The story I am making up in my head…

As Brené Brown puts it in her fantastic book “Dare to Lead”: making up stories is what the human mind is designed to do. We have the need to make sense of something we do not – or not fully – understand, so we fill the information gaps with our own interpretations. Sounds familiar?

We all experience it. It is bound to happen almost daily, because we usually only have part of the information which we actually would need to assess a situation or a person’s behaviour in a proper way. 

And what comes into play here are our own fears and insecurities which determine the shape of the story unfolding in our head. What we do is more or less brainwashing ourselves, sending us into a negative spiral quickly getting us into a bad or defensive mood. It may leave us feeling hurt and often causes needless conflicts with others. 

It happens many times a day and everyone does it, in every context, if work related or in personal relationships. To move to the point of becoming aware what we are doing and why, then stop for a moment and reflect on the story we just made up is not easy and takes a lot of practice.  

It is definitely worth it though to do some regular “fact-checking” of our self- created stories, because it can give us a spin into a different and more positive direction. It can avoid conflicts. It can make a difference in our day and determine how we sleep at night. It can give us a feeling of achievement if we manage to beat the odds from time to time, and moves us closer to developing a healthy, positive habit interacting with our fellow human beings. 

Some weeks ago I became aware of it again while reading these chapters in Brene Brown’s book and applying her advice to a work situation. Having had a conversation with my manager earlier who – even though sharing my concerns – reminded me to give a colleague “the benefit of the doubt”, was a starting point making me realize that my thoughts and interpretations were filling indeed an information gap. I certainly did not know the full story. We never can. 

That’s why it is so important not to assume too much about other people’s intentions. There is always a reason why people do what they do, and the easiest way to find out more is actually to ask them. We can and should always ask more questions.

Even knowing that, I also noticed how hard it is to get out of this blaming habit, and how easy it is to just keep on giving out about others who are not doing what I think is right, and get worked up about it. I try to actively stop myself each time I fall back into that behaviour in a stressful situation, but I don’t always succeed. Yes, it’s hard.

Don’t believe everything you think

Katie Byron’s “The Work” offers a similar concept. She proposes to ask ourselves certain questions whenever we are assuming too much – and usually negative  – about a person’s intentions or a situation. Questions like: “Can you absolutely know this is true? What does this thought do to you and what would you be without it?” It leads to more self-awareness pinpointing our behaviour of making up stories.

There are several different ways to get to more self-awareness which is the first step toward influencing this seemingly inevitable behaviour. Once it becomes clear that we are the creators of our thoughts we can take control. We have the freedom and also the responsibility to decide otherwise, even if it takes more effort and is easier said than done.

Ultimately, it is about deciding how we want to communicate with others. What feels better for ourselves and is in sync with our core values: being antagonistic, judgemental, getting back at someone – or being kind but setting clear boundaries? 

We do not fully see people until we know their values. (Brené Brown)

What Brené Brown calls “the assumption of positive intent”, she defines as “extending the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words and actions of others.” (Brené Brown, Dare to Lead)

Which means that it makes our lives easier once we are assuming people are doing the best they can, instead of thinking they want to annoy us on purpose. We can never know it for sure of course, but assuming others’ positive intent is certainly the better premise to start from. It ties in with having a glass half full approach, believing that most people are indeed pretty decent.

And once we take this approach we are often in for a nice surprise, realizing that the perceived problem might in fact not exist outside of our head, and a a completely innocent or touching explanation is at the heart of the matter which got us so worked up. Showing someone else that we care to know more about their reasons can strengthen our connection to them. 

Wanting and trying to understand is human, however, the manner we employ to get to this understanding is up to us. 

The challenge of mindfulness

To know that I have done enough and the best I could when the day draws to a close is important. For work and also private matters.

Expecting too much of ourselves is quite common and a recipe for making us unhappy. There is always something each day that falls through the grid making me feel guilty once I realize it. Something that I  have forgotten for whatever reason, wondering whether my sub-conscience mind is trying to tell me something.

  • That task from my action list that I still did not get around doing.
  • That call to a friend I have been thinking about for a week, or the letter I wanted to write still lying half-finished on my desk.
  • That matter needing clarification with a colleague. And so on…

Of course, with a full agenda it is bound to happen, and I am far more aware of it now than I was in the past. Getting older I am becoming more conscious of having limited time. Juggling so many tasks feels exhausting, and cramming more and more activities into my day is not going to work. 

You cannot stop the waves, but you can learn to surf. – Jon Kabat-Zinn

What helps me is to acknowledge and remind myself at the end of the day how much I have actually accomplished and learned. Things that brought me a step further, interesting insights which gave me a good impulse, support I could give to others. Instead of easily dismissing it as “normal and not so important” I’m actively shifting my focus to it.

The rest can wait until tomorrow. After all, the sky is not going to fall down on me if I am not dealing with something immediately. Funnily enough, I gave exactly that advice to my manager this week;-)

It also helps to realize that we are not alone with such thoughts. Others struggle in a similar manner, trying to find their way through their very own jungle on a daily basis.

A good reminder of that I got yesterday when listening to a video panel discussion on “How to find a good work-life-balance”  in my company, with colleagues sharing their own experiences about how they are dealing with a big workload, managing family life in pandemic times, having too many conference calls while consciously trying to stay balanced and being mindful. Big expectations limited by reality which regularly bites. 

It was like looking into the mirror making me nod in agreement and smile,  recognizing my own behaviour and my own mechanisms dealing with daily life. And it made me realize how many things I actually handle well already, and where there is still some room for improvement. 

What I took away was nothing new, but an important reinforcement and encouragement: 

  • Being compassionate and kind with ourselves, managing our energy in a good way, listening to what our body is telling us and what our heart needs – and not ignoring it. Because if we do our body will pull the brakes sooner than we think, simply to get some rest. 
  • Acknowledging that we just have bad days but there is no need to beat ourselves up for it. It is part of life, it happens but neither will it last forever nor does it put us in question as a person. We need to manage our own expectations toward ourselves, and take it one day at a time.
  • Saying no. We always have a choice. Decline a call or ask for more time to complete a task. Setting boundaries is essential. Yes, we do have the right to do this. And it’s a way of taking control of our own agenda, our precious time. We are the ones who prioritise what we do and how. It takes courage and effort though, being conscious at all times that this decision is ours to take. It is our own responsibility. Don’t blame it on your boss or the person putting a request to you.
  • Prioritise and set aside time for taking a break, spending time with your family, doing sports or taking a nap, going for a walk etc. This is important recreation and we need it to recharge. Slow down.

Compassion for others begins with kindness to ourselves. – Pema Chödrön

An important message, especially for junior colleagues to set the record straight. It is so easy to fall into the trap to responding quickly each time, neglecting oneself’s needs and regretting it later, feeling exhausted and stressed out. Neither our private life nor work has to be like this.

Essentially, it is about feeling in sync with yourself. It is not an automatism we achieve but rather a constant learning process leading to more consciousness. It is a very individual matter finding out what is good for you and then do it. If it’s going for a walk in nature, enjoying a good meal, doing creative work or reading a book, having a conversation with a friend, listening to an inspiring podcast, taking time to do yoga or sitting still in meditation… 

And it certainly takes practice. It’s never a given.

My favourite remedy is going outside to visit my friends’ sheep which are grazing in front of my house. Breathing fresh air, the wind in my face, connecting with these peaceful animals who know me for so many years now is pure enjoyment every time.

We take care of the future best by taking care of the present now. – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Whatever helps you to get you back into balance is good. Sometimes it could even be a breathing exercise to calm our ever busy mind. Integrating some of these elements into my day helps to keep me grounded, and I notice quickly if I fail to do them, by feeling uneasy and even angry with myself.

Interestingly, when I started working for my current company more than 20 years ago, there was no awareness at all around this topic. Luckily, times have changed and the focus on wellbeing and mindfulness has increased in the past years, recently of course, even more, amplified through the pandemic and its impact on the way we work. 

A good example by the way, how even a negative event can bring about positive change.

Take good care of yourselves, wherever you are.

Interested to learn more about mindfulness? Check out the mindfulness chapter on my resources page.

Finding our Purpose

“Your purpose is changing throughout your life. Your skills and unique qualities remain the same, but what you are using them for can of course change, as your life situation changes, you learn and evolve.”

This thought I heard while listening to Oprah Winfrey’s podcast “Super Soul” is actually very true. It taps into the multitude of interests and talents we have. And it offers new perspectives. We do not have to stand still in life but move forward and enjoy how we grow while doing it. 

When I was younger I couldn’t really make up my mind about what exactly I wanted to do in life and what would be “the right decision”. My creative interests were very broad, but it didn’t occur to me to use any of them to earn a living. Work, I thought, had to be something more “serious”. Well…

Then I started studying the law. This very serious profession turned out to be not my calling at all, nevertheless, I finished the education. The idea to switch to journalism frequently popped up in my head but I dismissed it after encountering too many obstacles. Trying unsuccessfully to get a job in law, I later got into the Tech world, building on my analytical strengths.

“The only unique contribution that we will ever make in this world will be born of our creativity.” (Brené Brown)

The concept of dabbling at a few things for fun and learning through the creative process was not clear to me at that time. I also restricted what I enjoyed doing – like painting, singing or writing – to be merely private interests or hobbies. Time went by and I began to neglect these things that were actually so close to my heart, not realizing how much I was missing out.

According to Brené Brown, everybody is creative, the question is just whether a person is making use of these very unique talents or not. She even says that not allowing ourselves to express our creativity is harmful for us. Thinking back on that period of my life I certainly agree that I robbed myself of a source of joy and enrichment which could have been an important influence on my work-life-balance. 

Reactivating my creative interests more than 2 years ago has brought a lot of enjoyment back into my life. To see my fast development in the creative process gave me a boost of energy. Interestingly enough it helped me approaching even my tasks at work in a more creative way. Definitely win-win.

“The resources you need to fulfil your dream will gravitate naturally toward you.“ (Jack Canfield)

Some people find their purpose when they are very young. Others find it later in life, and some might decide not to follow it at all. It has taken me quite a while in my life until I finally began the journey to finding my purpose by following my inner voice, and since I have started writing I feel like coming closer to it. It is also an active decision not to stagger through life on auto-pilot but to take control, be present and question and change my approach. 

What is also very true: Simply by focusing on your dream you will notice things which were in fact, always there, but now you are paying attention. And you will find likeminded people once sharing your thoughts with others. Talking to friends or colleagues of mine I often found them to be on a similar quest. Maybe we should more often start a conversation with the question “What is your dream?”

Re-visiting that old idea of mine to more seriously engage in writing and sharing what I learned, I finally pushed aside previous concerns from long ago. It’s never too late to give it a try.

“The dream does not come unless the capacity to achieve it comes with it.” (Jack Canfield)

What I have learned and realized since then on this journey is that living your life’s purpose means essentially: Doing what you love to do, what you are good at, and accomplishing in life what’s important to you. Finding your very personal answer to the question which difference you want to make.

And once this becomes the driver in your life many things suddenly fall into place. It takes discipline of course to stay on this pathway. Fortunately, you notice the recurring theme in many podcasts, books, TED talks, articles etc. which gives the needed impulses and serves as a welcome reminder from time to time.

Like the little book from John Strelecky which my brother recently gave me as a gift: “The Cafe On the Edge of the World” which is a wonderful tale on the importance of finding one’s purpose. An inspiring and impressive read, it speaks to the heart asking exactly those questions, another reminder for me reinforcing my resolve.  

Because this very individual journey takes as long as it takes, figuring it out. 

What I really enjoy: discovering new insights and learnings along the way, realizing that I can trust the right time for my next move will come. I do not need to know all the next steps lying ahead to get started on something. 

Having a preference for structure and planning, it was of course not so easy for me to take that approach. But moving out of my comfort zone in that regard has worked well for me so far, and surprisingly, I am feeling more in tune now with my inner voice. 

“The world belongs to those who believe in the power of their dreams.”(Eleanor Roosevelt)

So, coming back to Oprah’s quote that “our purpose is changing”: it makes perfect sense, considering what we pick up and learn on our personal quest, broadening our horizon and always asking questions while moving forward. There is no need to restrict ourselves. And the more we learn the more we can give back to others. 

There will never be a time in life when we are finally “perfect” or so accomplished that we would not need to learn anything new anymore. We are constantly learning and trying out new pathways. Our decisions shape who we are and who we become, and our mistakes teach us. It’s important to acknowledge this as a part of life – inevitable, sometimes of course, very frustrating, yet enriching. 

Looking back, I think now that life is not about “taking the right decision”. There is no such thing as a cookbook about life (important to convey this to the younger generation!). Deciding to turn into a different direction at some point leads into a new world, brings new insights or makes us change our preferences. Being able to use our unique personal talents and skills for these different bus stops we encounter in life is a gift.

Actually, our path itself – in a constant state of flux – is the destination. Once you give it a try walking down on it and be open-minded about what you may find, you’ll surprise yourself.

Resources:

You find Oprah Winfrey’s podcast Super Soul on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

Brené Brown is a researcher and author of several highly recommendable books: 

Check out Jack Canfield, success coach and co-creator of “Chicken Soup for the Soul”: 

More about author John Strelecky and his inspiring books – here