I love listening to a good story. Sitting around with friends or acquaintances, sharing tales and laughing is a great way to spend time. We connect. We share an experience, not just of the moment, but also in the space of the stories. We relate with one another. I find that those around me aren’t all that dissimilar from me. Stories work like that. They are part of what it means to be human, and we intersect with one another without much work or worry. They are powerful and important.
Connecting over common experiences deepens relationships. Who hasn’t been frustrated with a co-worker? Who hasn’t been to an incredible place they love? Who hasn’t experienced a funny anecdote? Our experiences form the fabric of connection with those around us. However, there is another story. Sometimes it’s revealed in the stories we share. You can catch it in the glimpse on someone’s face, a downward glance, or a gentle sigh. While we share with others, there is another narrative happening in our hearts and minds. I am talking about the Other side of the story. It is the story we tell ourselves.
It isn’t unlike the operating system on your computer. You are interacting with various applications as you go online, listen to music, or type a blog post. They are the things you see or hear, just like the story someone tells you. On our computers, there is another thing happening behind the applications. It is our operating system. Windows if you’re the PC type, macOS if you like Apple products and Linux for…well, I have no idea who uses Linux. These systems affect everything about how you interact with the computer like which apps work and what programs run. They help things operate efficiently and update from time to time to function optimally. The stories we tell ourselves work similarly. They are in the background, affecting the way we think, act, and feel. They inform us about the information we take in and change the way we interpret data.
For instance, you may get the news that cutbacks are happening at work. It is a simple fact, but we turn it into a narrative that we tell ourselves. The data can reinforce what we already believe. The context may be prepared with stories like “I’m not that valuable.” “They are going to find out I’m not that good at my job.” “My efforts don’t matter.” “I don’t deserve a job this good.” “I’ll never amount to anything.” “I suck.” When cutbacks occur in a storyline with those headers, it looks very different. Fear creeps in, and the narratives around worthlessness get reinforced. It feels more like foreshadowing and you convince yourself you are only an object. The next thing you know, you are searching LinkedIn for a new job in Southern New Mexico as a hot chili tester at a drastic pay cut even though the news may not affect you.
Imagine for a moment trying to sell a computer whose operating system said, “I suck.” Even if it were in the hip, Mac-ish way, “isuck.” It would be a tough sell. No one would buy a computer with an operating system like that! The reviews are terrible, yet we use this type of narrative all the time. Data comes to us and finds a theme where it can run a course that deepens the dreaded storylines we tell ourselves.
Let’s say the information about cutbacks comes to you, but the storylines were something like this? “I can adapt.” “I will survive” (enter Gloria Gaynor here), “I am worthy of a great job.” “I am capable and smart.” “I can handle this.” The data of job cuts lands in fertile soil for opportunity and growth.
In reality, we are generally somewhere in between. We have both types operating behind the scenes, interpreting data, and spitting out conclusions. Fear drives us one way; excitement and opportunity drive us another. Data is simply data. Drawing conclusions on that data, assigning it value and reinforcing narratives is what we do, and that is important work. You may realize how data comes to you. You may not. Either way, it is interpreted. Try for a moment to separate yourself from the most recent data you received. What was it? Was it about your health? A friend? Work-related?
How did you interpret that data? Did it fall into a story that operates behind the scenes creating fear or excitement? Concern? Did you react at all? How did you feel afterward? What did you think?
The ability to pull the data apart from our conclusions is a critical life skill. When we don’t work at this separation, we lack self-awareness and re-enforce a low Emotional Intelligence narrative. The good thing is, we can do this work. We can assess how the operating system is working. We aren’t slaves to our Operating Systems. They can get updates and upgrades.
We can ask if we like what it is producing and what we might need to do to make it work the way we want. We get to choose how the data gets interpreted and how it may or may not reinforce the stories we tell ourselves. This skill is essential because the story we tell ourselves is the most powerful and influential story of all.
Because Story is so powerful and such an integral part of being human, consider not just the stories you tell your friends and colleagues, consider the stories you tell yourself. When is the last time you gave your ‘system’ and ‘update?’