The Stories We Tell Ourselves – Part I, Illumination

We all have a lot of stuff floating around in our heads about who we are, how we relate to the world, how important we are, what we could do better, etc. Pay attention, because the stories you tell yourself about yourself are the clay that molds how you show up as a leader.

These stories may not be flattering. Or, they may be the substance of legends. Either way, they are OUR stories, and they don`t always mesh with what we want or how others may see us. But they are important for one big reason: we need to know if they are worth keeping or if they must be changed. For now, I`d like to address the stories that may prevent us from realizing our full potential as leaders.

When I hear clients say “I can`t do this or that” or “that`s just the way I am”, I know there is a story behind those statements. It might be a belief that change is not possible. It might be that there is no desire to change. When I ask about that story, it starts a conversation that will stick and help my clients to become more aware of what they are telling themselves ?€“ about themselves.

When we illuminate (literally, “to make lucid or clear; to enlighten, as with knowledge”) the stories we tell ourselves, a window opens that allows us to make a decision to continue to believe the story or to change it to something more powerful. These stories are the beliefs that shape us as leaders and as individuals.

There are ways to become aware of the essence of these stories. Some are able to observe themselves in real time. If that isn`t possible for you, any or all of these ways of illumination will assist:

  • 360?° Feedback: obtaining confidential feedback using an assessment that compares your responses with those from your employees, boss, clients, or peers can be very helpful in comparing how you see yourself (your stories) with how others see you.
  • Ask: asking people you trust to give you the straight scoop on what they observe is always helpful. Ask specific questions about what they observe ?€“ “Did I appear confident in that presentation?”. “What did you observe about how I dealt with that employee?”.
  • Journal/write: generally, writing will appeal to introverts. But this doesn`t have to be a big deal if you are intimidated by writing. A few minutes each day asking yourself “What is the story I told myself today?” with bullet point answers will suffice.
  • Self-Assessments: Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, DiSC, the Enneagram ?€“ there are thousands of these. They all provide a catalyst for thought about the stories we tell ourselves. Spend time with your report results and see what surprises you (surprises might illuminate your stories).

Illuminating ?€“ becoming aware ?€“ of our stories is the first step in deciding if we want to keep them or change them. Part II of this series about the Stories We Tell Ourselves ?€“ Deciding, will follow. In the meantime ?€“ your thoughts on how you become aware of your own stories are welcome!

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

14 comments on “The Stories We Tell Ourselves – Part I, Illumination

  1. Nicely written – makes me think about the kinds of stories that leaders are living out, intentionally or not… fairy tales, mystery, comedy, science fiction, satire, fantasy…

  2. Hi Angie,

    I like the playfulness of your comment. An associated question for a leader is to ask them what category the story they tell themselves is? And what category do they want it to be?

  3. This is a great post, Mary Jo. It's funny how we've forgotten how so much of what we've learned has been passed down to us through stories and how those tales have shaped our perspectives of the world around us. Just as those stories educated us about the world, the stories we tell educate others about us, if not reinforcing our own preconceptions.

    Storytelling is a powerful medium that I think we're slowly starting to reconnect with, and for the better if you ask me.

  4. In my experience people generally tend to tell stories in which they either over or underestimate themselves. It is a rare person who is sufficiently self-reflective to be able to tell an accurate story about him or herself. With that in mind, I think you have set forth some useful tools to help people find out the truth about the stories we all tell ourselves. I especially like that you have suggested a mix of internal and external feedback sources. It is important, in my view, to get input from both outside sources and from ourselves in order to break down the biases we have about ourselves and find out where the stories we tell ourselves stand in relation to the reality of the situation.

  5. In seriousness, the "perception is reality" rule comes into play here. Perhaps a leader believes he/she is living out a biographical story, when others see it as a fictional farce. Credibility is key to living and leading a true story.

  6. Tanveer, I agree that stories are very powerful! Perhaps the subconscious ones we tell ourselves are most powerful.

    Patrick, recently I read that we tend to overestimate our influence on people and the world. We also tend to explain away or blame others for things that we should take responsibility for. This is what prompted the post. Although I hate the term "authentic" when it comes to leadership, certainly a good dose of being "grounded in reality" about ourselves can't hurt.

    Angie, my thought is that so many of us go through our days "unconscious" about who we are, and what we've told ourselves. I think many leaders are not fully aware of the stories they tell themselves (about themselves), and thus lose the power to influence through that "unknowing-ness". When we become aware, we have the power to change.

  7. Stories are indeed the most powerful and the most human way that we communicate. Sometimes asking for the story of an event or problem or situation will get you a richer, more nuanced and more honest picture of it.

  8. Mary Jo — beautifully stated, beautifully written!

    "The questions which one asks oneself begin, at least, to illuminate the world, and become one's key to the experience of others." ~James A. Baldwin

  9. I enjoyed this post…
    this post let me think about my stories, like you said these stories may not be flattering, but they are still my stories. When I look at my stories, I find out what I should keep, and I think maybe my stories not only can illuminate myself but also others. It not means how terrific of my stories, it just because maybe I can be more closer with people when I share with my stories.

  10. Great post. Regarding the internal and external feedback, it is a natural tendency for many (including myself) to become defensive. I remind myself as often as possible, no matter how well informed I am about a subject there is always someone who knows more or someone that can display an alternative line of thinking. When the principle is applied to feedback and criticism, it allows one to objectively examine the foundation their stories are built upon.

  11. Interesting post. Its definitely essential to be aware of ones story, to realized aspects of it that require change. Its just so hard for people to accurately analyze themselves. And if they do, to make the steps to promote a change in their story and become a more productive leader.

  12. This is an extremely interesting post. I just something the other day about the differences between the way we think we will act and the we actually act; the stories we tell ourselves is very similiar. Actually being able to reflect on our actions and how we have presented ourselves, especially as leaders, is something I think few do. I know it will be something I will be doing in the future.

  13. This is a great post. However, it presumes that “INTROSPECTION’ appplies only to leadership potentential. Although effective leadership is an important aspect of life, life and living embodies a complete spectrum of experiences and challenges where leadership is not the critical aspect of being and living the entire spectrum of the human experience. Infact, it may not even be possible to become an effective leader when other critical aspects of living are in shambles and simply ignored. As one who has gained tremendously from incorporation of introspection to many aspects of my life’s experiences, I highly recomend such considerations for a more complete life experience.



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