How Stories Lead to Stress…or Success

A USA Today survey reveals that one in six employees is so overworked that he/she doesn’t use up allotted annual vacation time (even though Americans receive the fewest vacation days in the industrialized world).

Many colleagues I know take their laptops with them on vacations and are never away from a phone.

Other surveys show:

  • 34% of workers report that they have no downtime at work
  • 32% eat lunch while working
  • 32% never leave the building until they head home

Clearly we’re overworking ourselves, and I don’t think anybody is telling us to do this. We’re driving ourselves to stress and burnout, in many cases. It has a lot to do with the stories we tell ourselves.

Think about it.  I know I do it myself and I don’t think I’m alone. In fact, I know I’m not the only one because I talk in private to many coaching clients who tell me their stories.

Here are some of the more negative stories I hear:

  • “It’s a cold, hard, fast, competitive world we live in.”
  • “If I’m not first  and last to be seen at work, I’ll be perceived as a slacker.”
  • “Sure, I’d love to spend more time with my family, but they know and understand I’ve got more work than I can handle.”
  • “I guess I could get some exercise, but there’s no time.”
  • “I’m smarter than most here, so I can take short cuts and get away with them.”
  • “I don’t need a coach; I need a different boss!”

Maybe it’s time to pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves. Are they working to get us what we truly want? If not, why not?

I hear stories all the time, many extremes, including those that blame, excuse, and those that gloat and brag. There are often heroes, villains, conflict, and reasons.

At what point do reasons become excuses? At what point can we sit still long enough to observe, listen to our self-stories, and say “Hmmm, that’s interesting. But what if that’s only part of the story? What if I change my story?”

You see, I don’t think we intentionally lie to ourselves, but we do self-protect our egos. It takes a strong person to say to themselves, “You know, I’ve been singing that tune for 20 years now, and I’m not getting any better results.”

A wonderful little book was written by leadership coach Rosamund Stone Zander and Boston Philharmonic Orchestra Conductor Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility (Harvard Business School Press, 2000). They suggest that since we alone craft our stories, we may as well make them as inspiring as possible.

Jim Loehr, author of The Power of Story (Free Press 2007) says that once we identify our faulty stories, we can rewrite them.

Loehr says a constructive story contains three key components:

  • Purpose
  • Truth
  • Hope-filled action

If your story lacks one or more of these elements, it remains flawed and unworkable. Only a purposeful, truthful and hope-driven story will inspire you to unleash your intrinsic energy and achieve what you want from life.

What do you think? What are your ideas about our self-stories and how they affect our energy and motivation?

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