Advancing Philanthropy

Fundraising Tools: Tapping Your Talents — Seven Ways to Tell Better Stories for Your Well-Being

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stack of rocks in a creek

Above Photo Credit: rick-j-brown

By changing your inner voice, you can see problems in new ways

In fundraising, you tell stories to attract and inspire supporters. Stories connect us, making general ideas vivid and evoking empathy. Stories are effective because they have been part of the human experience for thousands of years.

Stories can be shortcuts for our brains. Humans are pattern makers. When we function through frameworks we have already created, we can avoid endlessly sorting through the millions of bits of information that constantly bombard us.

Stories, too, often come from the flight-fight-freeze part of our brains. We’re wired to spring into negative interpretation as a survival mechanism—better to believe that the rustling in the bushes is a saber-toothed tiger and steer clear.

What we sometimes don’t realize is how these patterns and interpretations can function as traps—not for the tigers, but for ourselves—keeping us stuck in narratives that don’t serve us well. It’s as if we’re in a nightmare and don’t realize it’s a dream, although we have the power to save ourselves by waking.

I am an executive and life coach. Clients often say something like this: “I’ve decided that I have to be more selfish and try to take better care of myself.” This narrative embeds several stories of the client as a villain:

  1. I’m wrong and bad because I haven’t been taking care of myself up until this point.
  2. To take care of myself, I have to be selfish—which is not an admirable quality.
  3. “Try” often implies that they won’t succeed or don’t believe that they can do it.
  4. “Have to” implies that there is a rule that constrains and conscripts them.

How incentivizing is it to see ourselves as wrong and bad? We likely wouldn’t agree with a good friend when they say mean things to themselves, yet we tend to agree with and find evidence to reinforce those inner critical voices about ourselves.

The Elephant in the Corner

The more we engage with a negative story, the more intensely it remains and expands. You likely have tried an experiment where you are asked not to think about a pink elephant in the corner. What happens? The pink elephant appears instantaneously. The harder you try not to think of the elephant, the more stubbornly and vividly it continues to manifest.

We know that elephants often loiter around in rooms, in the middle of our relationships, taking up a lot of space and obstructing the view. Perhaps a donor with whom you have had a good relationship stops returning your calls without explanation. All kinds of stories—weighted with embedded fears and internal criticism—immediately crowd in front of you.

What did I do wrong? Maybe I was too pushy in the last call. Maybe someone mentioned to them that incident from two years ago where I made that mistake. I am always losing out on opportunities and messing things up. I can’t do anything right.

Notice that another narrative shortcut tends to show up here as well: all-or-nothing thinking. We’re either a success or a failure. We nailed it, or we blew it.

Then, we pile more weight onto that heavy story by finding the evidence that supports our harsh beliefs. Have you ever bought a car and suddenly found yourself seeing that color, make, and model everywhere? Of course, there aren’t suddenly more of those cars on the road. The seed grows where our attention goes.

You might go into a call with a different donor with increased anxiety and less confidence—what if I repeat whatever I did wrong before?

After this call, you might be tempted to second-guess yourself and replay the call in your head, looking for all the ways you might have messed up. These negative stories can start to escalate and multiply, amplifying the harmful messages we tell ourselves.

We are more than our stories, and our stories can change over time. Our stories don’t own us. We own our stories. With practice, we can edit or rewrite them to serve us and the people around us better.

So, what if we take ourselves off autopilot and intentionally engage our storytelling powers to tell ourselves stories that foster well-being? What if we cultivate the habit of telling ourselves stories that connect and inspire, rather than stories that judge or condemn?

Seven Tips

Want to build well-being? Try these seven strategies.

  1. Notice storytelling patterns. What stories are we telling ourselves about ourselves and others? When do we tend to tell the most nightmarish ones? In what ways might we believe that these stories are serving us? For instance, we often falsely believe that being hard on ourselves is the way to improve. We also sometimes feel the need to make someone else wrong to feel justified in our own thoughts and behaviors.
  2. Acknowledge the discomfort that accompanies these stories and welcome it as a message pointing us to something more profound than we really want. Discomfort or unease often sit at the surface of deeper feelings of disconnection, ambiguity, or disempowerment, usually in our relationships. We can acknowledge that it’s human to want more connection, certainty, and control and figure out where we have agency—and where it’s up to the other person.
  3. Photo: © billy-pasco
    Photo: © billy-pasco
    Avoid all-or-nothing thinking. Invite exploration in the gray. Instead of thinking “we totally nailed it”—which we hardly ever think—or “we totally blew it,” focus on what specific ways you did well. Where is there room for growth or further exploration?
  4. Practice looking for different narratives. Since we’re usually unsure about which story is correct, why not offer ourselves options that leave us more room? One way to look for options is to remember that we are usually the protagonists of our own stories, but we are most likely a supporting character or bit player in the stories of others. In other people’s stories, they are the protagonists. What might be the stories they are making up about this experience, or what else might be going on in their lives that could be creating a plot twist for them? Sometimes, with curiosity, courage, and compassion, you can simply ask them.
  5. Stretch out compassion muscles. We’ve all been through hard times, so we are carrying more around with us than anyone else knows. One more thing—no matter how small—can feel like a disaster. We can react disproportionately. Let’s evoke kindness and grace for others and for ourselves. What’s the most compassionate account of the story we can think of?
  6. Choose with purpose the stories that we tell. We don’t want that pink elephant cluttering up our space. We can pick a polka dot panda instead. That donor who suddenly stopped calling you? It’s probably something going on in their life that has much more to do with them than with you. Unless and until you get to find out what the story is from their side, consider making up some different narratives that honor the other human being and your relationship and that leave the door open for possible reconnection. For example: They were about to call me back and then got overwhelmed with work. Now they’re too embarrassed about their silence to call. Or, someone in their life just got sick.

    You can have some fun with it, too. They are on some beautiful remote island with no cell coverage. It’s the first vacation they’ve been able to take in over two years, and they are making the most of it. They were abducted by aliens and are working with a publisher to share their amazing story with the world.

    What about clients who beat themselves up as a way take better care of themselves? I invite them to experiment with gains in smaller increments, coupled with possibility and connection instead. Consider this narrative: “I want to be healthier and take better care of myself, so I have more energy to spend with the people I love.”
  7. Remember, we are all human, and we don’t progress in a straight line. You likely won’t be consistent at first. That provides more opportunity to grow. Practice when you can. Notice. Acknowledge. Explore. Choose.

We are more than our stories, and our stories can change over time. Our stories don’t own us. We own our stories. With practice, we can edit or rewrite them to serve us and the people around us better. We can choose to tell stories that remind us of our common humanity, keep us connected and engaged, bring us closer, foster well-being, and sometimes save our lives, one tale at a time.

Hilarie Gaylin, PCC, CPCC, MEdHilarie Gaylin, PCC, CPCC, MEd, helps high-achieving, mission-oriented leaders further their goals, focus their efforts, and increase their confidence. She facilitates growth through coaching, training, and organizational development so that clients can more purposefully navigate complex environments, engage with change, and align their work and values.

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