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Are Your Stories Keeping You Stuck or Empowering You?

I’ve talked quite a bit in previous articles about how our stories can get in our way. I realize that I almost always talk about stories in a negative way. Today I want to give you a concrete example from my own life that I think will really illustrate how some stories can keep you stuck and others can empower you. So, if you’ve been feeling stuck, you’ll want to keep reading.

Generally, when I’ve mentioned stories on the podcast, I’ve talked about them in terms of limiting beliefs. In other words, how your stories might be getting in your way from accomplishing your goals or creating the life you want. I know I’ve given various examples in the past, but I wanted to better illustrate the impact our stories – aka beliefs about the world – can have on our thoughts, feelings, and actions. To do that, I’m going to share a situation that’s been going on with me for the past six months or so.

Just a bit of context to get us started. I have a cutie-patootie 13-year-old, Pug-Pekingese pooch named Sweet Dee – yes, from the show It’s Always Sunny. In September of 2021, she had emergency surgery for a herniated disc in her neck. It started off as a limp in one hind leg, and over the course of a few weeks it ended with her being completely unable to walk. Luckily, she was able to quickly – although expensively – get in for surgery. She had a slow recovery, but in about six months she was moving even better than she had even before the limping started pre-surgery.

But a few months after that I noticed this weird tick. You know how sometimes when you hit just the right spot on a dog’s ear, their back leg scratches? Well, that would happen, but she couldn’t seem to stop it. Sometimes she’d start panting because one fourth of her was basically running a marathon. I’d have to massage her neck and shoulder to get it to stop. It didn’t happen a ton and she didn’t seem like it hurt, so I wasn’t worried at first. But it started happening more frequently, so I thought it was time to see my vet.

We go to a small, holistic veterinary practice that just has two vets. Vet A had been Sweet Dee’s primary vet. In fact, she’d originally seen Vet B, but Vet A had a dog that looked exactly like Sweet Dee named Howie, so she just took over her care. But when the limping started the first available appointment was with Vet B. Vet B had gotten us through the surgery and her recovery, including a few months of acupuncture. So, this was our first appointment back with Vet A in over a year. Okay, so that’s the background. Now we can really dive into how my stories played into this scenario.

I’d explained what was going on over the phone, and the vet tech asked me two specific questions about the episodes. First, does Sweet Dee turn her head back when it’s happening and second, does she cry or howl when it happens. No and no. When we got there, Vet A asked me the same questions and I reiterated that no, her leg just scratches her front leg and she can’t seem to stop. Now, I did mention I didn’t want to pay for another MRI. Just the MRI cost me $3,000 and you have to put the dog completely under anesthesia. Vet A said she completely understood. She said her dog, Howie, again the one that looked like Sweet Dee, had a similar issue and she didn’t want to pay for an MRI either because of his age and the cost. That momentarily made me feel better, because I assumed she’d have some solid strategies to help.

The issue Howie had was syringomyelia. Now, just hearing the word was scary, but then she went on to explain what it is. She said sometimes a dog’s skull is too small for their brain, so some of the spinal fluid gets squeezed out into a cyst that can compress or injure nerve tissue or damage the spinal cord. It can cause that “air guitar” behavior, as she called it. But she did mention that typically, dogs cried out when it happened, and their heads rotate back. That was obviously why they kept asking me about those two things. And from a story perspective, you could tell Vet A had already landed on what she thought was the issue.

At this point, the energy in the room was getting extremely tense. Remember, this is within a year of her having emergency spinal surgery. I had no idea that I should be concerned about spinal disease, but evidently, it’s fairly common for dogs like her. Now this other seemingly awful thing was being tossed around. Vet A said it could be several things, but it was obviously neurological. And again, while she said it could be several things, it was obvious that Vet A BELIEVED it was syringomyelia. Her course of treatment was long-term steroids and increasing the pain medicine she’d been on since the surgery. She talked quickly and said we needed to act quickly or it could get much worse. I was getting more and more anxious about my poor dog having some new mystery disease. Then they whisked Sweet Dee out of the room to do a full exam and do bloodwork. It seemed like forever. The story evolving in my head was, “Oh no. It’s taking this long because they’ve found other awful things and are just trying to figure out how to tell me.”

Eventually, they brought her back. Vet A told me about the exam. Now she didn’t know she was giving me new information, but evidently the disc they operated on wasn’t the only diseased one so that made me feel even more anxious. She told me to go ahead and start the steroids and increase the pain medication, and they’d call me on Monday with the results of the bloodwork. I was still stunned in the car, but I remember almost as soon as I pulled out of the parking lot I starting thinking, “I don’t think that’s right. I think she’s projecting because HER dog had syringomyelia. I mean if there are three factors – air guitar, howling, and head turning – and she only had one, that doesn’t seem like the right diagnosis.” But even though I was doubting what she said I still felt anxious, especially because Vet A did not talk about her prognosis other than, “we need to do something quickly or it can definitely get worse.” There was no talk about how she could live a long, healthy life with treatment or anything. It was a very negative experience.

Over the weekend, I tried to wrap my head around everything. All sorts of stories were popping up in my head about how this could impact her, most of which were negative because of the vet’s demeanor. But the one thing I didn’t do was Google syringomyelia. That was extremely odd for me, because my Input LOVES to dig in and get more information, even if it’s about something not so great. It’s my way of empowering myself so my Strategic can go to work and make a game plan. But again, somehow, I felt the vet was wrong. Now she might have still needed the steroids for whatever was going on, but I really didn’t know what that was.

Usually, the vet or vet tech calls early in the morning with lab results, but I didn’t hear anything for most of the day. Part of me worried it was because they were trying to decide how to tell me that things were even worse than they thought – again, another story, but I told myself they were probably just busy. As I parked to go teach my afternoon class, they called. It was a vet tech, and she apologized for the late call, but they were short handed because Vet B was out all week because of a family issue. I was relieved. Then without skipping a beat, she said that the blood work showed that Sweet Dee’s kidney disease had progressed from Stage 2 to 3 and she needed to go on a Prescription Diet immediately. She gave me three suggested brands and said they had a prescription for me I could either pick up or they could send if I ordered online.

Again, I was stunned. I asked some follow-up questions about the food. But once I got off the phone, I just sat there. Okay, cool, cool, cool. So instead of worrying about one awful disease, I get to worry about kidney disease. Awesome. Oh, and also, I need to get myself together right quick so I can go teach. As I walked to class, I thought about how terrible both of these exchanges had been. And not just because of the diagnoses, but because this information was just dropped in my lap without any sense of hope or positivity. I was anxious about Sweet Dee, but also a bit pissed off that no one seemed concerned about helping me navigate either issue.

On the drive home, I started to process the kidney news. My mom’s previous dog, Zoe, had had kidney disease and was on one of those prescription diet. Zoe hated it, because it’s got a ridiculously low protein level. Mom said she’d go out and eat bugs to get more protein. Now I know most people will say that their dog loves food, but Sweet Dee LOVES food, especially meat. She was on a raw diet which is basically 80-95% meat. As I was digesting all of this new information – pun intended, I decided that if I couldn’t find a whole food prescription diet that she liked, she was just going to keep getting the food she did like. Her quality of life was just as important to me as keeping her alive on stuff she hated. I started researching the brands the vet had suggested and realized that the one whole food option was beef, and she’s allergic to beef and chicken. The other brands came as kibble or canned sludge, which I really didn’t want to consider. Plus, they were beef and chicken based.

At this point Input kicked in, so I started Googling other options and quite a few things came up. One was a freeze-dried base of whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and grains that was completely balanced with all the proper vitamins and nutrients. All you had to do was add your own protein. I figured this was perfect, because the vet could just let me know what percentage of protein to add, and I could buy meat from an animal she wasn’t allergic to like pork. So, I called the vet’s office fairly hopeful and told them what I’d discovered about the brands they recommended and Sweet Dee’s protein issues. I asked the tech if they could ask Vet A what she thought of the freeze-dried option I’d found. I even sent them the website which listed all of the ingredients. Well, the message I got back from the vet was, “She isn’t familiar with that brand and doesn’t know how we’d tell you the percentage of protein to add.” The vet tech added she checked and one brand of the kidney prescription diet was lamb, so the vet said I should just do that.

At this point, I was so frustrated. All I wanted to do was take care of my pup and make sure she had a good life. I wasn’t getting any help understanding her diagnoses or options for her care. I was just being told to give her drugs and feed her something I knew she’d hate. Now at this stage, I could have easily bought into the vet’s stories that A) she had syringomyelia and needed long-term steroids; and B) that she needed to be on the prescription diet ASAP. But both of those options felt very limiting. So, I decided that I wasn’t going to just accept this without doing my own research. I mean, so far, she hadn’t explained anything to me other than her dog had something similar, so we’ll just give Sweet Dee the same treatment.

That’s when I started researching kidney disease, not just alternative diets. I didn’t really know much about it, other than she’d been in Stage 2 for about 7 years. She’d even gone back down to having no sign of kidney disease during that time. I wasn’t surprised about their being kidney issues, but I was confused as to why they suddenly got worse. It took a while, but I found a week-long series on canine kidney disease from wholistic vet, Dr. Judy Morgan, on YouTube. And just FYI, if you’re having any pet issues and want to treat them more wholistically, I super recommend her videos and her new podcast. In the week-long series, one of the videos was about how to actually read lab reports. At this point, I’d just been taking whatever the vet told me was in the results on faith. But one thing I learned was that stress can make one indicator jump up and falsely indicate kidney disease. I remembered how tense the room was when Vet A was telling me about syringomyelia. Sweet Dee was there too, and I’m sure she picked up on all the stress and tension – especially mine. Between that and the stress of the exam, I wondered if it might have impacted her results.

Normally, I would have just asked, but my last two interactions with Vet A left a lot to be desired. Instead, I called the vet’s office and asked them to send me her lab results. I went through them as I rewatched the video. The only numbers related to kidney disease that indicated a problem was the one that can be impacted by stress. At this point, I became pretty skeptical about the results, so I kept researching. I learned a ton, including that Dr. Morgan did lab interpretations for a small fee. So, I contacted her and sent in Sweet Dee’s lab work. As an added bonus, one of her specialties was syringomyelia, so I wrote her a note asking about that diagnosis, as well.

I had to wait about two weeks to hear back with her interpretation and answers. While I waited, I just kept researching and learning more how I could support Sweet Dee and her kidneys, but not decrease the quality of Sweet Dee’s food or her life. When I got Dr. Morgan’s response, I was so excited. She agreed with me – well I mean I didn’t tell her what I thought specifically, but she said the only indication of kidney disease is the one I honed in on. She said it was a super early indicator of kidney disease, but the rest of her labs were fine so she wouldn’t change her diet at all. She also said that if Sweet Dee had syringomyelia, it would have shown up on the MRI she had before the surgery. She gave me a few suggestions about supplements that could replace the anti-inflammatory effects of the steroids without all the side effects. My initial response to this information was, “In your face, Dr. A.”

Now, that was a lot of detail, so I’ll fast forward a bit here. As I worked through all of this, I mentioned the issues with her neck and strange scratching to my massage therapist. She said it sounded like scar tissue and she offered to use her neuro-stim device, which uses safe electrical currents, to break up the scar tissue. I immediately accepted. This also got me thinking about her health and diet overall. Even though her kidney disease hadn’t progressed, I wanted to support them as well as her spine. As luck would have it, Dr. Morgan was having a Food Therapy Masterclass that utilized Traditional Chinese Medicine the weekend before Thanksgiving. It was a bit pricey. It would have been easy enough to lean into the story that, “It’s too expensive.” But since her other resources were so great, I changed that story to, “This is just a bit more than the cost of running Sweet Dee’s lab work. Plus, it seems like it will actually save me money on vet bills in the future.” It was a great workshop and I learned which foods benefit dogs (and people) based on their characteristics, illnesses, etc. She also covered how to make sure those meals are balanced and have all the nutrients a dog needs. It gave me the ability to develop my own custom diets. In Sweet Dee’s case, I changed her protein to something that would be better for her kidneys and added in other ingredients into the premade food she was already getting. I also added on some supplements to support her kidneys, her IVDD, and the supplements Dr. Morgan suggested to address her inflammation.

She’s been on those supplements and eating the new diet for several months. When we redid her lab work in mid-February, I was a bit nervous, but overall confident that we’d made progress. When the vet tech called this time, her kidney disease had gone back down to Stage 2. Plus, my massage therapist has been making progress on her scar tissue, so she can move better, is more comfortable, and does the air guitar thing less often. I’m currently weening her off of the steroids. As you can imagine, I’m pretty psyched about the results. None of this would have happened if I’d just accepted what the vet had to say. And I do want to clarify that up until now, I’ve had a great relationship and experience with these vets. I really didn’t have any reason to question them now, other than being in tune with Sweet Dee and knowing the quality of life I wanted for her. That gave me the motivation to really think about which stories would best serve both of us. This story ended with me feeling much more empowered to care for her without depending on one vet’s interpretation of the situation.

Now the reason I went into such detail here, is because my stories – aka what I believed – greatly impacted the outcome here. I’m sure you’ve heard about the placebo effect, right? You know, when you believe something will help you so much that you get a positive outcome that can’t be directly tied to the thing itself. You most often hear about it in medical trials. It’s when someone gets a sugar pill, but their body reacts as though it has the actual medication.

But there’s a flip side to this phenomenon – the nocebo effect. It’s the same thing, your brain manifests what it believes should happen in a situation, but the results are negative. For example, most people know that chemotherapy drugs often cause side effects like nausea and hair loss. But there have been many documented cases of folks starting to lose their hair and becoming nauseous BEFORE they start the drugs. Since the drugs are what cause both, there is absolutely no reason for it to happen other than the patient’s belief. So, when you believe something negative might happen – or there’s nothing that can be done, there’s an excellent chance you’ll be right. But YOU’RE the one making it happen.

I hate to quote Henry Ford anymore, because of the antisemitism, but I think he really summed up this phenomenon here, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't – you're right.” In my situation, I was advocating for a third-party, Sweet Dee. But how often do we put barriers on ourselves with our stories? Do you tell yourself, “it is what it is,” and think there’s nothing you can do to change the situation? Occasionally that’s true, but the vast majority of the time it’s not. It’s just your interpretation of the situation because you lack the knowledge, skills, or experience to know your options. If you believe talking to team members about their performance is hard for you, it will be. You’ll continue to avoid it and think less of yourself in the process. In other words, you’ll be stuck in your own story. But if you think, “You know, I think this might be difficult for me because I’ve never learned how to do this in the right way.” That’s an empowering story. That gives you permission to change the outcome.

And that’s why the title of this article is, “Are Your Stories Keeping You Stuck or Empowering You?” When I first visited the vet about Sweet Dee’s neck/hind leg issue, I felt punched in the gut. It seemed like this was all terrible news, followed by more terrible news. Had I just accepted what the vet had told me, I would have felt stuck and powerless. Sweet Dee would have simply started on a tasteless prescription diet and stayed on steroids forever – which also would have caused additional stress on her kidneys. In fact, as I tried to wrap my head around what was going on, at one point I just accepted that her time left with me would be short and I just needed to make her as comfortable as possible until then.

But I questioned the stories I was being told and my own stories about what made the most sense for me and Sweet Dee. Those questions empowered me to make better decisions and stop feeling helpless. Even if her kidneys were worse, I wasn’t going to be limited by Vet A telling me to just pick one of the three prescription diets she suggested. I used my talents, in this case Input, to increase my knowledge about everything that was going on and stressing me out. Then I took a course to increase both my knowledge and skills around nutrition, which again left me feeling empowered to care for Sweet Dee. The more I learned new information and new skills, the more empowered I felt. Now, I had a fantastic outcome all things considered. But even if things hadn’t worked out as well as they did, I still felt better about the situation because I knew better what was happening and could do things myself to alleviate her symptoms and make her comfortable. Even more important, I know to ask more questions and really assess if what I’m being told tracks with what’s actually happening.

If you feel stuck, stressed, or overwhelmed, it’s easy to assign blame to external factors – your supervisor, your spouse, systemic problems in higher ed, etc. But I’d wager that your stories are actually the cause. It’s your beliefs about the situation that are making you feel helpless or even hopeless. It may feel like things are happening to you or that there’s nothing you can do to make your situation better, but that’s simply not true. Often, we feel helpless because we don’t know what to do in a certain situation and either no one is helping us or are outright telling us we have no options. But you have the ability to learn HOW to do things differently. You have the ability to become skilled at navigating what’s keeping you stuck, so you can get a different outcome. When you look at your situation in a new way, you can see options and opportunities that you simply missed before. Changing your stories can be empowering.

Your stories – aka your beliefs impact your outcomes. If you’re not happy with what’s happening in your life – if you feel stuck – change your stories. Create stories that empower you to make things different. You don’t have to be stuck where you are, you just haven’t gotten the right combination of knowledge, skills, and beliefs yet. So, start questioning any story you have that makes you feel helpless. And then create a new story that empowers you.

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