The stories that paralyse us


I was working with a rather brilliant physicist recently, helping him prepare a poster and a presentation for an up-coming conference. We had worked on his content, introducing engaging stories to introduce and contextualize the of facts and figures that his audience expected to see. We’d reviewed his language, making sure that native and non-native English speakers would find the content clear and concise. And of course, we’d worked on his delivery, harnessing his natural speaking skills and playing to his strengths.

All seemed to be going well until we stopped for lunch and the conversation roamed from topic to topic. We found ourselves discussing fear for some reason, and it became clear that his greatest worry was not about giving a good talk or presenting strong data, but rather the fear of being judged.

The root of the fear

At the crux of the discussion lay the idea that being judged favourably was acceptable, but being judged by his peers and found wanting, of losing face when standing before people he respected and in turn wanted to be respected by, and the shame he’d feel  if that happened… Well, that’s where the fear lay.

I listened to him talking and realised another thing: he was already afraid, already shamed, because he was constantly telling himself the “story” that he would be judged and found wanting by his peers – before he’d even arrived at the venue!

Max Ehrmann’s words, captured this beautifully in his poem, Desiderata, popped into my head:

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. 

And as I listened, I knew that in order for him (the physicist) to deliver what was a strong presentation backed up by equally strong data in a story frame, he needed to forget about his deliver skills and his content, and focus on the story he was telling himself.

The thinking continued

Once we’d wrapped up for the day, I thought about the stories we tell ourselves and the fear that we create by anticipating what others might or might not think. I’m no goddess and of course I know how this feels, how debilitating our own stories can be.

And so when I returned home, I sent him a short note. In it, I said the following:

We’re often paralysed because we anticipate that we’ll be judged unfavourably by people, who in turn are paralysed because they anticipate that they’ll be judged unfavourably in turn. What if, instead of anticipating the worst, you anticipate that they’ll be kind in their judgements if things go wrong and favourable if things go right? And what if you work on toning down the judgements that you make of your colleagues, doing the same to them?

His conference date is looming and he’s working on his own story and how he judges others. I know he’ll do better than he expects because he undervalues his contribution, but how he does will have to be another story for another time.

In the meanwhile, I have been “practising what I preach”, and trying to judge everyone that I meet or see kindly or favourably, including myself (often the hardest!). I won’t lie. It’s not easy. When we have a lifetime of stories behind us that reinforce the idea that others are better or that we’re too fat-bald-tall-short-talkative-quiet-aggressive-submissive-[insert your own problem area here], it’s difficult to change the story overnight.

And yet change happens…

And yet… I have seen changes. I am less harsh with myself, which makes me less defensive that I would be if I automatically assumed that people were judging me negatively. And this filters into every aspect of my life – work, personal, community, you-name-it.

I thought I’d share this today, because as storytellers, we’re all incredibly powerful, with the ability to subtly shape our lives and the lives of others.  Imagine how things might change in your world if you just tweaked the story…

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