The Stories We Tell Ourselves

This article defines how emotional constructs create dramas in the workplace. It shares where they come from: self-esteem issues, early life experiences, and family and cultural beliefs and stories. It also shows the reader how to begin to change a story, and emotional construct via a simple, four-step process.

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What to Do About Emotional Constructs That Drive Workplace Drama

“Can you send that document to me?”

Mary, the receptionist at the vet clinic, looked up at the new veterinarian, John, standing over her desk. “I sent it to you last week.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“Yes, I did. Check your email.”

John sighed. “I did. It isn’t there.”

“I specifically remember sending it to you last Wednesday because the report is due today. Did you check your trash or spam?”

“Of course I did.” John was annoyed now, and his voice was getting louder. “Can you just send it again? I don’t have time for this. I’ve got too much else going on.”

Mary raised a hand in surrender. “Okay, okay. I’ll send it again.”

“What’s going on here?” It was Gale, the practice manager. She had been standing in the hallway and witnessed the interaction.

“Nothing,” said Mary and turned to her computer.

“John,” Gale said, turning to the new veterinarian. “How about we go over some of that new hire paperwork now?”

In this hypothetical situation, the potential conflict is abated, for now. But the tension between Mary and John was not resolved. Indeed, it will invariably crop up the next time they have a similar interaction. And, again, it won’t be comfortable for either of them, or anyone else who happens to be around.

Such interactions happen more often than we care to admit. And although it’s easy to shrug such interactions off as dramas created by emotionally unhealthy individuals, the truth is more universal. Everyday dramas, and the stories we tell ourselves about them, punctuate our lives more often than most of us care to admit.

For instance, you offer an idea and someone shoots it down. So you make up a story that says your idea—and by extension you—are not valuable. You also stop offering any more ideas. A work buddy inadvertently excludes you from an after-hours activity, so you tell yourself she snubbed you on purpose; that you’re not likeable. You minimize your interactions with her in the future.

Such incidents don’t feel good emotionally. They trigger our insecurities. But rather than speak up and say, “That hurt and here’s why,” we brush them off, or worse, avoid the other person. In life, but especially in the workplace where you have to interact with people all day, that takes a lot of energy.

It’s also costly to a clinic. It can result in reduced productivity and employee engagement. It can also demand additional management time and resources. For instance, if John, as a new hire, doesn’t work out at the practice, Gale will have to recruit, hire, train, and onboard his replacement.

Why do such dramas keep happening? Because, too often, the focus is on the actual drama—“he did this” or “she said that”—rather than what caused the drama. Indeed, employee development training programs and performance management coaching sessions tend to treat the behavior rather than the cause of the behavior. It’s like treating heartburn with antacids rather than changing your diet. You can be assured that the drama—and the heartburn—will repeat itself until you address the source. In the case of the stories we create around such situations, that source is the underlying emotional construct you add to the actual event.

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Too often, the focus is on the actual drama—“he did this” or “she said that”—rather than what caused the drama.

What Is an Emotional Construct?

So often, we don’t see situations as they are but instead through the emotions we have constructed on top of the actual event. For instance, consider a coworker who is late for a meeting with you at a coffee shop. There are several stories you could make up about the situation:

“I’m not important enough for him to be on time,” or

“He’s telling me who the boss is here, and it’s not me,” or

“He probably got stuck in a traffic jam.”

These stories we create, and their underlying emotional pull, may or may not be true. And although later—when the coworker arrives and blames the traffic for his tardiness—we may realize this, in the moment it feels real.

The goal, then, is to pull back the emotion you have constructed over each interaction. When you do this, not only are you able to see the facts of the event, but you are also able to separate the event from the emotions and then transform both.

This is easy to say but not so easy to do. That’s because these stories and emotional constructs are deeply embedded in our psyches. And although the characters and scenery may change, the underlying story does not. In fact, it magnetizes similar dramas to us.

Are we doomed to play out these dramas? Not at all. Indeed, the human psyche is built for growth and healing. It presents these opportunities for just that. Our task is to use these challenges as opportunities to change the story and derail any similar dramas that pop up in the future.

Where Our Stories Come From

Many of us carry the Critic around in our heads. This is the part of each of us that makes up all the stories, such as, “You’re not doing a good job,” or “You’re a failure.” This Critic is a direct result of the level of self-esteem we have, note psychologist Matthew McKay, PhD, and Patrick Fanning in their book Self-Esteem.

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Many of us carry the Critic around in our heads. This is the part of each of us that makes up all the stories.

Self-esteem has two components, according to McKay and Fanning. The first component is situational, that is, based on your current life situation. Needless to say, this is changeable. For instance, in the opening anecdote, John is new to the clinic, so he may not be as confident as he normally is and reacts more aggressively than usual. The second component of self-esteem—its bedrock—is set early in life. Indeed, the first three to four years of childhood determine the level of self-esteem you start out with, note McKay and Fanning. If you grew up in a loving home, your level of self-esteem will probably be higher than someone who grew up in a more challenging early-life environment.

But the stories we tell ourselves are the great equalizer. You can’t change your childhood. But you can change how you think about it. Indeed, your thoughts are all you can control, McKay and Fanning say. The problem is that we get stuck in what narrative therapists call “old stories” that we made up when we were kids.

Going back to the anecdote at the beginning, consider that Mary’s belief that conflict is bad and best avoided worked well for her as a kid. It kept her physically and emotionally safe growing up. But now, it’s making it difficult for her to speak up for herself.

John’s need to be perfect may have kept him safe from his dad’s anger and judgment. But as an adult, it can be emotionally debilitating. It also can result in him lashing out, just as his father did to hide his own imperfection.

Both John and Mary are adults now. Their “old stories” are hungry to be remade with adult maturity. That’s why the pattern keeps showing up. It is begging for a makeover.

Why Rewriting the Stories Isn’t Easy

Who we are intrinsically is part of our early stories, be it an introverted nature or artistic talent. Our families and the culture we were born into also have a hand in shaping our early stories. And while it’s easy to think that who we are intrinsically trumps who others expect us to be, the opposite is often true. In addition, the two are more interrelated than you might think.

First, our parents and ancestors pass generational beliefs to us through their stories and actions. If your mother avoided conflict as her mother did, you learned how to do that by watching her with your dad. If your grandmother, who grew up during the Great Depression, learned that “money doesn’t grow on trees,” you may have absorbed that belief as well.

Next, the expectations parents and caregivers have for us, along with their own unfulfilled dreams and fears, also have a role in our stories. Marion Woodman, a Jungian analyst, called this “the power principle,” and it’s the idea that we become who we think others want us to be so that we won’t face their rejection. And it is this fear of rejection, of not being loveable, that fuels our stories and makes them difficult to escape.

Finally, the culture we live in passes its beliefs on to us through stories shared in school, journalistic and social media, literature and movies, and more. Without even realizing it, we absorb those stories and their lessons on how to be accepted in society. They become the soup we swim in and we often take on those beliefs without ever questioning them.

For instance, the idea that men were the breadwinners and that the woman’s place was as a homemaker is a common belief that was not widely challenged until women began fighting for suffrage. Our own race and class—and how we think about the race and class of others—also play a huge role. So, too, do religious beliefs and where in the world you grew up.

All of these elements factor into the stories we tell ourselves as well as our emotional reactions to them. It can be difficult to rewrite such deeply embedded ideas about the way the world works and our place in it, but this kind of self-exploration has a lot of benefits for all aspects of our lives.

How to Change the Stories: Where to Start

Many scientists, psychologists, and spiritual teachers offer similar solutions to change these negative stories, and it all comes down to controlling your mind—the place where the Critic lives.

Mindfulness and meditation, whether within a spiritual tradition or not, both have a long history of offering mind taming and training abilities. Therapeutic modalities like cognitive behavioral therapy offer ideas such as taking a negative belief and saying the reverse repeatedly until you believe it. Traditional talk therapy often focuses on discussing early life experiences to help people see the patterns they’ve developed and reframe them.

All of these paths are valid and worth exploring. But sometimes, it’s as simple as being honest. The truth is that we all have emotional vulnerabilities. Most people also have positive intentions and aren’t trying to hurt anyone. They are merely protecting themselves emotionally.

To jump-start the process for changing your own emotional reaction to a story, try these steps with a current situation.

Step 1: Replay the situation.

You can do this by mentally going over the situation in your head or by writing it down in a notebook or journal. What happened and how did it make you feel?

Step 2: Feel the feelings and identify the pattern.

Once you identify how the situation made you feel, see if you can understand why you felt that way. It can help to journal about this. Did it remind you of other similar situations? Which ones? How?

Step 3: Share your experience and feelings.

Once you understand the “why” of your feeling and can articulate it, talk with the other person privately. Share how the experience made you feel. It is difficult for people to argue with feelings, so stay away from accusatory statements.In review of the opening anecdote, Mary might say to John, “You know, John, when we had that exchange yesterday, I felt like a little kid being reprimanded by my dad and it hurt. I know that wasn’t your intention, but that’s how it made me feel.”

Step 4: Reward yourself for taking the first steps to disrupt the old story.

You can’t control the other person’s reaction to your honesty. But that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you spoke up for yourself and began to disrupt that old story and belief with mature and conscious authorship. Acknowledge this and realize you have done an admirable job of caring for your own emotional wellbeing. 

Too often, the focus is on the actual drama—“he did this” or “she said that”—rather than what caused the drama.

 

Many of us carry the Critic around in our heads. This is the part of each of us that makes up all the stories.

Many scientists, psychologists, and spiritual teachers offer similar solutions to change these negative stories, and it all comes down to controlling your mind.

 

 

Maureen Blaney Flietner
M. Carolyn Miller, MA, called the Story Lady by her clients, has worked with story for 30 years as a professional writer, narrative instructional designer. and personal mythologist. Find her online at cultureshape.com.

 

Photo credits: KTStock/iStock via Getty Images; BlackSalmon/iStock via Getty Images

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