Updated: Apr 17
We are all fantastic story creators.
The stories we tell ourselves can become our truths.
We accept them as fact and rarely challenge them.
They are powerful.
They can be wrong.
Humans connect through stories. They are a way both to learn from one another and to relate to ourselves, each other and the world around us. We all create stories within ourselves to make sense of our own words, thoughts and actions, those of others and of what's happening in our world.
You know these stories. They're the thoughts that we have in our own minds that start with words like:
- 'Oh, she did that because she's...'; or
- 'I'm not good at this. Every time I've tried it's never worked out for me, so I won't try it again.'; or
- 'He always responds like that. It must be because he's...'; or
- I'm such an idiot! How did I get that so wrong??! I should just shut up next time.'
There are countless examples within each of us, and I'm sure that you get the idea.
These stories are incredibly powerful. These stories help us make sense about:
- our work;
- the world around us;
- other peoples' motivations and behaviours;
- our own motivations and behaviours; and
- our own selves.
We create them within ourselves based on our life experience up to that time and our perceptions and interpretations of events. We can elevate them to revere them as absolute truths by which we define ourselves and move through life.
[These stories are different to the stories we diplomats tells each other in 'The Lonely Diplomat: on competitive stories'. In that post, I explored the power of the stories we share with each other and can broadcast our awesomeness with our colleagues in our hyper-competitive environment.]
What's the problem?
The stories we tell ourselves are powerful. They can frame how we perceive ourselves and the world around us.
For all their power over us and our words, thoughts and actions, we rarely check their accuracy or test if they still serve us.
These stories that we tell ourselves can be powerfully wrong.
Let's imagine that you're sitting in a meeting with lots of other people. You're making your contribution and your boss snaps at you. What would your first thoughts be?
For me, once I get over the shock of this happening (it is never professional to yell at, belittle or talk over someone, after all), I would think that I'd done something wrong to upset them. Then, in all likelihood, I'd quickly start to slide down a well-oiled shame spiral and get to the conclusion that my boss doesn't like me, doesn't like my work, that I'm not good enough to do this job and that he must be thinking 'how the hell did he get this job??!'
My friend Joe would revel in this. He'd love to have another example of me not being good enough to whip out whenever he wanted me to feel unworthy. It's easy to see how the stories we tell ourselves play into our self-deprecation or make us feel like an fraud. This is a topic I explored in 'Are you the self-deprecating diplomat?'.
Let's stop for a moment and actually see what happened:
1. There's a meeting.
2. I was making a contribution.
3. My boss snapped at me.
4. I internalised both the words said and the emotion with which they were said.
5. I quickly arrived at a conclusion that I was not good enough.
When written down and assessed logically, I think that we can all agree that is a very big leap from my boss snapping to me concluding - with absolute certainty, no less - that I was not good enough.
There could be hundreds of reasons why my boss snapped at me. I choose to respond with empathy and will say that they're human and fallible, after all. But no, none of that mattered. I'd quickly discounted any other possibilities, taken on all the fault and built a story about me and my inept words, thoughts and actions being the single source of their response. That's some Olympic-level mental and emotional long jump right there, isn't it? Cue the anthem. I'm ready for my medal now.
I do this all the time. The only logical conclusion to someone's bad mood or otherwise negative reaction must be in response to something I've said, done or thought or some deep personal failing of mine. I build a story around that and recall it for next time.
I'm confident that I'm not alone. These stories we create based on a flimsy understanding of the facts or events quickly become our truths.
We are all fantastic story creators. In our stories, we are each an omnipotent, omnipresent being and we each have the power to make anything that ever happens in our lives all about ourselves.
'He wouldn't have snapped at me if I was better at my job'.
'I see how she acts with everyone else. She never acts that way with me. What can I do to make her at least say a nice word to me?'
'He'd notice me and give me the good work assignments if I wasn't so fat/thin/ugly/dumb/stupid.'
'She's so confident and bold. She's got it all under control. Everything always works out for her. She must really have her shit together.' [Sorry for the swear word, Mum...]
Logically, we know that this is not true. Everyone has their struggles and reasons for thinking, speaking and acting like they do. Most of the time, these events around which we can create stories have nothing to do with us.
Additionally, we can take the comments of others and one-time results and adopt them as truths about ourselves. Here are some of mine that I believed as absolute truths (keep these in mind, for now):
'I'm not good with numbers.'
'I'm hopeless at sport.'
'I can never sleep on planes.'
'I can't sing.'
Critically, we never miss an opportunity to look for proof to support these truths. This is the cruelty of these stories. Once created from the merest of comments or from a narrow perspective and accepted as truths, we continue add more and more examples to prove our flimsy theories.
And isn't it funny to think of how quickly we can recall stories about when we felt small, stupid, ignored, belittled, embarrassed, guilty or ashamed? We're not so good at recalling those stories about when we felt powerful, seen, heard, smart, successful and proud of ourselves.
For diplomats and those who live the diplomatic life
As humans who are also diplomats, we have infinite numbers of stories within us that we create and use constantly.
What are the stories you tell yourself about the promotions, postings or job opportunities you didn't get? How have those stories coloured your view of yourself, others and your employing agency?
What are the stories you tell yourself about the promotions, posting and job opportunities that have gone your way? Have you been just lucky? Was someone in your corner? Did you feel that you really didn't know what you're doing and you needed to fake it until you make it?
It is exhausting - and dangerous - to spend our careers wrapped in the stories we've told ourselves and then have chosen to believe and look for evidence to support them.
Our stories can portray us as the eternal victim. So we end up saying that our employers are 'out to get me'. Conspiracies are cooked up and readily believed. Everything and everyone becomes a threat. Our ability to trust others - and ourselves - erodes.
Sooner or later, we can feel that the job we once did no longer fulfills us. We begin mentally checking out. We doubt the intentions of others. We exchange stories through gossip and build alliances of people like 'us' and exclude those like 'them'.
In the absence of fact, stories fill the void.
It does not have to be this way.
What are we to do?
It's comforting to know that if we have the power to have once created a story and believed it, we can create another one and believe it too.
Our stories can lift us up and move us forward just as much as they can hold us back.
But the key is to recognise your stories for what they are. They're interpretations; they're not truths.
Once you've recognised this, you can challenge your stories and script them from another perspective.
Perhaps - and this could be a little out there for our workplaces, I admit - you could seek clarification to verify the accuracy of the story you're telling yourself.
I know that many of you have just thought, 'Yeah, good idea. But that's not going to happen, Phil. It doesn't work like that where I work.' Keep reading.
My intellectual crush, Dr Brené Brown has written on the importance of recognising and challenging the stories we tell ourselves. In fact, Dr Brown wrote a book on the power of the stories we tell ourselves and each other in her book, 'Rising Strong'.
Dr Brown writes on the importance of what she calls 'circling back'.
The concept is this: we must have the courage to speak up and clarify our stories at the time we recognise that they're stories.
This is likely to induce a panic attack among many readers, feeling that they could never clarify their stories in such a way with their senior leaders at post or in their head offices. If this is you, think about this: perhaps the thought that you could never do this in your workplace is an example of a story you've created and chosen to believe...
Here's an example:
My manager and I were meeting in my office and talking about the priorities she and Canberra had for me and my team. She said something that could have had major implications for the work we did. As she spoke, my mind started to race with a host of 'what if' scenarios. I had stopped listening to her and had leapt to a range of conclusions that I started to accept as fact. All within seconds.
I recognised what was happening and stopped myself mid-thought. I used the words Dr Brown uses in 'Rising Strong' and said, 'I just want to go back to a point you raised a moment ago. It'd be great to get more information, because the story I'm telling myself is...'
Make no mistake; doing this requires courage. But do it we must. This strategy has worked each time I've had the presence of mind to use it. This method of clarification is extremely powerful at dispersing any story based on my own supposition and perspective.
Very few people communicate with the intention of being misunderstood - ourselves included. Anyone who does communicate with the aim to confuse is not listened to for long after we call 'bullshit' and stop listening. We all have a part in creating an environment in which such clarity and engagement is genuinely encouraged and rewarded.
There is great power in challenging both your stories and those of others. Doing this requires courage, bravery, finding your voice, encouraging others to find their voices seeking clarification, but can save untold amounts of anguish.
It's time to identify your stories and identify them as fact or fiction.
After reading this, I want you to think about the following questions:
- What stories do you tell yourself about what you are good or bad at?
- What stories do you tell yourself about your work?
- What about the stories you're telling yourself about your friends and family?
- What about the environment where you are?
- where and how can you begin to challenge the stories you're creating as you're creating them?
Finally, back to me for a moment. Do you remember those truths I wrote about earlier? Well, I revisited them and know that they were based on my much younger self interpreting test results at school, comparing myself to others or one-time events. I know now that I'm not hopeless with numbers; I just prefer working with words. I know that I'm not terrible at sports; I didn't really enjoy the dominant male winter sport at my school. I can sleep on planes when I observe some simple sleep techniques (like closing my eyes and turning off the TV). I still can't really hold a tune, but it doesn't stop me singing.
Go and challenge your stories.
One more thing...
If you're looking for something to read that explores the power of the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the words and actions of others, I can recommend the book 'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage' by Japanese author Haruki Murakami.
This post covered the central themes of diplomacy, competition and connection.
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Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.