Andrea has a nagging internal voice that she’s a failure, lagging behind where she should be. About to turn 40, after a decade of upheaval and a young family, she feels a panicked need to catch up, alongside a frozen inability to take action. “I’d like to explore what’s holding me back,” she says.
Just as quickly though, she gives me the answer. She’s holding herself back. Any committed decision is difficult, from choosing swimming lessons for her son to training courses for her future career. “I’m scared of getting it wrong,” she says, “of endorsing the negative narrative I’ve had about myself since I was a child.”
That narrative creeps in everywhere. Andrea values her role in the family, particularly as an anchor through multiple moves and changes, but is critical about what she sees as her failure to have done more to forge a career beyond that. “I’m not a go-getter, out there straight away making things happen,” she says. “It takes me time to develop relationships and friendships, work stuff.” Andrea would never expect such miracles from others but her tone is sincere. “You’re so hard on yourself,” I say. “It takes everybody time to do that. Everybody.”
Andrea’s narrative is fluid, well established, but it doesn’t add up. She talks about her perceived failures, alongside how her choices have felt right. She’s overjoyed to have started a family, but can’t shake a pernicious sense that she’s still wasted a decade in some way. She wouldn’t want anyone else looking after her children, her being at home has held the family together through repeated challenge and upheaval, and yet she tells herself she hasn’t made the most of opportunities beyond.
“Hang on,” I say. “There’s been this decade of amazing, wonderful stuff happening, massive change, and you’ve been kept busy dealing with it all. So maybe everything’s been exactly as it should be.” There’s a silence as this sinks in. Andrea exhales, her tension dropping palpably. “Oh…” she says.
“What would that mean?” I ask, “If everything is exactly as it should be?” “It’s… it’s such a relief,” she says. “It means I’ve not been a failure.”
We dig into this perspective, how it impacts the narrative, the pressure. “I’ve been giving myself such a hard time,” Andrea says. She felt like a failure for not working, not becoming a ‘mom-preneur’ as her social media feeds extol, but had she done either it would have had a huge impact. She laughs. “I don’t know what I expected,” she says. “My priority is my kids. So everything has been as it should have been! And the future – it opens things up without the pressure - of having to get it right, even having to make a decision right now.”
Our internal narratives have huge power over how we feel and what we do. Humans are hardwired to react to negative stimuli far more than to positive, which means that bad experiences can get coded into powerful beliefs on flimsy rationale. Over time these become so familiar, and often so painful, that they don’t get examined. As a result unhelpful beliefs can run riot with our self-image and our lives.
If your narrative is holding you back, try examining its validity. This takes perspective, so if you don’t have access to a coach or other professional, write it down to get a more objective view. You’re looking for alternative interpretations for harsh leaps of logic, kinder ways of viewing challenges. A supportive friend can also be useful to help you see it afresh and more gently - we're usually far more generous to others than to ourselves.
It takes work to challenge established stories like this, but it’s worth the effort. A new narrative can open a world of possibility.
Produced with full client permission, names changed.
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