You might not realize it, but you spend a lot of time broadcasting your story to the people in your life.
Every time you share that you are “not good at” something like public speaking, taking risks or being courageous, you reinforce a narrative about yourself and how you want people to receive you.
Maybe that is what you want people to know about you, but imagine if you meet someone for the first time and you introduce yourself only to hear that person say, “Oh, yes. I’ve heard about you. You’re a terrible public speaker.”
Sounds pretty awful, right?
(Yeah, he could use a little work)
What’s interesting to me is when I hear people undermine themselves through their story as though it were a badge of honor. (I see this most often with speaking in public, but it can happen in a lot of ways.) The most interesting moments come when a friend or colleague says something contrary like, “Don’t be ridiculous, you did a great job in the meeting yesterday.” The question then becomes whose story is correct? Which one will you believe?
Now, perhaps you aren’t a strong public speaker, or perhaps you do struggle to speak up in meetings. You might be shy or feel insecure in certain settings. All that could be true, and you still don’t need to tell that story.
Why is that?
For starters, it might not be how people perceive you. We tend to be terrible judges of what we are “good” at. We either assume a level of excellence that isn’t there or we undermine our actual abilities. Rarely do we just own what we can do or can’t do without putting it into some sort of context.
Let’s say for example that I am tall enough to dunk a basketball.
(I am not, but this is my fantasy world, so there.)
If you ask me if I can dunk a basketball, then you are asking me for information about my abilities that are limited to “can I or can’t I” without any real context.
If I hear in the question a deeper question of “are you a great basketball player?” then I might conjure up this image in my mind as comparison:
When I put your question into this deeper context, I might give an answer that is vague or unclear. For example, I might answer the question about dunking a basketball with “depends” or “sort of” because I don’t want you to think that I am comparing myself to Lebron James. Unfortunately, if you don’t know that is my comparison, then you are left to draw your own conclusions.
(Like this, for example)
Why would I automatically assume that you were asking me this bigger question?
And, why do we sometimes make simple questions so complicated?
The answer is often that we try to see ourselves through the eyes of others, which is an imperfect lens.
We think that we have a good sense of how people perceive us and how we are in the world, but the truth is that we cannot see outside ourselves. We can never know what others think about us, mostly because they are not really thinking about us at all.
Many people are in fact terrible judges of themselves in part because they only see themselves through the lens of comparison.
Which comes back to the story that we tell.
Ask yourself if you have been telling a story that puts you in a negative light either at work or in relationships. Do you share stories that illustrate your characteristics as being clownish, insecure or “less than”? Perhaps you have a story that you have to be right or that you always win? Does your general story limit your ability to grow in that organization and affect how people perceive you?
If so, then perhaps it is time to get a new story. It is not as difficult as it seems, although it will take some unwinding of habits and behaviors. If you have had the experience of having your old story told back to you in a performance review or by a friend and didn’t like hearing it repeated as though it were a foregone conclusion (“you’re just not leadership material” or “you’re just not trustworthy”), then perhaps you are ready to take some steps to make profound changes in your communication of who you are.
- See the Bait: begin to notice the situations when you feel most compelled to tell your old story, especially if it is a negative one. What triggers you to tell that story and what are you hoping to get out of it? As soon as you start noticing the bait, then you can consciously resist the temptation to share something that might not be true.
- Identify Co-conspirators and Separate: the sooner you are able to recognize the people who encourage you to minimize your abilities or who keep you down, the sooner you will be able to take your focus away from the negative story. Anyone who reinforces your feelings of inferiority is not someone you need in your life. If you are able to identify this person, stop seeking him/her out.
- Tell a Different Story: this does not mean that you switch from saying that you are “terrible at public speaking” to saying that you are “awesome at public speaking,” rather it is a way to change the story to something more manageable and actionable. Try saying instead that you are “working on improving your public speaking” or that speaking up in a meeting is “challenging.” In these two small ways you are changing your story from being passive to being active. The more potential for change in your story, the easier it is for people to see your growth.
The goal is to craft a story that allows both you and others to see your own growth in a more factual way. If we continuously tell the story that we can’t change or that we are stuck in this place, then people will have no choice but to believe us.
After all, who is supposed to know your story better than you?