Monday, May 19, 2008


What is the best way to overcome shyness?

This question was posed during a session I did to help a class of soon-to-be massage therapy graduates build their business.

As I thought about the question, I realized that it isn't so much about storytelling as it is about focus. I could easily make a case for shyness being related to the stories we tell ourselves as we catastrophize about the potentially embarrassing or humiliating outcomes that sometimes keep us from initiating conversations with strangers. For many of us, there is truth in that possibility. However, the bigger issue is focus.

When you are feeling the most shy, where is your focus?

If you are completely honest, you know your focus is almost exclusively on you. That is important to know because your brain can't focus on two things at the same time. It has to pick one. Given this, one of the best strategies to overcome shyness would be to put the focus outside yourself. Become an observer. Notice the people around you. What kind of day are they having? Are they relaxed? Happy? Pensive? Frustrated? Peaceful? What is their body language communicating? Do they look closed? Open? Approachable?

The more you open yourself to the feelings and experiences of others, the more likely people will find you approachable as well.

Whenever your thoughts wander back to you--as they always do--think about the knowledge, experience, wisdom, and expertise you have to share. Imagine how much richer the other person's life could be for knowing you.

Use this approach next time you are feeling shy. Shift your focus and start observing the people and world around you. If nothing else, it will create a much more solid, confident foundation for the conversations you will be ready to initiate. Like anything worthwhile, this may take some practice. As a wise person once said, "Don't confuse simple with easy." Give yourself permission to make mistakes.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Our Stories and Our Health: A powerful personal experience

I am taking a different direction with this post to look at the impact our stories can have from a much more personal perspective. This is a post I've been thinking about for weeks but haven't been able to get myself to write because it is such a departure from what I usually cover. Hence, the long delay since my last entry.

Considering that this blog is dedicated to our stories and how we tell them, it should be clear by now that I am a firm believer in the power of stories to impact the thinking and perceptions of others. I have also explored the importance of the stories we tell ourselves because there is no question in my mind that the way we think influences our beliefs, attitudes, and level of confidence. What isn’t always top-of-mind is the way the stories we tell ourselves play a role in our health. A month or so ago, I received a powerful reminder of this. To appreciate the impact this lesson had, it’s important to provide some background information.

The point of the following story is not who was right or wrong. After all, that is a matter of perspective and not particularly relevant. Truth be told, everyone involved could probably have handled the situation better. In this case, what is most important is how I changed my interpretation of the situation and the immediate impact that had on my health.


Over the past six months, I had begun to develop a close friendship with Mark (not his real name) based on our shared passion for music. The last time we were out, he mentioned Heidi (not her real name), a woman we both knew, and asked if she and I were dating. I could tell Mark was interested in Heidi so I assured him that Heidi and I were not dating. Although Heidi and I had dated briefly at the end of last year, I had the impression he knew we had dated and just wanted to make sure we weren’t still dating. The question I answered, and the one I thought he asking was “ARE you dating?” not “Did you ever date?”

Sadly, this turned into a misunderstanding of bizarre proportions. Since Heidi and I were still friends, and I knew she was spending time with Mark, I called a few weeks later to ask her when Mark’s birthday was. I knew it was in April, but I didn’t know the exact date.

Offhandedly, I mentioned I hadn’t heard from Mark but wanted to be sure I didn’t forget his birthday. After an uncomfortable pause, Heidi said, “And you won’t be hearing from him either.”

Shocked, I asked why. Heidi proceeded to tell me Mark was “very hurt” I lied to him about my relationship with her. As you can probably tell from my narrative, I had no intention of lying to Mark or misleading him in any way. I honestly thought his concern was that he didn’t want to pursue Heidi if she and I were still dating. Attempting to be a supportive friend, I simply encouraged Mark to pursue Heidi if he was interested.

As it turns out, that wasn’t the case at all.

According to Heidi, Mark asked me about my relationship with Heidi because he has a “rule” that he won’t date anyone his friends have dated. Had I had any indication that was the case, I would certainly have been more specific about the relationship. However, it didn’t seem particularly important in light of the fact that Heidi and I only dated for a few weeks. Besides, that wasn’t the question he asked. In an effort to clear the air with Mark, I called, left a message, apologized for the miscommunication, and asked him to get in touch so we could talk. I never heard from him.

This whole scenario stirred up some seriously conflicting emotions that left me feeling hurt and angry. Just a few of the thoughts and questions that replayed themselves over and over in my mind included:

  • What possible reason would I have to lie about whether I had dated someone? (I still can’t think of a single benefit I would get from deliberately misleading someone about that.)

  • What kind of person would not respond to a sincere effort to clear up an obvious miscommunication?

With each passing day I didn’t hear from Mark, I became progressively more hurt and disappointed. Although I started out feeling badly I had somehow hurt Mark and Heidi, the hurt was replaced with frustration when it became clear I wouldn’t be hearing from either of them.

Not coincidentally, I became physically sick around the same time. It all started with a sore throat and congestion. I wasn’t at all surprised by this because of the well-established connection between our minds and bodies. More specifically, I remember reading that sore throats and congestion are often—but not always—a physical manifestation of something we aren’t saying, but should be saying. To put it another way, the words and feelings literally become trapped inside us and show up physically as congestion.

Unfortunately, knowing the cause didn’t help because the conversation I most needed wasn’t going to happen for reasons outside of my control. An email or letter expressing my feelings wouldn’t have helped either because it violated two principles I live by:

  • Avoid at all costs the temptation to communicate anything potentially negative in an email, letter, or any form in which the important, nonverbal aspects of communication are lost.
  • Before speaking (or writing), ask yourself the question: “Is what I am about to say an improvement over maintaining silence?” If the answer is no, keep your mouth shut. (I was so upset at this point, I didn’t trust myself to keep the anger from spilling over in a one-sided communication like an email or voicemail.)

So, what happened?

I couldn’t stop thinking about the situation and literally worked myself up to the point where I was immobile on the sofa with a rising fever. Since my dad is a physician, I called to see if he had any suggestions. When I described the swollen glands, sore throat, congestion, and fever, he told me I probably had the same flu many of his patients had. He was equally certain I would be sick for at least another week given the progression of my symptoms.

A few hours later, I managed to drag myself off the couch and headed upstairs to bed. Before going to sleep, I took a deep breath and prayed I could find another way to view the situation so I could let go of the anger and disappointment I felt toward Mark. In that moment, I instantly had a vision of Mark superimposed on the body of my 3 ½ year old friend, Steele.

At first, I was confused. I couldn’t imagine what the vision was supposed to mean. Why was I being shown an image of a guy who is north of 300 pounds superimposed on a 3 ½ year old boy? When I silently asked for clarification, the message was clear.

Mark’s emotional development is at the level of a young child. That’s not right or wrong. It’s just the way it is. Given that, it isn’t appropriate or fair to be mad at him for something he can’t necessarily control. Be more compassionate.

In other words, if Steele and I had a miscommunication, it wouldn’t be fair for me to get upset with him for not dealing with the situation emotionally as an adult. Just because Mark happens to be several decades older and 300 pounds heavier than Steele doesn’t automatically impart an adult level of emotional intelligence or development.

Recognizing the wisdom in this, I felt my body let go of all of the anger, frustration, sadness, and disappointment.

I immediately fell into a sound sleep. Twice over the next two hours, I awoke drenched from sweat as my body fully released all of the negative emotion I had stored over the week. The following morning I felt fine with almost no trace of illness.

Although Mark and I have not spoken, my negative feelings toward him have been replaced with compassion. I literally told myself a different story and radically changed the impact the situation was having on my body.

Without trying to overstate the case, this was a life-altering event. I will never forget how, by changing the story I was telling myself, I shifted my emotions from anger to compassion and moved from sickness to health in an instant. That is truly the power of a good story.