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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Updated: Aug 12, 2022

For as long as I can remember, I have loved stories. But only recently have I realised why.

You burn bright is leadership coaching from Zoe fenn for future leaders in the creative industries

I believe that the reason I love stories so much, is because they teach us about who and how we are. Through a veil of entertainment, we can make a little bit more sense of the messy world, our view of it and our place within it. Stories are so alluring because of their subjectivity. The best, enduring ones allow us to project our own situation into the narrative, coming away a little cleansed or with more clarity.

The stories we tell ourselves about who we are, are no less powerful. In fact, then run the show. They are so embedded that often without us even realising, they shape all our thoughts, feeling and actions. But there is a crucial difference. As narratives which took up residence inside us long ago, the stories we tell ourselves can feel like immutable truths, as real as the cup of tea I am sipping as I write this. Stories like…

…I am not decisive

…I don’t like change

…I lack experience

We don’t appear to question these at all. Time and time again, we will reinforce and solidify these stories by repeating them to ourselves and out loud. When we are promoted into our first management or leadership position, these stories harden. But in fact, these are just stories, like any other. They are works of fiction, written over long periods of time that at some point we begin to interpret as fact. Our brains, as brilliant as they are, edit information and store the evidence that backs up our version of the world. The thing about the brain is that it likes to be right (well, who doesn’t), so it will overlook details that seem to contradict it.

Some stories we tell ourselves can be helpful. Great! Keep repeating these. And share them with the world. But if, like most people you have some less helpful stories playing a loop in your head, then the great news is, you can start to re-write these. It’s not easy, but it is possible. Here are a few tips… and as always, I’d love to hear what’s worked for you.

Recognise it’s a Story. This is not who you are. It is who you think you are.

Edit a Chapter at a time: Stories often read like sweeping statements against which we write off our chances all together, often manifesting themselves in defeatist language like I’ll never be able to… I can’t possibly… To counter this overwhelm, try highlighting one aspect of the story to rework by asking yourself:

In what type of situation would it make the biggest difference to be more decisive?

What upcoming change you would like to get more comfortable with?

What role / idea / action do you want enough experience to take on?

Back it Up: Find evidence (even the tiniest scrap) that supports your reworking of this chapter. Search for times when you did things that run contrary to your beliefs, identifying who and what helped you push through those barriers.

Try out the New Story: You now have a choice over which story to believe. The one that holds you back, or that one that propels you forward. Seek out opportunities to validate your new story, collate your evidence, notice the difference this makes. Identify a new chapter to work on.

I hope you found this helpful. If you want to get more of the science behind this, then I recommend the Chimp Paradox by Steven Peters. It explains how part of our brain is out to sabotage or protect us and it takes ongoing, careful ‘chimp’ management to listen to our real, human selves.

Dr Lisa Orbe-Austin: Own Your Greatness: Overcome Imposter Syndrome, Beat Self Doubt and Succeed in Life

Is this Working? Podcast: Stop Self Sabotaging

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