Are you guilty of failing at your goals time and time again, only to ask “what’s wrong with the world?” and keep on trying to succeed with the same strategies and tactics?
It may be time for an introspective examination of yourself. When success is hard to find, it’s not always the world that’s playing hide and seek. Sometimes, the problem is within our noggins, and we’re preventing ourselves from getting where we want to go. We are defined by the way we see the world.
Another way of stating “the way we see the world” is “assumptions about reality” or worldview. Our worldview will consist of a combination of beliefs that are limiting and beliefs that are enabling—though always skewed to one end of the spectrum or the other.
In true Lifehack spirit, we’re going to look at this using computer analogies. After all, the term “life hacks” comes from applying programming techniques to life. In this article we’ll be looking at search techniques—finding limiting beliefs—and in the next one, we’ll be looking at replacing them. Find & Replace—just like in Word!
Questioning Your Assumptions About Reality
We can only act in accordance with the boundaries of reality that we—or others—have set for ourselves.
We cannot exceed those boundaries without first changing them. It’s a literal impossibility, or they aren’t really beliefs; if we can exceed them, we don’t really believe in them. Beliefs are a framework that thought and action cannot exist outside of without first expanding, changing or removing certain beliefs.
To make it harder to identify which beliefs are limiting you in some way, it’s not only those we currently hold that can affect our behavior and thinking—it’s also the beliefs we’ve held in the past, especially those that you were brought up with as a child. Even if your perception of reality has flipped to the opposite end of the spectrum, the effects of those earlier beliefs can stick with you for a lifetime.
For instance, as Tim Ferriss mentions in The 4-Hour Workweek, your limiting belief may be that more time and effort spent equals greater productivity (or ‘hard work is good work’), hence making you hopelessly unproductive.
Finding Limiting Beliefs
Limiting beliefs are simply assumptions about reality that are not true. In order for our actions to have the greatest positive effect, we need to have beliefs that are as close to the reality as possible—deceiving ourselves will take us further from the goal. So, a limiting belief, when it comes down to it, is a belief that isn’t true.
Since human perception and reality are fundamentally two different things, we will always have limiting beliefs. It is impossible to ever eliminate all of them. But, through observation, openness to new information, and trial, we can at least begin the process of closing the gap between reality and our perception of it.
Observe the world to see what works and what doesn’t work. Look at things different ways—for example, try being cynical or try being naive when you observe—you’ll see different things, and it’s likely that some of your limiting beliefs derive from being overly cynical or overly naive and trusting. There are many other viewpoints you can try.
What is observation? I always assumed that people would automatically know what I mean when I tell them to observe. In personal development, it is necessary to “observe” without having a specific target in mind. It’s a required state of mind to find both new ideas and bad habits. The other day I was talking about this concept of limiting beliefs and observation with a friend who said, “What do I observe?” and since then it has been obvious to me that it’s not an entirely intuitive practice.
“Observe always that everything is the result of a change, and get used to thinking that there is nothing Nature loves so well as to change existing forms and to make new ones like them.” – Marcus Aurelius
Aurelius was most definitely correct, but that only points us in the right direction—it gives us some idea of why we should observe reality instead of just taking the word of a friend, philosopher, minister or news anchor.
The truth is that there’s no magic bullet that’ll automatically get you to mindfully observe your surroundings. It takes practice. Instead of living day-to-day in a passive “shutters-on” mode, you need to cultivate an active awareness of mind. Take note of your surroundings and be aware of them, instead of just existing in them. It’s not difficult to teach yourself this, in terms of the skill and knowledge required to do it, but it does take time and discipline before you’ll habitually stay in that mindful zone.
What you’re doing is not only training yourself to observe everything throughout your day, but to spot disconnects more readily. Our default mode is to ignore disconnects in reality or accept them, thanks to beliefs that are out of line with objective reality. So, by cultivating this constant mindfulness and observation of everything we encounter, we’re overriding that default mode and telling our brain not to ignore those disconnects, but bring them to our attention. This allows us to determine where our ideas need tweaking.
You’ll still be seeing reality through the lens of your current beliefs, but a lens can only distort an image, not present a totally different one (unless you’re really psychologically sick!), so with practice you’ll be able to determine (through pattern recognition) how your assumptions and ideas are distorting the perception of reality.
In other words, you’re observing the world not to see more of it, but to see how your worldview ‘lens’ takes different concepts and distorts them in similar ways. By spotting the similarities in your perceptions of totally different things you’ll know that they’re artificial impositions on reality kicking in, and not objective truth itself. This gives you a better idea of what internal beliefs must change.
When you successfully do this for the first time, it’s a pretty enlightening moment—like seeing something with absolute clarity for the first time; like taking your sunglasses off and finally seeing all the color and depth of your environment.
2. Openness to New Information
Openness to new information is very important to seeking your own limiting beliefs and replacing them. If you’re open, you’ll allow yourself to see the way someone else does or sees things. Using the experience and beliefs of others to test your own is a massive shortcut to the process of finding and replacing limiting beliefs.
This works best when others have fought their battles hard to find the optimal belief in an area, and you no longer have to because you’ve been open to their ideas. If you want to quit smoking, read about how other people have successfully removed harmful habits from their life and apply the beliefs that enabled them. The belief that it’s impossible to quit is usually the one that keeps people addicted.
Essentially, being open to new ideas is a belief in itself, but this is one of the enabling beliefs. While some belief systems, especially the institutionalized ones, are very closed to new ideas—and hence, I might add, suffering for it—it is of absolute importance that you be open to new ideas if you ever want to improve and develop yourself. If close-mindedness is a part of your belief system, then change it immediately, or stagnate forever. If you don’t change that, there’s no point to be wasting time reading stuff like this—go be productive!
Most people think they are open to new ideas, if “being open” means: when you find a good idea, be open to using it yourself. But this is not where the concept of openness stops; it hasn’t even begun. Being open is hardly about the ideas you think are good to begin with. It’s about the ones that you don’t like.
Like the idea that if you never watched, listened to or read the news again, your life wouldn’t fall apart and you wouldn’t miss out on anything you need to know.
Cultivate a curiosity in both ideas that seem comfortable and wonderful, and ideas that seem uncomfortable and scary. The latter are the ones that will help you the most.
And remember that being open doesn’t mean accepting all new ideas; once you’ve objectively entertained an idea, you can always reject it. Accepting every idea the world throws at you is a practice known as stupidity.
3. Trialling New Information (or, Trial & Error)
You can observe and be open, but you’ll never really find your own limiting beliefs until you actually try some new ones on for size.
When you’ve found some areas of your belief system that you think need touching up, implement the proposed improvements and see if you’re doing better with or without them. You need to do this for at least seven to 30 days; the longer the better. If you “try it on” for a few hours or a day or two, you’ll never really know if the idea was good—all you’ll really discover is that it was uncomfortable to try something you weren’t used to. It takes time to get over the comfort hump, so take that into account.
Set that time limit before you begin. Never, ever set it after. Stick to it.
While you might not make it past the comfort hump of your trial, it’s also possible the opposite will happen: you’ll enjoy the fact of change itself, the act of doing (or thinking) something different for once, and you’ll mistake the source of that positive feeling as being the new beliefs. It could be a step backward, but because you finally got to find out how it feels to think differently and look at something in a new light, you’re oblivious to it.
If you have any doubts at the end of your trial period, you should stop for a few days and go back to your usual operating mode and evaluate the difference from an objective distance. They keyword here is objective. It’s really important, especially when it comes to beliefs and perception of reality, that you find some level of objectivity (even though you’ll still be seeing the world from a skewed point of view, I know, I know). In this case objectivity is derived from detaching your emotions from your analysis.
Next time: you’ve found your limiting belief of the day and want to exchange it for a new one. We’ll look at how to make this daunting goal a reality.