Have you ever been on the brink of a leap of faith, but a little voice, maybe yours or someone else’s, intervened and talked you out of it?
You’re not alone. It’s the ‘voice of reason’ that doesn’t want anything bad to happen to you. And yet it inflicts the worst pain of all; by asking all of the possible ‘what ifs’, and holding us back from taking the leap forward.
Over the past 10 years I’ve examined my thought processes more, wondering why it is that I don’t always do what I know is good for me. It can be exhausting, but I’ve learned to constantly question what comes up in my mind.
Through years of therapy, lots of reading, and weeks of silent meditation, this is what I know about self-limiting beliefs, and how we can manage to overcome them to live out our highest potential:
Are These Limiting Beliefs True?
Our mind is capable of coming up with all kinds of things – both true and preposterous. Remember when you believed that watermelon would grow in your stomach if you swallowed a seed?
The belief that you can’t take a risk and go for your dream job, or the fear of ending a bad relationship and never meeting someone better can be equally far-fetched.
Where do we get these ideas?
Some of them are deeply rooted agreements we made when we were too young to remember, and have stuck with us ever since.
Neuroscientific research has shown that before the age of 6 at least 95% of our thoughts and decisions have already been programmed in. They form the basis for our actions and reactions throughout the rest of our lives.
With our belief patterns we define not only ourselves, but our life experience in either a negative or positive ways. This impacts everything: Our moods, relationships, job performance, self-esteem, physical health, and so on.
It is easier for the mind to rely on past information than it is to form new beliefs, so thanks to confirmation bias and the brain’s need to sift through information quickly, we’re often left on autopilot, destined to make the same mistakes over and over.
So when a thought, no matter how small or innocent, comes up to hold me back I ask myself,
Is that true? How do I know it’s true? Where did I get that from? Could there be an alternate truth I can choose?
So often, I’ve found that obstacles I was convinced were real were just limiting beliefs that doomed me to repeat the same painful patterns.
But it turned out that yes, I could find a healthy relationship and no, I didn’t have to settle. It was worth the wait.
Yes, I could make a living doing what I love.
Yes, I could kick alcohol.
And yet, these beliefs come up every single day, even for things I already decided weren’t true. Sometimes the part of me who thinks I’m safer by playing small tries to take me backwards, and I know it’s time to evaluate these beliefs once again.
And that’s okay. That’s the human condition. We all suffer with a mind that can be brilliant, and set us apart on this Earth, and yet it’s still primitive and wired for brute survival in many ways, too (I love how Tim Urban illustrates this here).
So I find that questioning my thoughts, knowing that they’re coming from a primal place, can be empowering. It makes me captain of the ship again with my higher mind.
How Limiting Beliefs Get Written Into Neural Pathways
The beautiful thing is we can unlearn these beliefs, and rewrite the story.
First, let’s evaluate what happens when we believe something is impossible:
Subconscious threats over-activate the amygdala – the part of the brain that processes information quickly and signals the ‘fight or flight’ response. This declines our self esteem and productivity when focused on negative statements like,
“What if I fail?”
“What if I go broke?”
“What if they criticize me?”
“I’m not worthy.”
These negative thought patterns can create ‘amygdala hijacking’.
An activated amygdala generates anxiety and fear at a subconscious level that becomes part of the default network. It keeps us alert for ‘danger’. The more you focus on negative thoughts, the more synapses and neurons your brain will support your negative thought processes.
As humans we evolved a negativity bias, which trained us to perceive danger. If we were not vigilant, we could be hunted next, so throughout humanity those who survived anticipated danger before getting caught off guard.
Like the tiger in the bush example: It’s better to assume there’s a tiger in the bush than to assume there isn’t, because if there isn’t a tiger, you’ll survive, and if there is a tiger, you will probably still survive because you anticipated the possibility it would be there.
How to Rewrite the Script
But what about positive beliefs? How can we change those neural pathways to serve us better?
By slowing the fuck down.
Listen to your thoughts, examine them and question them. Be willing to get to the core of negative thoughts, no-matter how painful (I love EFT for this), then replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
Positive thoughts enable brain cells and other nerve system cells to communicate better with each other. This helps your brain function at peak capacity.
Having positive thoughts decreases cortisol in your brain and produces serotonin. When the serotonin levels in your body are normal, you feel happy, calmer, less anxious, more focused, and more emotionally stable.
Positive thinking also supports brain health through the generation and reinforcement of new synapses, especially in your prefrontal cortex (PFC). This can increase mental productivity by improving cognition, intensifying attention and focus, improving incoming data analysis, and enriching productivity and creativity.
Knowing this process is one thing, but why is that such a challenge at times to overcome self-limiting beliefs?
We Judge Ourselves the Harshest
Just because the solution to overcoming limiting beliefs is simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. We all have a harsh inner critic who is often more brutal than anyone else in our lives.
Once I started to listen to my inner dialogue, I wanted to throw her repetitive, critical ass out the window.
This repetition sticks and becomes our truth. After hearing many vulnerable shares in retreats and workshops over the years, I learned that almost everyone is hard on themselves, unbelievably hard.
That critical voice is primarily concerned with the judgement of others. As much as we pretend not to care, for most of us this will be a lifelong unlearning of a very primal, primitive need for group acceptance for survival.
When I follow a belief all the way back to its core, it always comes back to this – I just want to be accepted.
But when it comes to criticism we have a choice – do we agree with the criticism, and get deeply hurt by it, or do we disagree with it and choose to reject it as the truth?
After all, we don’t all need to agree, right? Even with our own past selves.
The Power of Commitment
So all this sounds nice, right? Just rewrite some neural pathways and be set for life.
And yet we both know it’s not just a switch we flip for the rest of our lives, living in bliss. It’s a commitment – a commitment to live differently.
Science shows that using positive self-reflection helps significantly in establishing new habits. Affirmations, visualization and positive self-talk help reflect your thinking patterns and rewrite the belief system that’s programmed in your subconscious mind.
We gain more self-love and self-esteem from developing strengths, cultivating gratitude, and visualizing our best possible selves.
Dr. Nathaniel Branden also argues in the book, The Six Pillars of Self Esteem, that we must be radically honest with ourselves, too. Living in integrity, speaking our truth, and living from the heart all contribute, too.
This awakens the prefrontal cortex, and allows your conscious mind to control your emotional responses through connections to your deep limbic brain. It allows you to think about and reflect upon what you are physically doing.
Cultivating this awareness will help change the belief pattern that’s programmed into the subconscious mind and override default patterns.
When you perform the new routine enough times for connections to be made and strengthened in your brain, the behavior will require less effort as it becomes the default pattern.
What’s my favorite way to slow down and make this commitment? Meditation.
Let’s Talk about Meditation
Now hear me out – you can meditate, even if you don’t think it’s for you.
Which I say with so much love and understanding, because it’s a practice for everyone. Just know that meditation is not the total absence of thoughts, and that simply by observing when you get carried away in thought, you’re successfully meditating. It’s about observing your mind, not being run by it, and this practice of a few minutes to an hour per day might give you that microsecond pause that allows you to question a thought before it carries you away.
So don’t worry if you’re not on the mat in Nirvana for an hour. There’s no goal with this, no winning or losing. It’s just a practice.
(P.S. I offer a free, no strings attached week of chakra meditations to ease you in. Sign up here to get a daily email with beautiful meditations.)
And finally it’s about awareness. I’m not perfect, and researching this only makes me more aware of what I don’t yet know, and can’t know. But trusting in that process has been so nourishing. I don’t get anxiety attacks anymore, I don’t get in arguments with myself anymore, I pause more often to see things from someone else’s point view rather than getting defensive. I find ways to overcome these limiting beliefs, and I catch it when I’m critical. I know this makes me healthier, calmer, and happier overall.
I hope this helps you today, too.
Have any articles or info you love on this topic? I’m always learning, please share in the comments below!