5 Questions That Keep You Stuck (and How to Turn Them Around)

Imagine you’re on a hike and you come upon a fork in the path. You don’t have a map and are unsure whether to go left or right. Which of these questions would be most helpful?

a. Why is there a fork in the path?
b. Who made this fork in the path?
c. How stupid can I be to go hiking without a map?
d. What should I have for dinner?
e. None of the above

You’re correct. “E: None of the above” is the right answer. It probably wouldn’t occur to you to ask any of those questions, and yet, when it comes to decisions about your relationships, career, and other important areas, it’s likely you’ve asked yourself questions similar to these.

We all fall victim to the negative self-inquiry trap at one time or another.

[Grab a copy of the Question Kit with 52 question prompts to help you get unstuck.]


What is Negative Self-Inquiry?


Negative self-inquiry is a form of negative self-talk except it’s sneakier; on the surface, it appears to be a way to get information and move forward, but that isn’t what really happens.

Negative self-inquiry is when you ask questions about yourself or your situation in a way that erodes your self-confidence and blocks helpful guidance. 

As you’ll see, “negative” doesn’t always mean self-critical. Some forms of self-inquiry are negative because they distract you away from what you really need to know, and/or they leave you with few options for moving forward. Negative self-inquiry creates mental spin and keeps you stuck.


Negative Self-Inquiry: 5 Questions That Keep You Stuck


1. Questions that are externally focused.


For example, “Who made this fork in the path?” Or, “Why doesn’t he love me anymore?” These aren’t questions to ask of yourself and fret over. Externally-focused questions are particularly unhelpful because they frame the issue in terms of someone (or something) that’s outside your control.


2. Questions that are self-shaming.


“How stupid can I be to go hiking without a map?” Or, “What’s wrong with me?” These are different from constructive, pointed questions you might ask to hold yourself accountable. A self-shaming question is easy to spot because it makes you feel horrible.




3. Questions that are too premature.


Like “What should I have for dinner?” from the hiking example. Or, “What should my next career be?” Questions that aren’t immediate enough will make you feel overwhelmed. There are better questions to ask (and answer) before you get too far ahead of yourself.


4. Questions that limit your options.


“This or that” questions are good for deciding what to have for lunch, but not so great for bigger life decisions. For example, “Should I stay at my job or start a business?” This phrasing is something Chip and Dan Heath refer to as one of the “villains” of decision-making: narrow framing. It means defining choices too narrowly by boxing yourself in with an either/or choice. The best solution may lie outside those limited options.

Keep in mind that any question starting with “should” is a set up for narrow framing; not only are the options that follow limited, but the word “should” carries its own restrictions and judgments that can easily box you in.


5. Questions that aren’t actionable.


There are many questions we ask that have to do with our need to know, which is fine, but they don’t invite constructive action. For example: “Why is there a fork in the path?” Or, “Why didn’t I get the promotion?” On their own, most “why” questions aren’t helpful because the answers they elicit aren’t actionable.

In fact, none of the five types of negative self-inquiry will help you find any specific, constructive action to improve your situation. 

[Request the Question Kit for 52 examples of positive self-inquiry.]


The Turnarounds


The very first thing you should do before you ask a specific question about your problem or goal is to name your intention.

Most likely you’ll have one or both of these intentions in mind:

(1) To increase understanding of self or the situation.

(2) Clarify next steps.

The way you ask yourself questions will determine how well you fulfill your intention. And, how you feel about yourself and your situation.

Here are the turnarounds for negative self-inquiry:

From Externally Focused to Self-Focused

Ask questions where you are the main character. Take ownership of the situation by keeping the focus on yourself.

Positive Self-Inquiry

From Self-Shaming to Self-Compassion

No name calling. No sarcasm or harshness. Ask the question so it sounds like it’s coming form someone who loves you. If that’s hard for you, try phrasing the question as if you were asking it of a close friend.


From Premature to Perfect Timing

Stay focused on the immediate next step. What do you really need to know FIRST in order to move forward?


From Limited to Open

Ask questions that widen your options. And don’t worry about choice overload. That’s much less of a problem than narrow framing when it comes to decisions in your life. If you’re tempted to pose a “this or that” question, try asking if there’s a way to do this AND that. It may not be feasible but the phrasing will get you thinking outside the box.


From Unactionable to Inspired

Create the opportunity for an answer that evokes an inspired, actionable next step. Your questions may not be any of the 5 culprits above, but if they never spur action, you’re going to have a hard time getting unstuck. (Keep in mind that actions aren’t just outward. Some of the best questions evoke inner actions such as committing to a shift in perspective or managing your emotions.)



In general . . . 

If you’re trying to open up possibilities and tap into truly helpful guidance, avoid the following:

  • Closed questions (ones that can be answered with “yes” or “no)”
  • Questions beginning with “Should…” or “Why…” If you’re dying to ask a “why” question, go ahead but don’t leave it hanging. Follow it up with “So what?” and “Now what?”
  • Questions asking only about time (“When will I…” or “How long…”)



Bring a current problem or goal to mind. What are the first questions that come to you? Write them down and see how many of the following you can check off for each question:

  1. Are you the main character in your question?
  2. Is your question self-compassionate?
  3. Is it focused on the immediate future?
  4. Does it widen your options and expand how you’re thinking?
  5. Does it inspire a specific action?

Were there any items you couldn’t check off? If so, try a turnaround to rework the wording of your question.

[Having a hard time coming up with questions? The Question Kit comes with 52 question prompts to support your next steps.]


A well-phrased question opens doors. Or at least stops the itching.

Several years ago I was afflicted with chronic hives for nearly a year. Through all that time I grew tired of taking meds to suppress the symptoms. I kept limiting my options for healing by the questions I asked. At the time, they were “How can I stop the itching?” and “Why can’t I heal?” The answers that came were, respectively, “Keep taking the medicine,” and “Because something is really wrong and I’m broken.” (I shared the full story at TEDxEverett.)

One day, a new question appeared. “What’s on the other side of the itching?” I got curious about that. I decided if I continued to suppress the symptoms, I may never find out. I needed to go through this, not around. I stopped taking the antihistamines and started itching again. With the return of the blasted itching came a rage.

On a February night while watching TV with my soon-to-be husband, scratching away at my arms, feeling sorry for myself, I said, “That’s it! I’m done! It’s me or the hives. I’m ready to see what’s on the other side.” The very next day on my way to a meeting, I was sitting at a stoplight and a construction crane across the street started tilting. I panicked, thinking we were having an earthquake. Everything was tilting. Except that no one was bothered by it. People were crossing the street like nothing was happening.

Nothing was happening to them. I was the one who was tilting. 

I was having a full-blown vertigo episode. I ended up in the hospital shaking for hours from head to toe. I wasn’t ill. I was healing.

My question, “What’s on the other side of the itching?” had prompted a new vantage point, a new course of action, and a courageous response that allowed me to finally heal. I haven’t had hives since that day.

Questions are powerful tools if used correctly. It takes time to learn the skills to come up with really good questions, but with practice, you can start asking questions that change how you view yourself and your situation. Nurture the questions that invite your most wise, resourceful, creative self to show up and offer powerful guidance

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DEBBIE LACY is a TEDx speaker and the author of Ready, Set, Manifest! A Handbook for the In-Betweens and Leaps in Life. Debbie’s private Facebook community is a place where people can explore the sacred and practical aspects associated with life’s important transitions.

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