The Stories We Tell Ourselves – Part II: Deciding to Change

In Part I of The Stories We Tell Ourselves, we worked through some ways to discover the stories we tell ourselves. You may have had some time to reflect on the stories you tell yourself about yourself. These stories (beliefs) have shaped you as a leader. They may be powerful – or they may hold you back from reaching your full potential. It is time to decide if your stories are working for you and whether or not you want to change them.

Some real examples of stories leaders tell themselves:
“Being kind to others weakens me as a leader”
“Nobody on my staff is able to do this task as well as I do it”
“My staff doesn’t have time to do this task”
“Requesting feedback from others on my performance would show others that I lack self-confidence”
“My employees want me to tell them exactly what to do and how to do it”
“I will never be able to work in ‘the big leagues’ as a leader”

Perhaps you’ve discovered a story that you feel may prevent you from realizing your full potential as a leader. You’ve clung to this story for years without realizing it. It doesn’t seem to have interfered with your ability to be your best – yet. Do you need to change this story? Some questions you can ask yourself:

  • Has this story influenced my leadership?
  • Has this story helped or hindered my leadership?
  • Considering where I want to be as a leader, how will this story help or hinder me?
  • Is this story one that I want to change to a more powerful one?
  • Am I willing to do the hard work needed to change this story?

Through this line of inquiry, you may have found a story that you want to change, and a new story you want to create. Part III will address how to change your story.

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.

16 comments on “The Stories We Tell Ourselves – Part II: Deciding to Change

  1. Hi MJ!
    I am just catching up on my reading and read both of these posts together. I really enjoyed both of them, but I am particularly moved by the set of questions included in this post. So often, I accept "my story" without considering the possibility that I could change it. The questions that you include here are one more way of illuminating the stories. I look forward to your next post and the insight you will share about how to change.

  2. Another thought: I wonder about the stories we tell others about ourselves: the way we define ourselves through the stories we share with friends; what we choose to present about ourselves and how we share it. When we repeat those stories often enough, we start to believe them… or maybe we repeat them because we already believe them. Positive or not, those stories we tell others about ourselves are powerful, too.

  3. Hi Becky,

    Thanks for your comments. Glad the questions were thought provoking. We rarely take the time to consider questions; they are a great way to think(and write). Sometimes, when I am stuck, I'll use a question to "self-coach" through a barrier (if I'm really ambitious, I'll journal about it, too).

    Enjoyed your second thoughts about stories and how we begin to believe them. How true!

  4. The great Earl Nightengale said "We become what we think about." I have found that to be true in my life.

    What that does for me is to elevate the importance of being attentive of what I am thinking about.

    I want my thoughts to be positive and fulfilling so my life is the same.

  5. Thanks Paul, I believe this to be true. David Cooperrider says that "Organizations move in the direction of the questions they ask". I believe this is true for individuals as well. Craft your questions with care!

  6. Mary Jo,

    After reading both posts and pondering stories I tell, I find myself asking "why do I tell that story?" It is an interesting feeling asking yourself to justify why you tell a specific story, and how that justification affects your view of the story.

  7. Kevin, perhaps the questions you ask yourself with catalyze some wonderful change?

  8. Hi, Mary Jo…as always you write about some central subjects for leaders. I – as Becky – read both the illuminating post and this one together! Stories can be so great to create the life we want and so hard to detect because we believe them to be true (or want so hard to make them true that we act as if they were). I am looking forward to your next post on creating the change 😉

  9. Hi Mary Jo,

    I think your list of questions puts out a lot for people to think about, especially the last one about whether we're willing to put the effort into changing our stories.

    Many of us have probably experienced an event in our past which shook our sense of who we are and what we're capable of. This could be something from our professional lives or our personal one. Unfortunately, these negative experiences tend to colour our perceptions for a long time afterwards and the story we tell others about us.

    These questions you list remind us that our story is never really finished, but an evolving one that we have to revisit and update to better reflect where we are at that point in our lives.

    Looking forward to reading the next part in this series.

  10. Monica, Isn't that where a great coach can come into play? We ask the provocative questions that help to illuminate the stories that can't be seen, much less acted upon (I tell my clients that they have their nose right up on the bark of the tree – how can they be expected to see the forest?).

    Tanveer (not sure why only part of your name came through here): sounds like you might love the questions as much as I do! I believe they are able to evolve us, if only we are able to live in them more.

  11. I know that one of the biggest beliefs that I have which holds me back as a leader is: "I need more information before I can make a decision." Sometime this is helpful, but most of the time this belief is a way of rationalizing procrastination and deferring responsability. Many analytical types like myself, fear making decisions if there is uncertainty in the data we are using to evaluate different options.

  12. Welcome Brian,

    You seem to know exactly what story you are telling yourself about deferring decisions. Is there a more powerful story you'd like to tell yourself (and others)?

  13. May Jo,

    I have read both parts of this series thus far and, for me, the most difficult aspect of the "stories we tell ourselves" is overcoming shortcomings in my work behavior that may not adveresely effect me in my current position, but may hold me back from advancement. For example, if I tell myself that I am introvert but it is not hurting me now, I may delay rectifying that part of my personality. Then, it will only become more difficult to be more extroverted as the years pass.

    The best suggestions to square our stories with reality were the 360 feedback and Ask because they involve outside information that will not be clouded as much by our stories.

    The 9/3/09 post has touched upon the key point for me thus far. The stories some of us may tell ourselves are negative ones. These are stories that are not necessarily due to overconfidence, but rather insecurity.

    I am interested to read Part III.

    -Mark D. Cohen

  14. Hello Mark,

    What possibilities might there be for you to value your introversion and learn to stay balanced within that preference?

    As an extravert, I admire the introverts' ability to thoughfully think through things before speaking and acting – something that doesn't necessarily come naturally to me. There are such strengths in introversion! The trick is learning to value those, and work within them.

    So…. what positive story would you like to tell yourself about your introversion? And how might that story assist you in reaching your advancement goals?

  15. Mary Jo,

    I could evaluate how my introvert personality actually helps me in my career. I do think a lot about what I am going to say to someone before I say it, and that could be helpful.

    As far as a positive story I could tell myself, I could say that introversion helps me to avoid mistakes in networking or decision making. It could assist me in my advancement goals by forcing me to check if I am making any errors in tactfulness as I try to open up my personality to become a leader.

  16. Hi Mark,

    Great! Seeing your introversion story as a positive will go a long way. (P.S. Many leaders are introverts – you don't have to become anything different to be a leader – just find a way to not compromise who you are, and still stay balanced).

    Watch for part three to see some ways that you can stay true to your intention to change. Thanks for the conversation!

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