The Negative Stories We Tell Ourselves (And How to Change Them)
Four things I’ve always known to be true:
- I’m a klutz.
- I can’t tell left from right. GPS saved me from divorce because I can’t read a paper map—unless I spin it around and have it face the direction of attack—a fact which grated at my husband every time it was my turn to navigate us home from the backwoods of a neighboring town.
- I avoid exercise classes like Zumba because I get the instructions all wrong and will crash into people and embarrass myself. Which usually ends up with me tearing up and running away. This is actually supported by fact. As the automotive editor for Vogue, I got yelled at by the guy running the Bob Bondurant BMW High Performance Driving Course for steering through the obstacle course in exactly the opposite direction to which he had instructed. Note: I didn’t cry and run away; I drove.
- I can’t dance. (This is the result of a lifetime of telling myself #1-3.)
All four facts caused a wave of panic when my friend Cooper congratulated me on getting into her Mardi Gras marching krewe, The Amelia Earhawts, a group of raucous older women in red flight-attendant garb who look like they’re having the times of their lives. (The krewe’s name is the New Orleans–style pronunciation of “ear-hart” and is an ode to celebrity aviator Amelia Earhart who touched down in the city in 1937 as a surprise before her trip around the world.)
“Don’t worry,” Cooper said. “Learning the dances is easy.”
Twenty-seven years ago, my husband Jeff and I had burrowed into a sleepy suburb to raise our two kids within commuting distance of New York City where we were hard at work on our careers, I in publishing as the editor-in-chief of four national women’s magazines (including Redbook, Marie Claire, and More); he in finance. Six years ago, Meredith Corporation closed More and I opened my own media company, CoveyClub.com, to help women like me navigate their way through those kinds of unexpected life changes. Then two things became abundantly clear: I no longer needed to commute into New York (CoveyClub is primarily virtual) and our twentysomething children were no longer in need of daily parenting. My husband had quit working while the kids were in high school, so we were finally free to explore our adult lives.
We moved to New Orleans to get a fresh start on our second half of life.
We picked NOLA because it offered fabulous food, culture, historic architecture, several universities (for teaching/learning), an international airport, warm weather, and a populace that is mixed culturally, racially, age-wise, and economically. NOLA is also a draw for our adult children (and their friends: yes, that was deliberate).
Before living here, I thought Mardi Gras was a single-day affair with floats and beads and tourists going crazy. Living here I’ve discovered it’s a year-long endeavor that brings locals together creatively (it takes a full year for individual krewes to make those costumes and floats) and socially. Six weeks before Fat Tuesday, I start to feel like I’m living at Carnegie Hall as the excitement builds throughout the city. Purple, gold, and green bunting and tinsel sprout on every porch (New Orleanians love to decorate). Practicing bands goose-step past my front door and dance krewes shimmy and Charleston on the Riverwalk. Jugglers toss light-up bowling pins into the air in the local park while vans disgorge groups of costumed Baby Dolls onto Elysian Fields Avenue to review their choreography.
After watching two Mardi Gras from the stands (we missed one due to Covid), I decided that I wanted in on the parading action. I’m a joiner, and my friend Cooper helped me navigate the 24-hour window on the Earhawt’s Facebook page where they allowed newbies to sign up.
I was thrilled until the panic set in. I started telling myself that I was too old to learn to move my body in any organized way. That I was going to have to hide at the back of the line so as not to be embarrassed or embarrass anyone else. How I missed the fact that these women don’t just march-–they dance-–is beyond me.
The first group practices called up the sense of horror and terror I felt as a tween in gym class when I was first instructed to run down the field right into girls twice my size as they waved wooden lacrosse sticks in my face. As the majority of the Hawts (who have been with the group for years) stepped and chopped and jiggled to the music in unison, I flailed in the back like an octopus with eight arms. No matter how many times I watched the training videos on the Facebook page, my brain refused to break down the dances into pieces that were memorable.
I decided I would have to quit and tell Cooper I was sorry.
And then I remembered everything I’d been teaching women like me at CoveyClub about how to work through change. I recalled the one thing that holds the 200 successful women I’ve interviewed on my podcast, Reinvent Yourself with Lesley Jane Seymour, together: a positive, growth mindset—a belief that they can create any transformation in their lives that they choose. I pulled up my notes on Carol Dweck, whose research showed that mindset can be changed from closed to growth—if you want. I unearthed one of the most important phrases a CoveyClub coach had uttered during one of our weekly coaching classes: “The only thing that holds you back is the thing you’re absolutely sure of.”
And I asked myself: What if none of those four stories I’d been telling myself was true? What if I decided to reach back to my days as a ballet and tap dancer (age 4-6) and baton twirler (6-10) and say, “I was pretty good.” What if I was terrible at performing just because I hadn’t done it since I was a child?
I asked a professional dancer friend to show me how to break down the videos into a list of steps that I could memorize. I challenged myself to not get frustrated and not seek perfection. If I was out of step, I would look around and get back into step. I practiced 15 minutes a day until the music told my body what to do.
To be truthful, the first parade at Halloween (Krewe of Boo) was a black-and-orange blur because I was concentrating so hard on following the steps of the women in front of me that I didn’t look up at the crowds. By the Christmas Parade, however, I was confident enough to raise my eyes at all the excited revelers who were decked out in holiday gear, dancing in the streets and singing along with us to Christmas carols (that’s my video I took inside the parade because it was so magical, above). New Orleanians have incredibly big, wide smiles that radiate a certain kind of joy. And these parades are so intimate, that performers fist bump and high five with the crowd as you go by. As I danced and stepped (and misstepped) my way down the city streets, I felt such a sense of warmth, community, joy, and belonging that I had never before felt in my life that tears did indeed well up in my eyes. Everyone was sharing a special moment of happiness—so rare in this strife-torn world. And I got to absorb that energy and joy from the crowd by just dancing around in a silly red outfit and white gloves.
But here’s the best part. No one cared if my dancing was perfect. No one cared if I looked professional. What mattered only was that I had finally stopped telling myself stories about what I couldn’t do, and started believing in what I could.
Suzanne C Frank
Go you, Lesley! I know the feeling of tearing up when trying to follow steps. Having multiple events to participate in (Halloween, Christmas, MardiGras) is probably the best way to really get comfortable. Congratulations on your learning!
Thank you Suzanne. Yes, repetition helps.
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