Notice the Quiet Lessons (Not the Loud Ones) from Your Past by Executive Coach Mary Lee Gannon
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We all have drama and sometimes even trauma from our past that replays in our heads especially when we want to try something new. We relive these stories to our detriment. We personalize them. Our egos tell us to stay safe and risk nothing. We want to free our thoughts of these stories, but they are loud, vivid, and prevalent. “I’m not good enough, smart enough, educated enough, liked enough, attractive enough” and so the list goes on. We think there must be something wrong with us if these stories keep showing up. I am certain you can think of a couple of these stories right now. I know I can.
While certain facts of what happened in the past are true, chances are we have editorialized aspects of these accounts with assumptions about ourselves that are not entirely true. ‘I will never ________.’ ‘Because of what happened I will always be ________.’ Again, these statements are assumptions, not truths.
Stay away from ‘never,’ ‘always’ and ‘ever.’ They lead to limiting beliefs, assumptions and unmet expectations. ¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬They are dream killers. They keep us from The Three Things.
Self-regulation strategies you will learn here will help you minimize the intensity of this inner drama.
I suspect that when you think hard, there are also stories from your past that taught you things you value, that showed you good role models, that made you laugh. These are harder to remember at first until you revisit the warm feelings you felt in those situations - until you believe you deserve these warm feelings that override the fear your ego reminds you to notice.
When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, I spent two weeks each summer and occasional weekends at my grandmother’s house, outside of town. My grandfather died when my mother was 8-years-old, so my Grandma was the quintessential single mom in an era when hardly anyone was single with children. And she had four.
My mother’s siblings were much older and became a working part of traditional Italian practices that held the family together. Family was everything. My Grandma worked long hours selling chickens in the store that she owned with my grandfather. In my grandma’s absence, my mother’s older siblings became like parents to her at home. My Uncle Jimmy, the oldest and only boy, eventually got his real estate broker’s license as a young man and began buying rental properties in the steel mill town in which they lived. He was the quintessential playboy.
Grandma was able to sell the store and retire early because of Jimmy’s unrivaled success. I remember having to walk to the bank every day because of the profusion of rent money and deposits that came in. Jimmy gave Grandma an office in his real estate business from where she orchestrated a very active career as a political organizer. Jimmy also taught my brother and I to dance, an essential skill for a playboy. He showed me that life can be fun and serious at the same time.
My Aunt Sissy worked in public housing as the highest-ranking female in the organization – an anomaly in that era. I never knew her title because she never talked about it. It wasn’t important. The work was. She had a lot of respect wherever we went. She never married. Nobody was ever good enough for my grandmother to approve. Perfectionism serves nobody. I knew it had to have left her lonely. But she never talked about it. She was always smiling.
Every day after work Grandma and Sissy took me grocery shopping. Italians traditionally shop every day for the freshest food. Sometimes after dinner, they took me to the local department store for a new outfit. That was a treat except when I got to middle school and they wanted to pick out my clothes.
Jimmy and Grandma gave me a place to sit in the real estate office. They stocked my desk with supplies to do whatever I wanted – draw, color, staple, cut paper, and sometimes help them with paperwork. Mostly, I listened and observed deals being made, relationships being created, conflicts being resolved. Sissy took me on visits to properties she managed where I got to see how she handled difficult issues such as late rent, property damage, eviction.
Never once did I see temper or emotion derail my relatives’ presence in any situation. They were opinionated and may have had a heated release in private after the fact, but never during an interaction. I saw deep listening, very matter-of-fact language, respect, and the enforcement of boundaries. Nothing was personal. It was business. Who have you observed that you want to emulate?
During those years at Grandma’s, I studied how people on both sides of an issue related to each other. I observed their presence. I was able to see how they advanced what they wanted, were resilient in the face of adversity or drowned in disappointment and excuses. I saw how I wanted to be.
I watched Jimmy retire in his 40s, enjoying world travel and a second home on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I observed then how quality of life was linked to financial independence, strategy, hard work, sound character and good relationships.
This ability to understand my strengths of insight and discernment - my superpowers - helped me decide very early that I first, wanted to have a close family and second, wanted to be involved in something that gave me the autonomy to organize and lead. I wanted a life by design and knew I had to present myself in the best way possible to do that well. My value was family, and my strength was seeing the big picture and making important things happen. This is self-awareness.
Fast forward three decades where I am a stay-at-home mother with four children under seven, one with a developmental disability, living the country club life in an unpalatable marriage. I file for divorce as a leap of faith and am not at all prepared for the avalanche that befalls my children and me. Within six months the children and I are homeless and on assistance. I applied for every utility forgiveness program there was. The children had to change schools to public school midyear and wore each other’s shoes. Life by design had crumbled to life by default.
I remembered Grandma – what it must have been like to have her husband die at a young age and have to pick up the pieces of shattered dreams to rebuild a life with her four children in tow. It couldn’t have been easy. But I never realized that until then. Nobody ever complained. They talked about dreams of the beach, a sailboat, times with good friends and how they overcame obstacles. All I saw was grace, goals, strategy, determination, successful execution, poise and a lot of Italian words I didn’t understand.
It wasn’t easy for me either. My divorce took seven arduous years. There was much hostility and denial. I was angry. I let anger move me to fear of trusting myself or anyone else. And I felt alone.
The story that kept blaring in my head at the time was that I didn’t deserve better and would end up a failure, losing the respect of my children and never finding true love. I kept thinking about how I had never felt I really fit in in elementary and high school. And that I must have never been worthy to fit in. This broken record in my head didn’t serve me. It kept me stuck. Until I started to broaden the story to where I was learning and growing. I started to remember what I observed in Grandma, Sissy and Jimmy and what I wanted for my life. This broadening of perspective is awareness of self and others and the ability to self-regulate the doubt and flawed beliefs with truth. This gave me power to take risks and move forward.
I had the privilege to watch my mother’s family be successful in the face of adversity, so I knew what that looked like. And I pulled it off. I became a CEO very quickly despite a lack of experience and the right degrees because I knew how to measure what mattered, over deliver on goals, carry myself with confidence, and relate well. But success didn’t feel authentic until I was able to feel I belonged where I was and that I deserved to be happy. Then everything fell into place. Except romantic love. I had to learn self-regulation of my ego and self-acceptance to find that.
Notice the negative stories from your past. Take note of the assumptions you’ve made and how you’ve judged yourself based on those assumptions. Notice how that has made you feel without further judgment. It is time to release those assumption and judgment. Then quiet the needy ego and remember the softer, subtler good lessons that gave you a warm feeling. Allow the volume on those to rise. Allow the details on those stories to become more vivid. Remember the good feelings. That is where you belong.