How to Recognize When You’re in a Limiting Story
Updated: Dec 9, 2021
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:
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:
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 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:
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.
If I’m too loud, then they won’t like me.
If I’m extra nice, then she’ll forgive me.
If only I make a million dollars, then I’ll have enough.
LIFE WILL BE BETTER WHEN. . .
Another phrase that indicates a limiting story is “life will be better when…” Similar to if/then thinking, the it-will-be-better-when mentality keeps us in a state of waiting for life to get better, rather than making it what we want in the present. It’s hard to actually be present when we are constantly waiting for our situation to change in the future. Like IF/THEN thinking, we base our satisfaction with life on a condition, and often it’s an unrealistic condition. So, if you catch yourself thinking about your peace of mind or joy in life will happen when… then you are probably in a limiting story. For example:
I’ll be less stressed when I make more money.
I will be able to enjoy my life when my kids are grown (or I retire).
I will find the right partner when I lose weight.
When I get that job/promotion/house/car I’ll be happy.
When I become a parent, my life will have purpose.
People will respect me when I win that competition.
Feeling like you are not enough is another red flag of limiting stories. But it’s not limited to feelings about yourself. We can also tell ourselves that other people are not enough, or our situation is not enough. Here are some examples of things we might say when we tell ourselves that either I am personally not enough, someone else is not enough, or my situation is not enough--
(Self) I am not:
making enough money
Her attempt to apologize is not enough
He is not romantic enough
My child is not obedient enough
My co-worker is not responsible enough
My boss is not understanding enough
This city is not progressive/conservative enough
The weather is not warm enough
My life is not satisfying enough
My house/car/clothes is/are not nice enough
There is a difference between accepting yourself, others, or situations (what I call being content) with excusing yourself from giving your best or being motivated to change (what I call being complacent). I believe distinguishing between contentment and complacency is really important and it takes some honest self-reflection to recognize when we are being too hard on ourselves/others and when we are using excuses for poor behavior/choices. Not being able to be content with life and excusing our behavior can both be turned into limiting stories.
The whole not enough mentality is one I personally struggle with. Sometimes on a daily basis. There’s a lot to be said, and a lot that has been said, on this topic. Brené Brown is an obvious favorite. If you haven’t looked into her work, I’d highly suggest it! You can go to her webpage (brenebrown.com) or check out her first TED Talk (and watch the other ones as well). Another great article is “The Fear that You’re not Good Enough” by Kate Swoboda.
So, you’ve recognized you’re in a limiting story…Now What?
Recognizing you are in a limiting story is the first step, and probably the most important, because you can’t change your story until you realize that you’re telling yourself a story. Now it’s time to rewrite your story! I have a whole toolbox full of tips and tricks and exercises designed to help you let go of limiting stories and learn to rewrite your story. Stay tuned for more articles and posts dedicated to the subject of rewriting your story. And you can sign up for my newsletter (below) and receive a free download on 8 Steps to Rewriting Your Story.
Just remember, we all tell ourselves stories. Stories help us make sense of our experiences. But we don’t have to keep believing a story that is no longer serving us. We all have the power to rewrite those stories. I’ve been rewriting different stories in my life for the last decade. It’s changed my life for the better. And the more I work on it, the easier it becomes. I won’t lie, it can take a lot of practice, but it is possible!