Author’s Note: This is the story about a paradigm shift I experienced this week around my own self-talk. It’s a small story, not grand in scale, but it’s been grand in its impact. I’ve written before about the stories we tell ourselves, about the tools our brain uses to process and limit and discount information, but I’ve never before had my own filters called out so obviously by the universe.
YOU GUYS. THIS S*** IS CRAZY. I’m now questioning everything I used to think I knew about the world, and it’s a beautiful and exciting and overwhelming experience. What other untrue stories have I been using to make myself miserable my whole life? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that self-talk is powerful, and the stories we tell ourselves dictate our experience on this planet in so many ways. Make your story wonderful. Make your story happy. Be wonderfully happy. 🙂
Once upon a time, a young woman signed up to volunteer through her company to build a shed. She enjoyed volunteering, enjoyed spending her free time making a difference in other people’s lives. She was young and had more enthusiasm than skills, but she knew the basics of using a power drill. The morning of the event, called the Day of Caring, was a crisp October day in the Texas countryside, and the young woman showed up in a good mood, just happy to be able to help out.
Little did the young woman know, she had accidentally signed up to build a shed with a team of good ol’ boys, and those good ol’ boys already had a plan that didn’t involve the young woman. The good ol’ boys took one look at the young woman and a sigh rippled through the group. They broke out into their pre-assigned roles, scattering and leaving the young woman to awkwardly ask the team lead what her job should be.
“Well, I don’t know that we need you on the team,” the team lead said after hemming and hawwing for a bit. “You might be a better fit somewhere else.”
But the young woman insisted. “No, no, I can help out. Just tell me what to do.”
The team lead glanced around helplessly, then said “Okay, I know!” with the hearty enthusiasm that the young woman would later learn to recognize as the mask of one who is trying to fool another. He grabbed a box of nails from where it sat on the top step of a nearby ladder. “You can hold this. Just hand us the nails when we need them.”
Taken aback, the young woman automatically accepted the box, holding it flat in both hands while she tried to think of something to say, some way to explain that this wasn’t what she had imagined, to tell him that she was capable of so much more. She had been Rosie the Riveter for Halloween, for goodness sake. She had built a house with Habitat for Humanity. She could do more than this.
Before she could explain, however, the team lead said, “Perfect!” with a big smile full of teeth. “Why, you’re the prettiest nail holder ever!”
His words were as good as a slap, and she didn’t try to explain anything.
And so the young woman spent the morning holding a box of nails for a group of men swaggering around in tool belts. It was the first time in her life that she had been excluded from something because of her age and gender. She had so looked forward to taking part in meaningful work, had been excited to do something new, and instead found herself relegated to an entirely unnecessary support role by someone who didn’t know anything about her except how she looked.
As she saw it, the young woman had three choices: insist on helping in a meaningful way, find another team doing work she was less excited about, or give up. The young woman looked around at all of the self-assured men in tool belts and decided that she had made a mistake. She shouldn’t have come here.
And so the young woman took the path of least resistance, the route of the cowardly, and put the box of nails back on the step ladder before sneaking away from the Day of Caring. She later joked about the good ol’ boys, laughed about the day that she of all people had been the “prettiest nail holder ever,” but inside she wasn’t laughing and she never forgot that day.
These Self-Spun Stories
Looking back, the young woman blamed herself for signing up for the Day of Caring in the first place. It had been stupid, she thought, to even try to help when she wasn’t as good at building things as others seemed to be. They grew up doing these things, she told herself, and she had not, so it was dumb to take up space at events not meant for her. She didn’t even have her own tool belt.
These self-spun stories continued, growing in meaning and weight, until five years later a group of her coworkers started another team for a Day of Caring and asked her to join. This team, they told her, would be building a fire pit for a local foster transition group, which would involve clearing land, laying gravel, and building benches. The not-as-young woman’s coworkers asked the not-as-young woman to help out, acting excited to have her on-board, acting as though they thought she could contribute. They even involved her in the planning leading up to the day.
The not-as-young woman reluctantly went along with it, even though in her heart she knew she didn’t belong at the event. It would be a waste of everyone’s time, she thought with regret, but the team was being so nice about pretending that they wanted her to take part that it would be ungracious not to at least show up. She could always leave early again.
The not-as-young woman spent the week leading up to the Day of Caring filled with dread. On the morning of the event, because she still didn’t have a tool belt, she packed her old college backpack with her cheap plug-in drill and a pair gardening gloves, the only things she owned that she thought might be useful, and she put the backpack on like a little suit of armor. She picked up coffee for the group on the way so that no one could say that she hadn’t actually tried to contribute.
But she was not in a good mood, and she was not happy to be there.
She spent the day with a fake smile glued to her face, waiting for the moment when she could finally leave and save everyone the trouble of pretending that she belonged there. The team cleared land and laid down bags of gravel, then built benches from 2x4s.
The not-as-young-woman kept herself busy the entire time, but she wished she hadn’t taken the place of someone who could do more. She knew she had probably been a second-string volunteer, and she was pretty sure that everyone else knew it by the end of the day, as well. Looking back, the one thing she would remember about the day was when someone handed her his expensive battery-operated power drill (there had been nowhere to plug in her own useless drill), then stood over her telling her how to use it. She was pretty sure the man was trying to use it as a learning moment, trying to teach her, the most useless team member, how to actually do something to contribute, and she could feel herself flush from embarrassment and grow frustrated by her own ineptitude.
She was keenly aware of everyone else standing above her as she hunched over the project, and they started telling her everything she was doing wrong, pointing out how little she belonged at an event building benches and tables when she obviously didn’t know how to build anything. She wanted to leave, but she also didn’t want to look like a poopy-pants in front of her coworkers, so she gritted her teeth and stuck it out and tried to act like it didn’t matter.
When she finally left at the end of the day, it was with the heavy, sad feeling of having humiliated herself in front of people she respected, and she vowed never to do another Day of Caring ever again. Fool me twice, shame on me, she told herself.
What She Had Been Telling Herself
The following year, the not-as-young woman’s coworkers were again getting ready for the annual Day of Caring. They again invited the not-as-young woman to take part, and she shrugged under the invitation, trying to find a way to get out of the event. It was nice of her coworkers to try to make her feel better about her poor contribution the year before, but she knew better than to allow a repeat performance.
Or so she told herself, until one day, one of the men who was helping to plan the volunteer project asked her about the year before. “What were the dimensions of those tables you made last year?” he asked.
The not-as-young woman was confused. “I didn’t make any tables last year,” she said, not understanding why he would be asking her of all people, the most worthless member of the team.
He gave her an incredulous look. “Yes, you did,” he said with a laugh, then showed her a photograph of herself from the year before–posing next to little tables made of wood. “You were the one who had the idea to make tables with the leftover lumber from the benches.”
The not-as-young woman stared at him, sure there was a miscommunication somewhere. “I did? I was?” she asked.
“Yeah,” the man said, and he too looked confused now. “You said you could probably find a design on Pinterest, then you built them. The whole thing was your creative brainchild, and we liked it so much we want to do the same thing this year.”
His mention of Pinterest tickled the woman’s memory, forced her to remember things she had buried deep. “That does sound like something I would do,” she said slowly, her mind reeling and struggling to encompass this new interpretation of the previous year’s events. It were as though her entire memory of the year before didn’t match up with the other man’s memory–or even this photograph, where the she was smiling and gesturing to tables she had apparently designed and built.
Could it be she had misremembered the whole day? Or even misinterpreted it (and mis-experienced it) from the very beginning?
Was she terrible at these things? Or was that just what she had been telling herself for the past six years?
The Self-Talk We Tell Ourselves
In case you didn’t know, I was the young woman, and I’m now the not-as-young woman. Since that conversation with my coworker about those little side tables we built, my perspective on Day of Caring has changed entirely. I am now looking forward to this year’s event, excited to help an organization I believe in with people I care about. I’m proud of the work we did last year, and I’m proud of myself for coming up with the idea of the side tables in the first place, even if I don’t quite remember it happening that way.
So will I feel like I’m contributing to my Day of Caring team this year? I will, because I’ll let myself. 🙂
When I told my brother about just poorly I remembered the events of last year, he said, “Jeez, Linds, you’re basically the unreliable narrator from Fight Club.” And I’m realizing now that he’s right–but I’m not the only one. We’re all unreliable narrators.
The world is big, so much bigger than we are, and our brains have to filter the information that comes in so we don’t go absolutely crazy. The stories we tell ourselves, that self-talk, is just a tool to help us understand our place in this big scary world.
And so those stories we tell ourselves dictate our experiences. They build walls around us, box us in to what we tell ourselves is possible and what we’re capable of, and they trap us if we let them.
So how’s your self-talk? What stories are you telling yourself? What do you think you’re bad at? What do you think can’t go well?
Start listening, and realize when you’re telling yourself those stories. And then stop listening to those stories. Because in order for your experience on this planet to change, it could be your stories that need to change. To make your life wonderful, make your self-talk wonderful.
Much love, everyone. I hope you too get to have the paradigm shift I have. – Lindsay