Think about the person you are today. Where did you come from?
Physically, of course, you’re a genetic mix of your birth parents’ traits; personality-wise, you’re a product of both those geneticsand the environment in which you were raised.
Fortunately, we humans are skilled at rapidly assimilating everything that happens around us. Unfortunately, we humans are skilled at absorbing everything that happens around us – whether it benefits us or harms us, we absorb and conform to the attitudes and conversations in which we are immersed.
Every family, community, ethnicity, and nation has different sorts of conversations. Over time, we can begin to identify what we call the Historical Discourse, or the historical pattern of stories that give us identity.
Each family and society has a different discourse, and there’s no right or wrong or good or bad to them. Yet these are important, for our historical discourse affects how we hear things, how we approach issues, the questions we ask, and even how we relate to others.
What Were the Messages You Learned?
In my family there were many messages. From my German dad, a child of the Great Depression, I was imprinted with the importance of ceaseless hard work and thrift. From my Irish mom, I learned that St Patrick’s Day is a major holiday and that Responsible People volunteer their time in the community. I learned that boys go to college and girls learn to sew and cook (Hey, I’m not sayin’ I bought it all! I’m just sayin’ what I learned thru absorption in my family). I also learned that money is scarce, rich people are selfish, procrastination is an art form to be perfected, and that Real Men don’t express their feelings.
Some of these messages I saw for the propaganda they were, and I consciously rejected them, e.g. I learned to cook, and I raised children who believe in gender equality. Some discourses remain strong in me today – procrastination, for exampleL. And some of those discourses nearly killed me, literally, before I realized that I had other choices. The inability to express my feelings meant I kept them shut inside me till years of killer migraines forced me into considering that maybe – just maybe – there was a different way to live.
Consider what messages were planted in your absorbent mind as you grew up, concerning:
- The roles of men and women?
- Work and Money? (e.g. joy or drudgery? scarcity or abundance?)
- Parenting and children? (hard? easy? privilege? duty?)
- Religion and God/Spirituality?
- Love & sex/sexuality?
- “Us” versus “them” (who were the “them” in your world?)
The question is not whether the stories are right or wrong, but whether they are working for you today. Let me share examples.
Some Client Stories
#1 – Managers Are Jerks. Chris constantly struggled with the coaching aspect of being a leader, and finally admitted that what stopped him was fear of being perceived as a ‘jerk.’ “Where did you learn that holding people accountable for their work made you a jerk?” I asked.
Chris was raised in a blue-collar union family, and the conversation during dinner and at all family functions was about the ‘idiots in management.’ Even though Chris had gone to college and his family was thrilled that he’d ‘made it’ into leadership ranks, he still owned that old story from decades of dinner table conversations.
#2 – I’m Not Good Enough. Pat was accomplished, independent, in a great marriage, and in a well-paying job where she felt valued. Still, happiness eluded her. We began with a lot of work around self-talk and mind-body shift, and Pat was diligent in all her practices – mental, emotional, and physical.
Still, she struggled with self-acceptance. “I’m afraid I’m not good enough,” she confessed, “and I worry that people will discover I’m a fraud.” So I asked, “Whose story is that? Where did you learn that?” Probably from her father, from whom a constant insult was, “you’re just a girl.”
Neither Chris nor Pat truly believed the old conversations.But when a story is played over and again, it eventually wears deep grooves in the brain – and plays automatically in our head even when we don’t want it to.
This happens all the time – someone else’s story becomes our own story. Again, there’s no good or bad – it’s just present.You cannot be cut from your history; but you can with awareness, choose a different path if the old one does not serve you.
Create a New Story
Chris, once he was aware of that old discourse, quickly created a new story about leaders that focuses him on creating a positive environment and helping people solve problems, being a partner versus an obstacle.
Pat, on the other hand, took a long time to find a new story that did not feel too ‘alien’ to her. She reports that her first reaction to stressful situations is still, “I’m not good enough,” but she’s learning to quickly follow that up with, “I am, however, FABULOUS!” as she consciously shifts to a grounded, confident body.
What are the historical discourses you hold from your family or community? Some of them make you proud, I’m sure, and some of them may leave you stressed and frustrated. Here’s the thing: you have the power to choose which of them you continue to honor and which you change.
- First, notice the story in your head. It may be true, yet it is not yours. That story belongs to someone else. Once you accept that fact, you are free to choose what is yours versus others’.
- Next, rewrite the story to fit what you now believe or want to live more fully. Actually write/type it out, to make it real. Once you say it out loud/write it down/own it, the possibility it will show up increases.
- Third, notice what emotion the old story creates in you,and consider what emotion you want to associate with the new story.
- Finally, pay attention to how your body reacts in the old story – what happens to your posture, your breath, your speed of movement, your behavior? Now, shift your body into the emotion you want to feel in the new story. How will you breathe, sit, stand, and move in your new story? Practice that body posture, as often as you can (at least daily).
- Keep practicing. That old story worked on you for decades, so it may take more than a few weeks to overwrite it with the new story. With diligence, you can create a huge shift for you.
Remember me, the guy who could not express emotion? And who, today, makes his living in the study and practice of emotional shift? Yep, it’s possible to choose!
The Happiness Discourse
Let’s tie this back to my favorite subject: Happiness. What have you been ‘taught’ about happiness in your life? That it’s for other people? That it takes money and stuff? That you have to wait for it, till you’re older/wiser/healthier/married/divorced/etc? That you can never have it because…? Or you don’t deserve it because…?
Instead of talking about ‘how it’s always been, ’ or playing old recordings in your head all the time, why not create a new story of the way you want it to be? The tagline for my business (which, by the way, has also been my personal motto for 20+ years) is that “Happiness is a Decision, Not an Event!” Happiness is a mode of travel, not a finite destination. You can choose to view life thru a positive rather than a dirty lens, pay more attention to the good than the bad, and spend more time in Gratitude than Fear and Anger.
You CAN create your OWN discourse.
Jim Smith, PCC, is The Executive Happiness Coach®. He is an international speaker, executive and life coach, and author. He provides his clients with inspiration and practical tools to live a happier life and build more positive work cultures. He is the author of Happiness At The Speed of Life: 13 Powerful Strategies for Finding Happiness at Home and On The Job, and has touched the lives of over 10,000 people worldwide through his work on Positive Emotion and Leadership. You can connect with Jim at theexecutivehappinesscoach.com.