07/06/2011 07:31 pm ET Updated Sep 05, 2011

How Do You Let Go While You're Hanging On?

Stories are mental constructs we create to uphold the status quo. In rapidly changing environments, we cling to any semblance of normal, which can be akin to clinging to flotsam on a raging river.

Our ability to move beyond what we know, to let go of the flotsam, to innovate, to have foresight and to adapt are critical to our existence.

We hold onto our stories long after they've served their purpose and we're ready to move on. We do this when there is an emotional hook. We stay hooked until we're ready to understand what the hook is.

When we are ready to advance to a new reality, to innovate past the status quo, to connect to our abilities and adapt to new environments, the first step is identifying the emotion that sustains the current narrative and the attachment to that emotion. Then it simply becomes a decision: Stay attached, or release and innovate?

Ask yourself some questions to see if you are ready to innovate:

What is the story that holds you back?
What benefit do you derive from being held back?
What is the emotion attached to the story?
What is the attachment to that emotion? What do you get out of it?
What is the opposite of that emotion and are you willing to experience it or more of it?
What happens when the story ends, but you are now so attached to the emotion that you can't let go of the story?

When we find ourselves ready to take a step forward, there can be a momentary sense of vulnerability. This is typically where we reach for what has worked before. This strategy may soothe us temporarily, but it is unlikely to promote a change in the foundation of our understanding, which is necessary to change our trajectory.

We repeat a pattern we are familiar with, to reduce our sense of vulnerability and to regain or maintain the feeling of being in command of a situation.

If we take things personally, we launch into a defense of the familiar, missing the opportunity to allow or consider a new viewpoint. If we notice that what we are really defending is the familiar feeling that comes with the story, it's easier to focus our attention on that understanding and release the story.

Experiencing new feelings can make us feel more vulnerable than experiencing new situations. Which is why most of us re-create the same story time and again so we can stay with old, familiar feelings, even if those feelings have become uncomfortable and stagnant.

Identifying the emotion attached to a story is key to letting a story go. It's tempting to focus on the story rather than the emotion attached to it because it's more comfortable, less painful. It's easier. You've heard the saying, "that's my story and I'm sticking to it"?

When we identify the emotional attachment and detach from it, that decision allows us to step past the story and into a new reality. We no longer need our stories to defend how we feel.

I work with horses. I appreciate the unique perspective and honesty I consistently gain from doing so. Horses use emotion simply as information. They do not attach a story to why they are feeling the way they do -- they feel the emotion, respond accordingly and then drop it. I've seen horses kick or bite each other and later calmly drink water side by side. This type of emotional agility can serve us, in developing our abilities to remain present.

For those of us looking for new ways to interact, to be, to create more space in which to innovate and construct better solutions, emotional agility is a superior tool. It allows us to experience our natural curiosity, the seat of great innovation.

Having the willingness to meet the moment in the moment, without a story, allows us to create new possibilities and new realities.

A horse does not know my story. It responds to information in the moment, which allows me to see myself clearly. If I am willing to look at the moment, and myself, without a story, I can ask, and learn, something new from the moment.

The horse is a great metaphor for life and a mirror of ourselves. A horse responds to who we are in the moment, bringing us into the present. If we become more curious about how we feel in this moment and what that could mean for us and those around us, we can inform ourselves differently- from a fresh, new reality. And when we do that, our level of confidence and eagerness to be in new environments increases, making it easier to abandon a narrative that no longer works.

Curiosity is a primal instinct. It is critical to survival. It's the ability to engage, to be truly present in any setting or situation. Curiosity is what allows us to stay focused on the here and now, instead of reaching for touchstones from an old repertoire.

As we look for ways to find our footing in uncertain situations, engaging our sense of curiosity can lead us to find the solutions to new everyday problems. The New York Times article "Distilling the Wisdom of CEOs" heralded curiosity as indispensible, defining it as "the infectious sense of fascination some people have with everything around them."

In unprecedented times, we are being asked and need to find ways to go beyond what we know, beyond our best, to find what is relevant now. Even if it means giving up what has previously worked for us.

So how do we do this without everything falling apart?

Identify the emotion fueling the story that holds you back. Determine what benefit you gain from that emotion and whether that benefit will take you to your next level. Get curious about innovation. How you can innovate yourself today that would make an immediate, significant, positive impact? What could the outcomes be? Who would be affected, and what would it mean to them if you could innovate past what you know now? Are you willing to temporarily stand in emotional discomfort long enough to discover a new perspective? Are you willing to stand in emotional discomfort long enough for the status quo to change?

What would you have to release to get to your new best level, and would it be worth it if you did?