One day last week I was in the middle of telling the old story about why I chose to leave my chemistry graduate program with a Master's degree instead of finishing my PhD when I suddenly had a very powerful dèjá vu moment.
This wasn't a sudden realization that I had told that particular story before because I have, of course, told that story many times through the years.
It was bigger than that. It was a realization that I have been telling (and living) the same basic story over and over and over again through the years in one situation after another (usually job or career related).
And here's the kicker: it's a storyline that isn't actually very helpful for my life as a whole, but I've still allowed it to become a default story that I keep re-enacting without even realizing that I'm doing it.
I want to share that storyline and what I'm learning about it and about myself as I explore it as an illustration of how these default storylines work and the power they can have in our lives to give you the chance to explore your own default storylines.
My default story
The details of the story change with each situation, but the gist of the story is always that I stay in some situation where I am continually treated worse and worse until I reach my limit and leave with a grand explosion that damages relationships, leaves me feeling like a resentful victim, and often limits my future choices.
(Like I said ... not a particularly helpful—or flattering—storyline. It's actually rather embarrassing to admit to it!)
In the aftermath of my realization of how prevalent this story has been in shaping my life, I've been gently exploring this story to try to understand what I've gained from the use of it that would cause me to keep rehearsing it over and over.
It only took a moment to review the stories and come to the conclusion that leaving the situation was the right thing to do (for me). There's not one that I wish I'd stayed longer in. In fact, there are several that I wish I'd left sooner.
I do, however, regret the way that I left several of those situations. I regret some of the damaged relationships I left behind me. I regret the way in which my abrupt (and often desperate) departures did not allow me the time to make the best choices about next steps.
Most of all, I regret the way that this repeated story has shaped me by casting me again and again as a victim and giving me excuses to stay mired in resentment.
So what payoff was I getting that kept me choosing it? I think there were several.
I don't like conflict, so I often took the coward's way out by not contesting unfair treatment when it started. This allowed it to continue and to grow, leading to the eventual blow up when I had stored up enough anger and resentment to overcome my discomfort with confrontation.
So one payoff is that this story line allows me to avoid uncomfortable conversations early in the game. In this storyline, I never have to stand up for myself until I have accumulated an overabundance of bad behavior to explode over.
I also don't like quitting or giving up, and this storyline "excuses" my leaving of any situation by making me the victim of others' bad behavior so that I can feel justified in my departure. I can avoid any blame for leaving (at least in my own mind), and I avoid taking responsibility for my decision because it was someone else's fault. That's another payoff.
This storyline also helps me deal with fear of the unknown. Even when I knew that I needed to leave and make a new choice, fear of change or of making a mistake or of losing security would keep me stuck where I was. But another payoff of this story is that it allowed me to accumulate enough anger that eventually my anger would overpower my fear, allowing me to take a risk that I otherwise was too fearful to take.
Those payoffs came with a high price tag, though, and I'm not sure it's been worth the cost. I'm ready to stop carrying the resentment and the victim role. That role has created so much unnecessary brokenness along the way.
A better way
Now that I've recognized the common thread of this storyline, I'm ready to choose a new storyline to use the next time I find myself in a situation where it's time to make a change.
First, I plan to continue working on my skills in effectively dealing with conflict. If I can address issues early, I will have more choices and more ability to create a positive outcome.
Second, I am working on re-framing my ideas about quitting by moving the focus onto choosing something new. Rather than needing someone to blame, I can instead take responsibility for choosing something that works better for me as an empowering step.
Third, I am dealing more directly with my fear of change and the unknown. Learning to feel that fear and do what I need to do anyway will make it unnecessary to use anger and resentment as fuel to get over that hump.
All of these are potential areas of big growth for me, but now that I see the options, I'm committed to developing the skills and mindset I need to do things differently the next time a situation presents itself.
Recognizing my default storyline and exploring it so deeply gives me opportunity to choose a new storyline next time—hopefully one that is much more helpful overall!
Questions to ponder
What storylines have you lived over and over again in your life? Do you recognize any default storylines of your own as you read my example?
How have those default storylines been helpful or not helpful over the years?
What payoff do you get from re-enacting those storylines? What price do you pay for those default storylines?
If you were going to change your default storyline, what changes (big or small) would you make? What skills do you need or what mindset shifts would be helpful to make a new storyline possible?
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