transforming self-limiting belief

‘Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.’
Henry Ford

Cosied up here on a fancy European intercity train whizzing me through the frosty East European countryside to the next leg of my Xmas vacation, I’ve had a little time to reflect on one of the more salient life lessons I’ve learned over this past week. ‘Til yesterday I was out on the ski fields of the stunningly beautiful south Tyrol – a place kinda half German and half Italian with all of the benefits of both of those rich cultures.

Having never skied before I was a gen-u-ine card-carrying downhill virgin and frankly had always put it off for a huge and ever growing catalog of reasons. Some valid and some, well, the others were just a bit fear-driven if I’m totally honest. I’m pretty sure you’re aware of how that inner dialogue goes: ‘too expensive, too busy, too dangerous, not for me’ and on until we hit that later-life thrill-stopper of …

‘Well I guess I’m just a little too old for that kinda thing now’.

 

Sure at times there’ll be perfectly valid reasons why we might not be able to take on something new and particularly so if those activities are physically demanding and we’re physically challenged. But what I’m opening up here is the topic of how we self-limit life simply by not challenging ourselves or our beliefs. Not so much ‘Are we able?’, as ‘Are we willing?’

I often talk about a 100% life and this is precisely the stuff of that. What makes the difference between a life of ok or one packed with awesome.

My younger brother’s winter trip to Europe with family in tow all the way from sunny Australia simply for the novelty of a Xmas snow experience meant that if I were to fully join the family party, then that long held story of mine that skiing was just going to be ‘too difficult, too dangerous blah blah’ simply had to take a vacation itself.  So I signed up pretty well without question and for that matter also without thinking. My current personal credo being: Where possible say ‘Yes!’ Life is waaay too short (daily getting shorter!) and precious to waste!

Ok. That said, the reality of what I had actually committed to only fully dawned when I found myself flopping about on some slippery white stuff on that first day of lessons, while three year old locals whizzed expertly by the comedy-on-skis I most surely was. Anyway suffice to say that it got better, a lot better. While no expert it was positively fricken awesome and I am so glad I did it. And yes, I will surely be doing it again.

So this leads us right up to the nub of what I want to unpack here: How do we overcome the mindset holding us back from the 100% life? What are those stories we’ve created, learned and held onto that immediately follow statements such as ‘Well I would’a tried ………………. except I’m/it’s too ……………….!’

Would’a, could’a, should’a!

 

The tragedy is that for so many of us, the line in the sand is no more than an artifact of our own thinking. This comprises one of the top frontline areas we coaches work with – self-limiting beliefs. Most often these can be imprinted at childhood, though sure enough we also pick them up like barnacles along the voyage of life. Tragically many of them end up running as unquestioned system software with an habitual fear-driven hand on the tiller, steering us seemingly away from possible danger but as likely away from positive challenge, potential growth and a whole damn bunch of fun.

In case you missed it, the magic word in that whole last sentence was ‘unquestioned’. What transforms this process is consciously and carefully unpacking this Book of Beliefs (or unconscious guiding principles) and challenging them. Once clear on them we ask ourselves ‘Why can’t I do that?’

This latter part engages a process called contemplative inquiry. First we question, and then we listen carefully, sensitively and non-judgementally to our immediate inner responses.  Get calm and quiet, ask the question (usually simply ‘Why?’ again and again) and then listen. Deeply. And see what emerges. If you think it’s a bit woo woo, how about simply trying it first? What’s to lose?

And look, if you’re truly 100% happy and complete in life, then well done. In my experience, you, my friends, are the lucky minority – the contented few. However, if you have ever found yourself entertaining thoughts along the lines of ‘Gee I really wished I’d ….’ or ‘Wow, now they’ve had a great life … why didn’t I ever ….?’, then I’d suggest that right there’s some fertile ground for exploration – meaning the territory standing in between you and your 100% life.

Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse and author of The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying, lays out the first of those as

‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’

 

And to me the tragedy inherent in this simple statement is how those unchallenged lists of expectations and fears – what is often called our Book of Beliefs – can cause us never to live the life that is always awaiting us – the full, gleaming, wondrous exciting life of possibility and fulfilment.

So what are the steps we can take to overcome these hurdles? For me they can simply be divided into the four c’s:

Clarity – Firstly get very clear about what your ideal life may be. What are your unrealized passions and dreams? Whose life do you eyeball enviously and why? What activities do you secretly admire even though you’ve put them on the No list? When these answers arrive write them down

Take time to consider each one carefully. As you do, notice what immediate reasons might percolate up to justify not doing it or having done so already. What are the inner obstacles or rationales? Why is it you haven’t? What are your reasons? Get them all out for now.

These are the internalized messages that both author our internal Book of Beliefs and at the same time are the very gold for us to work with.

The second part of this is to get clear on the personal core values each of these meets. Why is this important to you? AND why is this important now? Both these areas of values and belief are intricately entwined but provide all important reason and motivation. Get clear here and you’re on very firm foundations.

Challenge – Once clear about the fundamental (usually inherited) inner messages – I mean the real beating heart of the issue – again write them all down. Putting it on paper is essential for clarity and objectivity! Next is to ask of each reason or obstacle in turn, ‘Is this true?’  I mean really, really true. Watch the excuse building here. For example, my story of ‘skiing is too dangerous‘ was an old tale from my days as a professional dancer, a time when (appropriately for an athlete who’s living was their body) all winter sports were contractually forbidden, but in time this had solidified into a handy myth to mask my fears primarily about simply being a dork on planks. Which I was – albeit a very happy dork.

Ditto ‘too old’!

Once again write down each response. With each limiting belief in turn, keep asking the question and allow the responses until you truly sense you have come to the end. By this I mean don’t pre-emptively close it down by saying something along the lines of ‘Well it just is.’ Be honest. Check in with yourself whether the response truly feels right or wrong to your very core. Do you feel ease or tension? And equally whether you’ve truly reached an authentic end to the inquiry – trust your gut instinct here. Allow yourself to drop into and beyond the initial reasons and rationales until you have real clarity on what is creating this block. Often enough you will eventually uncover some historic phantom or unconsciously inherited story.

When we begin to see with real clarity the underlying reasons we’ve had for denying ourselves a truly complete and fulfilling life, we equally see what bogeymen have underpinned so many of our long held and unquestioned beliefs. This can also be a moment of pretty tragic sadness for some of us. Seeing what’s denied us fully living life.

But this is the choice point. Now is when we can ask that million dollar question

‘Is this REALLY the truth or can I simply let this go?’

 

That simple! With clarity comes choice.

Well can you? Your choice.

Crack on – Here is where the rubber meets the road. Pick something from your list. It’s perhaps helpful to choose one that seems immediately do-able, though certainly picking the one that calls to you loudest might also be beneficial.

Once again, trust that good old gut instinct to guide you. When you sit and reflect on your list, which one simply feels right? Which seems to call to you loudest? Whatever you do DON’T get frozen in indecision. If you have to, write ’em down and pick one blindfolded. Ok?

So now that’s done, brainstorm as many ways as possible to get this going – be mad, be crazy, remove the limits … this is the time to be wildly, fantastically creative.

That done, what is it you can do to get this happening and when – next week, tomorrow or even better, right now? Typically if you’ve chosen something that truly sings to you, meaning aligned with your values, then the motivation to get cracking is usually already in place. Create an action plan that is specific, do-able and time bound.

Community – Having allies is an absolute must. Enlist a friend or find a community to support you. Someone to bounce ideas off and, even more importantly, to motivate you to action and to help keep each other inspired. A partner, buddy or group to hold you kindly but firmly to account and with whom you can share and download each success, little or large, as they happen. Noticing these gains and applauding them is so very important to long-term success.

These days there are reams of research demonstrating the positive effect of  accountability for long-term goal acquisition and maintenaince (1), and this is one of the key areas we coaches contract around to support our clients in keeping motivated with their own goals.

Finally as we said in Crack On – just do it! Get out there and go for it. The limits we so often encounter as we age are not so much what our body tells us, or life imposes on us but are far more often self-imposed – driven by a whole bundle of inherited and unquestioned fears bouncing around in our own heads. Watch your inner dialogue closely. If you catch yourself ever, ever saying  ‘Well I’m too (old/young/short/fat/and on) to do that now’ without intentionally challenging that mistaken notion then friend you will doubtless have the life you’ve created but unfortunately not the one you deserve.



  1. Can Accountability Produce Independence? Goals as Determinants of the Impact of Accountability on ConformityA Quinn, B Schlenker; doi: 10.1177/0146167202287005 Pers Soc Psych Bull April 2002 vol. 28 no. 4 472-483