Every day, each of us wrestles with different situations that are beyond our control. From something as routine as being cut off in traffic to dealing with a screaming child’s tantrum in the middle of a busy store to something as devastating as losing a job – life is full of hard stuff. Whether those uncontrollable things are large or small, the big question we struggle with is: “How do we effectively ‘handle’ something that’s not technically in our hands?”
Fall’s a big season in my world. It’s a time when gyms see a surge in attendance and classes get revamped. In the 3+ years I’ve been teaching at gyms and studios, and in the 10+ years I’ve been a member of various fitness facilities, I’ve come to know and expect this change. But, it’s one thing to know schedules and classes are in constant flux, and a whole other thing when the schedules and classes in question are yours. Suffice it to say that when I was presented with the likelihood that my schedule will be changing, I had myself a deer-in-headlights moment.
After I left my meeting, I was racked with a great deal of emotion – worry, sadness, regret and frustration – mainly because there’s a lot of balls still up in the air, timeframes and classes that are still in question. And that worry around what would happen and the fear and frustration around the things I couldn’t control, ever so slowly began to create a narrative around the situation. I found myself telling a story that said other instructors were better or deserved more, or that simply I wasn’t meant to be here. That self-created narrative, charged with my fear, worry and frustration, began to blur the lines between situation and story until the story became the situation – so much so that I believed it to be true.
In that moment what I had created was what I’ll refer to as the first story. The first story is our perception of circumstances, one that stems from a reaction to our circumstances – and it’s something we do daily. We get cut off in traffic and we tell the first story that we were driving too slow or that the other person is a jerk. Or, we lose our job and tell a story that our boss never liked us, someone else was better qualified, or we simply weren’t good enough. For me, the thought of my schedule changing had me create a story of inadequacy and not-enoughness. In my mind that story was true and that was what I was being told. No matter the logistics or logical facts, that first story was what was true.
When we’re in the first story, we’re actively in our emotions and that’s because we haven’t given ourselves the time or space to reflect or envision another perspective. When we’re dealing with things we can’t control or facing a great deal of uncertainty, we’ll create a first story as a way to gain a sense of control over the unknown. The unknown is uncomfortable and because we’ll do anything to fill that uncomfortable void, it’s much easier to let our emotions take over and fill in the blanks.
To say that it’s easy to stay in the first story and let that story become our reality of the situation is an understatement. We don’t question what we believe to be true and it’s all too easy to buy into the first story we tell. But the thing about first stories is they like to be last stories and those first-last stories will always keep you stuck. The only way out of the first story and into the transformational space of the second story is to develop ways to reframe and respond. In other words, we have to edit our own bullshit.
Reframing is all about what we imbue with meaning. As humans we tend to attach meaning to pretty much everything, and definitely a little more meaning to certain circumstances. We say, “This happened, so it must mean __________.” The “this-that” is the first story. And reframing our story, editing out our own b.s., doesn’t mean pretending a situation is great when it might not be. Instead, it’s about engaging with our thoughts and emotions so we can experience a shift in perspective, acceptance, or the discovery of new meaning. Our first story about job loss, for instance, may be that it’s shocking and shameful and shouldn’t have happened. We might blame our boss or even our own self-perceived inadequacies. But, in order to make space for the second story, in order to move on from where we are, we have to admit that there are things we can’t control and what happened in this particular situation is an anomaly. Making space for the second story might also mean an opportunity to reflect and invest in more suitable alternatives. Ultimately, the moment we start to question the first story we’ve created, is the moment we start to muddle through our struggle.
What I’m realizing as I (very slowly) start to open the space for my second story, is just how much self-imposed struggle is in the first. My first story was one of potential loss, frustration and fear. It was the kind of thriller where the climax of suspense loops on repeat. Staying in that heightened state of anticipation this past week was exhausting. And so, I’ve let go a bit. I’ve acknowledged, to a much greater degree than ever before, that there will always be things I can’t control. I’ve also taken on editing out my b.s., and in doing that I’m recognizing that there are things that are within my control and power. I can own my voice and share how I feel, I can express what it is I desire and want from this situation, and I can do so – here’s the nugget of gold – without attachment to the outcome. Why? Because, there’s always gonna be stuff I can’t control. The bottom line: I can do my part and leave the details to the universe. That’s all I can ever do.
Effectively “handing” something not technically in our hands has less to do with the situation itself and everything to do with the story….and which one we’re telling. In reality, the number of things we can’t control is astronomical. But, once we realize that the situation is out of our control, once we fully acknowledge that without trying to hold onto it for dear life, we get the opportunity to take back our power, edit our b.s. and tell the second story. We get to own our part, use our voice, do what we can, all while leaving the details to the universe.