A New Narrative: Shushing the Voice that Holds You Back

Can we get real? Let’s get real. This has been a tough year for me personally. I’m self-employed and run a company of one, which means it’s been a tough year for my business, too.

I hear people talk about work/life balance, but for those of us who’re self-employed or work as a remote employee, or heck, just anybody who works for a living – the line between work and life has gotten blurry. We always have access to our devices. We check email on the weekend. We sneak in a little work just because we can…

And what about when our passion projects look a lot like our actual job? Part of getting to do work you enjoy means there’s a good chance that your hobby may have turned into your work.

So I said this has been a difficult year for me. I feel like I haven’t met my potential: like I’ve left work, money, and opportunity laying on the table. In many ways, I’ve felt stuck and unable to make forward progress.

That’s not due to anyone stopping me or even a lack of my ability. It’s due to me being stuck in a mental jail, listening to the wrong narrative. (Thanks Mel Robbins for the term “mental jail”)

Do you ever feel like that? Is there something you’ve wanted to do, even dreamed of doing, that you just can’t seem to pull the trigger on? Is there a narrative, a voice in your head holding you back?

We all have these tapes playing in our head. Our internal narrator, telling us what we can and can’t do. My internal narrator happens to be a negative bitch. She rarely has a nice thing to say about me. She’s judgemental and often shames me.

I wouldn’t let another human talk to me the way I talk to myself. So why do I put up with this narrative? I don’t want to and I don’t want you to either. In a minute we’ll talk about some thoughts on changing our narratives, but first, let’s listen to…

Charlie Kaufman’s Narrative

I want to show you a video clip from a movie called Adaptation. This is Charlie Kaufman. He’s a screenwriter who’s been hired to write a movie adaptation of a book called The Orchid Thief. He’s stuck, he’s struggling, and he’s also up against a deadline.

All the while his twin brother, who’s not a screenwriter, starts writing a screenplay just for fun and it turns out to be fantastic. Argh!

This clip is the opening scene of the movie and we get a glimpse of the narrative playing in Charlie’s head.

That’s funny, but how many of us talk to ourselves the same way?

Finding a New Narrative

As business owners or as creatives, internal narratives like this can squash our momentum and keep us from moving forward with our ideas, our passions, our projects.

You may be thinking, Carrie, I’m not a creative. But you are! I love this quote from Sunni Brown, a truly inspiring human.

What I mean by creatives, I just mean people taking a risk. People going through some endeavor, trying to build or create or make something. I don’t mean only artists or painters.
– Sunni Brown

As creative people, we all hold ourselves back in some way. There’s an emotional aspect to our work that’s driven by our internal narrative. That narrative is significantly affected by things like:

  • depression
  • burnout
  • indecision
  • procrastination
  • comparison
  • self-doubt
  • perfectionism

Instead of pretending these things don’t exist or just bull-dozing through work by sheer willpower, I want to unpack these emotions and share some thoughts on moving past them to create a more helpful narrative.

Dealing with Depression

Let’s start with depression. Depression is part of my narrative. I do my best to control it with meds, therapy, and (sometimes) healthy habits, but that’s no guarantee against the emotions depression produces.

My depressive narrative tells me that my work isn’t important, that life is too overwhelming to deal with. It saps all my enthusiasm, energy, and creativity and, since my work doesn’t matter anyway, why not just stay on the couch?

Is depression part of your narrative? What can you do about it?

Get help

Depression is not about willpower. It is not something you can beat by just pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. I wish you could, but it doesn’t work that way. If this is your struggle, get professional help. If you don’t know where to start, talk with your general practitioner.

A therapist or counselor can help you shift your mindset. They can give you new ways to think about things and strategies for overcoming the negative narrative. They can help you shine a light on things in your life that might be contributing to your depression.

They can help you add hope to your narrative.

Give yourself a break (of that Kit Kat bar)

Sorry, I couldn’t help but think about Kit Kats and now you are, too!

Seriously though, stop beating yourself up and being so freaking hard on yourself. Easier said than done, I know (this is where I struggle the most). Do your best to identify and isolate this voice when it speaks so that you can learn to shut it down and combat it with facts.

Depression tells us lies. Talk back to it with truth.

Know you’re not alone

As my friend Cory Miller would say, you are not alone. You may think you’re a special snowflake in this department, but you’re not. You may feel isolated, trapped with your narrative, but you don’t have to be.

A lot of people struggle with depression and have walked the path you may be walking and there is help available. That initial burst of energy required to take action is the hardest, but you can do it.

Beating Burnout

Ever felt burnt out? Have you experienced chronic stress in your work that’s led you to a point of just not caring? Are you fresh out of damns to give about your work, your team?

I recently heard Dr. Sherry Walling speak at the CaboPress conference about burnout. She defines burnout as chronic stress without support, without meaningful goals, and without much control over how [you] carry out [your] work.

She shared a bit of research that really got my attention.

Long-term occupational stress is associated with regional reductions in brain tissue volumes.
– Alexandra Michel, Burnout and the Brain

What??? Our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for executive function, gets smaller. It gets smaller with age naturally but it gets smaller faster with burnout. That’s nuts.

The burnout narrative can sound similar to depression on some levels. There’s fatigue, negativity, cynicism, loss of passion… Burnout isn’t trivial and shouldn’t be ignored. It’s a recognized mental disorder with serious implications for our brain. If you don’t take it seriously, you’ll eventually crash.

A frustrating aspect of burnout, which is almost certainly made worse by loving what we do, is we never want to admit it. In my case, I love my work… it’s a huge part of building better companies and culture, [but] it can also lead to stubbornly refusing to accept that you’re about to crash.
– Johnathan Williamson, Be Wary of Burnout

If you’re honest with yourself, do you recognize burnout in your life or work? If your mental tape-deck is playing the burnout blues, how can you eject it?

Stop, slow down, or step away

Take a step back. This will look different for everyone. For me, it was getting out of town and spending time near an ocean. Maybe for you, it’s going on a hike, taking a walk, or floating in the pool. Whatever (or wherever) it is that lets your brain disconnect from work, do it.

Getting away (even just for a short while) can help you find some perspective and remember what it is that’s most important to you. It’ll give you a chance to reconnect with what matters most in your life. Hopefully, that will drive some change in your routine moving forward – change that helps realign you with what’s most important to you and helps you avoid burnout in the future.

Just say no!

Fall in love with the word “NO.” As author Anne Lamott says, “No” is a complete sentence.

We are naturally inclined toward helpfulness, especially when we’re in a position to give help. It’s hard to turn down a request when you know you could help. But just because you could don’t mean you always should.

Get comfortable saying “no” so that you can create space in your life for the things that are most important to you. Save your “yesses” only for those things that are in alignment with your personal goals and values.

Take care of yourself

There was a time in my mid-20’s where I was taking care of some people in my life with seriously heavy burdens. I loved them and wanted to help carry those burdens and I did until I was absolutely exhausted. A dear friend of mine told me, “Carrie, you can’t take care of anyone unless you’re in a good spot yourself. You’re no good to anyone else if you’re not taking of yourself.”

She was right.

You might think it feels selfish to put yourself and your mental health first, but it’s the best thing you can possibly do to be who you need to be for your team or your family. It’s sorta like those oxygen masks in airplanes. Put yours on before you help others.

Moving Past Indecision and Procrastination

Is your internal narrator a bit wishy-washy? Does indecision keep you from taking action in some way? Analysis paralysis?

I know what it’s like to gather all the data possible and still put off making a decision, because WHAT IF I MAKE THE WRONG CHOICE? What if I make the wrong decision that ends up costing me time, energy, money. Or worse?

I’ve been reading The 5 Second Rule by Mel Robbins. It’s an inspirational read. The premise is that if you have an impulse to act on a goal or an idea, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will kill the idea. You count down from 5 seconds, like a rocket launch, and go. 5-4-3-2-1 GO.

If you don’t move on a goal, you either forget about it, wallow in indecision, or put off the decision until later.

Funny enough, Mel Robbins came up with the idea of the 5-second rule as a way to get out of bed in the mornings. 5-4-3-2-1 GET UP. I’ve tried that and it’s worked.

In the spirit of the 5-second rule, the best way to create a new narrative for indecision or procrastination is to move. Take action. Earlier I said that you can’t bootstrap your way out of depression and that’s true, but you can bootstrap your way to a making a decision.

You risk making a wrong decision. You risk failure. But that’s okay. You summoned the courage to move and that’s what matters.

There should be no shame in admitting to a mistake; after all, we really are only admitting that we are now wiser than we once were.
– Greg McKeown, Essentialism

There’s another principle specifically related to procrastination and it’s from the book Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy.

There’s a saying that goes if you eat a live frog first thing each morning, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that it’s probably the worst thing you’ll do all day. So “eat that frog” is a metaphor for tackling the most challenging task of your day first. Instead of letting it hang over you and create feelings of dread or avoidance, just do it.

One more thing about indecision and procrastination… If you’re waiting for the “right time” to do that thing (whatever that thing is), there is no right time. There will never be a right time. If you’re using that as an excuse for inaction, stop.

Is there something you’re actively avoiding? Make a decision to take one action toward it today, even if that’s just putting it at the start of tomorrow’s to-do list.

Conquering Comparison and Self-Doubt

Let’s talk about comparison and self-doubt. Boy oh boy, my inner voice cranks up the volume to 10 when it comes to comparing myself to other people and questioning whether I’m good enough.

Maybe it’s your impostor syndrome that’s keeping you from taking action, from moving forward with an idea. From starting your own business. From applying for that job. From submitting a talk idea to a conference.

How can you turn down the volume on this?

Be intentional about who you listen to

For me, it’s been allowing friends and mentors to speak into my life. Not just giving pep talks and empty platitudes. That doesn’t help anybody. I’m talking about friends that tell me the truth about my shortcomings but also help me identify my strengths and unique contributions.

If you don’t have peers or colleagues like that, I’d highly suggest either creating or joining a mastermind group.

Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses

Another way to change your narrative is to honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses. Strangely enough, this can build your confidence. You can acknowledge the things you’re not great at and give yourself credit where credit is due when it comes to your strengths.

Make a list of the things you’re good at, the topics you know more about than the average bear, and the situations where you shine the most. Look for opportunities that play to your strengths so that you have the opportunity to feel accomplished and not just beat down.

Turn the beat around

Turn around the conversation in your head. Flip it, if you will.

Next time you’re in a meeting and your mind tells you that you’ll look stupid if you ask a question, turn that around. Tell yourself that you want to do the best job possible and, to do that, it’s your responsibility to ask clarifying questions. Who knows, your question could spark some good discussion.

Or how about the next time someone asks a question in an online forum and you know the answer, but your brain tells you: What if what I think I know isn’t right? There are certainly people who know more than me about this. I’ll just let them answer. Flip it. Tell yourself that you know more about the topic than the person who asked the question, therefore you’re qualified to take a stab at answering it.

Take notice when your brain starts to beat you down or make you feel “less than” and spin it into a positive narrative.

Remember this: Nobody kicks your ass as hard as you do. If you’re gonna keep kicking, at least take off your shoes. 🙂

Death to Perfection

Nobody wants to put out a crappy product, a piece of content, or even stand up and deliver a crappy conference talk. But if you wait until something is absolutely perfect, well, it may never see the light of day.

How many nearly finished blog posts do you have in draft mode right now? I’ve probably got 20. Each of those was a kernel of an idea that I never finished because it didn’t have enough polish or someone else already wrote about it (much more eloquently).

Or what about code that you’re waiting to push? Maybe you’re waiting on just 1 or 2 issues to be resolved, but is it good enough that you could go ahead and push it now?

I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent editing my podcasts to be as flawless as possible or how many hours I’ve spent pouring over a blog post trying to find a better way to communicate an idea. The desire to put out “only the best” is admirable, but if the voice in your head won’t let you take action because something’s “not good enough,” ignore that voice.

Here are some ways you might change that narrative.

Just ship it

Whatever it is you’ve been wanting to do, get it out there. You can always go back and polish it up later. This idea especially applies to those of us working with technology. Publish, polish, rinse, repeat.

I love this quote from Matt Mullenweg, one of the creators of WordPress….

If you’re not embarrassed when you ship your first version, you waited too long.

There’s a difference between striving for quality and being a perfectionist. Always aim for the former and be wary of the latter.

Get real

If your inner narrative tells you that you’re not attractive enough, or fit enough, or smart enough, tell it to shut up. Nobody’s perfect. Nobody’s work is perfect. Perfection is not an attainable goal for humans. If that’s the standard you’ve set for yourself, dial it back to something more realistic, something that enables you to make forward progress.

Minimum Viable Progress

There’s a book called The Progress Principle which can be summed up in this quote from the author:

Progress contributes to positive inner work life, which contributes to progress, creating an upward spiral of creativity, engagement, and performance.
–Teresa Amabile, Steven Kramer, The Progress Principle

Progress leads to motivation which leads to more progress, etc. The cycle fuels itself.

How do you get the cycle started when there’s a Negative Nancy in your head? That very first step is the hardest and that’s where small wins come into play. This is a concept called minimal viable progress.

What’s easier:

  • Losing 20 pounds or going to the gym today?
  • Refactoring a huge codebase or cleaning up the one file you’re already working in?
  • Starting your own business or contacting a potential prospect?

The answers are obvious, yeah? The way you meet big goals is through incremental small wins. When you push yourself to take simple actions toward a goal, one step at a time, you start that cycle that boosts your confidence and your performance.

You are the author of your life. If you don’t like your story, change it.
– Jesse Lyn Stoner

What’s the minimal action you can take to create a new narrative for yourself? Stop thinking about it and do it.

This article is  derivative of my presentation at WordCamp DFW 2017. Here are the slides.

35 thoughts on “A New Narrative: Shushing the Voice that Holds You Back”

  1. I couldn’t pass up leaving a comment on this article, because it was just THAT good and so well said! As a recent college graduate and lover of web design, I am just beginning to start my own freelancing business and I’m so excited and passionate, but I am the queen of analysis paralysis. I have so many ideas and concepts I want to put to use that my mind never sleeps. There’s ALWAYS one little thing that needs to be fixed and I’m holding myself back in fear of failure and “non-perfection”. It’s so nice to hear that others deal with this too, and it’s all about believing in your skills internally. Thank you for such a great read!

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