The stories you tell create the lens through which you experience your world. Want to change your experience? Change your stories!
Of all the ideas in this series on learning to love your life at work, this is possibly the most powerfully and immediately impactful.
It’s no magical, mystical idea. It’s simply common sense. We all tell stories. It’s how the human mind makes sense of the world. The story you tell is the way you interpret an experience. Two different people can experience the exact same thing and, depending on the story they tell, come away with two completely different impressions of what happened.
Being conscious of your stories and working to shift them in a more positive, enlivening direction is one of the single most powerful habits you can develop.
The value of awareness
You can go at it from multiple angles, with ever-increasing amounts of nuance and awareness. But at its simplest it boils down to three questions.
- What is the story I’m telling here?
- How does it make me feel? Does it have an expansive or constricting impact?
- (If it has a negative impact) Is there a more positive story I could tell?
Next time you find yourself feeling constricted, maybe frustrated, irritated, angry, etc., stop and ask yourself those three questions.
It starts with awareness. So often we react to what we see through the lens of our stories as though it were solid Truth with a capital T. It seems so obviously real that we don’t even question that it might only be a reflection of the story we’re telling.
If we don’t have awareness, we remain at the mercy of whatever constricting story is at the heart of it. Awareness opens the door to the potential for positive change.
Dramatic change (with no change)
I see the effectiveness of exploring different stories all the time in working with my Passion Catalyst clients. A great example of this was Bill. By the time he reached out to me, he was so frustrated with his work that he wanted to quit immediately.
One big source of frustration was the game-playing (or, as he perceived it, manipulation) that was rife in the industry he worked in. It was at odds with his values.
As we explored that, he acknowledged that it wasn’t that the people were bad, or that their intentions were malicious – it was just the way the game was played in that particular industry. And there was pretty much zero chance he was going to change that.
I suggested that he try an experiment. Every time he noticed his button getting pushed by someone interacting that way, instead of building up a head of righteous indignation, why not just laugh internally and say, “There they go, playing that game again.”
He was skeptical, but agreed to give it a try. A week later he came back and said, “Curt, I have just had the most positive week at work I have had in months!”
He kept working with that, and it created a complete shift in what had been a major source of the steam coming out his ears by the end of the day. His experience changed dramatically, even though nothing externally had actually changed.
3 kinds of stories
As I described in my post about how to do an internal energy audit, there are three broad areas you’ll find your stories. From that post:
Stories about yourself: These might include, for example, self-criticism vs self-appreciation (e.g., “hey, I really did that well,” or, “it wasn’t perfect, but I did the best I could.”) or self-doubt versus self-belief.
Stories about others: Do you see others as basically good or basically flawed? Do you see the best in others or the worst? Are you hyper-critical of others or supportive and understanding? Is your basic default trust or distrust?
Stories about circumstances: Do you feel like a victim of circumstances or do you habitually look for ways you can improve things? Do you see the world as a fearful place or a hopeful place?
Find your limiting stories
As I mentioned earlier, awareness is key. But sometimes that can feel easier said than done. One easy way to start building awareness is to start noticing the things where you feel a constriction and contraction.
Some examples include:
- Judgment (both of others and yourself)
- Resistance of what is
Any time you notice any of those, you can step back and say, “OK, what’s my story about this? What is it that is causing me to feel this?”
Another way to approach it is to ask, “How should things be?” Your irritation, frustration, etc. typically stem from feeling that things should be one way and having them be another. It’s a good bet that how things should be – as you see it – is part or all of your story.
(On a side note, Byron Katie’s process, called The Work, is an excellent tool for finding a greater sense of peace with what is.)
Yet another way to notice your limiting stories is to watch for all or nothing words. For example, phrases like:
- They always
- He never
- I can’t
Frequently the black-and-white stories we tell are only a caricature of reality. If we look at them more objectively, we often see that we’re looking through a lens that encourages us to confirm that point of view.
For example, “He always rambles on in meetings” completely ignores those occasions when the person in question either didn’t ramble on or played a constructive role in the conversation.
The more aware you can be of your limiting stories, the better equipped you are to explore the opportunities to sculpt them in a more affirming direction.
I’m not suggesting that you just sit there and blow sunsine up your wazoo 24/7. Sometimes there really are negative things that need to be addressed. But if you’re like most of us, you inflict a lot of unnecessary suffering on yourself simply through stories that could easily be changed.
Find your enhancing stories
While you’re at it, it’s worth looking at your enhancing stories as well. Again, it’s about awareness. The more aware you are of the positive stories you tell (stories about yourself and your abilities, stories about where others are coming from, your optimistic view of what’s possible, etc.), the more potential you have to cultivate and grow them.
Do your own experiment
I’m a big fan of the “don’t just believe me, test it for yourself” school of thinking. With that in mind, I encourage you to try an experiment.
Find a limiting story that you tell frequently. Spend a little time looking for other stories you could tell about that situation/experience that would leave you feeling lighter. Then, for the next week, play with catching the story in action and swapping it out with the new one.
It doesn’t have to be anything big. For example, I had one client who couldn’t stand the drama and conflict he saw all too often in meetings. The drama typically didn’t involve him, but his story – unbeknownst to him – was that if drama was happening, it was real, and it affected him.
When he realized this, he started telling a new story. “This isn’t my drama.” He was able to take a step back and watch the drama, rather than get pulled in.
He even took it a step farther by starting to ponder what the story behind the drama might be for the person or people in question. “Why are they responding like that? Where are they coming from? What are they trying to get accomplished? What are they afraid of?” It added a whole new dimension of “human interest” to the meetings.
If you see any difference at all, expand the experiment. Continue focusing on the same story for the next month and see what happens. Or expand it to include other stories.
Story by story, you can change your world.
[Want to get Wild About Work? Take the first step with my FREE audio course.]
Brought to you by Curt Rosengren, Passion Catalyst TM
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