Can You Change Your Past?

What do you remember?

How you recount your past mistakes and failures matters.  A lot.

Did you know that the past no longer exists, except in your mind?

That the past is gone, and what you choose to remember is your choice?

And why does this matter?  Because how you define yourself, your confidence, tends to be based on your past and your experiences.  The thoughts you think about your past affects you, but what happened in the past does not.

Yes what you remember and how you feel about it is completely within your control.  You are narrating the story.  How you’re telling the story, is subjective, it is in some ways just that, our own recounting of a situation.  One which could be told dramatically and sometimes in direct opposition to ours.

Have you ever shared an experience and someone else, a friend of family member recounts it in a completely different manner?

Because if you’ve been dragging around a negative experience and thoughts about yourself for a few days, a few months, or a few years…this matters.  It shapes and reinforces your perceptions of yourself.

Okay so let’s consider this for a moment. I want you to think of what you perceive as a negative memory for you at work.  Something about you, that you did or didn’t do.  Here are some examples:

  • A mishandled performance issue
  • A project that you didn’t manage well
  • A significant goal that was not attained
  • You disrespected someone or treated them poorly
  • A poor client outcome/situation
  • Other performance factors or measures that were not achieved
  • You were on a performance plan
  • You were fired

Now tell yourself the story about this situation.  How would you describe it?  I really want you to consider the narrative you are choosing in the telling of the story to yourself.

Are you the victim?  Was someone else the villain?  Or are you putting the focus squarely on you?  Was this was your screw up?  Your failure?

And as you re-tell the story.  How do you feel?  What emotion does the story evoke?  Drop into the feeling, place yourself back into the situation.  How do you see it?

Whenever you experience a negative emotion, anxiety, disappointment, anger, sadness, sorrow, or dread—it’s because you have a negative thought about the past.

This thought is optional.  Because your past is over.  But the thoughts you have about your past are affecting you right now.

What if your story is completely wrong?  What if you’ve characterized it inaccurately?  Let’s consider that.

I can pull so many of these stories from the archives in my brain.  It really is kind of scary.  So I’ll select one from my files, and it was a very small incident, but a very profound one.  I can drag it out anytime.  Let’s call this one, Cyndi insults her boss, in front of his boss.  #true

I can think of this today with shame.  I was harsh in giving feedback to my boss on something I disagree with, strongly.  I said it in a way that was disrespectful.  I think about it today and I can feel that shame.

Or I can also consider that I was young, and not effective in disagreeing in a more constructive neutral manner.  I can tell myself I said words that I wish I would not have said.  I can know that I apologized, and forgive myself.  I can also know that this shaped me to be more respectful in the future, and the example changed me for the better.  I don’t have to feel the shame, rather the learning it provided.  And the lesson that I never repeated.

I was recently coaching someone who had her own example, it was a significant sales presentation that went poorly.  The client was antagonistic, the sale was lost.  My client has been ruminating over this situation for close to 15 years.  Her interpersonal style, one of warmth humor and informality—which worked for her (and had worked with this client previously) suddenly didn’t work.  She felt the sting of rebuke.  Of not just a no, but a painful and significant no.  She blamed herself.  It was a clear failure on her part.

As we discussed the example, I asked her how remembering the situation this way made her feel today. In s shocking plot twist, she said, very poorly.  I asked why she was choosing to remember it this way.  She was befuddled.  What did I mean?

The past lives only in our minds.  It is gone forever.  We write the story with our thoughts today, we characterize what did or didn’t happen as fact.  As the “real” story.  As the truth.

Is it?

Here’s another way to tell the story.  Her strengths are her interpersonal skills, her warmth and humor.  They’ve served her well in her career.  They served her well with this client in the past.

The story is, she made a pitch.  The client said no.

Why is the story about her?  Why does she characterize this as her screwing up (my words, her recounting of the story)?  What factors could have contributed to the clients saying no?  It could have been budget.  It could have been political.  It could have been pressure for some reason that had no connection to her.  Nothing to do with her pitch, her approach or Anything.  About.  Her.  And we don’t know the why.

She is choosing to blame herself.  She is choosing to tell the story as her failure.  Her shame.

And we do this.  We blame ourselves.  Why choose to consider this our failure or our mistake?  Why choose to remember the past in a way that makes us feel inadequate, less than?

And this is the choice.  The choice to beat ourselves up, to make ourselves someone the character in the story that was the victim, was victimized or just completely screwed up.  But we don’t have to narrate our past that way.

Does your past empower you?  Are you the hero?  Are you the ones who tries and perseveres?

How do you want to characterize your past.  It’s yours to tell.  No one gets to craft your story.  Only you.  You get to make this decision, what you make your past mean for you.

You can believe that your past has made you the strong capable leader you are today.  Or not.  And that is optional.