6 Stories That Are Holding You Back

Learn how to rewrite your mental stories to become a more engaged, proactive, and successful person.

Ana├»s Nin, echoing some ancient wisdom, wrote that “we don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”

True story. The idea that the world is just a reflection of our own thoughts, memories, and experiences — our “stories” — is one of the most useful insights into happiness, success, and self-development. Change those thoughts, and the world changes with them.

So when we talk about getting better, we have to talk about our stories. The personal narratives that we develop early in life — almost always out of fear — can prevent us from becoming the people we want to be.

In this piece, we’ll be looking at some of the most common stories that hold people back, and how you can move beyond these limiting stories to more accurate and empowering ones.

Starting with the common belief that…

1. I’m just not good enough.

The Story

When you struggle, you might find yourself saying things like “I’m just not good/talented/smart/interesting enough to succeed.” Other versions of this story include:

  • “I am who I am.”
  • “I was just raised this way.”
  • “No matter how much I practice, I’ll never beat people who are naturally gifted.”

These are all different versions of the same basic story that says: “I’m just not good enough to achieve the things I want, and there’s no way I can get better.”

This is one of the most attractive personal narratives, because it fundamentally lets you off the hook for your own success. Believing that you’re simply not good enough exonerates you from the responsibility to change, grow, and rise to challenges.

Which makes sense: Change is hard work! Self-improvement is a road filled with pain, failure, and rejection. Believing that your talent is fixed gives you permission to remain stagnant, while shifting responsibility for your life to factors outside your control: your upbringing, your genes, or your past.

As painful as it is to believe, this story serves to avoid even more pain — the pain of growth. If you’re just not good enough, and you can’t become good enough, then there’s no reason to try to improve.

Changing the Story

There is an alternative to this story, and that alternative is a growth mindset. Instead of treating your capability as fixed, you can tell yourself: “I can grow and learn, and I can change as a person by trying to work toward new goals.”

By adopting that new story, you’re saying, “I am good enough right now. I’m good enough to build on the talent I currently have, in order to become more talented down the road.”

This story serves you by reframing your current limitations as one stage in your ongoing evolution. Instead of thinking of your talent as fixed, it opens you up to treat your talent as a dynamic process of constant self-improvement. With incremental improvement, you can transcend “who you are” — and find out that “who you are” is constantly changing.

Making This New Story a Reality

As with all stories, you’ll begin to believe this alternative story the more you live it.

First, approach your goals and activities with the sole objective of pushing yourself beyond your current capabilities. Focus more on trying new things, learning new skills, meeting new people, and exploring your own talent than on “succeeding.” The real success is evolving as a person — which was precisely what the old story prevented you from doing.

Along the way, stay motivated by tracking your growth each day. No matter how insignificant the events of the day seem, write down the lessons you learned in a journal. Focus on moments of growth, including (and especially) small ones. This will allow you to see your own development as it happens, and to replace the old story that your capabilities are fixed.

At wide intervals — say, once a month or once a quarter — take a step back and study your progress. When you compare yourself to your last check-in, can you see a difference in your performance? In your self-conception? When you commit to daily reflection, then use those daily reflections to track progress over time, it becomes very difficult to believe that your capability is fixed.

2. I’m too late.

The Story

Whenever you see a young entrepreneur land millions in funding, watch a precocious young artist get attention, or discover that someone has already built your product, you might think wistfully, “It’s too late. I can’t compete with them!”

Other versions of this story include:

  • “I missed the boat on this opportunity. It’s too late.”
  • “I missed the [insert major phase or moment here].”
  • “I’m too old. Everyone else trying to do it will be younger than me.”
  • “I’m embarrassed to go through the awkward learning phase this late in life.”

This story is appealing because it gives you another compelling reason to avoid the challenge of building something of your own and improving yourself in the process. It equates success with opportunity, and suggests that there is a narrow window in which to achieve your goals, which lets you off the hook if you’ve “missed” that window.

In its more personal forms, this story also lets you obsess over age and experience. It idealizes younger people, and attributes their success to their age, rather than their talent or hard work. It automatically takes you out of the game, and passes the baton to people who are younger or less experienced — or, more accurately, to people who don’t buy into that narrative.

Changing the Story

Rather than believe you’ve missed the boat, try rewriting this story as “I can take action now.”

Because the truth is, there is no such thing as “too old.” Ray Kroc was 52 when he met the McDonald brothers and opened his first franchise, and 59 when he bought the business from them. Oprah Winfrey was 29 when she first hosted a local TV show, AM Chicago, which would go on to become The Oprah Winfrey Show. There are dozens of stories just like Kroc’s and Winfrey’s.

From a historical perspective, any moment presents an opportunity to start something new. Amazingly, despite the Dot-Com boom, even people in the late ’90s/early 2000s thought they were too late, as they’d missed the 1970 hardware boom and 1985 development of the Internet. They were wrong, of course, just as builders today who believe they’ve missed the boat are ignoring a new wave of opportunities. The story that you’re “too late” has been attractive at every point in history, and every decade proves that story false.

Believing that you can take action at any time removes a seductive excuse from your vocabulary. You’ll realize that you can actually take action and learn, grow, improve, and seize opportunities as they come, no matter where you are in life, and no matter where you are in history. As time passes, every moment creates a huge amount of opportunity, and demands the talents of people of all ages.

Making This New Story a Reality

Despite our culture’s obsession with youth (and the way we tend to fetishize young creators), there is plenty of evidence that age and experience matter more, not less, in today’s world. Older founders bring with them the experience and maturity necessary to build great teams. They often understand markets and customers better, because they’ve seen more of the world. They also have the benefit of understanding trends and phases in a historical context, and can see how their projects fit into them. There are advantages to youth, to be sure — but there are just as many advantages — possibly more — to age.

So rather than treat your age as a hurdle, reframe it as an asset: “I’m not too late, I can take action now, and I can take action now because of my age, experience and position in history.”

Then start to capitalize on all of your related assets. Use the network you’ve accumulated over the years. Apply the wisdom you’ve gathered over time. What have you learned that would be costly for someone else to learn firsthand? You have years worth of experience and networking in your field. How can you apply that unique value to the world around you?

Frame your age and position as the assets they are, and the world will see them as you do.

3. I’m just not a lucky person.

The Story

When you enter a challenging period in your life — possibly during a moment of envy — you might think, “I have no control over life. I’m just not as lucky as other people.”

Other versions of this story include:

  • “I was born into bad circumstances, and that’s all that matters.”
  • “Everyone else seems to get all the luck and opportunities.”
  • “The world is unfair to me.”

This story is so attractive because it shifts events to an external locus of control — and not just any external locus, but a random and probabilistic one. If life is about luck, and you just aren’t lucky, then there’s little role for hard work, and you don’t have to take action. At the same time, you attribute other people’s good fortune to random chance, rather than talent and determination. (Are you starting to see a common thread here?)

Changing the Story

You are in control of way more than you think. As Chuck Swindoll said, life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you react to it. What you perceive as luck usually plays a much smaller role than it seems. If luck matters, it’s only because of the hard work and preparation that led up to it.

So try reframing this story as “I can create my own opportunities.” Ironically, this is precisely the story what many “lucky” people believe.

This version serves you better by pushing you to take ownership over your life and become more accountable for your actions. It dispels the mystical quality of “luck” and replaces it with hard work (again, a common thread of these alternative stories). It also forces you to look at other people’s success as a product of effort, not random chance. As we’ll discuss in a moment, this version also invites more luck into your life.

Making This New Story a Reality

First, notice what the original version of the story did for you: It provided a false comfort, an easy rationalization, and a way to gain sympathy, while keeping you stagnant, safe and bitter. Seeing what a flawed story does to you is the first step in rewriting it.

Second, start behaving as if luck weren’t the main factor driving success. Even if you don’t believe it yet, try that alternative story on as an experiment. Examine other people’s success, and look for the actual hard work, decisions and mindsets that made it happen. At the same time, examine your own success (or lack of it). In what ways are you waiting for luck to strike before you can make it? How has not believing in your own luck held you back?

Ultimately, this new story isn’t designed to remove the element of luck from your life. In fact, it’s only by de-prioritizing luck that we can actually invite more of it into our lives. If luck is preparation meets opportunity, as the saying goes, then we need to constantly be preparing for and identifying those opportunities. Only then can luck really serve us — when we’re not busy exaggerating its importance, or denying its possibility. So another version of this alternative story is, “I am a lucky person — potentially as lucky as other people — but I have to work hard for that luck.”

On a practical level, you can start creating your own opportunities by executing in small ways. List out three ambitious goals and five steps you can take to achieve them. Look at each goal’s first step, and list out three of the smallest steps you can take to make progress toward them. You should have nine small steps you can take. Then, spend the next week executing on each of these steps. This is what people mean when they tell you to “be proactive” or “create your own luck.” In the process, you’ll find that what seems like luck is almost always execution, and that when luck does strike, it tends to strike those who have hustled for it.

At the same time, become more mindful of the luck you do have. This is a form of gratitude and an important part of all self-development. Each night, review or write down three things you’re grateful for. These things could be plans you’re excited about, a book you’re reading, a person you just met, or a step you took today. Not only does this change your lens, it also helps you discover some valuable assets you’ve been ignoring in your old story.

4. The world should love me for who I am.

The Story

When we confront the need to change — whether it’s our networking habits or our physical appearance — we often justify the decision to stay the same. A familiar story makes its appearance: “I don’t need to change. The world should appreciate me for who I already am.”

Other versions of this story include:

  • “I want to remain true to myself.”
  • “I shouldn’t have to change to please other people.”
  • “The world shouldn’t tell me who to be.”

This might be the most seductive of all the stories we’re discussing here, because it contains a kernel of truth. On the one hand, we want to constantly strive to become better people. On the other, we want to constantly strive to be more of ourselves — to be authentic and confident people. This seems like a contradiction, and that’s why the story is so compelling.

This story is also attractive because it protects us from the pain and insecurity of growth. If you feel like change threatens your identity, you have a great reason to avoid it. Armed with this narrative, you’re empowered to stay the same, because you believe that world should love you despite your limitations.

Changing the Story

On a closer look, our real goal in life isn’t to simply “be ourselves,” but to be the best version of ourselves. So a more helpful story would be: “The world should love me for the best version of who I am” — which will always involve change and growth.

This story serves you better by placing you in a growth mentality and driving you to change. But this isn’t the kind of surface-level change that is designed to please other people. If your goal is to be the best you, then you avoid the temptation to change for the world, which was the premise of the flawed story.

Believing that the world should love the best version of who you are allows you to evolve while still protecting your authenticity. You’re still being who you are, but discovering that who you are can change — hopefully for the better — once you let go of the idea that the world must love you no matter what.

Making This New Story a Reality

First, stay focused on your core values and beliefs, and use them to guide your self-development. If you’ve never really thought about them before, write them down now. Review them every week or month. Whenever you come across something that really makes you question or modify your beliefs, don’t let pride or your ego get in the way of your growth. Ask yourself if the transformation is serving your best self, and follow the journey.

Along the way, test this new story by noticing how the world reacts to your changes. Do your co-workers treat you differently when you start taking your leadership more seriously? Does your dating life change when you get in shape? Does your family respond differently when you make an effort to connect? If the world should love you for the best version of who you are — which is true — then find out if it does.

In some cases, you won’t get the response from the world you had expected. This is where the new story becomes most interesting. Your family might resent that you’ve lost weight. Your co-workers might become envious of your newfound passion. These reactions might seem to reinforce the original story that the world should have loved you for who you were. But that might also be evidence that you are becoming the best version of yourself — and that you get to define “the world.” That’s why people who believe this alternative story start to make radical changes in their lives: distancing themselves from unsupportive friends and family, landing exciting new roles and jobs, and surrounding themselves with similarly inspired people.

5. Change requires major effort.

The Story

Whenever you think about changing, you might envision an extreme commitment. For example, you think about getting healthy, and immediately imagine having to lose 50 pounds. The underlying story is: “I can’t change, because I don’t have the time, energy or dedication to make such a massive transformation.”

This story also manifests as:

  • “I need to read more, but it’ll take months to finish reading this book.”
  • “I need to start working out, but I can’t make it to the gym five days a week.”
  • “I should really get out more, but that means I have to sign up for a bunch of dating sites.”
  • “I know I need to network, but that’s a full-time job.”

If a change requires extreme transformation, then we have a compelling reason to put it off. When you jump to the extremes of the end result, the change seems unreasonable — and so perfectly acceptable to put off. We don’t read, because we can’t speed-read through that stack of books. We don’t work out, because we can’t become fitness fanatics with six packs. As a result, all change remains in the impossible future.

Changing the Story

The best change is moderate, and even extreme change happens slowly, in pieces, over time. So try rewriting this story to “Change requires small adjustments,” and see how this new story frees you up to transform.

You can see how this new story would make the examples above much more practical. You know you need to read, so you decide to get through 10 pages a night. No one’s timing you, and in a few months, you’ve read that biography sitting on your bookshelf for years. Similarly, you need to start working out, so you go for a walk every other day, and sign up for a yoga class once a week. Just like that, you’re exercising without a huge commitment. And when it comes to networking, you might not become a superconnector tomorrow — but you could reach out to a new person once a week, and introduce two people you know once a month.

This story serves you better by break change down into little steps and small adjustments to be completed over time.

Making This New Story a Reality

Most change isn’t extreme — and shouldn’t be. When you’re planning your change, think in terms of small improvements every day. If you improve just by 1% every day, you’ll improve 37x by the end of the year (1.01 ^ 365). As writer James Clear notes, it might not be noticeable in the short run, but the aggregated changes will be meaningful in the long run.

If you ever feel overwhelmed or blocked, shift your focus to immediate goals. Get your tasks done for the day. You might be far from your goal on any given day, but you don’t have to be far from your daily commitment. Recognize the train of thought that obsesses over who you need to be in the future. Trust the process. If you commit to small change moment to moment, then you’ll wake up one day to find that the major transformation has magically taken place.

6. The world owes me.

The Story

When you’re dissatisfied with life, and feeling like your goals aren’t unfolding as you expected, you start to think, “I’m not getting what I deserve! The world owes me something.”

Other versions of this story include:

  • “I’m waiting for my moment to come.”
  • “People aren’t living up to their promises to me.”
  • “I deserve [insert goal or object here].”
  • “Things will work out on their own.”
  • “If I want it badly enough, it will happen.”

When we talk about entitlement, this is the story we’re talking about. It’s incredibly attractive because it shifts responsibility for your achievements onto everything except you. You get to become the victim who was denied a promise by the world, and take comfort in that mentality. You then grow comfortable waiting, wanting, wishing, and believing that this story will magically attract the things you want into your life.

Changing the Story

Instead of believing that the world owes you something, try on a new story: “I’m entitled to the rewards of my hard work, and nothing more.”

That version of the story offers a healthy version of entitlement, in which you deserve the fruits of your labor, rather than some unspoken promise from the world. It ties entitlement to effort, and prevents you from thinking that things will work out simply because they “have” to.

Remember: The world doesn’t care about what you love; the world pays for what it needs — so you have to work at the intersection. Ultimately, the world owes you nothing, and you must accept reality on reality’s terms (which, by the way, is what Dr. Drew Pinsky defines as mental health).

Making This New Story a Reality

Start by looking at the assumptions of your old story. What do you believe the world owes you, and why? By what virtue does the world owe you anything? If it hasn’t lived up to that promise, then where did it go wrong? Once you look at the premises of the old story, you will find that it quickly falls apart.

Next, think about the role you might play in getting the world to give you what you want. What would you have to do get what you deserve? What have other people, who have achieved these things, done differently from you? Inevitably, you will find that any accomplishment requires hard work and conscious effort, rather than an abstract desire or expectation.

At the same time, look at your heroes. Read their biographies and study their lives. See if they had an entitlement mentality. Did they behave as if the world owed them? If not, what did they do? What stories did they adopt to accelerate their growth? See how these principles would apply to your own life.

Then, get practical. Plan out some action steps and start to actually work towards the things you feel entitled to. Break them down into smaller goals. As you start taking these baby steps, examine the results. See if you’re closer to your goals for having worked toward them or merely expecting them to happen.

This process might be difficult and sometimes scary. You might have invested a large part of your life in this story of entitlement. But the freedom and excitement of seeing the delusion far outweigh the security of believing it, so try on the new story, and see how it sparks you into action.

No More Excuses

Ultimately, these stories all have one underlying premise in common: They deflect responsibility for your success onto other things or people. As a result, they deliver a dangerous one-two punch, by keeping you stuck in one place with a compelling reason to stay there.

At the end of the day, though, you only have real control over one thing: you.

To honor that commitment, start rewriting your unproductive stories into empowering ones. Examine each story that frustrates you, and explore the alternative. As you live the new story, you’ll find that slipping back into the old one will become less and less attractive.

Over time, these stories will forge your identity and become part of who you are — which is why we have to make sure they work for us, and not the other way around.

Lead photo by Elias Ruiz Monserrat