One of my favorite books in the entire world, Aspire: Discovering Your Purpose Through the Power of Words, is genuinely fascinating about coming to know yourself. It’s about the author’s real-life journey where he discovers the true meaning behind several compelling words that have changed his life. It’s amazing how stories can define our lives. And when we give up the stories that cause us to react or that limit us in our everyday lives, on how free and liberated we become.
I’m not talking about the kind of stories about how you had a vacation of a lifetime. (Although I would still question everything) I’m talking about the stories that define how we show up in the world. The stories that limit us from our full potential. The stories that someone doesn’t like us. The stories that we cannot have both love and happiness. The stories that success takes demanding work. There is no right or wrong to our stories. We get to choose every day if we want to accept them or write a new one
We all tell stories about ourselves and our lives that keep us feeling powerless to change. And though we may sometimes feel alone with our struggles and fears, they’re the same for many of us.
What stories do you tell yourself? These have been some of mine over the years. Do any of them resonate with you?
- I’m the only that can-do things ‘properly.’
- I’ve already made my choices. My hands are tied now.
- It’s my job to do this…
- I can’t say NO because…
- People will think I’m not good … if I don’t do…
- I’m exhausted, but hey that’s normal when…
- Nothing works, so I guess I’ll carry on being tired
- I don’t have time to go to the gym, yoga class ….
All of these can seem like facts, but they are beliefs based on our interpretations of facts. That means that these stories don’t have power over you. When you change your ideas about yourself, your past, and your present you set the wheels in motion to change your life.
First off, don’t worry. We all have limiting beliefs. They’re a part of us and they serve an essential purpose. They along with our fears, assumptions, and desires, help us to organize the world around us.
They help us interpret the endless stimuli we are bombarded every day of our lives. Without them, we would be mentally and emotionally overwhelmed. However, we rarely call these beliefs into question. And so, over time, the things we believe shape our perceptions, guide our actions and are perceived and experienced as real. Take this typical example: If I think the world is unfair, I will likely experience an unjust world in my day to day life; if I believe my boss hates me, I will perceive and experience events that reinforce that belief.
If you’re like I was, you may not know how deeply your limiting beliefs affect you. Many of us may only consciously notice our emotions when they cause reactions. We may feel fear during a presentation at work. We may tense our shoulders when we get an email from xxx because we don’t think she deserves that job, and she shouldn’t be telling us what to do. We might be avoiding our mother-in-law because we think she hates us, or someone might roll their eyes every time xxx asks a question that everyone else appears to already knows the answer to.
These are the physical and emotional manifestations of our beliefs. Limiting beliefs can also affect how we think about ourselves. They masquerade as excuses and stop us in our tracks before we even start because we let ourselves believe them (even when they sound unbelievable). They encourage us to quit before we try (because we’re not good enough). They talk us out of going to the gym (because we’ll probably just stopped going anyway after two weeks). And they discourage us from trying new things (because no one will take us seriously, because we’ll fail, or because it isn’t worth our time).
So how do we change this? It all begins with Self-Awareness. It is learning how to recognize when and where you are feeling blocked or stressed. It may take a little practice as we have to learn to notice and keep track of when and where these emotions surface. Maybe you’re late for a meeting, or you’ve been asked to pitch to your firm’s biggest client. Perhaps you’re anxious because the team is two weeks behind schedule on three different projects. Maybe your boss is walking right toward you with an odd expression. Perhaps you feel like someone is withholding vital information from you.
Spend a week paying attention to those moments. Try not to get upset (or at least pause before you get upset) and think about whether this same thing has happened before. Look for similarities or patterns in the blocks or triggers you’re encountering: your boss, traffic, meetings, your parents, your partner. Hold onto that thought and consider when and why you feel that way. Learn to lean into those moments because the more familiar they become to you, the easier they will be to unravel.
Once you can recognize these moments when they happen, the next step is to take hold of those feelings and dig down to find the belief that’s lurking underneath them. We can do this by asking ourselves simple yet powerful questions like:
“What do I believe at this moment that makes me feel this way?” or “What thoughts or judgments or fears (or assumptions or desires) are guiding me in this (unhelpful) direction?”
Yes, it can be super hard to catch ourselves in the moment and to step back and realize just how we feel. If it’s easier, ask yourself questions retroactively after you’ve calmed down. Practice recalling instances of stress, anxiety, and conflict. Craft questions that can help to uncover what you were thinking in those moments. The goal is to take those emotions and work backward to identify what is triggering them and the subsequent reactions. Try to start your questions with “what” or “why” and be honest with yourself, even if it’s uncomfortable.
Here are some questions that you can try:
- “What is stopping me from having this conversation?”
- “Why am I afraid to take this particular action in my life?”
- “What do I think will happen if I do X?”
- “What outcomes seem at odds with what I think should? Why?”
- “What things aren’t improving, no matter what I try?”
And these are the types of answers that might pop up:
“People won’t take me seriously.” “I will get fired.” “They won’t understand.” “Nothing will change anyway.” “I need to be in control.” “It’s not worth the effort.” “There is too much to do.” “I can’t leave.”
Don’t worry about sounding judgmental, lean into answers as those are often a more direct route to your limiting beliefs.
When answering the questions use short, simple sentences. Look for answers that reflect transparent and honest beliefs or assumptions. Highlight or underline statements that resonate and make you nod your head in silent agreement. Don’t worry about sounding judgmental, lean into answers as those are often a more direct route to your limiting beliefs. Don’t try to be smart—try to be honest. Take deep breaths and let the answers you know to be real rise to the surface—try not to overthink it or censor yourself when answers float to the surface. This stuff gets real. Now think of a couple more. You may not like the beliefs you uncover, but once you are aware of them, you can start inquiring about how they affect you and your relationships with the people around you.
I know what you’re thinking: How do we avoid those beliefs? How do we prevent them from blocking or stressing us out in the future? The trick is separating fact from fiction. Once we can recognize these beliefs as beliefs (rather than facts), we can more easily question them, ignore them, or seek out other, less restricting beliefs to guide you through life. A more important fact is that you get to choose how you see the world. You get to decide how what has meaning.
Take the belief you identified and feel the emotions it triggers. They can well up in you like a too-hot bath. And then, over the next few minutes, or the following week—however long it takes—make a list of questions that challenge the belief that undermine it or work around it. Approach the idea from different perspectives. Start asking why do I believe that? What would another person think in the same situation? What would happen if I chose not to believe that? Why do I refuse to let go of that belief when it keeps upsetting me week after week after week?
The more visible, more essential realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see (and usually the ones that are the hardest to talk about). Your boss could hate you. I could list a dozen other hypothetical explanations, and that’s my point: our story—our reality—is one of an infinite number of stories written. “Us and them” maybe our default setting as we grow up, but it’s not the only setting available.
And sure, all those examples listed at the start could very well prove to be objectively true. It might be someone’s fault that the project is behind schedule. You might not deserve that promotion. People might not take you seriously if you speak up. People should listen to you more. Someone very well might get fired the next time you screw up. Companies may only be interested in candidates that are much younger than you. And yeah, your boss may hate you.
Identifying your limiting beliefs is not easy. It can be hard to accept the fact that we’ve been lying to ourselves. Being wrong or dishonest, even if you only must admit it to yourself, is tough. This process I’ve tried to map out challenges you to look at your assumptions and beliefs right in the face. It asks you to sit with them in discomfort and to question things you’ve believed for weeks, months, or years. This is what the late David Foster Wallace famously called the “work of choosing,” and it is some of the most critical work that we can do as human beings. You can choose the stress, anxiety, and anger. Or you can select awareness, understanding, and give yourself the gift of choice.