How To Break Free From Four Common Failure Narratives: Part 1
“Don’t talk to strangers.”
“People will take advantage of you if you let them.”
“It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Narratives are those stories we tell ourselves that color our attitude towards ourselves and other. Some are more helpful than others. Stranger Danger is perpetuated by a narrative made up of all three statements above; “Don’t talk to strangers because they might hurt you and it’s better to be safe than sorry.” The problem with this narrative is that it doesn’t actually increase a child’s safety, while at the same time increasing fear, paranoia and insecurity. Most strangers are kind and could be a great resource in time of need. Most people do not want to hurt you. Universally avoiding strangers stunts a child’s (or adult, for that matter) social intelligence and prevents them from developing skills to sniff out who they can trust and who they can’t. The ability to engage a stranger and ask for help is a powerful life skill.
Dr. Taibi Kahler, a developmental psychologist and pioneer in the psychology of personality differences, discovered four distinct narratives that people develop early in childhood and carry with them as a function of their personality and life experiences. These narratives are called “failure patterns” because they subconsciously drive counterproductive behavior and are self-perpetuating. Failure patterns can infect our lives when we let them, and show up everywhere from contaminated sentence structure to how we make decisions. The more we live according to the narrative, the more damaging our behavior will be.
This failure pattern promotes the narrative that I can’t enjoy, or rest, or celebrate, or trust until, until, until. Until I finish the dishes. Until I get more work done. Until I save enough money. Until you prove you can be trusted. Until the economy turns around. Until I’ve explained it perfectly. Until you do it right.
The essence of this narrative is that any sort of enjoyment, intimacy, risk, or satisfaction is delayed until certain conditions are met. As the narrative ramps up, the conditions never seem to get met, meaning the person experiences less and less joy, satisfaction, or intimacy. An out of control Until failure pattern can lead people to a mid-life crisis, depression, and heart attacks after they retire. They’ve been putting off everything meaningful for so long that they don’t know how to live life on the other side.
If this is your narrative, you might also experience:
- A perfection mindset that drives everyone crazy.
- You become impossible to please.
- People feel overwhelmed by your compulsion to explain things.
- Your sentences and e-mails are so long that nobody wants to read them.
- You dominate meetings by talking too much, never getting to the point.
Two of Kahler’s six personality types struggle with this failure pattern. The Thinker and Persister. They can become so tied up in their work, their mission, their goals and beliefs, that they lose sight of people and joy right under their noses.
Try these tips to break free:
- Set aside time to be cheerfully wasted every day. It’s tough, and it is one way you can remind yourself that you are in charge of how you spend your time, not the other way around.
- Make a list of your significant accomplishments each day, then stop and celebrate. It’s OK.
- Take time to experience the sadness and fear that come with imperfection. Remember that perfection (in yourself or anyone else) is the enemy of excellence. Accepting this is difficult and necessary for you to function at your best.
- Cultivate an attitude of gratitude by focusing on what’s working, what went well each day.
Replace UNTIL with this success narrative
I need the satisfaction of doing good work that makes a difference. When I give equal attention to what’s working and what needs improvement we can all get more done together.
This failure pattern shows itself in the narrative that while things may be going fine right now, AFTER a while, something bad is going to happen. “You may say you like me now, but AFTER you get to really know me, you will reject me.” “I feel strongly about this but AFTER I tell someone they might think it’s stupid.”
The essence of this narrative is impending doom and gloom. The fear of rejection is always looming, as if the person is expecting to be get hurt at every turn. This narrative invites people to second-guess themselves, hedge their bets, get passive, and make mistakes that invite criticism and rejection in order to fulfill the prophecy. I had a friend who consistently got sick right before big events where a certain “enemy” of hers would be present. It was so predictable. About two weeks prior to the event she would say things like, “I feel great now, but I hope I don’t get sick before the camping trip.” Right on cue she ended up sick, just as predicted. While it helped her avoid the conflict with her enemy, it also invited criticism from her husband and friends.
If this is your failure pattern, you might also experience:
- Trying to help but ending up in the line of fire.
- Stuffing feelings, then blowing up and pushing people away.
- Needy pleas for attention that end up getting you rejected.
- Always comparing yourself to others in a way that confirms you are “less than”.
One of Kahler’s six personality types struggles with this failure pattern; the Harmonizer. They seek harmony and value relationships. Being accepted as a person without strings attached is what they need. Their unhealthy narrative works against that by anticipating, and precipitating, just the opposite.
Try these tips to break free:
- Learn the skill of authentic anger so you can express your negative feelings in ways that preserves your dignity and doesn’t invite others to back away or counter-attack.
- Ask for what you want, not because you expect to get it every time, but because you are worth sticking up for. It’s OK to advocate for you!
- Remember that how people respond to you doesn’t define you. Your needs, feelings, and wants matter.
Replace AFTER with this success narrative
Close relationships based on care, concern, and equal worth really fill my tank. When I advocate as much for myself as I do for others, that builds a solid foundation of equality.
Recognizing and replacing failure patterns with positive narratives can help you leverage your unique character strengths and find satisfaction being who you were meant to be! Leaders who learn to recognize these narratives and offer positive alternatives can unlock tremendous potential in themselves and their teams.
In the Part 2 of this article I’ll share the other two Kahler Failure Patterns and their connections to three more personality types.
If this way of looking at behavior and communication intrigues you, ask us about the Process Communication Model (PCM), a complete leadership communication training program based on Dr. Kahler’s groundbreaking work. Next Element is a PCM distributor for the United States. We train, certify, and support PCM trainers across the country.
Copyright 2016, Next Element Consulting, LLC
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