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How the stories we tell ourselves can keep us small (and what to do about it)

I was listening to a great interview with Ibram X. Kendi, historian and author of ‘How to be an anti-racist’, the other day. One of the things that caught my attention was the way in which he talked about bell curves to explain bias. For example, he points out that many people will overgeneralise about a black person’s propensity for crime. They will cite a few examples, which are representative of only a small fraction of black people i.e. the lower quartile of the bell curve (on the far-left hand-side), but believe it to be the medium (the middle of the bell curve) which would make it far more likely (in their eyes) that a black person, any black person, would commit a crime.

Conversely, when that same person thinks about a white person committing a crime, they automatically put them in the lower quartile, believing it to be an anomaly i.e. they believe very few white people commit crimes or, indeed, that very few white people are racist. This isn’t an article about racism, although clearly racism is an important topic and should you wish to hear more from Ibram X. Kendi, you should check out his interview with Brené Brown here or check out his book here. However, the concept of overgeneralising is something which affects and limits far too many of us - it keeps us small and prevents us from thriving.

All of us have fears, but not all of us have the courage to face our fears. I believe that a big part of the problem is the fact that some of us place too much weight on the likely outcomes of some of our deepest fears. For example, it’s true that speaking in public could be a terrifying experience. It is also true that speaking in public could be an exhilarating experience. However, those who become paralysed at the thought of public speaking are likely telling themselves a number of terrifying stories of what might happen if or when they brave a public speaking engagement – they become fixated on one end of the bell curve. For example, I used to tell myself that I would screw up; that people would think I am a fraud; that people would speak ill of me behind my back; or that people would reject me.

All of those negative outcomes were possible, although not necessarily probable. Unfortunately, by focusing on those potential negative outcomes, their probability of occurring may actually increase - when we perceive something as a threat, we undermine our ability to think logically and inhibit our ability to recall salient information, which isn’t ideal if you’re standing in front of a room full of people, looking to impress them with your insights. I should know, I experienced it first-hand. We’re also far less likely to engage in the fear inducing activity in the first place – I would readily shy away from opportunities to speak in front of my peers or colleagues. That’s a significant problem, if the success of your career is dependent on you speaking in public. By shying away from fear, you keep yourself small and your chances of success will be greatly diminished if you do not face those fears head on. Yet, fear isn’t what we think it is.

Let me use an analogy to elaborate. If you happen to come face to face with a lion, it’s not the lion snarling at you that triggers your fear, it’s the story that you tell yourself about what the lion snarling means (i.e. what you believe will likely happen next), which triggers it. In the case of a lion, the fear is likely well placed and your instinctive reaction to run away a sound one. Statistically, I imagine the odds of being mauled by a lion if you come face to face with one, are high - likely in the middle of the bell curve. That being said, I anticipate your chances of coming face to face with one are pretty low (unless you happen to live in sub-Saharan Africa or work in a zoo).

Applying the same analogy to public speaking, it is not the act of speaking itself that is fear inducing, it’s the story that you tell yourself about what public speaking means to you e.g. being rejected or screwing up (or both), that induces fear. If you remain focused on everything that could go wrong, even if (statistically) the chances of those things happening are low, you will experience anxiety and that anxiety (if you over-identify with it like I did) may well be your downfall. That fear will increase your odds of experiencing those negative events exponentially. Suddenly, an improbable event, becomes almost inevitable. Over time, if we continually fail to challenge our unpleasant thoughts and feelings, they become our presumptive reality. The further we run from the spotlight the larger the shadow that looms over us. It is only by leaning into fear, by walking towards the shadows and bravely approaching the spotlight, that we can overcome our inner demons.

Yet, some of you reading this, will attest to the fact that you have leant into fear many times without it ever dissipating. My question to you is this: which part of the bell curve are you focused on when preparing for or delivering a presentation? Are you focused on the left-hand side, which is shrouded in fear inducing narratives of humiliation and rejection? Or have you learnt to focus your attention on the confidence boosting narratives that exist towards the right hand-side of the curve - the type of narratives that fill you with confidence and make you want to strive to be the very best version of you? Just because the voice of fear often shouts loudest, doesn’t make it more probable. It only becomes more probable when we listen to it unquestioningly and allow it to crowd out more positive voices.

When we are caught up in a fear inducing narrative, we often lose perspective. If we could only remind ourselves to step back and look at where that specific narrative is on the bell curve (from surviving on the left, all the way through to thriving on the right), we might find the courage to lean into our fears more readily and, over time, allow those fears to dissipate. Next time you hear fear call your name, ask yourself the following three questions:

(i) Where on the bell curve is your fear based? (you should use facts not your intuition to answer this, as your intuition is where your fear originates)

(ii) If the risk is small, ask yourself whether your inner narrative is trying to keep you safe by keeping you small? (this is a rhetorical question, the answer is likely to be a resounding yes)

(iii) If the answer is yes (which it most likely will be), ask yourself what empowering narratives exist on the other end of the bell curve, which could help you grow and help you to thrive if you focused on them?

Sometimes, such as in the case of a lion, fears are warranted i.e. the probability of the outcome that you fear occurring will be commensurate with the fear that you experience. However, more often than not, your fears will not reflect reality. If those fear inducing stories remain unchallenged, they will box you in and prevent you from realising your true potential to thrive. Fear is inevitable (we evolved to experience it). However, allowing it to dictate your life is not. When we learn to challenge our fear inducing narratives, we open up unlimited possibilities for growth.

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