“How many miles do you think a human can run in a single session?” Dr. Ellen Langer asked her students at Harvard University.
After a bit of deliberation, the students thought they had a strong guess.
They knew that marathons are an impressive feat. But they also knew that many people run marathons, so it couldn’t be the upper limit. Shifting their guess from that point, they landed at ~40 miles.
The students had never run 40 miles before. So it seems like a crazy feat! But despite their confidence, their guess was nowhere near the real answer!
In reality, 40 miles is a walk in the park to members of the Tarahumara tribe. Due to the spread-out nature of their villages, the Tarahumara are known to run distances of up to 100-200 miles!
Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer
How Beliefs Shape Your Life
Your experience of the world is not universal. You see the world through the tinted lenses of your your background, state of mind, and beliefs.
Dr. Langer’s students believed a marathon was near the upper-limit of what humans could run. This belief painted an inaccurate picture of reality in their mind.
This wouldn’t be a big deal if it was obvious that beliefs are uncertain, flexible, and open to reinterpretation. But most of the time, you aren’t conscious that beliefs are beliefs.
And when you believe something is true, your mind interprets your experiences in a way that supports your belief. This is called confirmation bias, and it reinforces your view of reality. (Even if it isn’t accurate.)
For example, you could believe that you’re an unlucky person. This causes you to…
- Pay attention to roadblocks as evidence of this poor luck
- Ignore the times in life where things go smoothly
And in this way, a malleable belief is reinforced, set in stone, and treated as the utter truth.
Sometimes this process can benefit you. But more often than not, ingrained beliefs create false limits in your life.
In this way, you become trapped in the world of what has been. And you miss the true possibility of what might be.
How Limiting Beliefs Hold You Back
Dr. Langer’s students’ beliefs held them back from understanding the reality of human potential.
The same process happens in your life. Your beliefs can hold you back from realizing your potential in all areas of life.
After all, if you don’t believe something is possible in your life, you’re unlikely to follow through with creating it.
“If you limit your choices to only what seems possible or reasonable…you disconnect yourself from what you truly want, and all you have left is compromise…the human spirit will not invest in a compromise.”
~Robert Fritz, The Path of Least Resistance
To bring this idea to life, let’s look at a few examples of how limiting beliefs could hold you back in different areas of life:
- Relationships: You might want a deep, loving connection with your partner. But if you experience a patch of consistent tension and believe it is doomed, you’re unlikely to consider new ways of communicating that could restore health to your relationship.
- Physical health: You might want to be fit and energetic. But if you’ve been overweight for a number of years, and believe it’s just the way you’re meant to be, you’re unlikely to prioritize your nutrition and exercise.
- Business: You might want to run your own business. But if you don’t believe in your entrepreneurial abilities, you won’t give yourself the opportunity to try. And if you never try, you can never succeed.
- Mental health: You might want to be fulfilled and happy in life. But if you’ve experienced consistent low moods, and don’t believe you can ever be satisfied, you’re likely to perpetuate the behaviors and mental states that leave you deflated.
Of course, belief alone isn’t enough to create positive change in your life. You need action as well.
But without belief, it’s monumentally more difficult!
Belief opens the door of possibility, and primes you for action. You still have to do the work to walk through it. But if you never open that door, you’re doomed from the start.
Shed Limiting Beliefs to Create What you Want in Life
Fortunately, the beliefs in your head are self-constructed. Since they aren’t set in stone, you can take steps to shift them by changing your thinking.
If you don’t believe in your ability to do something, you’ll naturally ask, “Can I do this?”
This question leaves room for you to say “Nope!” and shoot yourself in the foot before you even try.
But by changing the question you ask, you can shift your belief, and create new results.
Instead of asking “Can I _____?”, ask “How will I ____?”
- “Can I lose 15 pounds?” feels intimidating. “I’ve never done it before, so it’s probably not likely…”
- “How will I lose 15 pounds?” is more approachable. “Well, I suppose it starts today by eating for my health instead of pleasure…And creating some more time for movement.”
The “Can I?” approach sets you up to slide back into a limiting belief.
The “How will I?” approach empowers you to find solutions, take action, and create new results.
To take things a step farther, try asking “What’s the best way for me to ____?” This question challenges you to consider multiple paths, and choose the optimal route forward.
Set Your Sights on Possibility
“Because a thing is difficult for you, do not therefore suppose it beyond mortal power. On the contrary, if anything is possible and proper for a man to do, assume that it must fall within your own capacity.”
~ Marcus Aurelius
Your beliefs shape your view of life, and every daily experience. Unfortunately, these beliefs can inhibit progress. Limiting beliefs get in the way of you showing up at your best.
But by recognizing that beliefs are not set in stone, you give yourself the opportunity to shift them. And in doing so, you open the door to new possibilities.
Where might your beliefs be holding you back?
Take this opportunity to identify one today. (Think of an area of your life where you aren’t seeing the results you’d like.)
Then, use the “How will I…?” question to orient yourself towards possibility.
And when the door of possibility is open, all you have to do is step through it.