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

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

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.

Today I got really bold.

When Goals Hold You Back: Essences First


Today I got really bold. I stopped putting my life on hold.As a life coach, I’m all for goals… except when they start becoming a reason to put your life on hold. If you’re waiting to experience freedom, confidence, joy, or fun until you accomplish whatever goals you’re working on, you may be putting the cart before the horse. Or, more specifically, the goals before the essences.

What are essences? Essences are your purest, simplest, deepest desires. They are the reason behind every goal you can think of. An “essence” is the Why behind your What.

Essences aren’t the same as core values (principles you uphold that form your moral compass). Essences are qualities and experiences you want more of in your daily life. There may be some overlap with your values, but some values are things that we want for everyone, not just ourselves. Each essence is something you define for yourself, and some are more important than others.

As you define yours, make sure you’re not selecting ones that are means to an end. For example, you may be tempted to put “Courage” as one of your essences. Is it the feeling and experience of courage that you want more of in your life, or do you want courage so that you can experience something else? That “something else” is an essence, and courage is just one of the resources you’ll use to build that essence into your life.

Your essences are the evidence and legacy of a life well lived.

How to Name Your Essences

To find your essences and make sure they’re leading the way, you may need to do a little digging. I have an exercise that can help.

The 9 Whys is a group facilitation exercise I learned from Liberating Structures, which was created by Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz. In addition to my coaching work, I provide facilitation services to nonprofits, local government departments, and community coalitions. One of the most powerful resources I bring is inviting them to remember – or in some cases reinvent – their purpose.

It’s easy for people to get caught up in their day to day work and forget the point of it all. Why are we doing this work? Why does it matter?

When groups get disconnected from their Why, everything gets harder. The path to action gets fuzzy. Relationships falter. Goals go unmet. Holding patterns keep them stuck.

The same is true in our own lives.

I’ve adapted the 9 Whys exercise to apply it to individuals who may be feeling stuck or on hold.


Think about something you really want to do or have in your life.

Now ask yourself why that’s important to you.  Then ask why that’s important to you.

And, why is THAT important to you?

You get the idea. Keep going, peeling the layers until you get to the essence of your Why.

If you do this with every goal you have, you may end up with several essences. And then you’re ready for something life changing.


Hold your goals lightly but your essences tightly. Release attachment to your goals. They aren’t nearly as important as your essences. Any goal you may be focused on at the moment is simply one possible path to your true desires (essences).

Furthermore, your goals have been born out of what you currently know to be possible and who you are right now. As you evolve, it’s important to allow your goals to evolve.

I’m not saying you should throw your goals out the window and keep changing them every year. That’s not going to get you anywhere. I’m inviting you to prioritize your essences over your goals.

So, for just a moment, forget about your goals. Starting with each essence you identified, ask yourself, what would be the best way for me to have more of this essence in my life this year? This month? Right now? 

This line of inquiry does two very important things:

1. It puts your essences in the driver’s seat. When your goals flow from your deepest desires, your intentions and actions will be better aligned with the energy you need to propel you forward.

2. It allows you to start living in new ways now. There’s no need to wait until your goals are fulfilled. Essences are needs we can build now by focusing on them and creating opportunities each and every day to have those experiences.


Take action on something that will help you experience more of at least one of your essences this week. Then be sure to track your essences over time and watch how your ability to consciously tend to them will grow the things that matter most.


Goals are important to have, but they require planning, action steps, and at least a few factors that are outside our control. Essences speak to the overall, big picture experiences you desire. They’re about quality of life, not about specific, limited benchmarks. Lead with them and you can’t go wrong.

There are thousands of ways – big and small – to experience your essences without waiting a single moment more.

Here are examples of essences that may resonate with you:



Loving Relationships

Meaningful Work




Spiritual Connection

Physical Health


Personal Power




Sense of Community


Essences Worksheet and Tracking Log


Click here for instant access to the Essences Worksheet and Tracking Log (free, of course).

I love what one of my community members said after trying it out:

“I scheduled a reminder in my google calendar to re-do my essences today. I did these ratings ‘blind’ to my former ones … so it was amazing to see that Success (one of my essences) jumped from 1 to 7. Like holy crap, really?”

One of the core manifestation principles is that what you focus on will grow. Identifying your essences and tracking them over time is an easy and effective way to manifest them. Give it a try and let me know how it goes!


DEBBIE LACY is the author and creator of Ready, Set, Manifest!™, a paradigm and set of skills that helps people get from where they are to where they want to be. Debbie’s private Facebook group is a place where people can get the tools and support to manage their fears, take action, and have the life they’ve been dreaming about.

15 Year-End Journaling Prompts to Clarify and Inspire

2016 Year End Journaling GraphicT.S. Eliot wrote, “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.” (Excerpt from the poem Little Gidding)

What was last year’s language for you?

What voice is emerging to utter next year’s words and its story?

In my annual year-end journaling activity, I invite you to look back on the year and gather your words. 15 questions guide you to reflect on the most important messages from 2016 and what you want to keep, drop, or invent as you move into 2017.

Download the free pdf here.

I’d love to hear from you. What’s your favorite question and what did it prompt in you? Let me know in my private Facebook group. We’re a supportive community that practices the skills required to live our best possible lives.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

DEBBIE LACY is the author and creator of Ready, Set, Manifest!™, a guiding paradigm for people who are ready to take a leap in their lives but haven’t yet taken a step. Debbie’s private Facebook group is a place where people can get the tools and support to manage their fears and take action on their dreams.

Tame Your Fears Workbk Cover 2016

How to Tame Your Fears in 10 Minutes or Less

woman holding a featherThere’s no such thing as a quick fix, but I make an exception when it comes to fear.

As emotions go, fear is pretty straightforward. It’s a normal, healthy response to real or perceived danger.

Fortunately, most of the time when we’re afraid, the danger isn’t real. We’re afraid of things that aren’t going to kill us. Like public speaking.

As long as fear doesn’t prevent us from doing the things we need and want to do, all is well.

Sign up for my free mini course: the 3-Day Fear Less Challenge.

But often, because our innate response to perceived threats is the same as our response to real ones, fear gets in the way. And that’s why the vast majority of fears aren’t adaptive; they don’t protect us from anything. Instead, they prevent us from living our lives.

So why can’t we just convince ourselves that the perceived threats aren’t real, and therefore, nothing to be afraid of?

Because we’re too smart for that. We have a need to protect ourselves from any possible discomfort, so we worry ourselves into a frenzy that, strangely enough, looks a lot like sitting around and doing nothing.

Fear can be a handy excuse.


Are you ready?

Continue reading

Self-Sabotage and Protection

Closeup hand man take one block on The tower from wooden blocks, dark tone, Risk.Have you ever been on your way to success and then fallen back into old patterns that get in your way? Some say this is self-sabotage, but we never truly sabotage ourselves. We are ultimately always trying to keep ourselves safe.

When parts of us are “sabotaging,” they are merely taking care of this need for self-protection.

The question, “What wants to be protected?” is a great one to ask yourself. It’s a self-compassionate question that will uncover the real reasons behind your setbacks.

From there, speak to that well-intentioned part of you: I know you’re trying to keep me safe, but I really want to accomplish this goal. How can we work together so there’s safety AND forward movement?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

DEBBIE LACY is the author and creator of Ready, Set, Manifest!™, a guiding paradigm for people who are ready to take a leap in their lives but haven’t yet taken a step. Debbie’s TEDxOlympia presentation, In Search of Purpose and Lunch, is a great example of her unique use of metaphors to create powerful tools for insight, action, and growth. Debbie and her husband reside outside of Seattle with their son and two dogs.