There are days when I sit down in front of my laptop to write a blog post and the words just don’t come. On those days, when my mind is empty and I’m sat staring blankly at the screen, I increasingly grow more frustrated, but that feeling of frustration is not what’s hard. What’s hard is the feeling that comes after the frustration — overwhelm. It’s not the one task in front of me that overwhelms me, it’s the voice that speaks to me in that moment and says ‘you’ll never get to where you want to be, you’re not smart enough.” Welcome to the world of limiting beliefs.
Do you know what I’ve come to realise? That there are probably few people out there in the world who could be harder on us than we are on ourselves. We spend so much time worrying about what other people think of us that we don’t realise that the worst damage is not inflicted on us by the thoughts or words of other people; the worst damage is that which we inflict upon ourselves with our own thoughts and words.
The first, and most important, thing I want you to know is that if you’re filling your head with negative thoughts and words, you are not the things you’re telling yourself that you are. The second thing is that the power to change anything lies in our awareness of its existence, which is great news for all of us because it means we have the power to change our narrative.
During the winter months one of the first things I do when I get home from work is to take off my shoes and put on my slippers. This is such an ingrained part of my daily routine that I don’t even think about it, I just automatically reach for my slippers.
This automatic behaviour, this doing without thinking, takes place hundreds of times across the day. When you need to write something down you don’t stop to think about what hand you’re going to write with, you pick up the pen with the hand you always use to write with and you write. When you sit down to your morning bowl of porridge (I can see faces scrunching up right now so feel free to sub in cereal!) you don’t sit at the table thinking through the process of how you might go about eating it, you just eat it.
Our limiting beliefs are those slippers, that pen, that bowl of porridge. They are so much a part of our internal world, our reality, our routine, that we don’t even think about it, we just reach for them as if those beliefs are normal because to us they do feel normal.
Both the Bully and the Bullied
Most of us find it sickening the extent to which bullying has become an epidemic, taking place in our schools, workplaces, homes, and over social media. We are horrified that human beings can be so hurtful, unkind, and destructive towards one another. We are often quick to point out that we would never behave like that and yet we do, every. single. day. The only difference is that we are the target of our bullying and thus assume the dual role of both the inflictor and the recipient.
Our bullying comes in many different forms but one of the most common is the limiting beliefs and negative thoughts that we supply to ourselves in a steady, continual stream. Thoughts like:
“I’m not good enough”
“I’m not smart enough”
“I’m not pretty enough”
“I’m just a Mum” or “I’m just an administrator”
“I don’t have what it takes”
“It’s too late”
“I suck at public speaking”
“I’m a crappy parent/friend/daughter/son/brother/sister”
“Other people don’t like me”
“Other people will laugh at me if I do that”
“I’m not talented like they are”
“I’ll never achieve what I want to achieve”
Would you seriously ever dream of turning round and saying to your child or your best friend or your partner “don’t bother pursuing your dream of becoming a doctor, you’re too stupid to do that and everyone knows it” or how about “you look so fat in that outfit, if you weren’t so lazy and didn’t eat that pizza last night then maybe you’d look better in the clothes you try on.” Okay, so maybe there is the odd horrible person out there that would say those things but the majority of us would never even think something like that about someone we love, let alone voice it out loud to them, and yet we will quite happily say all those things, and more, to ourselves, repeatedly.
Our Mind at Work
Psychologists believe that we have two main systems of thought. System 1 is where all of our automatic and unconscious thinking takes place while System 2, which we’ll return to later, is where our conscious thinking occurs.
Limiting beliefs and negative self-talk come from System 1 thinking, The limiting beliefs in and of themselves are not the issue, rather the issue is twofold in that 1) we allow ourselves to frequently cling to the the negative self-talk as if it were reality, and 2) we allow this negative self-talk to become our default setting.
Our brain is a sophisticated and complex system, designed to protect us from anything it either deems as unsafe, or as something that is potentially going to cause us physical or emotional pain. It is this very mechanism that makes our brain lazy insofar as it will deliberately seek out the familiar, the path of least resistance, by trying to apply what it already knows to a situation.
Imagine that you have an important presentation coming up which requires you to speak in front of 100 people. Your brain will automatically scan back through all the times you’ve had to do this in the past and determine your emotional response. Now, let’s say that you hate public speaking and think you’re terrible at it, you immediately panic upon hearing you have to present to that large a group and tell yourself you can’t do it. On the two previous occasions when you’ve had to give a presentation you could feel your legs shaking and your heart racing, your voice trembled through the whole thing and you lost your train of thought on several occasions leaving you feeling mortified.
Based on the above information what is the likely response from your brain going to be? If your guess is that it’s going to try and do just about anything to get you out of doing that presentation then you’d be right. Your brains System 1 thinking is going to say to you ‘you suck at public speaking, remember what happened last time? You can’t do this, you’ll stuff it up and everyone will think you’re stupid.’
It’s likely that then one of two things will happen 1) you’ll give the presentation but in the weeks leading up to it your brain will repeatedly tell you that you can’t do it, leading you to have a similar experience as last time or 2) you’ll become so panicked by the negative self-talk that your brain will create a situation whereby you can excuse yourself from having to give the presentation. That might sound a little crazy but bear in mind that thoughts are powerful and just thinking something can trigger a physiological response, in other words, it is entirely possible that if you allow yourself to meditate on the idea that you can’t give that presentation because you’re a terrible public speaker then your body might just give you a bout of the flu to get you out of it!
Planting the Seeds of Change
Why is that some people struggle more than others with negative thinking? The answer can likely be found in one thing — repetition. The more we think a particular limiting belief, such as ‘I’m not smart enough’, the more our brain will find things that validate and reinforce that belief causing us to continue thinking it.
For example, if you have a big test coming up and you have always held the belief that you’re not smart enough your brain will simply go ‘excellent, this is easy, I know exactly what to do here’ and automatically pull forward the thought of ‘I’m not smart enough’.
The secret to learning to move from an automatic, unconscious, System 1 way of thinking to a more deliberate System 2 style of thinking, where we are consciously generating and creating positive self-talk, may lie in four simple letters — RWID.
RWID, which stands for Relative Weight of Importance and Duration, is a concept that I first came across while watching a video by High Performance Coach Brendon Burchard. The idea behind RWID is that most of us give more attention, that is, more weight, to negative thoughts than to positive ones, and we also think about those negative thoughts for much longer than we do positive ones.
I’m not sure about you guys but I have lost count of the number of times I’ve had a conflict with someone and found myself replaying it over and over and over again in my head for hours, days, and sometimes weeks! Or someone has said something hurtful to me and I’ve allowed that negative comment to take up permanent residence in my head. Sometimes it’s not even other people’s negative comments, sometimes I torture myself with all the ways I think I’m failing or not good enough. The point is, no matter what the negative thoughts or limiting beliefs might be, we give them way more airtime than they deserve.
Imagine what would happen if we took all that energy and focus and shifted it to thinking things that are positive, productive, and uplifting? What would happen if we gave more weight and duration to our strengths and to all the many things that are great about us?
Four Steps to Re-Programme your Mind
The challenging thing about automatic, unconscious, negative thinking is that we have most likely been doing it for a long time. I know that this is going to sound really strange but because this is a familiar behavioral pattern, the very fact that it’s familiar makes it in some ways comfortable, which is why our lazy brains would prefer that we keep doing it. That’s not what we’re going to do though. We’re going to change and it’s going to be hard in the short term and we’re going to want to give up because that’s what our brains like to do for an easy life, but we’re going to power through this together with the knowledge that in the long term it’s going to be worth it.
With that in mind, below are the four (potentially uncomfortable!) steps we can take to quieten that negative self talk and live a more limitless life:
Step 1: Awareness
The first thing we need to do is simply to become more aware of our thoughts and how they make us feel. If we receive some really good news, how does that make us feel? Not just emotionally (i.e. we feel happy) but what sort of physical response do we notice in our body? Do we feel lighter? More energised? Similarly, when someone cuts us off in traffic, pushes in front of us in a queue, or says something hurtful to us, how does that make us feel? Feelings of irritation or anger may surface. Maybe our body feels tense or there’s a sense of heaviness in the chest area. Perhaps feeling angry triggers a headache or stomach ache. We need to learn to tune in to the messages our bodies are trying to send us.
Step 2: Acceptance
You may have noticed above that I said ‘quieten’ rather than ‘eliminate’ the negative self-talk. I know that might sound like a strange thing to say but there is zero point wasting energy trying to get the negative voice in our head to stop talking or to get rid of our insecurities. It simply won’t work. Our insecurities, that negative voice in our heads, they will always be with us. When that negative thought inevitably arises we want to acknowledge it but avoid marinating in it. Having negative thoughts is inevitable, taking the bait and allowing ourselves to become hooked in an unhelpful narrative is optional.
Step 3: Shift Focus
For many of us our mental focus is strongly geared towards our perceived limits and weaknesses. We spend a great deal of time and energy thinking about all the reasons why we’ll fail, why we can’t do something, why we’re not a good person, and all the many things we think are wrong with us.
If we are going to succeed in life, to do the things we want to do, to have the lives we want to have, then we need to shift our focus and realize that negative thinking will not support us, it will shrink us, whereas positive thinking, having a strong belief in ourselves, expands us and expands our possibilities.
Our focus needs to shift from ‘what’s wrong with me?’ to ‘what’s great about me?’ We need to stop allowing our minds to wander all over the place, feeding us a steady stream of negativity, and start taking control of our attention and continually (for many of us that’s minute by minute to begin with!) redirecting it towards thoughts that are going to uplift, empower, and inspire us.
Step 4: Become a Deliberate Thinker
We know that the vast majority of the the time of minds are running on automatic pilot, our thoughts completely unconscious. We don’t get up in the morning and think to ourselves ‘you know what? I’m going to spend the entire day thinking that I’m going to fail at everything I do’, but nor do we take action and consciously and deliberately decide to master our minds and think positive thoughts that are going to serve us well. The result of all of this is that we end up as passive victims at the mercy of our own monkey minds.
The key is to train ourselves to become deliberate thinkers. How do we do that? I’m so glad you asked! Motivational speaker Mel Robbins, creator of the 5 Second Rule, suggests that every time we catch ourselves drifting in to that negative default way of thinking that we stop, count 5–4–3–2–1-GO in our heads, and take action by replacing the negative, limiting belief with a positive one. Why 5 seconds? Because that is the length of the window you have to act before your brain gets hooked on the negative thought. If you want to read more about the 5 Second Rule go to https://melrobbins.com/blog/five-elements-5-second-rule/
Here’s how we might put shifting from negative to positive thinking into practice. If our negative thought is ‘I’ll never get there’ we can replace it with ‘I’m exactly where I need to be’, if we think ‘I’m not smart enough’ we can replace that with ‘I’m learning and growing every day’, if it’s ‘I’m too old’ we can replace it with ‘I have so much experience that I can bring to the table’. We need to make sure we are constantly flipping the negative in to a positive because if we give our brain enough repetition at positive thinking then guess what? That’s going to take over as our new default setting.
A Life Less Limited
Even now, at the age of 35, I still love blowing bubbles! It’s the simplest things that bring us happiness and fill our hearts with the joy of being alive. Life can be amazing. It can also be really, really hard at times. Somewhere along the way our childlike curiosity, that playful, mischievous spirit, and that ability to let loose without worrying what other people think, all but disappears. We grow into adults who are so very hard on ourselves.
It breaks my heart when I hear people saying that it’s too late for them, that they’re ‘just’ a mum, that they don’t feel good enough, that they don’t feel smart enough, that being stuck in a job they hate is ‘just how life goes’. It breaks my heart because we have allowed ourselves to grow up and believe that the things we tell ourselves are true.
I don’t know who will read this article, I don’t know what your stories are but I do know that you are not the limiting beliefs you tell yourselves. What I do know is that you’re all beautiful human beings with so much inside your hearts and souls that the world needs, now more than ever. You absolutely have the power to change the narrative in your head, to push through the limits you’ve set for yourself, and to live a more limitless life.