Thickening the Narrative on Limiting Beliefs
The idea of the "limiting belief" or the "cognitive error" is common in psychology and personal growth worlds. Limiting beliefs are incorrect or incomplete cognitive patterns (thoughts, stories, belief structures) we hold that prevent us from reaching or pursuing our highest human potential.
Many schools of thought in psychology and self-help are built around helping folks rewrite the narrative on limiting beliefs: through affirmations, consciously telling ourselves new stories, and challenging the limiting narratives head on. These are honorable and important techniques and a crucial step within the healing process.
However, sometimes you might notice that you run into a roadblock. After a while, that initial rush of joy and empowerment you used to feel when you told yourself the new belief or the affirmation starts to fall flat. Maybe you feel confused, defensive, irritable, or depressed. You long for that feeling of empowerment—after all, you want the new narrative to be true. But it's not ringing true. It doesn't feel authentic.
When I feel this way, I like to thicken the narrative.
In my experience, the problem with my limiting beliefs is not so much that they're completely wrong and delusional. There is usually at least a grain of truth within every limiting belief. It's just that they are not my whole story. They are an incomplete picture of the story.
Imagine a human life as a tapestry full of many threads, and I were to start yanking on just one thread and ignore the others. It's not that that thread is wrong. But the more I yank on just that thread, insisting that it is more true than the others, the more of a confused, messy tangle my tapestry becomes. Using affirmations or emphatically "rewriting the narrative" without honoring its complex history usually involves tugging on a different thread. Typically this leads to a lot of internal tension, conflict, and tug-of-war.
The antidote is thickening the narrative; meaning, expanding your view to include all the potential threads and stories you could be telling yourself, giving them all equal merit, and then gently weaving them together into a tapestry that is colorful, complex, and deeply meaningful to you.
This process can be tricky. But in my experience, both as a psychotherapist supporting clients through this process as well as a complex human myself, this process of holding all the threads is SO worth it in the long run.
Steps to Thickening the Narrative
1. Come alongside the yanked out thread. Find the 1% grain of truth within that limiting belief. Get curious about where it's coming from. How old is the part of you that holds this belief? When was it formed? Does this match anything anyone in your life has said? Who else in your life, in your family, in your community holds this belief? What are the benefits of holding this belief? What are the costs of holding this story? What does the part of you that holds this thread need to feel safe, and how can you tend to that part of yourself deeply?
2. Glance around and see, what else is true? What other things could you believe? What else do you know about yourself, or the world, or the future, or the situation that you're in that this one thread does not take into account? In short, what are the other threads in the tapestry that you've been overlooking?
3. Make space in your mind and in your life for the whole tapestry to be true. In my experience, it doesn't matter which of the threads I tug on—the happy ones, the depressing ones, the optimistic ones, the helpless ones, the hopeful ones—any one of the threads is actually an incomplete story. Human life is complex. It's always an intricate weave of threads. When I pull out only the threads I like and try to get rid of the rest, that actually leads to a massive knot. Rather, I am learning to hold the tension evenly between all of the threads, to be a conscious weaver rather than at the mercy of the random tugging of my various parts on my various threads.
Human life is complex, and we are not built to do narrative-thickening, meaning-making work of this kind without support. I strongly encourage you to find your clan, the ones who will weave the complex, thickened, rich narrative with you. The ones who have the capacity to behold the entire tapestry alongside you. And should you find yourself in an ever-growing knot, don't hesitate to reach out for help from a therapist, mentor, coach, teacher, spiritual leader, or guide who will help you untangle yourself.
As always, I am sending my deepest care and support to you, wherever you are in the complexity of your journey.