In my previous article, I mentioned that I was re-reading Brené Brown’s book, “Dare to Lead“. I do highly recommend this book if you haven’t already read it. In that article, I referenced the term she used for how we sometimes prepare for our interactions with others – by putting on armour. In her book, she provides the background rationale & research into the behaviours we exhibit, and then provides a framework for changing our learned responses. She brings up another key insight towards the end of the book that really resonated with me and that directly ties into the idea of the stories we tell ourselves.
Everyday, we try to make sense of the world. We learn things that get reinforced which then become our habits & behaviours. The fact that we can learn things underscores the idea that we can also unlearn things and change our behaviours.
Part of this process that we sometimes forget about is the feeling of accomplishment at having achieved something. It’s that reward that really cements the behaviour in place. That dopamine rush in our brain is what starts to guide our responses to situations. We want to feel good, so we reach into our toolbox for things that we believe that work and that make us feel good.
Overall, this is a great strategy from on evolutionary perspective to keep learning & progressing. As Brené points out in her book, though, this is a double-edged sword.
In some of my previous articles, I’ve written about the power that our stories have for us. These stories that we make define & shape us, but they can also hold us back sometimes. That’s why it is so important to stay curious and to look at our stories and to see if they may need some editing or rewriting.
The technique that Brené mentions in her book involves taking a pause in a situation and thinking about the statement, “the story I’m telling myself is…”. In all of our experiences, we have our own mental model that helps us to make sense of the situation. Sometimes we forget that we’re part of that mental model – we have our own stories & biases that we’re bringing into the situation.
The stories that we write for ourselves influence how react emotionally & physically. Do you ever notice whether your hands get clammy or if you tense up your jaw in certain scenarios? I know that I do. Taking this pause to reflect and dig into what I’m feeling in the moment makes a huge difference. However, instead of just asking myself “what am I feeling?” at that time, asking myself “what story am I telling myself?” immediately helps me bring to light some of the stories I may unwittingly be bringing to the situation.
Taking the time to dig into how I’m showing up in a situation is important. As I mentioned before, we can learn new behaviours very quickly. However, we may be reinforcing potentially wrong stories if we only rely on how we feel after making an initial choice.
We get a dopamine reward in our brain when we’ve solved one of these puzzles. But that also means we might be rewarding behaviour that isn’t really helping us in the long run. That’s why procrastination can be hard to break through – we immediately feel better when we delay something we’re avoiding by doing something we enjoy instead. You can see how easy it could be to reinforce those behaviours, like sitting on the couch instead of going for a run, or scrolling on your favourite site instead of having a hard conversation.
When it comes to the stories we tell ourselves, the risk is that we may come to the wrong conclusion about something and because our brain believes we’ve solved a puzzle, we get rewarded for it. That’s how easy it can be to reinforce negative stories about ourselves – I didn’t get the promotion because I’m not smart enough, they’re not calling me back because they don’t like me. It also explains why things like conspiracy theories can be extremely hard to counteract.
Brené additionally refines this technique of asking ourselves about the story we’re telling ourselves by emphasizing that we should treat this initial story as a “first draft”. She refers to it by a slightly different name in the book. By recognizing that this story we’re telling ourselves is likely full of mistakes, needs to be fact-checked etc., we’re giving ourselves the permission to be curious and actually begin to understand the objective reality in a situation.
I can tell myself initially that “if this project fails then people will really see that I don’t know what’s going on and won’t trust me” and then take the red pen and start tearing that story apart to find the real truths. It makes visible & tangible old belief systems that likely need a review and perhaps abandoning.
I’ve found this approach really helpful not only for myself but in team situations where I’m interacting with others. Putting this framework out to my team has also helped us all get on the same page and avoid any assumptions or misunderstandings of intent. It helps us all understand the things behind the scenes that may help or hinder us as a team.
This is a really quick view into one of the techniques Brené discusses in the book and again, I do highly recommend reading it. I thank you for the time you’ve taken to read this and I hope it has resonated with you in some way.