In high-pressure situations, it doesn't take much for even the most confident and capable of us to buckle. When we do, our minds tend to kick into negative-energy overdrive, and we tell ourselves familiar narratives of self-recrimination, blame, shame, and doubt. Those stories we tell ourselves—about ourselves and our failings—can be powerful and paralyzing. But you can use that same narrative impulse to reverse course.
Just last week, I was working with a new client, Bob, who is the chief marketing officer for a large sports team. His days are filled with back-to back-meetings, endless emails, texts, and calls. And he's expected to drop everything when the team's owner needs him. In other words, he works in a high-stakes pressure cooker, and it had finally reached a boiling point when he called me.
During our second coaching session, we hit a wall. Bob was struggling. Partly as a result, I was struggling, too. In that moment of uncertainty, all my fears and insecurities started firing up: "You don’t really know what you are doing!" "Why can’t you figure out the underlying issue and move past it?" "You're never going to be able to help him."
And then the real ass-kicker: "Face it, you suck as a coach."
I've heard these voices before, but familiarity doesn't lessen their destructive force. Typically, I've tried to drown them out by keeping busy. I go check my email, do unnecessary "research" on the Internet, organize my pens—anything to avoid that painful state of raw, negative emotion.
Busyness is a drug. It's addictive. It alters your perception of reality. It numbs you and keeps you separate from others so you don't have to feel so vulnerable. But it's no real fix, only a temporary escape.
And in this particular moment, sitting in Bob's office and trying to work through this difficult period together, I'm unable to go to my inbox and hide by rummaging through it. I have to stay with that awful feeling and push through it. I need to take back control of the narrative.
"Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do. But I know that it takes more than courage to own your own story. We own our stories so we don’t spend our lives being defined by them or denying them," says author and researcher Brené Brown.
That's no easy thing to do. But in that moment of intense negativity, it was the only way to push my self-doubts aside and help my client overcome his own.
In her new book Rising Strong, Brown says that the first step is to turn up your curiosity and become aware of the stories you’re telling yourself about your hurt, anger, frustration, and pain.
Why does this matter? Because our main instinct is simply to make shit up! And while we're under serious pressure, the things we make up can be both really negative and really convincing, even though they aren't true.
"Meaning-making is in our biology," Brown writes, "and our default is often to come up with a story that makes sense, feels familiar, and offers insight into how to self-protect." Personally, the first story I start telling myself under pressure is always that I’m not enough.
In order to escape it, Brown advises that we tap into our creativity—the same place these negative narratives come from—and write them down.
So, after leaving that exhausting coaching session, I came home and wrote down in my journal the "not enough" story I had told myself in Bob’s office. Then I went for a long, hard run to discharge some of that negative energy. Afterward I was able to confront that story and switch off the self-doubts it had pummeled me with.
This is the series of questions, loosely following Brown's advice, that I asked myself next:
1. What triggered the negative story in the first place?
What about that particular coaching session made me give in to self-doubt, while so many others I've been through haven't? What additional context do I need to understand what happened?
2. What do I know objectively?
Coaching is about bringing about change. And change is hard, messy, and uncomfortable. It always feels and appears worse right before a breakthrough occurs. I know that to be true from my professional experience, irrespective of how I felt in this instance.
3. What assumptions am I making?
First and foremost, that Bob perceived me as an ineffective coach because the session was so challenging.
4. How do other people factor into the story I told myself?
What drives Bob? What are the defining characteristics of his office culture? How does his current work align with his personal and professional goals? And how did all the difficulties he's facing rub off on me so unexpectedly?
5. What questions do I need to ask to distinguish my client's challenges from my own?
"Bob, what are you feeling and experiencing in this moment? What's preventing you from finding the balance and calm you're seeking?" I'm likely to find that Bob's answers to those questions won't have anything to do with my own competence as a coach.
6. What questions do I need to ask myself in order to put my reaction into context?
Why was this specific coaching session so challenging for me? What happened beforehand that might have primed me to succumb to self-doubt?
7. What part did I play in bringing it about?
The story I made up prevented me from being fully present, aware, and available for Bob. And I wasn't able to avoid launching into that narrative because I couldn't distract myself by trying to keep busy.
Now it was time for me to explore the difference, or what Brown calls the "delta," between what I made up about the experience and the facts of the experience that I've just pinpointed. "The delta holds our key learnings—we just have to be willing to walk into our stories and rumble," adds Brown.
What I learned proved a great antidote to the self-doubt I experienced: As I already knew, change is hard and messy, but it isn't something I can bring about on my own. And as a coach, it isn't my job to do the work for my client. I am there to hold the space, be present, help my client sort out what's best for them, and trust that it's the right thing for them when they find it.
By keeping that in mind, the pressure I experienced couldn't affect me so much. And that was because I took the time to get to the bottom of the story I told myself while in the thick of it.
"When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write the ending," Brown asserts.
What is the ending you want to write? After all, that part is up to you.