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Your Stories Don’t Define You, How You Tell Them Will

Apr 30, 2019

We have been exploring the concept of resilience in a series of episodes of this podcast, and each one has helped me better understand this theme: Resilience can come from so many places, and for each human, it shows up differently. 

I’m seeing how it shows up in my guests lives, relationships, and careers, and as I hiked up the mountain behind my house on my birthday recently, I had some "ah ha" moments about where it shows up for me. Every year, I take time on or around my birthday for deep self-reflection. This annual tradition has helped me re-define success periodically in my life, re-focus on what really matters to me; to consider patterns that have benefitted me – and done damage. I look at those patterns in my life to help me figure out where I might be getting in my own way. 

I believe that asking myself those hard questions, the ones that the answers may make me cringe and see myself in a less than positive light, is part of why I’ve demonstrated resilience throughout my life and career. When I see patterns of negative relationships, personal and professional, and understand whether and how I may be contributing to them, I can choose to make adjustments.

It’s not fun to realize you’re complicit in your struggles. It’s much, much easier (and safer) to blame others and  “extenuating circumstances,” because then we don’t have to take responsibility. But doing that is not going to make me resilient. And worse, I would continue to live within a negative cycle if I don’t identify the patterns, learn lessons, and choose my next steps. I’d be lying to myself about who I am and what I stand for.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier episodes: Choose your obstacles and struggles, or they will be chosen for you. 

On my quiet birthday hike, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the joy and sorrow I experienced in this decade. I lost my father-in-law, my dad, my stepdad, and a dear family friend over a period of 2 years. So much grief for our family. I also joyfully welcomed an ideal brother-in-law and three nieces into our family, and took pictures of my father, just months before he passed, filled with joy, peace, and love as he held his newest grandchild.

I watched our sons struggle through junior high and high school and come out more resilient, confident, and compassionate. I had some euphoric career highs, contributing to incredibly valuable and successful projects, and a devastating career low that took my confidence for a dive.

We had extraordinary travel adventures, float trips on the Missouri River, and had friends who are family support us in remarkable ways. And in the middle of all of that, I finished an MBA and became a professional musician – I started singing in a rock band for the first time – at 40.

As memories of all of these events were brilliantly and vividly flashing through my mind, what caught my attention were some of the incredible lessons I learned in that time.

I thought for this episode, I would share two that I can say changed and improved my life, and helped me flex my resilience muscles as I navigated my 40s:

Sometimes your contribution to a conversation isn’t necessary or helpful. 
Think before you speak, and make sure others in the room have a chance to contribute.
In my 40s I switched jobs three times. The second one in that decade was a particularly bad fit; I was a compliance officer for a major Federal grant, and I don’t even like rules. On top of that, my boss and I had some major personality differences. We struggled to find balance in our shared cube, and there was palpable friction between us for the duration of our time together. My confidence took a major dive in those 2+ years, and at points throughout, I found myself sinking into depression. I learned a lot of personal lessons in that time, and I find this one continues to resonate.

It was in that job that I realized I didn’t always have to contribute my thoughts. Sometimes, I realized later, I looked like a know-it-all, and many times I didn’t leave room for others to contribute. It took some difficult circumstances for me to be able to see myself the way I was being perceived by my boss; eventually I learned to lean back in our conversations and contribute only when I truly had something of value to add - something that would bring the conversation forward or improve the project somehow.

I learned how not to antagonize her, which was the best thing I could do as I looked for a more suitable position.

When I left that job, I had learned many difficult lessons, and continue to practice (I’m still learning) that particular one a lot. That lesson was likely the most pivotal for my 40s, in terms of the application in a variety of scenarios. There have been times I’ve leaned back and allowed space for family, friends, and coaching clients, transforming my relationships with those people. Of course, I still fail sometimes in my efforts to listen more than I speak… okay, a lot of times; overall, I’ve seen my career and relationships benefit greatly from that practice.

It's so important to use your voice and speak your truth; it’s also important to know the consequences and be okay with that. When I consider speaking my truth, I think about whether my sharing it will help or change anything for the person in front of me, and then decide whether I need to share for my own needs – or for theirs. I also consider whether sharing that truth will have negative consequences, and if those will be worth the risk.

Sometimes my contribution to a conversation isn’t necessary or helpful.
Another big lesson in my 40s has been to stop lying to myself about certain character traits and behaviors.
I used to think I was that empathetic friend with a shoulder to cry on. I wanted to be that friend. After an interaction with a woman who came to me multiple times every week for a couple of months, crying and re-sharing her story of devastating emotional trauma, I realized I’m not that friend.

Susan, you need to stop reliving that experience and choose your next story, your next adventure. I love you and you are always welcome here. I am just not the friend with an unending shoulder to cry on - I’m the friend you come to for a kick in the ass. I’m the friend who will sit with you and listen, and then ask the hard questions to help you find solutions, and I’ll stick by you and encourage you as you move forward.

She left my house with a puzzled, lost expression on her face, and I returned to the dining room to tell my husband what I had said to our guest. I felt terrible, partly because I thought I had hurt her feelings, and partly because I was so disappointed to acknowledge I was not the kind of friend I thought I was.

My friend came over a week later and we invited her in for dinner. She smiled as I welcomed her into the kitchen and put her to work peeling carrots. She had a light about her that I hadn’t seen since we met, which was within 8 weeks of the trauma she shared with me in those recent months.

Thank you, Sarah. You were the friend I needed last week. No one else said those words to me in that way. You made me stop to think about what I want next in my life, and for the first time since this started, I am feeling a tiny bit hopeful.

It’s so important to acknowledge aspects of yourself that you might be uncomfortable with, and either address them, or own them. Each person in my life serves a different purpose. I know who to talk to when I need a shoulder to cry on, and I know who will offer the kick-in-the-ass I might need. Now I know which role I fill, and I find it far more satisfying.

There are a couple of other lies I was telling myself about who I was, and as I became more aware of them, I either embraced my truth, or changed my behavior.

I thought I was a kind person until I caught myself talking badly behind someone’s back. I could have excused the behavior by blaming her for her unkindness, but it was my behavior that was impacting ME. I couldn’t call myself kind if I was doing that, and certainly wasn’t going to embrace that behavior. The consequence was that I didn’t LIKE myself when I behaved that way.

What are your internal lies? Are you not as kind or considerate as you think you are? Are you a complainer who carries a constant cloud around you? Are you truly a good friend to people – do you show up?
If you aren’t consistently just as respectful to the checker at the grocery store, or the server at a restaurant, as you are to a CEO, if you post hostile, personally insulting comments online, or if you don’t clean up after your dog, you might be lying to yourself about being a kind and considerate person.

If you find yourself falling down the rabbit hole of complaining, without talking also about potential solutions or gratitude for other things in your life, you might be lying to yourself about being a positive, upbeat person that people want to spend time with.

If you talk behind the backs of people, or you don’t show up for friends when you say you will,  you might be lying to yourself about what kind of friend you really are.

When I was lying to myself about the kind of friend I thought I was, I did damage to myself and to those I was trying help. It was uncomfortable for me to be something I wasn’t, and I’m sure those friends I was trying to serve could see right through my efforts. Where is the trust in that?

To continue that disconnect, which I could have, I’d have to be very clear to myself about what I was doing, and be okay with the consequences. Those were likely to be more discomfort around friends, loss of friendships due to loss of trust, and the loss of my potential to help by being true to myself.

What are the consequences of the lies you’re telling yourself? Do you like yourself? Are you satisfied with who you are, truly?

There is so much beauty in growing older if we embrace these opportunities to learn about ourselves, change what isn’t working for us, and choose generosity, kindness, and curiosity in every aspect of our lives.

My definition of success at 49 is different from my definition of success in my 20s or 30s.
25 years ago my definition of success would be very different from my definition today, as I near the half-century mark. (Whoa, that sounds BIG!)

The beauty of aging – for me – has been a distinct shift in how I view, build, and maintain relationships. I’ve learned to remove toxic people from my life, surround myself with people who truly want the best for me and for our global community, and focus my attention on relationships, not things.

I’ve learned to be more comfortable in my skin.
After all, when this life comes to a grinding halt, whenever that may be, I’ll know that I was a success, based on the quality of the relationships in my life.

What will you learn in this decade of your life? What regrets will you avoid by taking steps every day to change your path?

Did I mention I love birthdays?