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The Limiting Stories We Tell Ourselves and The One Question to Ask to Re-Write Them

Do you find limiting beliefs keep you from reaching your full potential?

In this post, I share Sara’s story of how she re-wrote the story in her head to achieve her goals.

“I’ve never spoken in front of a group of people before. I’m very anxious about it and know I will probably mess up and say the wrong thing,” Sara shared during a coaching conversation.

Sara is an emerging leader, considered to have high potential, and sought after for her expertise and keen ability to see the hidden details. Her credibility and experience have awarded her the opportunity to lead a major project in her organization. She is responsible for researching, analyzing, and recommending a technology solution that will increase efficiency within her organization. This could put her in a prime position to be promoted; something she has wanted for a long time.

While Sara was excited about this opportunity, she had a problem. She needs to give a presentation about her findings and secure approval for her proposal. This would be the first time Sara presented in front of a large group, let alone to senior leaders in her organization.

Sara started to imagine the experience:

“There are so many important facts, I will forget one that will be critical to influencing the group and I will have a tough time finding my way back to the point.”

“I’m not great at thinking on my feet, I need time to process. What if a question is asked that I can’t answer or I need time to think? I’ll be seen as if I’m not confident. I’ve seen this happen to others before and it’s awful.”

“I just know Joe will push back on this and then I will have to figure out on the fly how to respond to him.”

Sara was forming a story in her head, and it was limiting her potential.

The stories we tell ourselves shape our perceptions of reality and ultimately influence how we approach situations we face. When we focus on the limited story, like Sara, we emphasize what may happen to us, rather than by us, causing us to lose control and focus. We continue to feed on the uncertainty, and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It can happen to the best of us–we face something new; we are anxious about meeting with someone for whom we may not have the best relationship; or we are overwhelmed when the stakes are high. While there is value in looking back on the challenges of our past to form our approach in the future, it can come at a cost. When we consume our thoughts with negative assumptions, it becomes inhibiting, keeping us from seeing how we can be successful.

To overcome her limiting beliefs, I asked Sara one simple question:

“Thinking about what you just shared, could the opposite be true?”

Sara and I collected the possibilities, including:

Could it be that you convey the important facts at just the right time or that you insert your point differently? You are great and seeing and remembering the details. What strengths can you harness to help you do this during your presentation?

Could it be that if you don’t know the answer to a question, you lead the group in a conversation to discover the answer? You are sought after for your expertise; how can you place yourself in that moment should a question come up?

Could it be that Joe is relying on your experience and you don’t get pushback? Your manager and others obviously see your potential. How could you use this as an opportunity to learn and step into it?

This exercise helped Sara see differently and was a critical first step. By exploring the question: “could the opposite be true,”

Sara focused on where she had control, how she could lead the conversation, and affirmed her belief, and that of others, that she had been entrusted to help the organization.

The results? Sara re-wrote the story so she could focus on being successful and create a plan to get there:

  • Sara tested her knowledge: She made space on her calendar to gain knowledge, analyze and summarize key points. She broadened her understanding, so it well positioned her to give a polished presentation.

  • Sara engaged her stakeholders: She previewed her presentation with her manager, mentor and other stakeholders to test her hypothesis and recommended a solution. This helped her surface questions that could be asked and increased her confidence.

  • Sara led with curiosity: Sara spent time with Joe to understand what was important to him. She asked about his pain points and made sure she addressed those areas in her presentation to minimize potential pushback.

Ultimately, Sara secured support for her proposal. While there were questions and points of discussion, she kept her composure and showed confidence in her ability to successfully implement the new solution.

The limiting story we tell ourselves causes us to focus on what is happening to us, we become a victim of our circumstances, our field of vision narrows, and our chances of success decrease. When we shift the focus to what can happen by us, we expand possibilities, re-write the narrative, and see the power of our potential.

We believe we will be successful, and that becomes a welcomed self-fulfilling prophecy.

Keep growing!

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