Some of the Most Common Self-Limiting Stories — And an Exercise to Examine Your Own
The Following is adapted from Shift: The Art of Transforming Limitations by Nick Egan. Ph.D.
The human mind is endlessly inventive. This can have positive consequences, as our remarkable success as a species shows. We’ve colonized huge swathes of the planet, including environments as diverse as the Arctic Circle and the tropical jungles of the Amazon.
On the other hand, our minds can act as saboteurs, telling us stories that cause us to believe we will fail. And when we believe we will fail, we often do fail. Or worse, we don’t even try. The number of limiting stories we tell ourselves is almost inexhaustible. Here are some of the most common, along with some solutions employed by people who could have allowed those limiting stories to define them. While reading, consider which ones you employ and how they may be holding you back.
A friend of mine wanted to grow his home-brewing business into regional and national markets. He was becoming increasingly frustrated because it seemed impossible for a home brewer to break into those larger markets. He wasn’t a professional, so he didn’t have access to the distribution channels the big brewers had. This made him feel that he couldn’t even get started.
Instead of focusing on what he couldn’t immediately achieve, however, he came up with a thorough list of what he needed. The list included distribution channels, additional production capacity, and — most importantly — increased capital. Because he had taken the time to identify exactly what he wanted to move toward, he started talking more clearly about his needs. Within a couple of weeks, he was contacted by somebody he knew, a potential investor who was able to give him the very resources he required. Once he connected with the right people, he was able to access better distribution channels. With the capital provided by his new investor, he was able to ramp up production and quickly became quite successful.
“I’m Not Ready”
Liam leaped from a COO position in one company to the top spot in another. When he made the switch, it ruffled the feathers of many people in his old organization. Some were very vocal, telling him that he was not qualified and predicting that he would fail. His former boss approached him earnestly, honestly believing he was there to help, and told Liam he wasn’t ready for the new job. “I’m just saying this to warn you,” he insisted. “I’m trying to be your friend here,”
He may have truly believed he was trying to help, but he may also have been worried because Liam was going to the competition. He was projecting his own story of limitations onto Liam, who initially doubted himself. It was very challenging to interact with someone projecting such a negative story of his abilities and not take it personally.
Liam’s approach was to take some time to think over what his old boss said. One day, he bought a movie ticket, but instead of going to the movie he sat in an empty theater and imagined his boss’s perceptions of him playing out on the screen. That was when he saw it for what it was: a projection, not objective reality.
Liam then imagined a different story up on the screen, a story about himself being successful and meeting challenges he’d never met before. He knew that was only a story, too, but it allowed him to shift his mindset. He came to believe that it was okay that he didn’t know what challenges awaited him in his new position. He was comfortable with the ambiguity and confident in his ability to succeed in the path ahead.
“I’m Stuck Here”
Two colleagues I worked with both faced a similar dilemma. Each had risen to a mid-level leadership position that had started to become a little stagnant and was feeling resentful. Both wanted to move up in the organization, but it was a small company. There weren’t enough places at the top for them. My advice to both of them was to consider looking for new opportunities before they got too frustrated and resentful.
One chose to stay. Over the course of three years, he slowly became more sour, negative, and resentful. His attitude earned him a demotion and eventually a termination. The other took an international post. He went into a top leadership position, flourished there, and brought his new skills back to the United States, where he developed them into an exciting career.
Both initially believed that their best bet was staying with their current organization and doubted they’d find a better role elsewhere. One was able to see past that story and make a shift to thinking that it was worth exploring other possibilities. The other believed it wasn’t worth taking the chance. Both of these people’s stories ended up dictating their experience, with long-term consequences for their careers.
An Exercise to Help You Examine Your Story
This practice can help you find some distance from whatever story is currently limiting your growth and open up options that will help you to reshape your perspective. It’s a good way to “sharpen the sword,” so that when you encounter challenges you’ll be able to engage mindfully with them.
1) Sit in an upright but comfortable position.
2) Bring your awareness to the sensation of your breathing.
3) Rest your mind gently and smoothly on that feeling.
4) Recognize whatever challenge you’re facing.
5) Bring your awareness to the person or situation that you are finding difficult.
6) Ask yourself, “What is my story about this person? What am I telling myself about this challenge?”
7) Answer the question. Follow your answer all the way to the end. If your story is “I’m not ready,” keep going until you uncover the entire narrative. The narrative might go something like this: “I can’t do this job because I’m not ready. If I can’t do this job, everybody will know, and I’ll get fired. If I get fired, I might lose my house. My family might be at risk.”
8) Reflect on the whole story. What is the story giving you? Does it give you a reason to stay in your current situation? Conversely, what does it allow you to ignore? For example, does it allow you to deny your potential for growth?
9) For a few moments, give yourself permission to let go of this story and allow your mind to simply rest.
This exercise can help you loosen your most cherished stories from their foundations. By doing so, it can open you to consider new possibilities and, by doing so, pursue a course of action that your old story would have prevented you from doing. That’s real freedom.
Nick Egan, Ph.D., is an award-winning leader and executive coach known for his clear and impactful teaching style. He has served in several leadership positions, including as the head of an International Baccalaureate World School in Northern California. Nick is a sought-after speaker who utilizes his understanding of positive psychology and Buddhist philosophy to encourage organizational and personal growth. He has taught meditation techniques for more than a decade and leads educational and cultural tours to destinations including Bhutan, Mongolia, Nepal, Thailand, and Tibet. Nick holds a B.A. in psychology, an M.A. in comparative religion, and a Ph.D. in Buddhist philosophy.