“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t you’re right” – Henry Ford
A few years ago during my midlife crisis I came across a TED talk by Emily Esfahani Smith. According to Smith, happiness comes and goes, but having meaning in our life i.e., serving something beyond ourselves and developing the best within us gives us something to hold onto. She goes on to describe in detail the four pillars of a meaningful life in further detail in her book “The Power of Meaning”. The four pillars are: a sense of belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. The one that resonated the most with me at the time was storytelling. Smith says that “storytelling is really about the story that you tell yourself about your life, about how you became you. It’s your personal myth.”
As Sapiens we often form our beliefs first and then search for evidence in support of them afterwards. We usually form beliefs from subjective, personal, and emotional promptings in social and historical environments that influence their content. Our brain is always seeking to find meaning in the information that pours into it. Once the belief is formed, it rationalises the same with explanations usually after the event. With time the brain becomes invested in these beliefs and reinforces them by looking for supporting evidence whilst ignoring anything that is contrary. As such our beliefs eventually become powerful motivating forces in our lives.
A self-limiting belief is a negative thought pattern that we tell ourselves about who and how we are and has the impact of luring us into thinking that we are incapable of moving past it to bigger and better things. We all have limiting beliefs that stop us from taking actions towards our dreams or everyday goals and inhibit our progress. These limiting beliefs can range from feeling not good enough, or smart enough, to not deserving success or happiness. Some of these beliefs are formed due to our childhood experiences, societal conditioning, through consumption of media or by observing others.
Over the years, I have had my fair share of self-limiting beliefs:
I am not a creative person
This one started in high school in my arts and drawing classes. I used to struggle. To make matters worse I started comparing myself to the kids who were best in class. I concluded that I am not a creative person. From then on, I stared to connect creativity with artistic expression i.e., being an artist or a sculptor. I have now come to realise that is not the only definition of creativity. Creativity can also mean creative thinking i.e., when I am putting together a sequence of yoga poses for my class or writing blogs and problem solving.
Career Path – safety over passion
My father is a Chartered Accountant. His mates were accountants, and their children were either already accountants or studying to become accountants. That was my entire world growing up. Furthermore, I was conditioned to think that accumulating as much wealth as quickly as possible was the key to a happy and great life. So, despite an interest in sport and movement, what did I do, I took the safe path, and completed my CPA exams and spent my time working in finance. I did not derive any work satisfaction from my 14-year finance career. I am much happier now teaching yoga and mindfulness.
Owning a business
If I must give advice to my 21-year-old self, it would be to pursue a career in movement and start his own business. But I chose the safe path. Besides my societal conditioning deep down I thought to myself that I would never be good at business and will end up being a failure. In hindsight I should have taken the risk of failure much earlier in life. It would have saved me a lot of emotional anguish. Ultimately, in 2020 I launched Minderly, my own yoga and mindfulness business. I am going to give this a red hot go as the worst thing that can happen is that no one wants my services. At least I will avoid the regret of not having tried it on my death bed.
In my personal experience, the biggest problem with self-limiting beliefs is that most of the time we are not even aware of their existence. We assume these beliefs to be part of our own story and continue living our lives. These beliefs also have the habit of appearing at the most inopportune times in our life i.e., when we are facing uncertainty or an existential crisis. Therefore, it is important to recognise and do something about these beliefs before they start limiting our potential.
Mindfulness can help
Mindfulness is the process of purposefully paying attention to thoughts and emotions without judgment. It is really about experiencing life in the present moment. Practicing mindfulness on a regular basis helps us become familiar with our thoughts and emotions. We can start identifying these beliefs, stories, and scenarios which our brain often creates rather than making them a part of our story. As we continue our observation, we can begin to identify these self-limiting beliefs and let go of them. Through mindfulness I found that I have imposed beliefs and limitations on myself though my own history and societal conditioning without even questioning them. Through my mindfulness practice, I have also come to realise that it is normal to have these negative voices in my head i.e., they are part of the human condition and that I need to continue to observe, isolate and ignore them so that they don’t become part of my story.
- Recognise what is happening. Consciously acknowledge, the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that affect us and lead to the formation of self-limiting beliefs
- Allow the experience to be there, just as it is. Letting the recognised thoughts, feelings and emotions to simply be there. Avoid judgment, or distraction by focusing attention elsewhere
- Investigate with interest and care. This step requires natural curiosity. Asking ourselves questions such as Is this belief true? How long have I been believing this? Do I need to continue believing this?
- Nurture with self-compassion. This is the homecoming where we start to loosen the grips of our limiting beliefs. It is important to be kind to ourselves and practice self-care
According to Smith, our storytelling impulse emerges from a deep-seated need all humans share: the need to make sense of the world. The story we tell ourselves (and others) about our own life can increase or decrease how meaningful our life seems. If you want to have more meaning, try to tell a positive story about your life.