It’s been a week of story-telling. In two client coaching sessions and during one conversation with a friend, I have found myself asking them to describe to me the story they are telling themselves.
One of them was telling himself that he was a rubbish dad.
One of them was telling herself that she would never progress at work because her boss had brought someone new into the team who he used to work with elsewhere and clearly preferred to anyone else.
One of them was telling himself that since he’d been promoted, he’d added no value whatsoever to his team.
In her book Rising Strong, Brené Brown talks about this story-telling. She says:
‘Storytelling helps us all impose order on chaos—including emotional chaos. When we’re in pain, we create a narrative to help us make sense of it. This story doesn’t have to be based on any real information.’
When we feel defensive or vulnerable or disappointed, it’s easy to create a story which deflects us from the real issue but it leaves us stuck. Brown’s research on shame and vulnerability showed her that those people who demonstrate resilience and can overcome setbacks have developed the ability to challenge the stories they tell themselves.
How can we challenge our stories?
So how can I help my clients to unpick their usual narrative and move on? Rising Strong has given me a process I can use with clients:
Emily’s story was that her boss was favouring his new recruit over her and so she’d never be able to make progress at work. I asked her to tell me about what she was experiencing in that moment.
‘We were in a meeting, I’d almost finished my presentation and was pretty chuffed with how it was going. I looked up to see my boss lean over and say something quietly to the new guy and they both then laughed. Typical – it’s like an ‘Old Boys Club’ with those two. It’s really sickening. I lost my place, stumbled over my words, felt myself get really hot, knew I was blushing, and then my heart started to race.
‘Every time I think about that meeting now, I remember how stupid I felt and I get angry. I only have to look at my boss and I can feel myself heating up and getting irritated.’
Having acknowledged Emily’s feelings, it was time for her to examine them further.
How come this incident upset her so much? Would she have reacted in the same way if it had been any other colleagues? What was fuelling the constant replaying of this event? What impact were these feelings having on her work and her relationships?
This stage of the process can be uncomfortable as we move from the top level emotions – ‘I’m angry because they were obviously laughing at me and it’s so rude’ – to some deeper-seated feelings – ‘I feel insecure about my place in the team and the business: I’m not really sure where I’m going with this role but I can’t afford to lose my job’.
Put it in writing
One of the powerful aspects of a coaching session is to get your thoughts out of your head and speak them aloud. Sometimes the next stage is to write those words down and see them in black and white and that’s what we do here. Your story needs to come straight from the heart – editing it to make it sound better isn’t going to help here.
‘The story I’m telling myself is that my boss hates me. He’s brought in John from his old company because he doesn’t value any of us. I feel sidelined, overlooked, mocked and humiliated. It makes me so cross!’
Get ready to rumble
This is Brown’s way of telling us it’s time to dig a little deeper and she offers the following questions: beneath each are Emily’s answers
What are the facts, and what are my assumptions?
‘In terms of the meeting, I’m assuming it was something that I said that my boss and John were laughing about but I actually have no idea. Maybe it reminded them of something that had happened at their previous company, maybe it was something else entirely: I just don’t know.
‘It’s a fact that my boss brought John in because he clearly thinks he can contribute to the team. I’m assuming that therefore my boss thinks the rest of us are rubbish.’
What do I need to know about the others involved?
‘Perhaps John does have something to add that I’m not taking advantage of. Maybe our team is a bit too tight-knit and we haven’t made him feel welcome so my boss is having to go the extra mile to make him feel included. Maybe my boss is trying to make our team even better by bringing in someone with a different skillset.’
What am I really feeling? What part did I play?
‘For a while now, I’ve been feeling that I’ve stagnated at work. I’m scared to say I’m bored or that I need a new challenge as that might put my name at the head of a redundancy list if that ever happens. If I really want to make progress, I need to sit down and have an open conversation with my boss about next steps.’
Wherever you are, if you notice that you are experiencing negative emotions, asking yourself ‘what’s the story I’m telling myself?’ can help you unpick the issue. Sometimes, it can even be helpful to use the phrase in conversation to let people know how you feel without assigning blame to them.
Today’s pebble for your thoughts is this: what’s the story you’re telling yourself? Is it based on facts or assumptions?
Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.
If you’re ready to make progress, why not email me to see how we can work together?