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Self-Limiting Narratives That Box Us in and Helpful Rewrites

How our self-talk can hold us back and convince us we are moving forward.

Key points

  • Sometimes we invoke self-imiting narratives to justify taking a certain course of action – or, inaction.
  • A "why bother" narrative rewrittren in a larger or different context can reframe our understanding and help us move forward.
  • Using your purpose and values to discover what is important is a powerful place to find meaning and change our narratives.
Man with brain.
Source: alphaspirit/123rf

Many of my coaching clients invoke limiting narratives to justify taking a certain course of action – or, indeed, inaction: “I can’t do this because that.” We all can fall foul of the unhelpful stories we tell ourselves, narratives or justifications that block us from progressing both personally and professionally.

Coaching can help you get unstuck. It provides a powerful space to examine problematic narratives and develop new and better stories. But first you need to recognize the self-limiting narratives that keep you from moving forward.

Here are two common narratives I’ve encountered among clients I coach. The scenarios below describe how these limiting narratives hold us back and offers tools for rewriting our stories.

Limiting Narrative 1: “Why bother?”

Elizabeth is applying for a coveted leadership position (to which she is ideally suited) within her organization. She has meticulously prepared for interview, but she has not built any alliances around her candidature. She hasn’t enlisted support from peers, senior managers, or the CEO – the key player in making this appointment.

In coaching, we explore why this important task of networking and self-promotion has fallen off her radar.

Elizabeth explains that such activities feel “inappropriate.” She doesn’t want to “brown-nose.” Her justification is: “He knows I’m applying, so why do I need to meet with him to tell him?”

She is blocking her progress with a double-whammy: first, a limited understanding of the importance of relationship-building in leadership, and second, an aversion to moving outside her comfort zone.

Rewrite: “Bother” – and Write a New Narrative

Together, we explore what leadership means in Elizabeth’s organization and where she might need to revise/update her understanding. Here are the steps Elizabeth took to rewrite her narrative:

Step 1: Write a summary describing what it means to be a leader in your organization.

I asked Elizabeth to articulate her understanding of leadership in her organization. She initially focused heavily on “making sure other people achieve their goals.”

Step 2: Get your draft reviewed by at least 3 peers and 2 senior managers.

This step reality-tested Elizabeth’s understanding and encouraged her to have leadership conversations with others. In undertaking this step, she broadened her understanding of leadership and became more visible to others in her organization.

Step 3: Revise your draft, based on any new information.

Elizabeth made two significant additions to her summary after conversations with others, adding both the relational and the learning components of leadership. These factors were vital in changing her narrative around requesting a meeting with her CEO—it now became an important growth opportunity, regardless of the outcome. She also recognized it as an opportunity to demonstrate leadership precisely when she wants to be seen as a leader.

It is easy to define success narrowly. For Elizabeth, success once meant simply obtaining a new leadership position. She is still waiting to hear on the post, but she is now able to claim victory for her efforts to cultivate relationships, broaden her learning, and step out of her comfort zone—all important leadership victories whether or not she secures the post.

Limiting Narrative 2: “There’s no point…”

Tsige is a senior VP in the regional office of a hierarchical organization. She describes her boss as arrogant and authoritarian. He has been bypassing her and asking her direct reports to do things for him. Tsige feels undermined, and it is uncomfortable for her and her team.

I ask Tsige what she has already done to address this. She had asked her boss if she could help after he approached one of her staff, but she hasn’t confronted him directly about the issue. When we explore why, her justification is: “He’ll never change. There’s no point.”

Rewrite: Find “The Point” – Create a Values-based Narrative

Tsige’s narrative led to an impasse. Working with values helps to change that. Tsige spoke passionately about “following the rules,” fairness, and her team. This opened space to explore her values. Here are some questions we discussed:

  1. When you think of your work, what values are important to you? Tsige identified her core value as “service” – to communities and, as a servant leader, to protecting and supporting her team.
  2. What value of yours is violated when your boss bypasses you and goes directly to your team? For Tsige, the answer was “fairness.” Her boss’s behavior was not fair to her or her team. He wasn’t following the rules, and the fact that this behavior was “allowed” within the organization increased her sense of violation and resentment.
  3. If you chose to approach this challenge guided by your value of service – what possibilities would that open up for you? Tsige wanted to restore order to the departmental working relationship and eliminate any feelings of discomfort for both her and her team. We looked at how Tsige could practice service towards herself and support her growth through leaning into conflict and having difficult conversations.

Once Tsige recognized that her reticence to speak to her boss violated her own value of service to protect and support her team, she had that difficult conversation. Even if her boss wasn’t going to change (in fact, he was due to retire shortly), she was able to expand her leadership skills and reclaim her own strength, changing the narrative.

The stories we tell ourselves can box us in. Or they can open windows even when the door is closed. What narrative are you telling yourself that are keeping you from taking the next big step?