A Tale of Two Women
There’s a woman I know who, in her own words, has lived a pretty uninspiring life – she’s in her forties, and often compares herself to others who’ve achieved impressive things.
In fairness, she didn’t start with much – born in the 70s into a poor family with nothing to spare. Bright but introverted and lacking confidence she always says she could have done much better at school if she’d been less lazy, revised more, spent less time gazing out of the window in a daydream. A drifter – that’s what she calls herself, though not in the romantic traveller sense. She drifted aimlessly through college, made a lacklustre attempt at a degree but couldn’t hack it, so dropped out and drifted into the first job that’d take her – a soul destroying admin job that she endured for five years before finally going back to get that degree. She wasn’t confident enough to go far though – just the local former poly. She stayed near home afterwards too, drifting once again, this time into local journalism (not exactly The Guardian) and followed the blueprint: marriage, 2.4 children and a family saloon. Got stuck in a part-time job, too fearful and unconfident to aim higher. Never followed her heart because, as she says, she never felt she had a vocation or sense of purpose, so she just plodded on and made the most of things. Her marriage failed, depression hit, and she had to start from scratch – at an age where many are looking forward to an early retirement she’s looking down the barrel of a lengthy mortgage. Whenever I hear her talk about her life I feel great empathy for her, her challenges and setbacks.
There’s another woman I know, same age but totally different life story. I really like and admire her. Not because she’s had a life full of wow moments – she’s never scaled Kilimanjaro or run a six-figure business. But she’s kind, likes to support others, and is tenacious – she’s struggled with anxiety and a chronic condition but doesn’t give up. Her family wasn’t rich either but there was always enough food, a small but homely place to live with a garden, and – crucially – lot of love, and warmth. She loved school and did well – she got the best GCSE marks in her year, and later on, after gaining valuable workplace experience, a first class degree. She and her parents were so proud because she’d worked really hard for it, juggling her studies with part-time jobs. She had always loved writing and was delighted to be chosen for a rare place on a sponsored journalism course, and then to be picked for a plum job afterwards which, eventually, led to her becoming the editor of a group of magazines, and then a PR and publishing specialist.
She also has two children, who she adores, and though she too separated from her husband after a very long marriage she accepts that she did her best and that sometimes people drift apart. She and the kids love their new house and she’s enjoying this new stage in her life – her own space, her friends and family, and a new career that challenges and stimulates her. She’s such a warm and positive person – it’s fun to spend time with her.
I know these women inside out – because they’re both me. Either one of these stories could describe my life truthfully but it was the first one – the victim story – that I told myself most often: I was my own biggest critic. Then I heard a coach, Marianne Cantwell (free-range-humans.com) describing her life from two perspectives, and challenging listeners to her podcast to try the same exercise. It was a revelation. As a journalist I was used to deciding what angle to give the stories I wrote about others but it had simply never occurred to me before that I could tell my own story in an entirely different way. Nor that reframing it in this simple way – as a brave, capable action taker rather than a passive victim – would change the way I felt about myself, and that I could choose to keep seeing myself through that kinder, more encouraging lens. Both perspectives can be seen as exaggerations but it’s interesting that when I described the ‘two women’ to a couple of friends, both remarked that the second one sounded exactly like me but asked who the first person was, suggesting that they take a more positive view of me than I often do myself.
I was reminded of this recently while reading the coach Tara Mohr’s book, Playing Big, in which she introduces us to our inner critic and inner coach. One is the voice of negativity, constantly primed for danger and hellbent on keeping us in our comfort zone, while the other is our own voice of wisdom, gently urging us to see the brilliance and potential that others see in us. It’s the inner critic who tells me I’ve been an underachieving drifter, while the inner coach urges me to celebrate my achievements and strengths, no matter how small, to take confidence in them and use them to propel myself forward. These days, I choose more and more often to listen to the inner coach, and to be the hero of my story rather than the victim.
The therapist Lori Gottlieb, in her TED talk ‘How changing your story can change your life’, calls this rewriting your story to be the hero instead of the victim. “We are all unreliable narrators of our own lives … we assume that our circumstances shape our stories. But what I found time and again in my work is that the exact opposite happens. The way we narrate our lives shapes what they become. That’s the danger of our stories, because they can really mess us up, but it’s also their power. Because what it means is that if we can change our stories, then we can change our lives.”
Rewrite your own life stories
- Write your ‘victim story’ first. Give your inner critic free rein to be as mean and negative as you like, picking on even the smallest things.
- What have been the meaningful events, achievements and turning points in your life? You may wish to include your experiences of education, work, relationships, family, finances, or anything else that has made a lasting impression.
- Write freely – just let your thoughts flow onto the page. Don’t worry about making it perfect – no-one else has to read it, and it’s more important to express yourself fully.
- Now turn the story on its head, reframing your negative story as a positive one. Failed an exam? No, not a failure but a valuable opportunity to learn how to bounce back from disappointment.
- If you find it difficult to see the positives you could ask others in your life what they like or admire about you, the successes you’ve achieved, the things about your life that inspire them.
- Don’t forget the ‘small’ things. It’s not just the big successes in life that we can be proud of. Doing someone a favour, popping a pound in a charity box, giving a compliment, tidying the house, learning how to drive, cooking meals – all of these things are part of who we are.
Claire Robertson, Ollie Coach
Claire Robertson is an Ollie Coach and NLP practitioner with a degree in psychology. She runs a private practice in the West Midlands, in the heart of Shropshire, working with children, young people and adults. Claire is also a university lecturer specialising in business, marketing and supporting students, has two children, and enjoys reading, crafts and walking.
To get in contact with Claire, email Claire.firstname.lastname@example.org
To find out more about Ollie and his Super Powers and how to become an Ollie Coach go to https://www.ollieandhissuperpowers.com/pages/about-us
Image credit: Joel Muniz, Unsplash