The goal isn’t to get rid of all your negative thoughts and feelings; that’s impossible. The goal is to change your response to them.
During a recent research experiment in the Caribbean, a marine biologist placed a sizeable shark into a large holding tank and then released several small bait fish into the tank with it.
As you might expect, the shark quickly darted around the tank attacking and eating the smaller bait fish.
The following day the marine biologist inserted a strong piece of clear fiberglass into the tank, creating two separate partitions. She then put the shark on one side of the fiberglass divider and a new set of bait fish on the other.
Again, the shark quickly attacked. This time, however, the shark slammed into the fiberglass divider and bounced off. Undeterred, the shark kept repeating this behavior every few minutes to no avail. Meanwhile, the bait fish swam around unharmed in the second partition. Eventually, about an hour into the experiment, the shark gave up.
This experiment was repeated several dozen times over the next few weeks. Each time, the shark got less aggressive and made fewer attempts to attack the bait fish, until eventually the shark got tired of hitting the fiberglass divider and simply stopped attacking altogether.
The marine biologist then removed the fiberglass divider, but the shark didn’t attack. The shark was trained to believe a barrier existed between it and the bait fish, so the bait fish swam wherever they wished, free from harm.
Why am I telling you this story?
Many of us, after experiencing setbacks and failures, emotionally give up and stop trying. Like the shark in the story, we believe that because we were unsuccessful in the past, we will always be unsuccessful. In other words, we continue to see a barrier in our heads, even when no real barrier exists between where we are and where we want to go.
Let this be your wake-up call.
We all have incredible power inside us. Certainly, we also have our own fiberglass dividers—the self-limiting thoughts and beliefs that hold us back. Sometimes it’s a childhood experience or an old failure. Sometimes it’s something we were told when we were a little younger. Sometimes it’s just a lack of self-confidence that gradually sneaks up on us over the years.
In any case, here’s what you need to know and remember…
1. Much of what you believe about your failures and limitations can easily be debunked.
“This afternoon I found out I had been accepted to the university of my choice with a full track and field scholarship. Despite everything my alcoholic mother and her abusive husband put me through over the years—the hungry, sleepless nights I spent in tears due to their relentless negativity—it didn’t ruin me. With your coaching and guidance, I’ve worked hard to get out of this mess once and for all, and it’s finally paying off.”
That’s the opening paragraph of an email we received back in March from Monica, a course student of ours (she gave me permission to share this with you today). Her email goes on to say that she has forgiven her mom and stepfather, but also knows being on her own and taking this next step is a priceless gift. “Honestly, for far too long the people in my life had me convinced that I wasn’t good enough,” she says. “And I have no grudges, but I’m so happy I’m able to prove to myself that they were wrong about me all along.”
Monica’s email made me pause, reflect and smile, for obvious reasons.
And although Monica’s circumstances are unique to her, I bet you can relate on some level. I know I can. Sometimes the pressure and dysfunction coming from family, peers, work, and society in general is enough to make us feel completely broken inside. If we do things differently, we’re looked down upon. If we dream big, we’re ridiculed. Or if we don’t have the ‘right’ job, relationship, lifestyle, and so forth, by a certain age or time frame, we’re somehow made to feel like we’re not good enough.
Monica’s story truly is a perfect reminder for all of us, even though she’s only 18, because the self-limiting beliefs that get instilled in our minds often arrive at an early age.
Maybe we got cut from a sports team as a child and thus determined “I’m not athletic enough to be fit and good at sports.” Or a college boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with us out of the blue and then immediately starts dating someone else, and so we feel unwanted and unattractive … for way too long.
For whatever reason, we encounter seemingly insignificant rejections that drastically alter our mindset for years to come. It happens something like this:
- We hear we’re bad at something, or we have a bad experience with something.
- We avoid trying again for a prolonged period of time, because we want to avoid the potential of more pain and disappointment.
- When we do try again, we try half-heartedly, so we can point to that and say, “See? Just as I predicted—it didn’t work out.”
- We never improve in this area of our lives, because we never commit to doing so.
- It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we’re left feeling ‘not good enough’ every day thereafter.
Does that sound at all familiar?
If so, it’s time to break yourself out of this cycle!
By proving to yourself that the belief holding you back is toxic and FALSE…
I want you to think about ONE toxic belief you have. It can be about any part of your life you hope to change—your health, your weight, your career, your relationships—anything at all. What’s one thing you’ve essentially decided is a fact about your place on Earth?
And then I want you to immediately shift gears and think about ONE time—one fleeting moment—in which the opposite of that ‘fact’ was true for you. I don’t care how tiny of a victory it was, or even if it was a partial victory. What’s one moment in time you can look back on and say, “Hey, that was totally unlike me, but I did it”?
- Ran a 5K for charity
- Lost weight and kept it off
- Was the life of the party
- Stood up for yourself
- Felt loved
- Learned a new skill
Once you identify the cracks in the wall of a self-limiting, toxic belief, you can start attacking it. You can start taking steps forward every day that go against it—tiny victories, more confidence, gradual momentum, bigger victories, even more confidence, and so on.
Until your thoughts and reality change for good. (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Adversity” chapter of our book.)
2. Your brain inaccurately matches patterns from the past with the present, which has given you many false beliefs (and excuses).
All too often we let the rejections of our past dictate every move we make. This is one of the most common and damaging thought patterns we as human beings succumb to. We literally do not know ourselves to be any better than what some opinionated person or limited occurrence once told us was true. And so we get used to looking around and thinking things will never work out in our favor.
Practice noticing your negative attachments to past experiences, so you can learn from these experiences and then update your belief system based on how your circumstances have changed (as they continuously do).
In other words, you need to practice thinking better about the past and present, so you can ultimately live better from here on out.
One of the most effective ways of doing this involves catching and correcting your negative (false) pattern-matching tendencies. Let me explain…
Every day, all day, you are subconsciously matching patterns from the past with the present (this is why you’re able to recognize familiar places and people). When an experience in your life has emotional significance, it gets tagged in your brain as being important. And when the emotional experience is upsetting, it triggers your brain’s fear mechanism, which tells your brain to remain on the lookout for any future conditions that vaguely remind you of this upsetting experience (it does this to protect you from future harm).
Your brain then tries to match new experiences with the original one. But depending on how emotionally attached you are to the original experience, it can lead to false pattern matches which inevitably lead you astray. This is especially true when it comes to personal failures, mistakes and misjudgments.
- Your relationship fell apart, so now you believe that all your future relationships will too.
- You got a really low score on a written exam in high school, so now you doubt your ability to take any form of written exam.
- You didn’t get along with an old boss, so now you have trouble respecting a totally new boss or different authoritative figure.
Again, these false pattern matches occur whenever you respond negatively and over-emotionally to a particular past experience. And it all happens subconsciously too. Logically, you know that all relationships are completely different, but emotionally you are inclined to respond as if they are all alike.
If you feel stuck because you can’t move beyond a negative experience from the past, then your brain is subconsciously relating to it as if it’s still happening right now, which means it’s matching patterns improperly in the present. Here’s a (simplified) two-step solution that might help:
- Ask yourself: “What specific past negative experience and associated feelings do my present feelings remind me of?” Dig deep and be honest with yourself.
- Once you have determined the origin of your present feelings, list all the ways your present circumstances differ from the past (the original negative experience)—this should include the places, people, and details that caused you pain and discomfort. Review the differences over and over again until you have them completely memorized. This can help you realize and remember that your circumstances have indeed changed.
3. Feeling stuck and incapable is just a feeling, not a fact.
Just because someone else can, doesn’t mean you can, right? Because you’re not good enough, or you’ve already missed your chance, or it’s just not in the cards for you. You look for reasons they can do it but you can’t…
- “Maybe he’s an internet entrepreneur and freelance writer because he has no kids.”
- “Maybe she’s way fitter than I am because she doesn’t have all the work and family obligations I have, or has a more supportive spouse, or doesn’t have bad knees.”
OK, fine, it’s easy to find excuses: but look at all the other people who also have considerable obstacles and have done it anyway. Angel and I have a family, and have coped with significant loss in our lives, and still managed to succeed on many fronts. And just as we’ve turned things around for ourselves, we know hundreds of other people who’ve done the same. Through a decade of life coaching with our students and clients, we’ve witnessed people reinventing themselves at all ages—48-year olds starting families, 57-year-olds graduating from college for the first time, 71-year-olds starting successful businesses, and so forth. And stories abound of people with disabilities or illnesses who overcame their obstacles to achieve incredible outcomes.
Your obstacles CAN be overcome!
Feeling stuck and incapable is a FEELING, not a fact. So never assume that you’re stuck with the way things are. Life changes, and so can you. It’s never too late to live a life that makes you proud. If you don’t learn anything else from this post, learn that. There’s no age limit on changing your course.
“But how?” you ask.
By putting one foot in front of the other every single day.
When it comes to making a meaningful change in your life—earning a new degree, building a new business, fostering a new relationship, starting a family, becoming more mindful, or any other personal journey that takes time and commitment—you have to build daily rituals into your life that reinforce your goal, so you can actually make real, lasting progress.
Because goals don’t make positive changes happen, daily rituals do.
Watch this quick video Angel and I recorded for you, and let us explain…
(Note: Angel and I build small, daily, life-changing rituals with our students in the “Goals and Growth” module of Getting Back to Happy.)
I hope you found value in the three strategies above. I’ve shared them with you because, honestly, I’ve witnessed them help hundreds of our course students and coaching clients over the past decade.
And it’s important to note, too, that Angel and I are not immune to any of this. None of us are above this stuff. Just like every other human being, sometimes we let our negative thoughts and beliefs get the best of us—we let our inner conflicts get in the way of our real world opportunities. And it takes practice just to realize this, and then even more practice to get back on track.
Which is precisely why we practice a little bit every day.
I hope you will join us today.
To think better.
And to live better.
If you’re feeling up to it, we would love to hear from YOU.
Which point mentioned above resonates with you the most today, and why?
What beliefs do you need to move on from?
Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.
Also, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to sign-up for our free newsletter to receive new articles like this in your inbox each week.
Photo by: Michal Pechardo
Marc (and Angel), I actually attended your live Think Better event earlier this year and enrolled in your Getting Back to Happiness course just afterwards, and this post reminded of the self-inquiry reframing tools you explained in detail at the event and got me working on through your course’s coaching. I’ve actually been applying self-inquiry as a ritual in my life on a daily basis ever since and it’s really shifted my thinking, and thus my life, in a very positive way.
For the longest time I was unknowingly stuck on the self-limiting belief that I wasn’t at all good enough or educated enough to take the next step in various areas of my life. But with your coaching and the mindset tools you provided me, I’ve been pushing well beyond this belief over the past few months and I’m seeing significant results.
Jean Lawson says
I’m so glad I signed up for your emails last month. They always seem to lead me to incredible articles and ideas I need ingrained in my brain. I truly appreciate every part of this article, but #3 and the related video gave me some really good perspective about how I’ve been treating, or better yet mistreating, a couple of my important goals. Thank you, as usual! And please keep the wisdom flowing.
Paula D says
What you’ve mentioned here about false-pattern-matching really stuck chord with me. This is so me! I went through a bad divorce just over six years ago, and now I’ve been dating a wonderful man for the past three years. He’s mentioned marriage a couple times, and he’s never been married so that’s a big deal for him, but I always shy away from the marriage conversations. I do this because thinking about it brings me stress–marriage has certainly been tagged as an upsetting pattern from the past. In any case, thanks for this post and insight. I’m going to work on this.
Also, I’m hoping to attend your upcoming 2018 event in San Diego. 🙂
Ramkumar sony says
Hello I am a student of psychology. And this is really–really helping to me so much to modify my brain power in better direction. And I am agree with you. Your research is really good.
Thank you so much!
Jane Chew says
What you say is absolutely true we all have self limiting beliefs about ourselves – but I do wish that experiments, such as the one you describe, did not happen. We do not need to use other creatures in order to grow ourselves.
Nersida Sanchez says
Thank you for your inspiring posts!
I have been in the mortgage industry for 19 years, as a mortgage underwriter, in various capacities, with what seems like far too many banks. Beginning in 2011, for the first time, I became subject to a series of confidence-blowing layoffs, due to the “rates rollercoaster”, and this was following losing everything around 2008, when the housing market tanked. I finally got a great job as a quality control underwriter, auditing loans approved by underwriters. Loved the company, loved my boss, loved everyone I worked with, and it was 2 miles from my home. I was laid off 1 month ago, and here I am, at the age of 47, searching for work again. I’m too old for this, I’m tired of it…and I just feel like…maybe this isn’t my arena?? I would love some direction in how I can assess “who I am” and find work in an industry that suits ME. How can I break the endless cycle of feeling stuck in this industry and open myself up to finding something that I AM more suited for?
Debbie Kool says
I have been a reader for over a year now. I have, most my life, felt not as good and or just stupid. In the last two years, lost a job I loved, at the same time my husband wanted out of our marriage. Then… My daughter in-law died. My son remarried and my new daughter in-law dislikes me. I’m tired, and now 60, kinda hoping some times that life should be done now. I snagged a new job and last week they announced that they are selling out. In other words, start looking for a new job. I don’t even know if new thinking can pull me out. Thank you Debbie
Hi Marc and Angel,
Once again, you have hit right on. My goal is to move out of state next year. I have taken that first step this morning to contact a mortgage broker about purchasing a small home. Considering that I thought that I would rent, I thought that I could very well own. I have in the past, so why not now, even though I’m retired. I won’t know until I try, right? Thanks again and I love your emails and videos!
Reading this article, today, of all days, when I have been constantly questioning myself for 6 years, has made an impact on me. It takes some of us a long time to learn and believe in those words. Getting over a fear, that keeps appearing in your lifeevery few years, is upsetting in so many ways. I may not be over this hurdle yet, but I have learned to keep moving forward, and to keep trying.
Thank you for this informational article! And be well.
I have been holding on to my ex for far too long. I believed (still believe but am working on it), that I am just doomed not to be in a great relationship. After 14 years together, my ex cheated on me. He is still with the other woman and is now very happily married. I figured the whole affair had to be all my fault. I know now that it was not totally my fault but I have to accept my responsibility in the demise of our relationship. I hope that with continued work on myself that one day I will find someone amazing. Thank you,
I know words are difficult to find sometimes, as they are right now, especially for my thoughts right now when they come to you. I can feel it in my inner self the pain that you feel and are working so hard to get over. I don’t normally reply to posts or what now but I always read the comments. The reason I came across Marc and Angel is because I feel I am having relationship complications of my own and am looking for help. What I can do to better myself, how I can be a better partner, etc. I’ve been dating the current love of my life for nearly four years now but I feel we are drifting apart. I feel such a heaviness on my soul and complete sadness. I do not know what to do. It is my worst fear to lose him after the many years we’ve been together – not nearly as long of a commitment as you have had. I’m still young, 24 years old, and my boyfriend is a bit younger than me. I’ve been looking to settle down, marry, have kids. I’ve been looking at houses, dreaming of a place together. But I feel he’s not ready. He’s younger than me by a few years and I get that it takes awhile but there is no way to rush marriage when he isn’t ready. And I wouldn’t want him to. When his biological clock’s alarm lights up and says “I’m ready,” only then is the time. I’m fearful that I’ll have placed all this energy into saving money for a house, working extra hours, spending time at the gym, taking extra classes to become a better person and better – hopefully – someday wife, has isolated us. I can tell he still cares about me but it’s as if we have gotten comfortable with the distance. But I’m honestly not comfortable with it. I feel like I don’t know him anymore. His passion still lies with his hobbies, his phone, his friends, his own little world. Sometimes I feel like I’m not a part of it. Like I’m not a part of his future, only the present. But I’m looking forward to the future and I’m not sure what will be there. Or what won’t be there. I have the fear of the tragedy that has happened to you, Pam. I cannot say how sorry I am for your loss because that seems meaningless. Reading Marc and Angels article has been inspiring, as they always are. “Change starts with a daily ritual not a goal” struck me most from this article. Perhaps I need to stop planning for the future and work on another strategy. Perhaps, even, it’s not a strategy at all. How do we find happiness, after all? And what does that feel like? Pam, I’m sure you are a beautiful, strong, lovely person and this man who left you may be content on his own but you deserve so, so much better. You are incredible and can do incredible things. Like Marc and Angel said, there is nothing holding you back but fear itself. Being afraid, sad, and alone does not solve anything. Accepting that it is okay to feel this way, that these feelings are normal, and decide what exactly there is to do now is a huge step. A step I see you making as we both read Marc and Angel for guidance because we’re not sure where else to go.
My self limiting belief at the moment is that I’m struggling with General anxiety and can’t let it go. I try and distract myself but if ever I manage it, I react anxiously that it won’t happen again.
This article is so timely for things going on in my life. Have had a particularly frustrating day, and it’s not even 3 pm yet. I feel stuck in many ways…in my career and my place in life. Since April I’ve had a nagging feeling that if I don’t change my situation now, there’s going to be no better time to do it. I’m scared but change usually is. I’m a professional as in went to graduate school, took a licensing exam and spent a lot of time and money to get to where I am today, only to be unhappy and unfulfilled. I’ve tried to change my attitude toward it, but it’s no use when the heart’s not in it. I love animals and would love to work with them and have started studying marine biology on my own. I may go back to school but not anytime soon. Funnily enough, I asked God for a sign this morning that I was on the right path; I clicked on your email only to see marine biology as the analogy in the beginning. Made me very happy. Is this a sign, God? Not sure, but it lifted my mood immediately. I love this website and thanks for all the inspiration.
Leanne Calderwood says
Thanks for the great article! It’s great affirmation for the nature vs nurture theory, and we can choose to not be a product of our environment or family situation. Like Monica, we all have the ability to change the course of our lives, and make conscious choices to move into well-being. Great article!
Claudio Baldonedo says
Once again you have given us an invaluable piece of advice. Your insights are always so powerful and enlightening. My life has changed a lot for the better thanks to your excellent articles and guidelines.
Thank you both for being as you are.
Vernon Layne says
In the past I applied for two promotions and didn’t get either.
My first respond was negative thinking they already knew who they wanted.
After taking a good look at my work habits I could see room for improvement.
So I focused on those areas and on being more productive and that made me feel good about myself.
Later another promotion became available but my mind told me I had been rejected twice so save myself the embarrassment.
But something inside me told me to go for it.
I waited to the last minute then applied.
My Boss thought I wouldn’t put in for it because I took so long but was happy I did because of the chance he seen in me.
I got the promotion by not listening to my flesh and following my spirit.
I knew it all already, but it’s still nice to read and be reminded of.