Recently a client, Rachel, unearthed a long-held mostly unconscious story about not being smart enough. This story had significant consequences. It contained the seeds of insecurity and self-doubt in her life.
Stories are incredible things (Read my blog on stories, here). They make us happy, and they stress us out. We can’t live without them, yet when we live through them unconsciously, they shackle us and limit our potential.
The stories that serve us well are not hard to find. They are very prevalent, and just plain feel good. Waking up with the sun shining through our bedroom window, my wife greeting me with a story about how much fun last night was. Or reading a text from my sister with a beautiful picture of her grandkids. Or telling others about the cool things my sons are doing in NY. The roots of these positive stories feed me with love, and I feel open, curious, compassionate and proud.
The stories that hold us back lurk quietly in the background of our minds, waiting to hijack us at any given moment. Tossing and turning in the middle of the night, anxious about our interview in the morning. Stuck in traffic, late, stressing over the bad drivers and angry that we won’t be at home in time for dinner. Or reading the news to find that once again, our president’s tweets are bullying, mean and demoralizing. These negative stories fill us with fear, anger, angst, worry, and judgment.
Through our stories, we feel a full spectrum of emotions: I think of them on a spiral. At the wide-open top of the spiral are positive emotions pulling us up with love and compassion. We can feel open, empathetic, and peaceful. Conversely, the gravity of fear pulls us down the spiral to negative emotions. There we can feel anger, frustration, and judgment. Opposites chart on the spiral: love vs. fear, understanding vs. judgment, open-minded vs. closed-minded, tolerance vs. bigotry, peaceful vs. stressed, etc.
As we recognize and visualize our emotions on the spiral, we become better observers of our internal thoughts and reactions. We can catch our thoughts and feelings and manage the negative rascals dragging us down the spiral.
With the spiral in mind, I asked Rachel to start noticing and writing down her thoughts and feelings in situations where her feelings of insecurity and self-doubt had her spinning downward.
She began to earnestly pay attention to the incessant background voices in her head. Before this, they were nagging and distracting noise to be pushed aside. Now, for the first time, she realized how these negative stories were driving her emotions, feelings, and consequently her interactions. Methodically, and with a good dose of curiosity, she began to investigate the thoughts and feelings behind the story.
Having acknowledged her emotions, I asked her to check a few facts (see my blog on conversations and facts and opinions, here) and to then ask herself four seemingly straightforward questions. Questions that, surprisingly, cut to the core of every negative thought or judgment that we hold. By asking the questions, she began to think about her thinking.
The Four Questions:
What are my standards?
What are my concerns?
What issues of authority are playing out?
What are my desires?
They spell out SCAD. Short for the scads of voices that effortlessly run amok in our head and drive us crazy. So, when we find ourselves slipping and sliding down the spiral of emotions, we can stop, breathe, recognize our feelings and take the time to bust our negative stories. We are embarking on a thinking meditation. It is a compelling inquiry that can help us navigate the madness and all too familiar patterns of our monkey minds. It can be startling, but ultimately, it is enlightening.
A quick primer on the four questions
What standards are behind this strongly held opinion?
Standards are ubiquitous. For every opinion, assumption, and judgment we have, there will most likely be a standard laying low in the background of our thoughts. We have a measure for every opinion we hold. Too hot, too slow, too sexy, too stupid, too old, too cheap, etc. Our standards determine how we conduct ourselves, how we assess qualities of someone or something and the moral principles of how to live our lives. While considering our standards, it is important to remember that we have adopted most of them effortlessly via our families and cultures.
For Rachel, she adopted standards drilled into her by her family of what constituted “smart enough.” Unconsciously adopted standards impossible to fulfill: the best grades, elite schools, top of the class, etc. As she began to investigate her story, she unearthed a few facts that ran counter to her family’s expectations. She was well educated, had been successful to date in getting good jobs in the male-dominated field of science and had been offered several jobs recently. Recognizing these facts and her unquestioned standards was a wakeup call. The nagging voice in her head about “not being smart enough” slowly dissipated. Over time she became more mindful of her standards and could consciously choose to adopt or apply them appropriately.
What concerns are behind your strongly held opinion?
Concerns are future-oriented. We don’t want tomorrow to be the same as today. Concerns can keep us safe. They caution us to take a cab vs. walking the streets of a city we don’t know or encourage us to speak up for causes we deem impactful. They can also stress us out about things over which we have no control. Lying awake in the middle of the night worrying about what mood the boss will be in tomorrow, or sick with nerves over who will win the game. We can thank concerns that serve us and help us get on with life, but when they have us fretting about things we can’t change, they rob us of energy and wisdom.
For Rachel, “not being smart enough” constantly had her concerned about how others would judge her. “Will I sound uninformed? Will they think I am ill prepared?” These concerns swirling around in her head filled her with subtle insecurities to the point that she doubted her voice. This question helped her be aware of how fearful and unfounded some of her concerns were. Over time, she felt more grounded and confident, far less worried about what others were thinking.
What issues of authority are part of your fortified opinions?
Our relationships are full to the brim with power imbalances. In families, business, hierarchies, and all communities, authority plays a vital part in our relationships. Those who wield authority create laws and rules and assert influence and control. Who has power? Who gets to decide? Who has leverage over whom? Do I have a voice? Authority plays a subtle yet dominant hand. Its impact is visible and invisible, and productive or destructive. The main issue of the “MeToo” movement is the abuse of power. Authority is a critical component of most relationships, and it needs to be a discussable part of our conversations. It is time to question the long-standing patterns of power imbalance and consider putting into place systems of accountability. Conversations and systemic changes regarding power and authority can change cultures. Bringing issues of authority to the surface can be difficult, yet doing so is empowering.
For Rachel, her self-doubt meant she questioned her voice and therefore was holding back in life. Her relationship skills, competence, and intelligence were subservient to her insecurities. Her voice was not as confident as it could be, and her perspectives and ideas either never made it to the table, or she felt them dismissed. A lose/lose for her and her employer. For Rachel, becoming aware of these self-limiting stories about power was a potent awakening. With some practice and patience, she began to discover ways to offer far more of her smart self.
What desires are driving your opinion?
Like the other questions, desires also quietly operate in the background of our thinking. Our hopes about what should happen and what we would like to accomplish can motivate and inspire us. We set targets, push for stretch goals and make stuff happen. But unexamined desires that cause us suffering and send us spiraling down are ripe for investigation. And, as they often don’t align with reality, it is easy to get emotionally triggered. Things just aren’t going according to our plan. “Those idiots, why didn’t they make the decision I recommended?” Or, “I can’t believe she got the promotion! That was mine!” Rather than facing the facts of reality, we find ourselves dissatisfied, upset and angrily fighting the truth of what is undeniably happening right in front of us. A battle with reality is a battle we will never win. Becoming aware of our unspoken desires is a great way to ground ourselves and realign with reality.
Through asking the other questions, Rachel exposed buried desires that were once a driving force in her life. Doing pretty well was no longer satisfying. She was now excited about the prospects of more responsibility, challenging work and a better paycheck.
Over time, by investigating her stories, Rachel felt better, stronger and less stressed than she had in years. She showed up in new ways at meetings and walked taller. The consequences of exploring her unconscious stories were life-changing.
Asking the four questions is a thinking meditation. Be gentle and kind to yourself. Remember that most of your standards, concerns, ideas about authority, and desires have been unconsciously adopted. The questions (SCAD) are a helpful tool to cut through the tangled snare of unexplored opinions running in the background of our busy minds. Sometimes one of the questions will do the trick and other times you might find an affinity between a few.
Catch yourself in the spiral, breathe and ask if you are spinning down or whirling up. What is the fear pulling you down? What is the better angel that could lift you up? Note your emotions, ground yourself with facts. With some courage, curiosity, patience, and practice it is possible to dissolve negative stories reframing them to discover a whole new, more loving self at the top of the spiral. Bust away!