How to challenge self-limiting beliefs

‘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 away from what has been only the first part 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 so many 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 I guess if I’m totally honest.  I’m pretty sure you’re equally 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 if those activities are physically demanding and we’re physically challenged, but what I want to open up here is the wider subject of challenge and more specifically challenging self-limiting beliefs. So not so much are we able, as are we willing!

My younger brother’s winter trip to Europe with family in tow all the way from sunny Australia simply to have the novelty of a Xmas snow experience meant that if I was also going to fully join the family party, then that long held story of mine that skiing was just going to be ‘too difficult and too dangerous’ 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 to try to say yes to all that this one short precious life has to offer while I’m still breathing air. Ok so that said the reality of what I had actually committed to did only fully dawn when I found myself flopping about on some slippery stuff on that first day of lessons as three year old local kids whizzed expertly by the comedy on skis I most surely was. Anyway enough about me beyond the fact that it got better, a lot better. And I’m still smiling just thinking about it.

So this leads us right up to the nub of what I want to unpack here – how do we challenge that stuck thinking which holds us back from that 100% experience of 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 is one of the frontline areas most of 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 journey through life as well. And tragically many of them end up running as unquestioned system software offering a constant fear-guided hand on the tiller, steering us ostensibly away from danger but as likely away from positive challenge, potential growth and a whole bunch of fun. In case you missed it, the magic word in that whole last sentence was ‘unquestioned’. What can transform us is when we cultivate an approach that allows us to unpack this book of beliefs or guiding principles and simply ask ourselves ‘Why?’ Why can’t I do that?’  First question and then listen carefully, sensitively and nonjudgementally to one’s immediate inner response.

If the reality is that you are truly happy living the life you have then well done. For you my friends are, in my experience, the minority – the contented few. But if you ever find 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 you have fertile ground to explore, meaning the territory that stands in between you and your truly fulfilled 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 three c’s:

Clarity – Get clear about what your ideal life may be. What are your unrealised passions and dreams? Whose life do you eyeball enviously and why? When these answers arrive either simply notice what percolates up as your immediate reasons for not doing or having done so already are and/or additionally begin your own inquiry kicking off with simply asking yourself why? Why is it you haven’t and what truly are your reasons? For these are the messages that both author our internal Book of Beliefs and at the same time are the very gold for us to work with.

Challenge – Once clear about the fundamental (usually inherited) inner messages, I mean the real beating heart of the issue, then write them all down (putting it on paper is essential!) and begin another inquiry by simply asking once again ‘Why?’ or ‘Is this true’  (I mean really, really true) and again writing down each response. With each limiting belief just keep asking the question until you truly sense you have come to the end and by this I don’t mean pre-emptively closing it down by saying something along the lines of ‘Well it just is.’ Check in with yourself as to whether the response truly feels right or wrong to your very core and equally whether you’ve truly reached an authentic end to the inquiry – trust your gut instinct here. Allow yourself to drop into and past the underlying reasons until you have real clarity on what creates this block – most often you will discover some age old phantom or unconsciously inherited story. However by allowing yourself to see with real clarity the underlying reason for denying yourself a truly complete and fulfilling life, you can also see what fundamental falsehoods underpin so many of our long held and unquestioned beliefs. And this is the point at which you can ask yourself that million dollar question ‘Is this REALLY the truth or can I simply let this go?’ … that simple! Well can you?

Crack on – Now is where the rubber meets the road. Pick something from your list, perhaps helpful to find one that is do-able though simply picking one that calls to you will be equally as beneficial. This time brainstorm as many ways as possible to get this going – be mad, be crazy, remove the limits … this is the place to be wildly creative. From this list it’s time once again to trust that good old gut instinct to help lead us towards what may be the best portal into realising this dream: When you read through your list, which one just resonates as right? What one really calls to you? That done, now what is it you can do to get this happening – next week, tomorrow or even better, right now? Generally if you’ve chosen something that really sings to you, then the motivation to get cracking is usually already in place.

So an optional but highly effective fourth C is Chums (or Community) – find a friend or a community to check all of this in with. Someone to bounce ideas off and even more importantly to motivate you to action and to help keep each other inspired. A 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 is so very important.

Finally guys just get out there. The limits we so often encounter as we age are not what the body is saying but those driven by a whole bundle of inherited fears bouncing around in our own minds. If you catch yourself ever, ever saying  ‘Well I’m too (old/young/short/fat/and on) to do that now’ without ever challenging that notion then friend you will doubtless have the life you’ve created but not necessarily the one you deserve.


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