The narratives we create about ourselves can motivate us, but also sometimes hold us back, writes Louise Rodgers

Louise Rodgers crop 2

It’s not something we think about much, but the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening in our lives, about other people, and even about ourselves, can have a huge impact – not only on our well-being but also on how we find satisfaction in our work and make progress in our careers.

It’s happening all day, every day: we construct a narrative based on our experiences, a perspective on the world around us, or an interpretation of the facts, as we see them.

“As we see them” is the important phase here. A different person may look at the same situation and tell a very different story.

As a coach part of my role is to question the narrative that has been constructed. Take these two examples.

1. Young architect “A” is on a new project. She tells me that the project architect is being excessively “nit-picky” about every single bit of work she does. She thinks she is being micro-managed; that the project architect doesn’t trust her; that her expertise is being undermined.

I ask her if they may be a different interpretation of this behavior, and if anyone else in the team has said the same thing. After some reflection she acknowledges that her interpretation of the project architect may not be very balanced. They have a reputation for taking their responsibility to mentor and guide less experienced architects thoroughly.

The project is an important one for the practice and a lot is riding on its success. They always take time out of their busy schedule to ensure that the work stays on track and completed to a high standard. When she takes a step back, architect A realises she is not being “singled out” or ”picked on” and we can the work together on strategies to win the confidence of her colleague.


2. Another client, “B”, comes to me with a story about his tendency to procrastinate. He is experiencing overwhelm, even a sense of paralysis, because he has lists and lists of tasks he hasn’t got around to doing. He has been referred to coaching because his line manager is frustrated by this.

In our first session he tells me that he has always been a “starter, not a finisher” and that this phrase even featured in his school reports. Coaching gives him the space to talk this through and we begin to see that there is another perspective.

He has got some great things done in his life, despite a myriad of distractions and other factors that have sometimes made this difficult. He’s someone who when he is passionate about learning something, will focus on it to the exclusion of just about everything else.

We discuss how his line manager sometimes doesn’t have a clear system of briefing him, so he never knows which task is more important. With this fresh understanding he can choose to re-shape the narrative by not accepting the story he is stuck in of being a “starter, not a finisher” and take positive action to gain more agency and control over how he approaches work.

In each of these examples there are at least two different interpretations of what’s going on. The stories both A and B choose to tell will have been shaped by a host of factors that may have little to do with the facts. They have spun the facts into a narrative that fits their world-view, or a belief that they hold about themselves which may no longer be accurate, if indeed it ever was.

Telling ourselves stories is natural – we all do it all the time and there is nothing wrong with it. These stories help to explain why we are the way we are and to form a sense of identity. But sometimes we hold onto these narratives a little too tightly and over time a few specific stories may come to dominate the rest.

These dominant narratives are not necessarily wrong or untrue – but they are probably incomplete and overly simplistic. Sometimes  they can inhibit our capacity to grow and evolve into a different person.

When we get hooked on a story it is hard to break

By becoming more aware of the stories we tell ourselves we can begin to see how they shape our happiness, mood, attitude to work, and more. Try to notice the stories, good and bad, that you are telling yourself throughout the day.

Think in particular about whether you have got stuck in the story and are spinning it around and around in your head. When we get hooked on a story it is hard to break but becoming aware that you are hooked is the most important first step.

There are a couple of coaching questions we can use with ourselves to re-frame our stories and perhaps develop a more helpful narrative. In a coaching session I might say to someone “Imagine your best friend was telling you this story about themselves. What would you say to them?” or the more pointed “What evidence do you have that this is true?”. Both questions shift the perspective of the client, so that they start seeing the story from another point of view, one that is more compassionate or evidence-based.