Do Your Stories Keep You Stuck? Eight Questions for Expanding Your Thinking

Exploring the assumptions or stories behind people’s behavior is a fascinating pursuit. Recently a friend told me a wild story about his mother that gave me cause to think about how our stories keep us stuck--from improving and creating the results that we really want.

After her husband died, my friend’s mother became quite reclusive. She just didn’t feel safe going places by herself or doing much of anything. Around Christmas time, my friend tried multiple times to reach his mother, but she never answered the phone. He tried sending her a card or two, but still he received no response. Starting to become somewhat desperate, my friend purchased his mother a cell phone and sent it to her along with instructions about how to call him. Still no response. By now, my friend was very concerned. Being unable to contact his mother, he flew to Houston, rented a car, and drove to her home. Not knowing what he would find, he first went to the neighbor’s home to ask if they had seen his mother. They assured him that occasionally they had seen her out in her garden, and they confirmed that she was still alive.

My friend knocked on the door of his mother’s home and made his way inside and found her quietly watching TV. At first she was somewhat apprehensive about his presence. After a while she relaxed and my friend began to explore why she had not returned his calls, cards, and used the phone he had sent her. She explained that someone from the IRS had called her and told her that she owed $25,000 in back taxes. They had instructed her to wire the funds, or they would immediately sue her. She was also told after making the wire transfer, that she was not to contact or speak with any family members or they would go after them too. She was to keep the entire situation to herself. So that is what she believed and that is what she did.

This sad incident exemplifies how our beliefs or what we choose to believe can have a significant impact on our results. Here are a few questions to help you explore and think about what stories you tell and how they may be impacting your results:

1. What stories are you telling yourself? To answer this question you have to start to notice what stories you are telling. You might ask yourself, “What stories do I repeat over and over again?” Recognizing how you repeat yourself, may help you to identify the stories you tell. If you don’t know, then you might find a respected other and ask them that question. If you are repeating a certain story, they will know. The purpose for identifying the story is that the stories we tell often replace the results that we want. We think that as long as we have a story that explains our lack of results, then we are justified in getting what we get.

2. Are you getting the results that you want? If you stop to become more aware of the stories that you tell, then you put yourself in a position to notice if the results that you are getting are the results that you want. Being more aware should help you to make a different choice if the outcomes you are experiencing are not the outcomes that you desire. Asking yourself this question should also help you to notice if you have sufficiently identified what it is that you want. If you are unfocused, then perhaps it is time to create a specific, concrete goal that you desire to achieve.

3. Are your stories absolutely true? The best stories we tell ourselves are true, that’s what makes them such good stories. First you might identify the facts in the situation and ask yourself if your story is supported by the existing evidence. If you can stop, think, and challenge the accuracy of your stories or if you can give the story a different interpretation than the one that you are believing, then you may admit that your story is incomplete or inaccurate. This is difficult because we tend to define ourselves and our experience by how we perform or don’t perform and by the things that others tell us about ourselves. The “absolute” part of this question should help you to identify if what you tell yourself is true in every situation.

4. What fears does your story support? Often we believe and behave in ways that help us to avoid the consequences of our actions. In the case above, my friend’s mother was trying to avoid further problems for herself and her family by not contacting her family members. Thus the consequences of what we believe are manifested by the results that we receive.  Sometimes what we believe the consequences may be lead us to act as we do.

5. How likely are you to experience the consequences of your beliefs? You must decide if what you believe is more a function of your assumptions or what is actually grounded in reality. For example, if the consequences that you believe have never occurred to another, then perhaps your perception is not consistent with reality. On the other hand, sometimes we believe things will happen to us precisely because they have happened to others. Whether negative consequences will happen to us remains to be seen; however what we assume usually keeps us from acting. Our perceptions are our realities, whether they are grounded in facts and truth or not.

6. Are the stories you tell told by others? We are often influenced to think the way that we do because of the experiences or stories of others. First, you must identify if you are simply telling another person’s story without having any firsthand experience. Second, if the story you tell yourself is not the common experience of others, then perhaps you should examine your story for accuracy as well. The challenge is to make a deliberate attempt to identify the basis of what we believe.

7. How long have you told the same story? By recognizing the length of time that you have told yourself the same story, or how long others have rehearsed the same story, this may help you to decide if it is time to create a different set of results. Only you can decide how long is too long or if it is time to make a change to improve your results.

8. If you changed your story, what results would you receive? Think about how changing your story may serve you to create different results. You can’t continue to enact the same behaviors if your story is different. Our beliefs drive our behavior, and our behavior is what creates our results. Change your stories, and you will change your results.

Asking yourself these questions should help you to notice the stories you tell and to increase your consciousness about how you create your results. Often we don’t stop to examine the thinking that creates our results. Consequently, we are not very good at taking responsibility to create what we want. Examining our thinking will help us make a conscious attempt to surface what is creating our results and make a conscious attempt  to create something different.

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What people are saying

Desseree M Facey | April 21, 2016 | REPLY
As as child growing up, I was often told that my ethnicity would result in my not getting ahead. I started to tell myself that and consciously assumed this as the reason my mom didn't want anything to do with me. As the years passed, I met my mom and even had children (yes, they were of mixed ethnicity). I learned though, that the story I told myself had nothing to do with my mother not being there (in fact, we may not be the closest but of all her children I believe I look most like her). My children did not get ahead, or suffer lack because of their looks either. These stories can keep you stuck and result in illnesses. Looking back it would certainly have helped to speak more about these stories to individuals who were not afraid to give you honest feedback. I challenge others who read this article to make certain affirmations about yourself, and listen only to those inner voices and create stories that uplift, are based on conclusive facts, and serve to make you whole. Thank you John. This is a keepsake.
John Stoker | May 10, 2016 | REPLY
Thanks Desiree! One problem we all have is not believing our own stories. When we start to do that we end up living them into reality. Thanks for sharing your experience with us!! John
Robert Metzinger | April 22, 2016 | REPLY
Working in HR, I see this often. We recently did an employee engagement survey. One of the things I discuss is that this is staff perception. That perception isn't always reality but to the staff, it is their reality. It's the story that they are witnessing and a part of. It's difficult when you get feedback that your story is a horror story to your staff. Yet, through my career, I myself have learned to change the story and seen Managers that value and accept responsibility for the feedback, and have turned things around. I continue to ask for feedback from my staff and business partners to make sure that they like the story I'm telling. Ultimately if you don't make it a good story, no one is going to listen to what you are saying and they aren't going to buy the book!
John Stoker | May 10, 2016 | REPLY
Robert, you make an excellent point. It is very important that we create a different, positive story if we want our results to change. That becomes difficult for two reasons: our brains are hard-wired negative, so in the absence of data we make it up in the worst possible way. So, when people don't understand things they naturally interpret whatever is going on in a negative way. Thanks for sharing your insights with us. And thanks for commenting. J