Is Your Story Holding You Back?

Is your story holding you back by Cathy Jacob at

Photo Credit: What’s your story? by optop

How to turn limiting beliefs into empowering stories.

If you’d rather listen than read, follow this link to Sound Insight, Season 2, episode 10.

Humans are storytelling machines.

Storytelling is how we make sense of our world. Before we learned to read, most of us listened to stories that provided the underlying scaffolding for how we perceived our world.

We live our lives through stories. We tell stories about each other, we wrap stories around our experiences and most important, we tell stories about ourselves. They give life meaning, a reassuring sense of arc and our place in that arc.

The stories we believe about ourselves can empower us, inspire us, and sustain us. They can also hold us back.

They can keep us from fully living into our potential. Sometimes they aren’t even ours. They’ve been told to us by others – our parents, teachers, and other authority figures. We’ve not questioned them. We’ve embodied them and carried the burden of them.

When we adopt these stories, they shape our behavior. The behavior, in turn, provides evidence of their truth. The stories become a part of our identity.

They can fix us in place.

How is your story holding you back?

When I was in elementary school, my teachers complained that I was slow. Not dumb, exactly, just slow and scattered. Report cards would come home with statements like “Cathy is slow. She needs to apply herself.” Or “Cathy needs to pay attention.”

My mother would sometimes get frustrated with me and complain about my laziness. Eventually, I believed the story. “Slow and lazy” became a part of my identity. In my youth, I collected mountains of evidence to support this story. I developed a procrastination habit. In university, I turned my procrastination habit into an all-nighter habit, to get my assignments in on time. I’d be too tired to go to class, providing further evidence of my “lazy” story.

Fast forward to my professional life. It did not take long for me to figure out that “slow and lazy” were not highly prized traits in the business world. So, the job became hiding these parts of myself behind a kind of hyper-diligence. Because I believed I was slow, I told myself I had to work harder and longer than everybody else to keep up. Because I believed I was lazy, I believed I had to whip myself to keep from slacking off. I had to be seen to be pulling my weight. I felt I couldn’t say no.

None of this was conscious. It was my way of coping. I worked exceptionally long hours, took on more than was reasonable, sacrificed sleep and family time, and lived in a constant state of hypervigilance and stress. This led to severe and debilitating burnout in my late thirties.

The fixed story of slow and lazy, and the unconscious ways it drove my behavior made my work life unbearable.

Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams studies how personal narratives shape our outlook and our lives. He calls it “narrative identity.” He has found that when people tell stories about overcoming adversity, being resourceful, and having agency in their lives, these beliefs tend to be reflected in the quality of their behavior and experience.

This notion of a fixed story also appears in Carol Dweck’s research with school age children. Students she studied who believed their abilities, intelligence, and talents were fixed traits tended to take fewer risks and were reluctant to try more challenging tasks. Students who believed they could improve with effort tended to take more risks and demonstrate more persistence. This research became the basis for her theory of fixed and growth mindsets.

Take a closer look at your stories.

One of the things I do as a coach is listen carefully to the stories people tell me about themselves. These stories can provide clues to what is propelling them forward and what is holding them back. As the work progresses, I may gently start poking at these stories, particularly if I sense they are getting in the way.

What stories do you tell yourself? How do you describe your traits, strengths, and weaknesses?

Pay attention to your “I am” statements, particularly statements like: “I am not good at______; I can’t ______; I never ______; or I always ______.”

Here are a few that may be familiar to you.

“I’m no good with numbers.”

“I’m not a gym person.”

“I’m not a morning person.”

“I work best under pressure.”

“I’m not good with people.”

Are your stories serving you or getting in your way? Are they motivating you or letting you off the hook? It helps to treat any fixed story with skepticism.

I love this simple progression of questions?

  • Is that true?
  • Is it always true?
  • What evidence have you collected for that story?
  • Can you think of an example in your life where this story does not hold up?

In my own case, I started to question my “slow and lazy” story after my burnout became so severe, I felt it necessary to leave my job.

A few months later, I had lunch with one of my former colleagues. She told me that the people at my former job had named a printer after me because it “handles the biggest load in the office and never breaks down.” The sad part of that story was, while the printer didn’t break down, I did. I did, because I believed a faulty story, one I was trying to hide.

Do you have a story that is holding you back? What if you could rewrite it?

How to create a more empowering story.

What if you could create an authentic story that is empowering and liberating?

The question is, how? Here is where it gets a little tricky. It’s a little chicken and egg. What comes first? The change in story or the change in behavior?

In my experience, it’s an iterative process.

You uncover and challenge the story that is not serving you. You ask yourself, “What small change could I make that would tell a different story?”

Several months after leaving my job, with the help of a friend, I decided to try running. I did not see myself as a runner or fit, much less fit enough to run. I didn’t believe my body was capable of running.

My friend started me on a routine of walking for two minutes, running for one minute. Initially, I wasn’t crazy about the running part. But I didn’t die, so I kept going. We met on weekday mornings at 6 a.m. (another unlikely thing for a slow and lazy person to do). Over the next several weeks, we reduced the walking time to one minute and gradually added more and more minutes to the running time. Then we just skipped the walking and ran for 10, then 20 minutes. Then my first 5K and then a 10K. I’m not going to tell you it looked pretty out there or that it ever really looked like running, but whatever it was, I was doing it.

Before I knew it, I was not only a runner, but for the first time in my life, I was the kind of person who was disciplined about exercise.

As James Clear wrote in his bestselling book, Atomic Habits. “New identities require new evidence.”

You build a new story over time by being skeptical and challenging stories that limit you. You take small actions to build evidence for your more empowering story. As Clear says, “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.”

How to grow beyond your story.

Lasting freedom from limiting stories, does not come from replacing them with better stories.

Liberation comes from recognizing they are simply stories.

You are far too complex, nuanced, and interesting to become encapsulated in a simple story.

All stories are partial. All are limited, even the empowering ones.

You become the author of your own life when you understand that your story is still unfolding. You become liberated when you realize you are a human being on a journey of becoming. A human being worthy of love and compassion exactly as you are, wherever you are.

As David Brooks, one of the wisest writers I know, put it in his New York Times Opinion column,

“Maybe the dignity in being human is not being Achilles, the bold, thoughtless actor. Maybe the great human accomplishment is being Homer, the wise storyteller. In telling ever more accurate stories about ourselves, we send different beliefs, values, and expectations down into the complex nether reaches of our minds, and – in ways we may never understand – that leads to better desires, better decision-making, and more gracious living.”

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    Cathy Jacob

    I'm Cathy Jacob. I am a writer, coach and co-founder of Fire Inside Leadership. After two decades of coaching leaders on how to inspire while navigating the challenges of demanding careers and lives, I’ve created this site to share the best of what I’ve learned from my courageous clients and leaders in the fields of psychology, leadership, philosophy and neuroscience on what it takes to live an inspired life.


    1. Terry Finnigan on April 30, 2023 at 6:07 pm

      Thank you so much for using your voice to share this simple AND profound insight.

      • Cathy Jacob on May 24, 2023 at 1:27 pm

        And thank you, Terry, for your encouragement.

    2. Shailan Topiwala on May 24, 2023 at 1:52 am

      Nice work Cathy.

      I may add that our stories can be socialized or utilized in the form of a pyramid. the key messages of our story are supported by….

      Your positivity stands strong and true, Your message is clear. Thank you.


      • Cathy Jacob on May 24, 2023 at 1:24 pm

        Cool perspective, Shailan! Thank you for your kind words and for taking the time to comment.

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