Overcoming Your Self-Limiting Stories

My parents expanded our driveway and installed a basketball hoop when I was in late elementary school. 

Through the eyes of a child, it just happened. Now, I realize the cost, time, and planning involved.

And that decision has profoundly affected my life and taught me a lesson about the stories I tell myself. 

Basketball is still my favorite form of exercise. I still play a couple times per week. 

Basketball is an emotionally rejuvenating activity for me. When playing basketball, I am fully in the moment, not worrying about anything else. I feel more alive after I play, even though we usually finish at 10 PM. 

Basketball is where I learned the power of the stories I tell myself. 

When I was bored with practicing alone, I would simulate a game situation. If I missed the shot or made the wrong pass, I would rewind the play and give myself a do-over. Giving myself the chance to make a positive game-altering play. 

I don’t think I ever left the driveway telling myself a story of defeat.

This struck me when I read this in Erwin McManus’ book Mindshift:

“We all tell ourselves a story: I’m too damaged to ever be healed; I’ve made too many mistakes to make something of my life; I just can’t get a break; I would have accomplished so much if others hadn’t held me down; I’m not talented enough to do something significant with my life; I don’t have enough money to create wealth; I’m the victim of an unfair system; I’m too young to take on so much responsibility; I’m too old to start over again. The self-limiting stories we tell ourselves are endless.

A self-limiting story is a story of defeat and discouragement, leading to emotionally disengaging from your work and calling. 

So, how do you overcome self-limiting stories?

1. Notice the stories you tell yourself and your team.

I have been on teams where the victim story dominated. We focused on external forces—like the economy, a lack of resources, and societal changes–which had doomed us to failure. It was exhausting and demotivating.

Becoming aware of the stories you tell yourself and your team is a critical first step.

2. Realize every great story has an “all is lost” moment.

The next time you watch a movie, look for the “all is lost” moment. It’s when you wonder if the protagonist will actually overcome–where you feel hopeless and in despair.

In the classic American masterpiece, Tommy Boy, it’s when the board is about to sign over the company to a competitor after Tommy cannot get enough sales.

3. If you are at an “all is lost” moment, ask, “What does this make possible?”

I got this question from one of my virtual mentors, Dan Miller.

This question triggers solution-oriented thinking.

4. Focus on the greater cause in your story.

This is Erwin McManus again: “Everyone has a role to play in the good that needs to be done in the world. Find yours and give it everything you have.”

Tommy was not just saving the company. He was saving his friends’ jobs.

Focus on the good you want to bring to the world, and you naturally start telling better stories–first to yourself and then to others. 


Brian Rutherford

Brian Rutherford is the Chief Operating Officer for Leadercast. Brian has been telling stories professionally for twenty-five years. Stories that inspire people to see themselves and the world differently. Stories that challenge people to take meaningful action in the world.

More Articles