I always ask the same question, “Is that true, or is it a story you’re telling yourself?”

After a pause, Lila answered, “I don’t know.”

Good. Now we have something real to work on.

Jeremy’s new employee, Susan, was struggling in her role. But when Jeremy attempted to coach her, she often dissolved into tears. He tried several approaches, but just couldn’t find a way to connect with her. “Susan wants to do everything her way, or at least in the way she did things in her last job,” he told me. “If I ask her to try something new, she resists and there’s tension, and then she leaves early because she’s so upset.” One day, about six months after Susan started at the company, Jeremy’s boss called him into her office to tell him that Susan had complained about Jeremy’s “management style”. This was news to Jeremy who had excellent relationships with his other employees. “She’s so fragile!” he told me, “There must be a way to coach her and make her happy in the role, but I don’t know what it is. I’m afraid to give her new projects. I’m afraid to give her feedback on her work... I’m stuck!”

Why didn’t Jeremy just fire Susan?

Jeremy had a difficult time hiring for the role that was eventually filled by Susan. The thought of having to return to recruiting was daunting. Jeremy’s desired reality (a good hire) didn’t match his actual reality (a problematic employee). So, he made up a story – she’s fragile, but I can coach her.

So, I asked him, “Is she fragile though? After all, she has you walking on eggshells. She gets to do things her way. And, she had no problem going over your head to a Vice President. She seems to be the opposite of a fragile person.”

After a pause, Jeremy answered, “Maybe.”

Stella was convinced she was about to be fired because she could never get a moment of her busy boss’s time. “He’s avoiding me because he knows he’s about to get rid of me,” she said.

How did Stella come to believe her job was in danger?

Though she was very competent, Stella was beginning to feel overwhelmed in her role. Her desired reality (a boss who was available and supportive), didn’t match her actual reality (a boss who was invisible). So, she made up a story – he’s invisible because he’s about to fire me.

“Is he though?” I asked, “Or is that just a story you’re telling yourself? After all, he’s a very busy guy. Perhaps he just doesn’t have the time to sit down with you right now.”

After a pause, Stella answered, “I don’t know.”

That’s right. Stella didn’t know. Yet, she had been keeping herself up at night worrying about what she thought she knew.

We love to tell ourselves stories because our stories give us the illusion of control. They make the unknown known (even if the story isn’t true). Or as mindfulness expert and author Michael Singer puts it in his book The Untethered Soul, “You have it all figured out. You know how everything is supposed to be, even in the future. Your views, your opinions, your beliefs are all ways of bringing the infinite universe down to the finite…”

Wait… Bringing the infinite down to the finite. Sounds limiting doesn’t it?

Yup. Our stories limit us, and our potential.

It wasn’t that Lila’s fellow executives didn’t trust her. She didn’t trust herself. She needed to hop on that learning curve, not point fingers at her colleagues.

Jeremy’s employee wasn’t fragile; she was formidable. (And she proved herself so when she was eventually fired, and left the building in an angry, references be damned blaze of glory.) He needed to work on his networking and hiring skills, rather than obsessing about coaching an employee who had no notion of ever being coached.

And Stella’s boss wasn’t about to fire her, he saw her as so competent, he didn’t have to check in with her because he knew she was on top of things. She needed to be asking for a raise and a promotion, not worrying about being fired.

Lila, Jeremy and Stella were each narratively stuck. That is, the stories they were telling themselves were getting in the way of the real work to be done.

So. How can we free ourselves from narrative stuckness?

Take a step back. Take three deep breaths. Quiet your mind.

Now, allow yourself to consider the following questions:

1. Is this real, or is it a story I’m telling myself?

2. Am I making assumptions about the thoughts and feelings of others?

3. What real evidence to I have that the assumptions in my story are true? (By real, I mean really real – not just more assumptions.)

4. What do I want to be true (my desired reality)?

5. What is really true (my actual reality)?

6. How can I accept my actual reality and move forward within it?

Try it. I guarantee that right now, you’re holding something to be true that just isn’t. And, I bet you already suspect yourself of storytelling.

So ask yourself: Is it real? Or is it just a story you’re telling yourself?

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