Limiting stories are hard to let go of because they grew out of our lived experience and helped, at one time, to orient us. Even when we can see that a particular story no longer serves us, letting go can feel like losing part of our identity.
A core story I've had for most of my life is: I don't belong.
It helped me understand and manage my day-to-day experience as an Asian immigrant growing up in the South, and even later when we moved to areas with more Asians. While the expectation of not belonging wasn't what I would have chosen, going into situations with that expectation more often than not helped me prepare for the way people reacted to me. It hurt less when people said racist things. (From kids, the usual taunts plus some creative jokes: "Did you see the truck?" "What truck?" "The one that ran over your face." / From adults: "I didn't expect your English to be so good."). This belief also helped me get into the right frame of mind to be my own advocate. The expectation that I would not be offered acceptance geared me up to be proactive. I knew it would be up to me.
Later, when I went to college, the story of not belonging became a healing source of connection with other Asians and people of color. Our shared experiences of not belonging became the foundation of a community of mutual support and social activism. Those moments of seeing ourselves in each other, of discovering that we were not alone, are still incredibly precious to me.
This story was also part of my connection with my parents. Not belonging was something we lived through together, a part of our family’s shared struggle. Even now, I see the way they are treated sometimes because of their accented English, and I feel fiercely protective. My instinctive reaction is, "I will stand with them against anyone."
Of course, living from a story of not belonging came with a price. It meant a part of me was always closed off and defended. It meant that I saw my place as on the fringes. I wore that as a badge of pride at times, but underneath there was hurt. It meant that part of my heart was always aching.
I don't believe in berating ourselves for our limiting stories. They play their role in helping us get through hard things, especially when we're powerless to change our outward circumstances. AND, when the time is right, the price of the story becomes greater than the benefit we receive from it. The pain of the story outweighs the shelter it provides.
This shift is life offering us the opportunity to choose something different.
For me, leadership roles catalyzed the shift. My head said, "I want to create a culture of belonging;” my heart said, “I don’t know how to belong.” I noticed the distance I kept in friendships -- never expecting too much, and always ready to leave before I was left. I felt the limits keenly in doing coaching and group facilitation work. It was impossible to hold a space of safety and belonging for others when I was steeling myself against their rejection. As a mother, I did not want to pass the story of not belonging on to my children.
I have gently laid the story of not belonging to rest, honoring the pain it grew out of and the ways it kept the most tender parts of my heart safe during the vulnerable years of childhood and adolescence.
The story I have chosen to replace it is not that "I belong," although I did try that on for a while. Ultimately it didn’t resonate because, for me, it ignored the daily realities of racism and the other forms of institutionalized dehumanization we continue to live with. When I tried to embrace it, it felt like closing my eyes and wishing myself into a happier place.
The new story I've chosen is that "I create belonging." This story enables me to keep my eyes open to the challenges we live in. And at the same time, to claim agency as a creator of my own reality. It helps me step more fully into who I am right now in my life — someone who is strong enough to be a source of belonging. (It really does feel amazing to be able to say that.) When I encounter something that hurts me, this story enables me to open my heart even wider, knowing that this is another opportunity to belong even more deeply to myself, and to make the circle of invitation even wider for the people around me. This story has changed the way I work, the way I walk into a room, the choices I make in friendships, and how I parent. This story reorients me when I get off track.
A wise friend pointed out that root of the word “authority” is “author.” She said, having authority means being the author of your own life. In other words, choosing our own stories.
Stories are powerful. They can be the armor that that shields us. They can be the balm that heals. They can also be the wings we put on when we’re ready to fly.
(Photo by Insung Yoon on Unsplash.)