Addressing Self-limitation

Addressing Self-limitation

The brain is a belief machine; it embraces notions that are untrue, even patently absurd. This includes what we are capable of doing or not doing. To paraphrase Einstein, the world we create for ourselves is a consequence of our internal monologue – it cannot be changed without altering our self-assessment. Our thoughts determine the future we design for ourselves and, like a thermostat, regulate our behaviour. As several have said, whether we believe we can or can’t, we’re always right. “Impossible” is a point of view and becoming extraordinary is little more than a choice we are all capable of making.

We converse with ourselves all the time. This silent conversation has a powerful impact on our decisions. Our experiences, intentions, fears and imaginations fuel this inner voice. It can be a liability or an asset, depending on whether we control it or allow it to control us. It’s a survival mechanism vital to our identity, our efforts and achievements, and our eventual destination. Allowing feelings of self-doubt or indecisiveness to run amok can persuade us to pursue a path that’s not in our best interests or convince us to back away from otherwise boundless opportunities.

What people tell us about our capabilities is often irrelevant, useless and harmful. In the face of unwarranted criticisms and rejections, we need to upgrade our self-talk to match our vision, not downgrade it to earn their validation. The forces that can pull us toward mediocrity are as inevitable and incessant as the law of gravity. An assumption is something we believe to be true. Yet most are not. Many, for example, presume they can’t do something before they even try. A life-defining question we need to ask is which assumptions are limiting and which are uplifting? Knowing the difference is the fuel of accomplishment.

The successful invert their thinking – they assume everything is possible unless proven otherwise. They align their actions with a vision of what could be. This boldness peels away the layers of self-doubt, fear and self-limitation that may have been accumulated in childhood. The successful are always learning – embracing curiosity, taking smart risks and reframing failure. They don’t complain about their problems; they fix them. They prioritize ruthlessly and say no when warranted. They seek mastery, not mere competence. They keep their commitments and know success is the sum of their daily choices. These aren’t skills; it’s a mindset.

Self-limitation is a consequence of self-doubt or a lack of certitude about one’s capabilities. Certainty – the state of knowing – arises from involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason. The danger of assuming we’re “right” about something is that it closes the mind to possibilities. While the rational mind is the glue of discourse, discovery and awareness, it’s also the source of mental rigidity, resistance to new ideas and fixed beliefs. We’re also further burdened by having a brain that prefers simplistic, vacuous or inaccurate self-generalizations about what we think may be deficiencies. No one is perfect and all learning is error driven; adversity and failure strengthen character.

Our insistent proclivity to want certitude in our lives has physiological similarities to addiction. Once established, the neural network that links a thought with the feeling of knowing something is not easily undone. The focus of suffering the humiliation of not knowing leads us to conclude we are not worthy, although no one is or can be immune from the underlying ambiguities, inconsistencies and paradoxes of living. Self-doubt can open the mind rather than close it. But our brains are molded to prefer certainty over not knowing. Like rats rewarded for pressing a bar, the desire for certitude teaches us to stick with what we think we know versus putting our self-limiting beliefs to the test.

Every human has a model of reality in his or her head. Its uniqueness is based on one’s experiences, memories, beliefs, biases and genetics. That model includes a conviction about what we feel we can and cannot accomplish. The only way to change it is to think differently. After decades of encouraging others as an executive performance coach to focus on liberating their innate potential, I understand how diminishing that version of reality can be and what it takes to revise or eliminate it. The enemy of change is our overwhelming belief in the need to be consistent. This reflexive thought process prevents us from “becoming” something different. Norman Vincent Peale once said, “change your thoughts and change your life.” Which is one reason I believe you can’t coddle people into greatness. It takes more than a nudge.

We can subdue our negative inner voice by changing the conversation. The antidote for dealing with belittling thoughts is to substitute the phrase “I believe” for “I know.” Instead of “I don’t have what it takes,” say “I think I can figure this one out for myself.” Instead of “I’m not ready,” tell yourself “I’m ready, willing and able to do this.” Replace self-doubt with an inspirational or at least supportive internal monologue. Experiment with different emancipative thoughts and liberate the voice that speaks boldly of your unlimited potential and instructs you how to tack against the prevailing winds. It’s there; just give it a chance to be heard.

Pogo, Walt Kelly’s cartoon character, offered us incisive wit and wisdom when he once said, “we have met the enemy and he is us.” This is the essence of self-limitation. We can release ourselves from destructive ruminations by purposefully ignoring the need for certainty and adopting more self-affirming language. When we understand how to control disparaging self-talk, we can help others do so as well. We might provide them with distancing counsel by using such unassailable counsel as “it will get better” (because it will) or “it could always be worse” (because it can). It’s not what we say to others that determines our trajectory in life; it’s what we say to ourselves. So, bring it on.

P.S.  To my loyal subscribers, I will be taking my annual summer hiatus to recharge and replenish the blog cupboard. Enjoy yours and thank you for your readership. I’ll be back in September.