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

Sep 17, 2019

My book, based on this podcast, is designed to help walk you through a similar process as my podcast guests experience, to help you identify specific points in your life that can become some of your best stories to share.

The stories you share matter. They color your memories and self-confidence, they help create your internal messages, and they impact the perception people have of you. This book will help you uncover those stories that continue to shape your internal perceptions and relationships.

The preorder campaign, similar to a Kickstarter campaign, but for books, was extended by a few days because I am so close to reaching my goal of 250 books sold. To order, click here.

Panting, stopping to breathe and get my heartrate back to a reasonable pace, I looked up ahead to more steep climbing up the mountain. Then I looked down at the path I had just hiked up and smiled. It was a rigorous hike and I hadn’t really planned to take such a hard trail to the summit this time.

The dog needed water, so I stopped in a shady spot just off the trail to fill his bowl and let him rehydrate. It’s nice to have the dog around as an excuse to stop and catch my breath again. With his heavy fur coat, he’s even less comfortable than I am on this nearly 80 degree day before noon. But he’s just as happy as I am to be outside on our mountain.

Taking one last look back, I started up another steep climb, knowing I wasn’t far from the summit. As I listened to the randomly shuffled song that came through my headphones, I had to stop again to look up and down from the middle of the steep climb:

Glory glory, halleluiah,
The sun is shining, shining down
Glory glory, halleluiah,
I’m alive, and I’m feeling, feeling fine.

Hearing those words sung by JJ Grey, I started thinking about what compelled me to take this hard route to the top of the mountain. My top strengths, according to the Gallup assessment, didn’t include Achiever or Competition, two of the themes I could imagine would drive someone to do what I was doing. So what was it?

It was in that moment I realized character has little to do with any assessment results. I use my strengths to develop my character, not the other way around.

It had been a tough morning, which is why I knew I needed to hike. Getting outside always helps me clear my head and make sense of things. The email I received was cruel and unprofessional, a response to what I considered very reasonable requests for information. Words clouded my vision as I walked up the mountain, feeling attacked, defensive, angry, and self-conscious.

Had I failed in this assignment? Was it my work that triggered this unprofessional, rude response? I felt my confidence start to slip back down the mountain behind me.

Pushing myself harder, pressing my feet solidly into the slippery, rocky trail, I ascended another steep 15 feet of the mountain.
I felt nothing but exhilaration and pride as I took a step onto the rocks at the summit. Looking down, I could imagine myself when I was partway up the mountain, panting, pushing, and clearing the frustration and anxiety out of my way.

Now that I was at the top and looking back down, the path still looked crazy hard, but the feelings of inadequacy at the mid-point were no longer with me.

It was the next day, as I was telling a friend about my inspiration on the mountain that I realized I had missed a big part of the lesson.
I told her the story with my optimistic nature showing in full force, using those words that popped into my head as I sweated and panted up the steepest part of the mountain: Persistence, resilience, grit.
“… shame, feelings of inadequacy, self-punishment…”

Damn. As she added those words, I realized she was right. I didn’t take that hard route simply because I was demonstrating resilience and grit. I was punishing myself for what I thought I had done wrong. I was pushing away the shame I felt as I remembered the words in the email. I was proving to myself that I WAS resilient, strong, and even if I failed at one thing, I would be DAMN SURE NOT TO FAIL at this.

Our conversation shifted from why we punish ourselves to why it mattered. After all, punishing myself by climbing up a mountain had to be one of the healthiest and constructive ways to do that, right?
Well, yes. Knowing WHY I was pushing myself so hard matters. If I’m working away these feelings, these frustrations, giving those feelings a name will help me address them, specifically, rather than blowing off arbitrary steam.

When we know the why behind our actions, we can be more intentional about not only processing our feelings behind those actions, we open our minds to learn the necessary lessons the experience can teach us.

I shared the story of my hike with my friend so I could talk through thoughts I knew could contribute to life lessons, to apply my thoughts to actual improvement in future similar situations. When we tell a story like this to a friend, we create arbitrary constraints around the experience, we create a box for the story to fit into based on prior experience.

That means we look for what we want to see, set limits for understanding the context of our stories, and miss all kinds of potential for lessons and growth. But when we share the story with the right friend, they might just ask the questions we need to ask ourselves – the harder questions – and that conversation is likely to remove some of those constraints.

In the book The Art of Possibility, a gift I received from my friend Jeff Ikler, the very first chapter is about exactly that: Based on past experience, we make assumptions that create a box, or constraints, for ourselves.

I made assumptions based on my optimistic nature, assumptions about the reason behind the negative email I had received, assumptions about the lessons I was meant to learn from the experience. Not all of those assumptions are bad things, necessarily, but without some opportunity to question them and work through the stories I was telling myself, I may have limited my potential for personal growth.

Who do you have in your life that helps you work through this kind of internal message? Which of your friends or acquaintances can you count on to help you ask yourself the tough questions, and get the most out of an experience? If you can’t think of anyone right away, be intentional about building relationships with the people who can help you process your thoughts and experiences.

People you can trust, be vulnerable with, and who will add positive support and encouragement. Self-reflection is a great start, but if you’re not expanding that reflection by sharing it with people you trust, you’re limiting your opportunities to apply that self-reflection, deepen it, and improve your communication and relationships as a result.