Few of us want to be solely defined or boxed in by our past circumstances, but the truth is people are quick to judge us by yesterday's news even if it has little or no negative bearing on our present story today. I've talked about the danger of keeping secrets in the past, and how denial can cost you greatly when reality finally catches up with you, but what I want to discuss here are the situations we find ourselves in not because we haven't owned up to the facts, but because we let others be the judge, jury and executioner of those facts.
This episode's crisis centers on the lives affected by a horrific plane crash that occurred in the Virginia hillside outside of Washington, DC. Andrew Mackleson, now a widow, must not only deal with the loss of his wife, Captain Lori Mackleson, but wrestle with the question of whether her actions and possible failings caused her crew and all passengers aboard to lose their lives. As the investigation unfolds, and questions from the public and victims' family grow louder, allegations concerning Lori's past begin to surface. Soon a narrative emerges that shifts the blame squarely... and conveniently on her. This narrative provides the fuel for the inevitable finger pointing by the media and Sky National- the airline company she was working for during the fateful flight and the one that is now in the position of protecting its own reputation even at the expense of hers.
Maybe you have some skeletons in your closet that represent a low point in your life- perhaps it was a careless mistake you made or someone who was wronged by your actions. However, even though the consequences may have been great, you openly faced up to them, made amends and moved on. Or, maybe your past crisis was turned into an opportunity in which you were able to show tremendous personal growth such as overcoming an addiction or seeing your way out of a financial crisis. Perhaps your skeletons proved to be something you are not ashamed of (even though others may hold a different opinion). Good, bad or indifferent, these are situations that make up your personal story and no matter how you feel about them or how successfully you have dealt with them, a cruel reality exists in which other people will be quick to impose their own judgment and take the unwelcomed opportunity to co-opt your narrative. The key to avoiding this reality rests on owning your actions and creating a strong and truthful narrative before others are left to create their own. Below are some tips to do just that.
Turn perceived negatives into positives- show what you have learned and how your unique circumstances have made you a better person
Redefine the narrative on your own terms. For example, maybe you are reentering the dating world after ending what you feel is just another failed relationship. You may think your baggage and past history will prevent anyone from ever wanting to be with you. However, instead of being held back or presenting yourself negatively to others, why don't you take what you learned from those failed relationships and show your future prospects how your past has made you a more reliable, relatable and a healthier potential partner? You can't change the past, but you can use what you learned in the past to craft who you are in the present.
Be aware of the situations you yourself in and how they might reflect on your image
You may be someone who has atoned for your sins but you need to always remember that perception is often considered to by synonymous with reality. This is especially important because while we may have been given second chances in life by friends and loved ones, we are also given less leeway when it comes to what is considered appropriate and acceptable behavior. Fair or not, we can't always expect to receive the benefit of their doubt. For example, if you committed infidelity in your marriage or relationship but were able to work past it with your partner, then you need to make sure you are no longer putting yourself in situations that could seem inappropriate by outside observers. Even if your intentions are completely innocent- say, meeting a coworker for lunch outside of the workplace to discuss a project- you need to be cognizant of the fact that others may not view such an encounter as being above suspicion. It seems as though this would be common sense, but I'm always surprised at the situations people put themselves in that have almost instantaneously rendered them guilty by association-- even if they absolutely have done nothing wrong. Failing to take into consideration how your actions could be potentially perceived by others causes you to lose control of your narrative. Don't create a situation that makes it easy for people to believe that you have not changed or one where they can use your actions as "proof" as to why you can't be trusted.
Take an honest inventory of your past actions and examine how they may be affecting your present situation
In the world we live in now, very little is private. It's scary to think that someone meeting you for the first time could potentially possesses information about you that you would never openly reveal to him or her yourself. I have increasingly found that people have an unrealistic expectation of privacy and don't consider how their so called private actions can affect them in a very public manner. For example, many of us write off our old tweets, emails or Facebook status updates and think that they carry no weight or consequence in the real world. But maybe you'll think differently when you realize that you didn't get that job because your potential employer was privy to some of your less than appropriate activities that were drunkenly broadcasted one night to all your friends and followers online. You may have thought that your antics were viewed only by those within your social circle, but thanks to the viral nature of the internet, you never really know who is monitoring what you say and do online. This is important because when people only have access to small and unflattering snippets of your life, it's easier for them to draw their own conclusions and create snap judgments. Be careful of what aspects of yourself are easily accessible to others-- they may be painting a picture of you that is unflattering and not representative of who you truly are.
Get ahead of the story before it becomes someone else's story
Don't be caught off guard. After you take an inventory of your past actions, be prepared to address them if they are ever brought up. In some cases, it may even be wise to consider full disclosure before someone has the chance to raise it. This offers the advantage of allowing you to be proactive rather than reactive which allows you to take control by giving you a better chance to drive the discourse in the direction that is most comfortable and advantageous for you.
Judy A. Smith is the founder and President of Smith and Company, a leading strategic and crisis communications firm with offices in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles as well as a Co-Executive Producer of ABC's Scandal. You can follow her on Twitter (@JudySmith_) or "Like" her on Facebook, and you can get more information about managing personal and professional crisis situations by visiting her site, judysmith.com.