Rewrite the Stories You Tell Yourself
- A worthy investment (0:25)
- The stories we tell ourselves (1:55)
- Do you need more skills or more self-awareness? (3:55)
- Uncovering the truth through coaching (6:35)
- How we feed our negative stories (and why we need to stop) (13:20)
- How to rewrite the negative stories you tell yourself (17:00)
Rewrite the Stories You Tell Yourself
Are you ready to take your career or business to the next level but you can’t make the leap because you’re weighed down by self-doubt? Do you feel like you can’t move forward on your goals despite the support of others and a toolbox full of skills?
I have a few questions for you and some simple steps that can get you moving, but first, read about Roseanne and notice what sounds familiar…
A Worthy Investment
Roseanne is eager to move from middle management to the executive level. She knows that she must increase her skillfulness in a whole new way. Instead of management skills, she needs to increase the soft skills of leadership: how to collaborate, how to engage in healthy conflict, how to cogently present ideas developed at her department’s staff level to the organization’s strategic executive level.
I have been hired to work in a coaching format with Roseanne as she explores and practices leadership’s soft skills. Roseanne has proven herself as a manager; she is one of the most capable young emerging leaders I’ve worked with. I can easily see why her company has committed time and coaching resources to help her level up.
But guess what: Roseanne doesn’t see why she is worthy of the investment. In fact, it is her own negative self-talk that zaps her energy and holds her back.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
In each coaching session, Roseanne talks about situations that occur and shares the negative (and false) stories she tells herself about them. And in each session, we circle back to the facts as an antidote to her self-doubt—
- Her organization committed to investing time and money in her development.
- In a conference call, her supervisor listed all the reasons why Roseanne has proven to be a great candidate for the leadership track.
- She has a long history of promotions within the organization.
- Her team gives her praise and high scores when asked for feedback.
Regardless of the topic, Roseanne’s core work in each session is to identify and work through the stories of self-doubt that she feeds her brain.
A story she resorts to most frequently is one about how she is always one mistake away from letting down those who are investing in her. Roseanne is in a leveling-up process where more is being asked of her and, frankly, she is feeling the discomfort of the stretch.
But the truth is, the leadership team is actually quite pleased with her. Only Roseanne is at risk of losing confidence – her greatest fear is letting herself down.
Do You Need More Skills or More Self-Awareness?
From where I sit as her leadership coach, I easily see how Roseanne’s days could be more easeful, her thoughts less burdensome, and her work more focused if she could let go of analyzing nearly every comment or communication that comes her way for evidence that the day has finally come when she is found out as incapable.
Roseanne’s situation isn’t uncommon, but it is a situation that isn’t often spoken about or given support. In fact, the distraction and insecurity caused by the discomfort in that stretch zone between middle management and senior leadership are common enough among the executives I coach that the Roseanne in this story is actually a composite of multiple clients.
As in the case of Roseanne, I’m frequently contacted by an organization’s leadership because they know they have a candidate who can step up and do well at the executive level, but they also know there are a few things they just can’t put their finger on, things that need to be addressed for the person to be a fit at the leadership level, things that no additional training or skills development will clear out.
Organizations that send their candidates to typical leadership training fail to create a successful transition, while organizations that have successful – and sustainable – transitions provide their candidates with a leadership coach to help them work on self-awareness and social-emotional development.
Uncovering the Truth Through Coaching
Roseanne is clearly making progress from when we began our twice-monthly sessions just three months ago. She has gone from being caught off guard by her insecurity to now having developed enough self-awareness to question her thoughts. But a sense of overwhelm can come with self-awareness, and this was a day she was working through that…
A few weeks ago, Roseanne and her supervisor had a dialogue about a personnel challenge. Roseanne presented a solution to them that had not yet been attempted within their organization, and her supervisor really liked the concept, as it not only provided a solution to the challenge in Roseanne’s department but could also address a company-wide challenge that the executive team had been grappling with. Roseanne’s supervisor invited her to attend the next executive team meeting as an observer, and Roseanne was excited she had been asked.
As Roseanne observed the meeting, she noticed that the pace of the was fast – people interrupted each other and interjected ideas with great speed. Sometimes it felt like they were drafting off each other’s comments. The team seemed to function really well at that pace, ticking off items on the agenda by either making quick decisions or establishing an action plan for further consideration. Roseanne watched in awe, wondering how she would ever be able to operate at that level.
Then it was time for the agenda item Roseanne was most excited about; she’d been eagerly waiting to hear the presentation of her idea. In her mind’s eye, the executives would hear the idea, pause, look at Roseanne, and affirm their confidence in her ability to someday sit at this table with them.
But instead, someone other than Roseanne’s supervisor proposed a strategy that was similar to Roseanne’s idea, though not as expansive or fleshed out. Her supervisor interjected the idea Roseanne had offered, but there was no mention of her contribution.
There was no pause, no look in Roseanne’s direction, and certainly no affirmation.
Instead, the executives around the table affirmed Roseanne’s supervisor with: “Oh, that is good!” and “Yes! Let’s explore that,” and “Great idea,” and “Flesh that out some more, and we’ll discuss it in detail next meeting,” and just like that, the agenda moved on.
Roseanne left the meeting with conflicted emotions and thoughts. When she shared the experience with me, she conveyed that, intellectually, she completed understood what happened. She could see how the level and the cadence of the dialogue could prevent or hinder crediting her contribution – but on an emotional level, she felt betrayed.
She felt that her supervisor had stolen her idea and presented it as their own – and worse, had taken the credit and affirmation that actually belonged to Roseanne.
I could relate to her story and her perspective, because I had a middle management position in a fast-moving company, and my boss and I would often dialogue about ideas and strategies – and not too long after, I’d hear them present my contributions in a way that I perceived as stealing my credit. And oh, that made me mad! Over time, that feeling boiled into anger and resentment.
Looking back at it now, I wish I’d had a coach to help me process those feelings because, without that objective perspective, it was hard for me to level up in a healthy way.
As Roseanne and I continued with her coaching session, I inquired about what she noticed about the culture of the executive team. She commented on the energy and velocity with which the team discussed and debated high-level issues.
When I asked her what she noticed about how the executives – not including her supervisor – presented their ideas, specifically who they gave credit to, and that’s when Roseanne had an aha!
No one gave credit to anyone. It didn’t feel necessary, it would have felt cumbersome, and it would have even slowed things down.
When I asked her why, she brought forward a topic from a previous session when we talked about how, at the executive level, the group is working toward the good of the whole.
“So,” she said, “Essentially every idea put forth in that meeting was likely a result of that executive sharing the ideas that rose up from work with their teams or the divisions they oversee.”
After a few moments of reflection, Roseanne realized that her attention had been more focused on listening for validation of herself than noticing how a team at that level operates effectively.
Roseanne ended our call with, “Once again, I’m leaving our call a bit overwhelmed and with a lot to process. However, I’m so grateful for being able to uncover what is actually causing me so much ongoing stress and exhaustion, and to realize that it’s not my supervisor but my own negative stories.”
How We Feed Our Negative Stories (and Why We Need to Stop)
You see, our brain is constantly seeking evidence that the negative stories we tell it are true. The negative story that Roseanne continually feeds her brain is a version of I’m not really good enough for this, and soon they will find out.
By focusing on her need for evidence that her story was true, Roseanne was distracted from the real reason she was in the room. Had she not had a coach to guide her toward uncovering this behavioral tendency, she would have continued on with the wrong learning, the wrong takeaway.
The challenge is that our brain is a complex organ that simply responds to what is fed to it. Our ego feeds it the thoughts, and all our brain can do is believe the stories we tell it. Without raising our self-awareness and understanding of what is really happening, our ego sets out to find supporting evidence to either confirm or deny our story.
This is a distracting and exhausting roller-coaster ride. And like Roseanne, we may suddenly come across as lacking confidence, having a bad attitude, or being needy for attention and acknowledgment.
Roseanne’s time in the executive team meeting was spent seeking evidence to affirm her fears, and that blocked her from experiencing their collaboration as a curious and agile learner (which is just one of 6 characteristics of a self-aware and effective leader).
This is the work of leadership coaching: a deep dive into an understanding of how your stretch zone impacts your emotions, your triggers, your thoughts, and your behavioral tendencies. Without doing this kind of development work, you may perpetually (and unknowingly) self-sabotage your efforts instead of moving toward your goals.
Your Turn: Rewriting the Negative Stories You Tell Yourself
Did Roseanne’s situation sound familiar to you? Did some, most, or all of it resonate with your own experiences at work?
- How are your negative stories impacting your ability to move forward?
- How much time does your brain spend scanning and seeking evidence that your negative stories are true?
- How much and how often are you missing out on what really matters?
- What simple steps can you use to shift yourself out of that space and into one that is both productive and rooted in what’s true?
How to Rewrite the Negative Stories You Tell Yourself in 5 Simple Steps
Here are 5 simple steps to help you stop feeding your brain negative stories and start feeding it the truth:
- Notice the unspoken thought (the source of your negative story).
- Identify the facts – what’s true in this situation?
- Create a turnaround statement for your unspoken thought.
- Identify what you want to gain by letting go of the story.
- Feed your brain the truth.
For a clear and paved path for that process, download the 5-step worksheet, which includes examples and space to expand on your answers.
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