recovering from setbacks: it’s the narrative that counts
This essay appeared in the September/October 2018 edition of the ATA Chronicle.
Recovering from setbacks involves self-discovery: getting curious and noticing things about yourself to build self-awareness. Engaging thoughts, emotions, and your narrative—and rewriting it for better results—builds a strong foundation for action and lasting changes.
For almost 20 years words were my business. I’ve always been a language person. I love to travel and immerse myself in another culture, since each time I do so it’s like finding a new identity. I lived in four countries during and after college and graduate school, and eventually had my own company translating from French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish into English.
I loved working as a linguist. I was proud of all I accomplished. Then I hit a wall. You see, 10 years ago I was at the lowest point in my career—a woman on the verge of a breakdown.
Picture this. It’s late at night. I’m still at work, poring over documents for a complicated litigation. My colleagues are waiting for their edited drafts. I’m reviewing their work, plus I have my own translations to polish. We have a crazy deadline, and, as many of you know, with litigation there’s a lot at stake. I was so tired, beyond exhausted. My drive, my optimism, and my love of the work had vanished. I could barely find the energy to finish the job. In the morning, all the demands of daily life would rush back into the picture. All I could think of was getting to the finish line.
The truth is, despite all my experience and success, my work life was taxing me, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I was losing my confidence and had started to second-guess myself. I was burned out by constant deadlines, worn down by always striving for perfection, and unsure how I could stay on top of my languages and developments in translation technology and still run a business. No matter how hard I tried I felt a nagging sense of unworthiness and couldn’t stop blaming myself for how I felt.
A few weeks after that assignment I told a coaching friend how discouraged and exhausted I felt. She asked me a powerful question: “Where did you get the idea that you are the problem?” Her question shocked me. If I wasn’t the problem, what was?
Working with a coach gave me the answer. It launched my recovery and helped transform my perception of work so that I was able to see it not as a proving ground but as a learning space. Based on what I’ve learned from coaching, here are some strategies you can use to improve your work experience and help you bounce back.
David Whyte, a poet and philosopher who also works in the corporate world, calls coaching a “courageous conversation.”1 He also describes it as “moving away from ‘having all the answers’ to a proper relationship with an unknown future.” It involves opening yourself up to uncertainty and self-exploration. Ultimately, working with a coach is a way of discovering yourself.
How do you “discover yourself?” No one has a role model for being him or herself. We all share this handicap. You just need to get curious, start noticing things about yourself, and develop the habit of inquiry to build self-awareness. It’s a long process, but this is how you build the foundation for taking action and making changes that last.
With my coach, I soon realized that nothing would change if I couldn’t tell the truth about how I felt. My work had become a place of suffering and self-sacrifice and I wanted it to feel fulfilling again.
I soon dove into the extensive work of Dr. Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston and author who studies courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame. I discovered that until I stopped the “performing, pleasing, perfecting, or pretending” that she writes about, fulfillment would be illusive.2 I had no idea that I was caught in that cycle. My coach gently guided me to a place where I could begin to accept and trust myself again, embrace my values, and see new choices for myself at work.
This is difficult to do on your own and it takes time. That’s why I worked with a coach. Here are three core lessons I learned from our collaboration.
1. BEFRIEND YOUR GREMLINS
Your gremlin is the narrator in your head. He has influenced you since you came into this world, and he accompanies you throughout your entire existence. He’s with you when you wake up in the morning and when you go to sleep at night. He tells you who and how you are, and he defines and interprets your every experience. He wants you to accept his interpretations as a reality, and his goal, from moment to moment, day to day, is to squelch the natural, vibrant you within. (Rick Carson, Taming Your GREMLIN: A Surprisingly Simple Method for Getting Out of Your Own Way3)
Where does the word “gremlin” originate? In the early 20th century, the British invented the term to describe mischievous creatures that sabotage aircraft. The metaphor is obvious: gremlins often sabotage our behavior in times of stress, but they remain invisible until things start to go wrong.
Gremlins are our inner critics, often the harshest judges we have. They stay hidden until stressful events invite them back. They use negative scripts we’ve listened to for years to hold us hostage. Those scripts wield enormous influence over our thinking and actions.
Let me explain. Until my breakdown, I didn’t know I followed a gremlin script that said, “Work is a scary place. You must be vigilant.” I followed some other gremlin scripts as a translator with which many of you might relate:
- You must show more dedication to your languages.
- You must work harder to be an expert in your field.
- You need to be perfect to be valuable.
It’s important to realize that stress can trigger negative thinking. Of course, there are real circumstances that contribute to stress at work. Translators often feel disconnected from others because of outsourcing and remote work arrangements. Like people everywhere, they’re asked to deliver work quickly, and quality often suffers as a result. The pressure to do more with less is unrelenting.
Our inner critic doesn’t care about factors that may be driving our stress and unhappiness. It just piles on, pulling us into a vortex of negative thinking where what we’re thinking seems like the truth. We lose our perspective and limit ourselves.
How do you work with those negative voices so you don’t get hijacked? You must find the courage to befriend your gremlins. Here’s what I was able to do with the help of my coach.
I couldn’t pretend those scripts weren’t there. I had to identify them and investigate how and why they had such an influence over my life. I brainstormed how to work with them but not be ruled by them. Those gremlins are part of who I am, but now they’re not in charge of me or my future. It was hard work and took time, but I was able to create a new relationship with myself and my inner critic and move forward.
2. BUILD YOUR EMOTIONAL AGILITY
Research indicates the important role emotions play in our life experience. When we manage them better, we feel better. This seems obvious, but it’s tricky because most of us don’t have a comfortable relationship with our emotions, especially at work. Yet, we can’t grow or move forward until we stop letting them dictate our actions.
To make a change, we must identify not only our negative thought patterns, but also the emotions associated with them. If our actions aren’t giving us the results we want, we have to step back and look at the emotional drivers for those actions. Then we have to shift those emotions so we can make different choices about how to act. For example, everyone knows what it’s like to be “stuck,” but what are the emotional drivers that get us there? What’s keeping you stuck? Is it self-doubt? Fear? Anger? Fatigue? Drill down and find the exact words to describe your state of mind.
Getting specific about your emotions allows you to see more clearly where you really are and what you might be thinking. It also points to other emotions you may need more of to shift your experience. This process develops your emotional intelligence, which is built by identifying and naming all your emotions, even the ones that make you uncomfortable. Then, to manage your emotions better, you need to develop emotional agility.
In her 2016 book Emotional Agility, Dr. Susan David defines the term as neither buying into your inner experience nor suppressing it.4 It’s about becoming a better observer of your inner experience and not letting it drive you toward negative outcomes. Emotional agility lets you resource emotions that will do the job of moving you toward the actions you need to take to move forward. Here are some examples:
- If you feel burned out, where can you renew yourself or find excitement?
- If you blame yourself for everything, where can you find self-compassion?
- If you’re undermined by uncertainty, what generates trust in the future and yourself?
When you get better at seeing where you’re stuck, you’ll get better at resourcing what you need to get unstuck. So, go back to a gremlin script when things aren’t going well. Name an emotion that comes into play when you hear that script. Then name a second emotion you need to get out of that space.
When my inner critic reminds me of my shortcomings by whispering “You should be working harder,” I always feel some dread. What helps me work my way out of that moment is the emotion of detachment. Then I can step back and consider, “Is that true? Am I not working hard enough? What other factors could be in play?” An awareness of that gremlin helps me deal with the moment and not be captured by it.
3. DECLARE A NEW NARRATIVE
The work of identifying the thoughts and emotions that surface at times of change actually involves action. The action is in the naming of whatever is challenging you. It’s in your language, even if that’s in a conversation with yourself or only one other person. Seeing the story I defaulted to—there is something wrong with me and work—helped me see that I had to find a new story to change my experience of work. I had to move from “I am the problem” to declaring, “I have a problem,” and that crucial linguistic shift put me back in charge of finding solutions for my work challenges.
The shift came because I no longer blamed myself. It was the gremlin’s script that had to be changed. Instead of “I’m unworthy unless I’m perfect,” I created a new, more empowering narrative. I broadened my perspective and decided to change my career.
When I made that choice I noticed I was fearful that people wouldn’t like this new version of me. I felt guilt about “abandoning” my language career, shame about “folding my tent” after all the time and energy I spent as a language professional, and unease that if I weren’t a language person, what could I offer?
I needed courage to challenge these emotions and a new narrative to describe my evolving relationship with work. By voicing what was true for me, I discovered that I could rewrite the story of work to align more closely with what was important to me now: to work more closely with people, to have a work life that was more inclusive of my family and more generous to me, and to experience joy in working with languages again. That story laid the groundwork for my career change and a new and deep connection to myself.
David Whyte asserts that work can be so much more than an arena in which to prove your worth. Rather, he says, “Work is part of the process for discovering the person you are meant to be.” That means it’s a place of inquiry and learning, but also stumbling and setbacks.
So, if you find yourself at a threshold, I invite you to befriend the gremlins, resource the emotions you need to move forward, and declare honestly what you need and where you want to go.
- Whyte, David. Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (The LatestEdition, 2009)
- Brown, Brene. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Hazelden Publishing, 2010)
- Carson, Rick. Taming Your GREMLIN: A Surprisingly Simple Method For Getting Out of Your Own Way (HarperCollins, 2003), http://bit.ly/Rick-Carson.
- David, Susan. Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life (Penguin Random House LLC, 2016), http://bit.ly/Susan-David.