HOLDING ONTO PATTERNS THAT HOLD YOU BACK

What is the story you tell about yourself, that holds you back from doing the things you really want to do?

This is my very first blog post, which was first published Friday, November 29, 2002

Years ago, when I was getting my master’s degree in education, I met a young woman in one of my math methods course.  We paired up for several projects.  I found her bright and funny and easy to work with.

One day we were doing some measurements for a hands-on project, and she stumbled on an easy mental calculation, multiplying a single digit by 9.  I said something jokingly about her multiplication tables needing work.

“Oh, I never learned my 9’s facts,” she explained.  “I was absent that day.”

I thought she was joking.  Surely someone as smart as she was, and as someone who was taking master’s level math methods coursework, knew that elementary school does not denote one day out of the entire fourth-grade curriculum to teach the nines multiplication table.

But she wasn’t kidding.  She told me an elaborate story about being sick the day the nines table was taught, and so more than 15 years later, she was still unable to multiply by nine.

I think of that young woman often.

Coincidentally, in that same math teaching course, we were learning how to teach kids their math facts–addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.  There are many easy facts.

Let’s take the multiplication tables.  Everyone knows what the ones facts are:1 x 1 = 1, 2 x 1 = 2, etc.  Next come the twos, and it turns out they’re pretty easy, too.   Most kids learn them quickly.   Next are the fives and the tens.  They’re easily mastered, too.  Also the “doubles”: 3 x 3 = 9, 4 x 4 = 16, and so on.

Now if you were to map out a chart of all the multiplication facts, and mark off all the “easy” ones, including their reversals (2 x 3 = 6 and 3 x 2 = 6, for example) you’d find almost half of the facts accounted for.  And what are the strategies for learning those remaining facts?

The answer, it turns out, is not so much fun.  You have to memorize them.

Of course, there are some good tricks, like the nines tables: Subtract 1 from the not-9 number, use that number. That number plus what will equal 9? So for 6 x 9, 6-1 is 5, 5 plus what = 9? 4.  So 6×9=54.  Cute, huh?

But the straight skinny is, ya gotta memorize them.  The math facts are one of the few academic skills that are ultimately only learned by memorization, and best reinforced by drill and practice.  (Acquisition of vocabulary, especially in learning foreign languages, also benefits greatly by this approach, too.)

So here we have two statements, or stories, about facts.  One is measurable, observable, concrete.  To learn the math facts, you gotta work at them.  You gotta memorize them.  You gotta be able to knock out the answers within a second or two of hearing the numbers.  But once you learn them, you never really forget them.  You might get rusty, or you might get stuck on one or two.  But the foundation, the habit is still there.

The other story is harder to quantify.  Everyone will believe it, few will really examine it.  It goes like this: “I have a special story about why I can’t do something.  It’s an odd story, but it makes me feel better about not being able to do that thing.  So I hold onto it fiercely.  Even when a calm, adult eye would see that it doesn’t even make sense anymore.”

What do you gain by holding onto a story like that?

Well…you don’t have to try anymore.  You can have a clear conscience about why you can’t do that thing.  Others might think you’re silly, but it’s possible no one would ever say that to your face.

In fact, probably other people, who have their own  “I can’t” story, nod their head in sympathetic agreement, relieved that someone else has such a story, too.  You may even get sympathy, or admiration.  “Wow, that’s quite a story!  How awful for you! No wonder you can’t do that!”

It’s also a way to make sure you don’t have to do the real work of learning those new facts, those new ways of doing something.  It’s too hard,  it’s too time-consuming, it’s too late, it’s not possible, and so on. So make up a story, and move on.

But what do you lose with a story like that?

You lose a lot.  A lot of missed chances, missed opportunities, a whole world of missed possibilities.

I’m telling this story because I used to tell myself a story like that, too.

It was all about how I couldn’t do the things I really wanted to do–make art.  It was about how I couldn’t be what I really wanted to be–an artist. It was about how I would never be able to sell my work, or find anyone who would want to buy it. 

Surprisingly, once I realized my “stories” I told about myself were just that–stories–I found I could change the story to one I like better.  A huge paradigm shift occurred, and I began to see that all the things that “couldn’t happen”, could.  

I now hear that old story from people who ask me how I accomplished so much in the last five years.  When I tell them, they first tell me how lucky I am.  (I am, but not for the reasons they think!)

I soon hear their story.  They think it’s specific to them, a special story, an unusual story.

When I point out that I had the same story, they are quick to correct me that their story is different.

When I point out the inconsistencies of what they’re telling me, they tell me I don’t understand their story fully.

When I suggest ways they could tell another story, they are horrified.  They’ve put so much energy into holding onto this old story.  There’s just too much at stake.  It’s always a really, really good story why they simply cannot do the very thing they just told me is their true heart’s desire.

So my first question for you today is:  What is your story?  What is the story you tell about yourself that is holding you back from doing the things you really want to do?

Tomorrow I’ll tell the story about my friend Walt and his messy house.  Now there’s a story! *

*Sadly, I never told the story about Walt, who died a few years ago of brain cancer. I remember it was another riff on this article–he had a huge story about why he couldn’t clean his house.

One of the many wonderful things I remember about Walt is, he came to the same conclusion: He could change his story, and he did.

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9 thoughts on “HOLDING ONTO PATTERNS THAT HOLD YOU BACK

    • YES, ‘just stories’….but we underestimate how powerful they are, and how much power we give them.

      Understanding that–their power–and understanding there are many different ways to see the same situation, helps us realize we can tell a different story. A story that for us and with us.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Luann sounding like the wise old woman!
    As one who learned by rote (seemingly days and days spent reciting them in a sing song fashion which was just boring at the time – aged 6 or 7) I am forever grateful to my teachers at the time.
    Your second aspect I find much more telling (and applicable!).
    Thanks

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  2. Luann,

    Just yesterday my dad told me a story about getting his car stereo fixed. The story is part of the larger story related to the way he has always handled finances and his lifelong approach to doing business. Certain aspects of his stories make no sense to me even though they work very well for him.

    I strongly suspect that our stories (I have lots of them myself) serve as coping mechanisms. There really are some things that are very difficult to face or admit; things that may not be fixed through introspection and behavior modification alone. Those are the ones I think that will really hobble you.

    On the other hand, just as you suggested, I bet there are ways to create new stories. I read a book a few years ago about what to say when you talk to yourself. It’s all about positive self talk which I think is just what you are describing above-helping yourself out of the hole through new self dialogue.

    It’s a good post so thank you. I’ll be talking positively to myself while I make my art today:)
    Libby

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    • Libby, I always enjoy your comments, and thank you for sharing yours today.

      I truly believe we are all story-tellers. It’s a way of explaining our life to ourselves, and to others. It’s how we encapsulate our experiences, like your dad did, and make it easier to share them with others.

      Our stories can be thoughtful, contemplative, funny, sad, profound, crippling, or empowering–all based on what we believe we experienced at the time.

      I also believe that once we realize there are countless stories we can tell about one experience (or a lifetime’s worth!), we then have the power of our choice–which story do we want to tell? Yes, our original versions ‘feels like the truth’. In reality, our ‘truth’ is formed by what we knew (and believed) then. What happens as we gain more insight, more experience, more understanding–and more compassion, not only for others, but for ourselves?

      It takes practice–a living, lifelong meditation, if you will–but the results allow for so much more in our hearts.

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      • Luann,

        I sure couldn’t agree more. And your response makes me think that when I deal with others, like my Dad, whose stories don’t ring true, I really have to search for whether or not the person is looking to improve or change their own story. I have to listen closely. With some people, introspection isn’t always obvious. So, great post that is making me think. Thank you!
        Libby

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