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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Human beings are a fascinating species.

Not only do we have feelings, but we have feelings about our feelings.

Think about that. We can feel something about how we feel. How great is that?!

It’s great only until how we feel about what we feel impacts how we live.

We tell ourselves stories all day.
Some are true. Some are logical justifications for what we say to make it more true.

Follow me. It’s going to get deep.

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of consultation training programs for companies. In the last 3 months I’ve delivered training on:

  • how to hire sales people.
  • how to improve the culture of a sales team
  • how to help sales people “get out of their head” and “into their calls”

And I’ve noticed some trends. But perhaps the trends I’ve noticed are indicative of a story I’ve told myself about what has been happening and the feelings I have about said story. Hear me out…

We’re in the thicket of the “participation-trophy” era.

We’re easily offended by opinions of others and cautious to grow because that growth causes initial pain. It’s easier to play it safe, think inside the box, not speak up, then it is to take a stance.

I know as a trainer, if I play it so safe that nobody feels pushed, upset, or has to confront the truth of how they could improve, then I failed the very company that hired me to train.

And when we go into training mode, I’m aware every single attendee has a story in their head.

To be clear: a story is a frame you have of how you see yourself. Then, as things happen to you, you utilize those events to further your position on your story.

There was a study done of people who view themselves as lucky or unlucky. Once they identified what group they were in, they had to look through a newspaper and find the amount of photos that were on the pages. Then report the number of photos back to the researchers.

The group that identified themselves as unlucky took much longer to complete the task.


Because in bold letters a few pages in, the newspaper read something to the tune of “Stop! There are 43 photos” The lucky people stopped and reported it. The unlucky didn’t even notice it.

Further in the paper, there was a graphic reading “tell the researcher you saw this for $250 prize”. Guess which group was most likely to see this and take home $250? Guess which group didn’t even notice?

Each person had to identify themselves as a category: unlucky or lucky. Then, the actions they took naturally led them into being lucky or unlucky in that experiment.

In any training, I know roughly 10-15% of people are going to find me lacking empathy, not patient, rude, harsh, and believe I am attempting to ruin their character. It’s expected.

I also know that 30-80% of people will be happy with my training, learning something of value, applying it to their days and improve their productivity. Lastly, I know about 10-15% are going to love everything I say, take notes, apply it, and be a raving fan.

Those who falter, who are easily offended, who view criticism as an attempt to destroy their inner soul- come with a different story than those who welcome learning how to improve.

The story they tell themselves, statistically, is one of inferiority and fragility.

They come from a place of, “if I need to improve, it means I’m not good enough, and if I’m not good enough at my career, am I good at anything? I am where I am today because of my skillset and how dare someone tell me otherwise?! It’s insulting.”

The story high performers and high achievers tell themselves, statistically, is one of humility and gratitude.

They come from a story of, “wow! I’m fortunate enough that someone can be candid with me to improve my performance. That person must really care to deliver feedback that must not be easy to give. They must really want us to succeed. Let me see what I can do with this and if I can have a breakthrough in performance.”

Paraphrasing of course.
No humans were harmed (that I know of) in the reporting of my research.

But the thing is, usually, those who feel threatened or insulted by feedback, tend to not perform as well as those who are accepting of it and ready to utilize it.

The story they tell themselves becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

And they spend on average, 2 minutes longer looking for photos that they didn’t need to look for.

Teams suffer. Results suffer.

Toxicity builds until it’s at a breaking point and then mass layoffs or firings or quitting happen.

And it is what it is.

Every thing we do and every way in which we do it, we have a story for. And we have a feeling we are trying to pursue. And we have a feeling on a feeling on that story. And so it goes.

Throughout the day, I find myself listening to the thoughts that come into my head, and evaluate if it is a story or truth.

The tell tale way to identify, is if it repeats itself.

Time to get honest…

I have a story that my boyfriend (who I’ve been with over 3 1/2 years, who knew me when I was living in extreme poverty almost on the streets in San Diego) only loves me when I have my business hat on and am helping him further profitability of his company.

Now… again…when we met, he didn’t know I had a background with several awards tied to my name. I was a part time Zumba instructor who coughed waaaay too much (thanks Cystic Fibrosis for scaring him).

So why is it..that the last 2 years..I feel an intense pressure to be “on” in the business world to retain his love? And if I don’t work hard enough, I don’t get a date night, and if I don’t get a date night, then what am I doing in the relationship? And of course, if we break up, then he might as well just hire me because there was nothing else holding us together.

So when he comes home from a hard day of being a CEO for one of the greatest companies I’ve ever been introduced to, I better have had a hard day as well to share with him about how I’ve grown or learned new things or taught a team about recruiting. And if I don’t…well…what is there to talk about?

And when I get into these thoughts, I look for ways to validate my “unworthiness”.

I find myself thinking, “no wonder he didn’t put away the dishes, he doesn’t respect me as a business partner or a girlfriend.” And because I’m not perfect, of course I find some reason to blame the dishes on him not caring about anything but work. Not caring about me. And I’m hurt and offended that I have nothing to offer him.

And then I realize…it’s just a dirty dish. And it has nothing to do with how much work I did that day or how stressful his day is. It’s just a DISH. The meaning I put behind the dish and the power I gave it through my thoughts is a recurring story.

Nothing more.

And because I have these feelings frequently, I know it’s a construct and not reality.

How many times do I not put away the dishes? And do I not put them away because I feel my boyfriend didn’t work hard enough that day to deserve a dish being put away for him?

NO! It’s lunacy, people. It’s a bullshit story constructed about work ethic and household chores.

I take an hour to recoup from my emotions, go for a walk, play with the dog.

And then put that damn dish away. Because that dish doesn’t have any power over what my day was actually like. My boyfriend loves me. I love him. We got to eat an amazing meal and talk about our day, and dirty up a dish.

It’s more important than ever for us to start paying attention to our stories. Deciding if we should give them power or simply wash them away. Think of the intention behind the construction. Think about how often you feel you “are insulted and people aren’t nice.”

Ask yourself: have people ever been nice to you?
Have you ever witnessed kindness in humanity?
Have you ever excelled in the very thing you are getting feedback on?

Byron Katie has a great tool for deciphering stories.

Taken from her book:

The Four Questions
1. Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)
2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)
3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
4. Who would you be without the thought?

Using the four questions, let’s investigate the statement Paul should understand me.
1. Is it true? Is it true that he should understand you? Be still. Wait for the heart’s response.
2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? Ultimately, can you really know what he should or shouldn’t understand? Can you absolutely know what is in his best interest to understand?
3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought? What happens when you believe “Paul should understand me” and he doesn’t? Do you experience anger, stress, or frustration? How do you treat Paul? Do you give him “the look”? Do you try to change him in any way? How do these reactions feel? How do you treat yourself? Does that thought bring stress or peace into your life? Be still as you listen.
4. Who would you be without the thought? Close your eyes. Picture yourself in the presence of Paul in this situation. Now imagine looking at Paul, just for a moment, without the thought “Paul should understand me.” What do you see? What would your life look like without that thought?

Thanks, Byron.
Going back to my blog…

If your gut reaction to constructive, non-malicious feedback is feeling personally insulted, victimized, or demoralized…maybe that’s a story. Maybe it’s not really true, except when you give that truth power. Maybe…just maybe…it’s just a dirty dish.

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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

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