The Stories We Tell Ourselves


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I’m already nervous. It’s my first time speaking to a statewide audience and this is the first time I’ve delivered this material. I’ve prepared hard, and I think I’m ready. But after about five minutes, I see a couple of members of the audience start checking their phones. I’m humiliated; I couldn’t even hold their attention for 10 minutes.

Miraculously, while I deliver my material to the audience, I’m able to have another whole conversation inside my head.

“They hate it. No – they hate me. I’ve lost them; they’re bored and they’re going to tell everyone not to bother going to my other workshop. “

It’s a compelling story I’m telling myself. The problem is it’s all made up.

It turns out that the two audience members were from the same office and had both received an urgent text from their manager. They actually stayed through the presentation and came up to tell me how much they enjoyed it after.

If I had let my story take over my brain, my presentation would have suffered. We tell ourselves stories like this every day, and sometimes we damage more than a presentation; we can damage relationships.

Brené Brown has written several books on courage, vulnerability, and shame, and her latest is a terrific leadership read. Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts  is a guidebook to how real conversations between leaders and teams can change corporate culture and relationships.

One of her great actionable takeaways is the phrase: “The story I’m telling myself is…” She introduces the concept with a story about a time she was completely overwhelmed with work. Here’s how she tells it:

“I was sitting in the dining room, on the brink of collapsing in tears, when I heard the back door open and [her husband] Steve come in. He walked down the hall, headed into the kitchen, set his bag down on the breakfast room table, and opened the refrigerator. The first thing I heard him say was “We don’t even have any damn lunch meat in this house.”

Brown came close to melting down and starting one of those epic fights that couples remember for years. In fact, she confronted Steve by the refrigerator with a sarcastic comment about where he might find lunchmeat if he needed it so badly. Steve, to his credit, didn’t take the bait. He reminded her that, since he buys the groceries for the family, the lack of lunchmeat was on him. Finally, Brown writes, “still calm and more curious than pissed, he said, “Right. I get the groceries. So what’s going on?”

Brown again: “I looked at Steve and said, “Look, the story I’m telling myself right now is this: I am a half-ass leader, a half-ass mom, a half-ass wife, and a half-ass daughter. I am currently disappointing every single person in my life. Not because I’m not good at what I do, but because I’m doing so many different things that I cannot do a single one of them well. What I’m making up in my head right now is that you want to make sure that I know that you know how bad things suck right now. It’s like you need to announce how sucky things are in our house on the off chance that I—the purveyor of everything that’s currently sucking—happen not to know.”

And because her husband stayed present and really listened, he could comfort her. He assured her that the kids could eat Chick Fil-A one more night and survive, and that he was there for her. “We’ll figure this out together.”

Brown writes that when you have the courage to tell someone what you’re thinking, in a way that allows for the fact that you might be mistaken (“the story I’m telling myself” is very different from “what you’re doing that’s so wrong is…”) we allow the other person space to really listen. Brown says these kind of conversations can be game changers if we can find a way to “to listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard.”

Next time you’re angry, hurt, or disappointed, try telling the other person about the story you’re telling yourself. “The story I’m telling myself about you interrupting me in the meeting this morning is that you think my ideas are less valid than yours. I’m thinking that you don’t respect the work I put into this idea and you want to show everyone I’m not prepared to lead this project. Can you help me understand what you were really thinking?”

You may get a remarkable answer and change the course of your relationship forever. Or not; you can’t control the other person’s reaction or their willingness to own up to how they think or act. But that’s the essence of vulnerability, says Brown: “Vulnerability is not winning or losing . It’s having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.”

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