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6 Signs That You're Stuck in a Negative Narrative

How to overcome the story of "not good enough."

Key points

  • The stories you tell yourself about yourself shape how you think, feel, and act.
  • However, more than what you think, it matters how you react to your own thinking.
  • By holding your thoughts lightly, you can notice that these are just stories.
  • Pay attention to these six signs, and practice holding your beliefs with more lightness and flexibility.
Source: TheStockCo/Shutterstock

What you think about yourself and the world around you tremendously affects your life and overall well-being. For instance, if you think you are worthy of love and capable of confronting and overcoming life’s challenges, you are more likely to act in ways that confirm these thoughts. On the other hand, if you think the opposite is true—that you’re unworthy and incompetent—odds are you will act in alignment with those as well. The stories you tell yourself about yourself (that is, what you believe about yourself), shape how you think, feel, and act.

However, this is only part of the truth and maybe not even the biggest part. Because more than what you think, it matters how you react to your own thinking. For instance, you might think, “I will never be good enough." But you are kind, caring, and compassionate towards yourself. It’s possible! And you know that because if you look more closely at your experience, negative thoughts don’t always land in the same way.

Sometimes therapists use the term belief to talk about thoughts that are implicitly adopted and are then complied with, or fought with—and from that point of view, the real action is not what you think so much as what you believe. In my own work, we usually say people are fused with these thoughts, or that they become entangled with these thoughts, but I’ll practice what I’m preaching here and in this post, I’ll use the term belief to refer to thoughts that are adopted as a basis of action. (Settle down Steve, this ain’t gonna kill you!)

By holding your thoughts lightly, you can notice that these are just stories your mind tells you about yourself. And even though they feel true (or sometimes even are objectively true), they don’t have to dominate your life. Thoughts are just thoughts, they don’t hold power over you unless you get caught up in them.

George Desipris / Pexels
George Desipris / Pexels

This is often easier said than done, because we all hold onto beliefs about ourselves that seem as self-evident as the fact that fire is hot, or that water makes things wet. And much too often, we don’t even realize when we’re in the grip of our own beliefs, unable to distinguish them from what is while letting ourselves be guided by them in unhelpful or self-destructive ways. For this reason, it’s important to learn how to notice when we’re stuck in a narrative that negatively affects our lives. Looking out for the following six signs may help.

Sign #1 Overidentification With Labels

The human mind is a master at categorizing. We give names to all the birds in the sky, all the fish in the sea, and literally everything else, because it helps us make sense of the world and allows us to make better decisions that ensure our survival. Scriptural stories note how powerful this is (for example, Genesis 2: 18-20) but so do science and practical experience. For instance, if someone shouts “tiger,” we don’t need to see the animal ourselves to know that we better start running. But as useful as this ability can be, it can also turn on us, especially when we apply it to ourselves.

Words can never capture the true complexity of life, and instead reduce everything to a mere label. And when we forget this fact, which we quite often do, we mistake the label for the real thing. We then reduce ourselves to being our job, to our role within our family, to a slur somebody once called us, to a mental health diagnosis we once received, and so on. We are then no longer a living being of unfathomable complexity, but we are “a janitor,” “a mom,” “a loser,” or just “depressed.” The first sign that we’re stuck in a narrative is that we overly identify with such labels.

Sign #2 Repetition of Negative Patterns

Few habits always have “good” or “bad” results, their usefulness depends on the circumstances. Take a process such as shutting down your deepest feelings. That process is a lousy basis for a fruitful relationship, but learning how to do that for short periods can be essential if you’re working as a first responder. Similar action, different context.

That said, if you repeatedly engage in unhelpful habits, see if you aren’t stuck in an unhelpful narrative. Despite what your mind may tell you about how you “have to” do what it says, it may be time to break its grip.

Sign #3 Blaming External Factors

Often, there are real forces holding people back in life; especially in a world that struggles to treat everyone with respect and dignity. But life also asks us to look at our own lives and discern what is within our ability to change. If all you see are external reasons to blame for your misery, see whether you are stuck in a negative narrative.

There are always some aspects within our control, even if it’s just our own perspective. By taking responsibility for ourselves, and making active choices in alignment with our goals and values, we are likely to move the needle in a better direction—step by step.

Sign #4 Difficulty Letting Go

Some experiences have such a strong impact, that they continue to haunt you long after they have passed. Maybe someone hurt you in a devastating way, and although you no longer speak to that person, their image and words still echo in your memories. And whenever you remember, and wrestle with that memory, you might feel your heart beating faster and your body tensing up. Again and again, you feel compelled to engage with that memory, imagining things going differently, and hoping to find a solution or even closure, which will never come.

Learning to let go can be hard, seemingly impossible even, especially if you can still feel the pain. And if you were to let go, you might have to let the people who have wronged you off the hook. But letting go is not about other people; it’s about being kind and compassionate towards yourself. It’s about noticing the toll this endless fighting has on you, and with patience and kindness reclaiming your focus and pulling it away from the itching wound and instead on the things you care deeply about.

Sign #5 Consistent Negative Self-Talk

Most of us tend to speak to ourselves in a manner we would rarely, if ever, use when talking to our friends and loved ones. We are then harsh in our judgments, and quick to punish ourselves with critical insults: “How could I be so stupid?!” “I’m a disappointment.” “I’ll never get it right.” And so on. This is often an automatic process, and we do it so quickly and naturally that we hardly ever notice it, let alone how it’s affecting our well-being.

You might have been led to believe that you need to be strict with yourself so that you stop messing up. But what does your experience tell you about how well that works? If you’re being honest with yourself, you likely agree that this approach didn’t deliver the promised results. You are not a horse to be whipped, you are instead deserving of kindness, patience, and compassion—especially when you make a mistake or when you are vulnerable. Changing your inner monologue requires active practice, but you can develop a more caring tone in time.

Sign #6 Unwillingness to Consider Alternatives

When we’re stuck in a negative narrative, life appears very much one-sided. Our vision gets closed down, and we become convinced that reality is just as our mind tells us it is. This is relatively easy to spot in other people, but it is much harder to notice the impact of beliefs on ourselves. When we wear red-tinted glasses, we don’t see our glasses; instead, we see the world as red. As a result, we feel compelled to act as if the world were red, not realizing that different views and perceptions are available, ones that are just as valid.

If we’re overly concerned about our looks, we may perceive a romantic rejection as proof of our physical inadequacies. We do not notice that it may have nothing to do with ourselves. When we become stressed about all the chores we must do on any given day, we may overlook the fact that not doing them is also an option. There are always different points of view available, some of which are more empowering than others. And by noticing the stories our mind tells us about ourselves, we can more consciously choose which we will ascribe to and which we will let go. In effect, we may not be able to choose our thoughts but we can choose our beliefs.


The narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves, and the world we live in, have a powerful impact on our mental well-being especially when we believe them. By consciously noticing these narratives – a skill you can practice in your daily life – you can learn to choose how to engage with them: whether you want to let them drive your actions or acknowledge their presence without being dictated by their demands. It’s a matter of continuously training your awareness. And whenever you get sucked back in, you can consciously refocus on what matters to you. Again and again.

Pay attention to these six signs, and practice holding your beliefs with more lightness and flexibility. You soon notice it will help you make new, better choices.

More from Steven C. Hayes Ph.D.
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