I recently read a short story about how elephants are trained that I would like to share with you.
My friend saw a trainer nearby and asked why these beautiful, magnificent animals just stood there and made no attempt to get away.
“Well,” he said, “when they are very young and much smaller we use the same size of rope to tie them and, at that age, it’s enough to hold them. As they grow up, they are conditioned to believe they cannot break away. They believe the rope can still hold them, so they never try to break free.” My friend was amazed. These animals could at any time break free from their bonds but because they believed they couldn’t, they were stuck right where they were.”
(excerpt from theunboundedspirit.com )
How many of us are tied by an invisible rope that limits are belief in what we are able to accomplish? While reading this I asked myself, what beliefs about myself or others do I hold that might not be rooted in reality?
What are mental barriers?
Very simply put, a mental barrier is a limiting belief or assumption that we have about ourselves in regards to our ability, potential, self-worth, etc. It keeps us from doing something or acting on something, as for example asking for a promotion, public speaking, financial investing, losing weight, etc.
Mental barriers are incorrect or unhealthy thought patterns that limit us in reaching our full potential.
A few examples of unhealthy thought patterns:
Three types of mental barriers
I used to hold an irrational belief about my cooking abilities, when I had never really tried to learn to cook. The first few times I failed, and I became known as someone that shouldn’t be hosting a dinner party. However, with time and effort (and the need to save money as a student), this internalized, irrational belief about my own ability changed. It was however hard to persuade some of my old friends. We do not only put up barriers in our head about ourselves, but also about the world that surrounds us and the people in it.
Beliefs about myself
Mental barriers about yourself can stop you in your tracks, whether it is your career, a relationship you deeply care about, or personal development and leadership. Many times when we feel stuck, we are stuck because of a limiting self-belief (based in fear, lack of confidence or over-reliance on recognition and approval from others)and not because of external circumstances.
I, for example, kept myself in a holding position for too long to become an independent consultant, because I thought I did not know enough. Truth is that you can always learn more. But by believing that what you know isn’t good enough, you sabotage yourself from getting started.
We, as human beings, compare ourselves at every occasion we get. And then we spin stories in our head that become our subjective reality. Go ahead, I dare you to fact-check some of the assumptions you have about yourself with the people around you.
Any of those sounds familiar?
Beliefs about others
When we lack information about a situation or a person, we are proven guilty as charged to fill the missing information with assumptions. Interestingly enough, this “filling-in phenomenon” exists in our vision as well. Because our eyes have physiological blindspots, information has to be filled to build a complete pictures (read more about visual filling-in here).
In the absence of information in a situation, e.g. having sent an important email to a colleague and not hearing back, we fill-in with assumptions based on experiences, hearsay, and advice. All of these are based on our belief system and are deeply rooted in our culture.
I remember just recently being on the receiving end of a limiting belief. A contact in the U.S. had sent me an email with a few requests. After coming back from vacation, I replied to his email. His reply tone clearly let me know that the long reply time let him to believe I wasn’t interested any longer. Clearly an assumption he had made based on the fact that it had taken me too long to reply by U.S. cultural standards. For a German like me, it was absolutely normal to not check my work emails regularly in the Tuscan hills on vacation.
A few examples of limiting beliefs about others:
Beliefs about the world around you
We are born and raised with certain cultural values, that are shared through our parents, our peers, school, the city and country we live in, and the media we consume. In a world that is more inter-connected than ever, we are now experiencing (some almost daily) the clash of perspectives and values. If we don’t open up to the possibility of different ways and approaches to a solution or a goal, we are limiting our potential for innovation, creativity, and finding alternative answers to global questions like e.g. climate change.
The mental barriers we have about “how things should be done” and “what is normal” limit our thinking process and how we respect and value a differing opinion. These unconscious barriers of generalized unhealthy thought patterns about the world or groups of people around us have tremendous opportunity costs.
A few examples of mental barriers about the world:
Breaking down mental barriers
I want to leave you with three things to ask yourself every time you notice one of those limiting beliefs about yourself, others and the world around you to creep into your thought process.
1. What am I afraid of? – Mental barriers about yourself are often a good excuse to not push forward or step out of your comfort zone.
2. Who told me that? – Many of our assumptions are based on second-hand stories or media coverage, and less so grounded in repeated interactions with the people we assume something about.
3. Why is different a bad thing? – We favor people that agree with us, share the same background or opinions and attitudes about life. Working on our own limiting beliefs also includes believing in the positive intention of others. No one is out to harm us or attack us personally. It’s a coping mechanism when the world we live in doesn’t fit our mental models. Help each other break our mental barriers.
We are all strong, capable beings, with unique abilities. But we hold ourselves and others back from achieving our full potential. Let’s not be the elephant that is tied down by an invisible rope anymore. Let’s stride with pride and empower each other.
PS: I do not at all agree with the training and conditioning of wild animals for our entertainment. The story was used to illustrate the power of our mind.