What’s REALLY stressing you out

Fear of heights

The difference between dreaming and achieving is frequently the way a person thinks and talks about themselves. If you are on the road to nowhere, get back on the right path with a little time and effort.

A few years ago I was telling myself (and everyone else) a story about what was holding me back from success at work: “My boss is so picky!”

That story obscured two important truths:

  1. Who my boss actually is as a person.
  2. Why I am seeing the behaviors I interpret as a preference for pickiness.

For the short time I worked under that supervisor, I struggled with “her” expectations for perfection. Over time, however, I slowly let go of the story about her pickiness and started to realize two new truths:

  1. There were important reasons for a perfect finished product in that office, and a series of protocols designed to help the flawed humans in the office create a perfect finished product.
  2. I was capable of developing familiarity with those protocols and could help create those perfect finished products, even though I would never be perfect all by myself.

Only after my story changed was I able to accept first one promotion and then another.

We hold ourselves back in many ways, and one of the most important of these is how we think and talk about ourselves. We might say, “I’m not a creative person,” “I don’t like parties,” “I hate math,” “I’m a multitasker, and my job requires it,” or simply, “It’ll never work.”

Turn up your self-awareness

To find out if your stories are holding your back, turn up your self awareness by listening closely to yourself and the people around you, and by recording your thoughts in a journal.  Listen to the themes in what you tell people about yourself. How do you respond to invitations? To assignments? To change? Notice the phrases that come up frequently.

Listen to how others describe you, too, and what happens with those stories. If a friend jokingly refers to you as a “clutz,” how do you feel? Are you more accident prone when you’re with her? Have you internalized that description of yourself so now you describe yourself that way to others? Where did it begin? Such stories can have a chicken-and-egg quality, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change them.

Make a list of the stories you are telling yourself and look at them closely

As you become aware of the stories you tell about yourself, record them. Once they  have been written down, it’s much easier to distance yourself from them so you canquestion them and start thinking differently.

The Work of Byron Katie builds on this principle. She recommends we ask the following questions about our self-limiting stories and beliefs:

  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?

Translate the story into feelings and needs.

The process of translating these limiting stories into feelings can be extremely useful because we usually know what we “should” do, but we hold ourselves back because we haven’t worked through the feelings associated with the situation. When you have identified your needs, ways of getting those needs met become clearer.

Warning: It’s usually easier to name thoughts than feelings. To help avoid this trap, use a list of feeling words like this one. You might be able to identify your needs on your own, but I find a list of those can be very helpful as well.  I suggest one like this.

Choose a new course of action and a new story

Our stories become our behavior. My story about my “picky boss” kept my attention on blaming her instead of on me and developing my skills.

Take time to ask yourself (or write in a journal about) these questions:

  1. What do you do–what actions do you take, even in your own mind–when you believe the story you have been telling?
  2. What results do you get when you believe the story?
  3. What’s another way to tell your story?
  4. How would you behave if you believed the new story?
  5. What results can you anticipate?

Changing the story might mean changing just one word or even starting from scratch. Instead of “My job requires me to multitask,”  “My job demands multitasking” can open up a crack of possibility: The job is demanding, but many things and people are demanding. I don’t have to give into every demand.Or, if someone says, “I’m not a creative person,” they can change that to “I haven’t felt creative in the past.” Possibilities open up for experimenting with creativity now.


This last step is about trying out a new story and the new behaviors that go with it. Experiment with how it feels to change the story, going into it with the mind of an investigator. Design an experiment.

For example: Let’s say you have decided to stop telling the story about how depressed you are and instead are going to tell a story about feeling grateful. You don’t want to go around fibbing, so you decide to start your new story by keeping a gratitude journal and starting each day with a list of five things you’re grateful for. “I’m not in a hospital. I can walk. I can speak. The toilet actually flushed. My cat is alive.”

Then you decide that, when people ask you “How are you,” you will recite any two of these along with the phrase, “I am grateful.” At the end of each day you will return to your gratitude journal to record your feelings about the day with a moodmeasurement on a scale of 1-10, and notice (with your metaphorical lab coat on) what happens to the numbers over time.

This experimental design has some important elements: 1. Practicing new behavior (recording gratitude points, reciting specifics, saying the words “I am grateful”), 2. Noticing/naming feelings, and 3. measuring the result so you have as objective an indicator as possible to show a shift over time.

Listening closely to our stories and taking the time to question them may seem like an incredible investment of time, but it’s what some call “slowing down to speed up.” It takes effort to get yourself off a path leading nowhere and onto a path where you are actually moving toward the realization of your goals. It’s worth it.

If you feel disappointed and confused about where life has gotten you so far, listen to what you are telling people (and what you’re telling yourself).  What could happen if you changed the story?


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