How to Recognize When You’re in a Limiting Story

Updated: Oct 15, 2020

How do you know if the things you tell yourself are limiting you or not? How do you know if you're in a limiting story?

Have you ever found yourself going over and over the same thought, like some hamster on a wheel? It might be something like: I can’t do this, I’m not good enough, I don’t have enough time or money, I’m too shy, I don’t know how, they will be upset if I don’t comply, it’s not my fault, if only…, and so on. When we cling to ideas about ourselves or the world around us that keep us feeling small, keep us from showing up authentically, or allows us to make excuses rather than take responsibility for our lives--we are in a limiting story.

The thing is, everything is story. Even my ideas about stories is a story. We can’t live without stories--they are how we understand and the world and our place in it (see my post for more on personal narratives and stories). But stories can be rewritten. We can gain new perspectives and change the meaning of our different experiences. It’s not about pretending things didn’t happen. It’s not about putting an unrealistic spin on things. Rewriting your story is about changing your relationship with your experiences.

Rewriting your story is about changing

your relationship with your experiences.

We are so used to living in our stories, that sometimes it’s difficult to identify if our stories are limiting us or not. When we’ve been telling ourselves a story for a long time, we begin to believe it is true.

The first step in rewriting your story is to identify when you are stuck in a story.

Luckily, there are several key words and phrases that can act as red flags and help us recognize that we’re stuck in a story that is limiting our potential.


Absolute words/phrases are those that keep our thoughts tightly controlled. Absolutes do not allow for curiosity or questions. As Kathy Davie wrote, absolute words “are inclusive, all-encompassing, an end in themselves, and cannot be modified in any way." Here are a few examples of absolutes:

  • Never

  • Always

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  • Only

  • Totally

  • Completely

  • Forever

  • Everyone

  • Nobody

  • Impossible

  • Best

  • Worst

If you hear yourself saying things like, “I’ll never get that promotion,” “my family always excludes me,” “I’ve been shy forever,” or “I am the only one that feels this way,” “this is the worst thing that could happen to me,” then you are probably trapped in a limiting story.

--Either/or (binary) thinking

Absolutes tend to trap us in believing there are only two options—it is either X or it is Y. This either/or thinking is also called black-and-white thinking, or binary thinking. Binary thinking limits our possibilities because we’re only given two options, which keeps us stuck, narrowly defining ourselves and our potential (see my post on Binary Thinking). Some examples of binary thinking include:

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  • I’m either successful or I’m a failure.

  • You are either for me or against me.

  • I’m either happy or miserable.

  • My idea is either perfect and the best or it is stupid and lame.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about and trying to identify binary thinking in my life. For me, binary thinking was part of what kept me depressed. And learning to embrace a “yes, and” approach to life has been an incredible change in my life. Interestingly, I still find there are times when I am stuck in either/or thinking. Whenever I find myself in either/or thinking, I approach it like a game and try to find new ways to frame my thoughts.

--If/then thinking

If/then thinking is often closely related to absolutes and binary thinking. It is when we put conditions on our happiness, peace, or sense of well-being. How many times have you thought that if x, y, or z happens, then you’ll be satisfied? The problem with if/then phrases is that it keeps us from exploring ways to find what we are looking for in our current state. It places our contentment with life on the future, rather than learning to accept the present and create our own sense of well-being right now. And if/then thinking creates a sense that there is some magic bullet for our life, that once we find that magic bullet, all will be well. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is no such thing. Life is a series of ups and downs, joys and tragedies, hardships and peace. When you are constantly waiting for something to happen to make you feel happy, you limit your ability to take charge of your own life. Here are some examples:

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  • If I lose weight, then I’ll be happy.

  • If I get the promotion, then I’ll be satisfied.

  • If I don’t get this job, then I’ll never find one.