Stop Telling Stories That Hold You Back

In 1839 a playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” In one sentence, he summarized the fact that words have massive power over our lives whether we realize it or not. The language and words we use when communicating our thoughts to the outside world have an impact on whether we will be taken seriously or not. Picking the right words can help us influence others in a positive way. Selecting the wrong words can result in us being ignored or ridiculed.

An infamous German dictator allegedly said, “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.” Unfortunately, that applies not only persuading others but also to our inner voice persuading us. The words and the stories we tell impact not only those around us but they have a significant effect on our own well-being.

If we keep telling ourselves that no one can be trusted and everyone is trying to hurt us it will have an impact on how we act towards others. We will be unwilling to trust, will make sarcastic comments, will even accuse others of lying and trying to harm us. Over time we build a bubble around us. People will indeed stop trusting us. They will avoid us, talk behind our back, and won’t be willing to help us in the times of need. And it all started with a victim story we repeatedly told to ourselves.

We tell stories

The stories we tell to yourselves create our self-limiting beliefs. These are the beliefs about ourselves, ingrained in our brain, that holds us back, and that don’t allow us to realize our full potential. They are the basis for excuses that we tell that prevent us from facing reality and changing our behavior. It is so much easier to blame something or someone else for our misfortunes than to take a hard look at our life and make a change.

So what are the types of stories we tell to ourselves? How do they make us feel and how do they prevent us from achieving greatness? And what can we do to reframe to story, so it is more helpful and gives us a push in the right direction, instead of holding us back?

Powerlessness story – this is the story we tend to tell when we prefer passivity over action. Instead of admitting that there is something we can do to change the circumstances or outcome we just say, “well, what can I do?” We don’t even try to do anything. We give up and say we are powerless to do anything about it. We are quietly accepting our faith. We are not even angry about it. We are just resigned. And often there is a lot we could actually do if only we wanted to.

Victim story – this is the type of the story we tell when we expect others should react in some way to our actions and they don’t. Let’s say I offer to buy you lunch out of the kindness of my heart. You accept and are thankful for that. But you don’t reciprocate. Why should you? But I had some expectations that you would return the favor eventually. Now I feel like a victim who was cheated by the ungrateful person you are. I’m making all this effort, even spend money on you, and you don’t care. Poor little me. I’m making myself to feel like a victim of situation I myself created. Instead of being happy I gave you a gift that you appreciated I turned it all around and feel bad.

Villain story – for us to be able to feel like real victims it helps to find a villain. Sometimes there is even actual harm, or potential harm, done to us, but instead of shrugging it off we start telling a villain story. It makes us feel better about our own anger if we think that they are doing it on purpose. We just assume that others have evil intentions and tell a story to ourselves, and often also to others, describing the individual as a nasty character who is there to harm us. Many of us do this all the time even when we don’t realize it.

Just consider a situation when you are driving a car, overtaking someone who goes slower and they suddenly accelerate and prevent you from overtaking them. What do you tell yourself? “Oh, look at that idiot, he saw me overtaking him, but he ego wouldn’t survive it so he accelerated on purpose so I couldn’t overtake even though he saw that there is a car coming in the other direction and there is a danger of an accident.” It is a nice story to tell. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with reality. The chances are that the other driver just didn’t see you and accelerated since he saw a long stretch of nice road in front of him. He may not even be aware you exist. But in your mind, he is the villain who is trying to get you killed.

Cultural story – in this type of story you blame your parents, upbringing and the environment for your misfortunes. To be fair many self-limiting beliefs have real roots in your childhood. But that shouldn’t be an excuse why not to change. Even in your adulthood, you keep coming back to your childhood to explain why you can’t do something.

Let me use an example of one story I used to tell myself. I was brought up in an environment where it was customary during meals to eat everything on your plate. It didn’t matter whether you were hungry or not. It just wasn’t polite to leave anything on the plate. I have no idea why. It was this way through generations. I wouldn’t be surprised if it started a hundred years ago during some war when there wasn’t enough food and the common sense was to eat as much while you can. The war ended, the practice survived.

It was well into my thirties that I lived by that rule. I would eat everything that was on the plate regardless of whether I was hungry and even to the point of not feeling well. Why? Because “you don’t leave food on your plate.” That was the story I learned from my parents, and that was the belief I held until the day when I got sick and realized what a crazy story this is. I replaced it with another story, “it is ok to leave food on the plate if you already have enough.” Over a couple of months the amount of food started to get down, I ate only what my body needed, and I began to feel more energy and got healthier.

Genetics or That’s-just-me story – this is the most often used story to be used as an excuse for inappropriate behavior. You do something that you know irritates others, but instead of trying to change your behavior you just say, “sorry, that’s just me.” I was recently at a meeting where one of the participants was five minutes late. When he finally showed up, he said, “I know. I am late again. That’s just who I am.”

Another example from a couple years back when in emotionally charged situation one manager got really angry and started yelling at a subordinate. Eventually, he calmed down, realized that it was unacceptable behavior, but instead of an apology and some plan how to change he just said, “I have a short fuse, and if I hear stuff like this I get angry.” That’s it. Instead of changing the behavior that he knew was not ok, he just blamed it on him being him and that there is nothing he can do about it.

Change the story

It is great to be authentic. It is great to speak our mind. But we need to continually keep looking at whether our honesty and authenticity doesn’t hurt us and those around. You may say that being always late is the authentic “you.” That’s is an excuse. There is no gene in your DNA that says, “be always late.” You can as easily say that your new “you” will always be on time.

Changing the internal narrative, the story you are telling yourself is the first step in a meaningful change in your attitude and life. Identify what your self-limiting beliefs are and then for each of them create an alternative story that is more healthy and that will lead you to success. Let me give you a couple of examples:

  Limiting Story Enhancing Story
Powerlessness story Someone cut in front of me in a queue, well, what can I do. It is not acceptable cutting in front of other people, I will address this calmly and assertively.
Victim story I was again skipped for promotion, it is not fair. Next time, I need to do a better job to show my contributions.
Villain story He ate the whole cake. Such a jerk who doesn’t care about anyone except himself. He may not have realized that I wanted some of the cake. I should calmly explain to him that it was meant for everyone.
Cultural story I can’t help you, that’s not how things are done around here. Of course, I can help you. I care about your success regardless of what others say.
Genetics story Sorry for being late. That’s just me. I’m a professional who is always on time.

As you can see changing the narrative often means learning not to assume anything. Making assumptions is the arch-enemy of good communication especially between people with different cultural and educational background. Changing the narrative also means not being afraid to take action. Often when you tell a more constructive story, it will make you to take a stand and to act more assertively. This will ultimately enhance the quality of your interactions and the satisfaction you will feel with your life.


Photo: darksouls1 /

I’m gathering material for a book about introversion, leadership and successful careers, and I would love to hear from you! If you are an introvert, who has a successful career and/or who moved to a leadership role, I would like to ask you to share your experience with me. I prepared a couple of short survey’s that will make it easy for you: Strengths of successful introverts (What strengths introverts have that can help them be successful?); Blueprint of a successful career (What is required for a successful career?); Strategies for introverted leaders (As an introverted leader what strategies do you use to lead and manage others effectively?)

Categories: Career, Communication, Life

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