First a quote: “Persons appear to us according to the light we throw upon them from our own minds.” – Laura Ingalls Wilder
Please take a moment to visualize yourself in any of the following situations:
- Your manager walks by your cubicle without saying good morning or acknowledging your presence in the office.
- A colleague doesn’t include you on the distribution list of an important email to the team.
- The call you expected last night from a friend never came.
- You overhear your name mentioned in a muffled conversation between two co-workers in the breakroom.
- Your teenager was supposed to be home four hours ago and hasn’t called.
- Your spouse, or significant other, was unusually short with you at dinner this evening.
Now, reflecting on one or more of these scenarios, did you feel your mind racing to fill in missing details? What assumptions did you make? What conclusions did you draw? What stories did you tell yourself? Were the stories you created in your mind primarily negative or positive in nature? More importantly, what could be the implications of the stories you might have told yourself if it were you at the center of these scenarios?
And now, an assertion: The stories we tell ourselves matter. If we’re not careful, the stories we tend to tell ourselves may hurt our relationships, marriages, job, career, and even our health. The stories help to shape our behaviors, choices, attitudes, and outlook on life.
How does this happen?
Based largely on assumptions and best guesses, we humans tend to continuously create stories in our own minds about the people, and the world around us, almost non-stop. A portion of these stories might be rooted in facts; often however, a significant percentage is based upon our interpretation of incomplete, or self-selected, data.
For instance, in the first example above:
- The fact (or observed behavior): My manager walked by my cubicle without saying a word, or acknowledging your presence.
- Possible interpretation: “My manager is upset with me; I must be in trouble.”
- A story we might tell ourselves: “I have worked for that manager for more than five years. She has no right to be angry with me, and in fact, she owes me a thank you for making her look good and possibly saving her career. I’m the one who should be angry with her.”
- Possible reality: Your manager just learned her father has been diagnosed with a serious case of COVID-19. She was simply distracted, and in fact, would be horrified if she realized she neglected to say good morning to you and the team. Her behaviors didn’t match her positive intentions of being a good manager, and a caring person.
We often observe the behavior of others; interpret that behavior, and then add our own personal meaning to the interpretations we’ve made. Finally, we tell ourselves a story to support our interpretation of another person’s behavior, or perhaps lack of behavior. (This process is often related to unconscious bias, which we all have. That is perhaps a topic for another Monday.)
Add human emotions into the mix and we can begin to appreciate how, and why, misunderstandings between people are created, reinforced, and sometimes incorrectly exaggerated.
Here is the good news: we can change the stories we tell ourselves! Here are six actions you can take this week to improve the accuracy of the stories you tell yourself.
- Recognize some of the stories you’re telling yourself are likely to be based upon incomplete or faulty data.
- Don’t assume everything is about you. It could be your ego getting in the way.
- Assume positive intent in others. Proactively look for the helpful intentions of others.
- Help others see where their behaviors might not be aligned with their intentions.
- Share and/or validate your interpretations with the person involved.
- Look for opportunities to better align your behavior with your intentions.
My continued request is that we each take responsibility for our words and actions in our own little corners of the world. Let’s all strive be better people; to be our “best selves,” as I like to say. We can dream bigger; we can do better! Let’s not go back to normal, but forward to better!
How will you live, love, or lead better this coming week?
“Expanding Your Capacity for Success”
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- “The stories we tell literally make the world. If you want to change the world, you need to change your story. This truth applies both to individuals and institutions.” – Michael Margolis
- “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” – Joan Didion
- “There is no greater power on this earth than story.” – Libba Bray
- “It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” – Patrick Rothfuss
- “Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.” – Jean Luc Godard
- “Stories create community, enable us to see through the eyes of other people, and open us to the claims of others.” – Peter Forbes