Limiting beliefs: the science behind thoughts that hold you back

Are your beliefs deciding the way you experience your daily life?

I can’t find a job because immigrants are stealing every single one.
I can’t find a job, but if other people are succeeding, I can too if I change my approach.

My friends make me feel uncomfortable all the time. That’s why I can’t show my true self too much.
My friends make me feel uncomfortable all the time. That’s why I met new people that are more similar to me.

My first business was a total disaster. That’s why I would never start a business again.
My first business was a total disaster. That’s why next time I won’t repeat the same mistakes.

Work is very stressful. That’s why I don’t have time to look after myself.
Work is very stressful. That’s why I am reassessing my priorities and making sure I look after myself.

Which of these is true?

The same situation and outlook can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways.
Two different people may look at the same event, and come to different conclusions.
Actually, the same person at a different point in time may look back and realise how “foolish” their original reaction to circumstances was.

But the situation hasn’t changed, only the interpretation.

How is this possible?

Turning senses into experiences

To put it simply, we never actually experience the external world.

First, we perceive the world through our five senses.
Hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste, work around the clock gathering information in real time. You may only pay attention to your sense of taste 3 times a day, but it’s actually on all the time.


This creates an overwhelming amount of information: each sense can have an incredible degree of complexity. For example, think of every time you’re walking around a busy city centre street: the number of different smells, sounds, and visual stimuli is as 3D as it can get. We just ignore what’s irrelevant to us at the time.

What makes it through?

This brings us to the first level of selection: the Reticular Activating System.
The RAS sits at the bottom of your brain, linking it to your nervous system, and filtering which bits of information make it through to mission control and which don’t. It decides what goes to your conscious mind and what doesn’t.
Think of it as the maître d’ of the conscious brain. Or the bouncer, if you prefer.
This is why you can have a conversation in a busy room without being (too) distracted by every other chat going on around you, but you can still distinctly hear your own name when someone calls you from the other side of the room.
The maître d’ knows that your name is a relevant piece of information, while the conversation going on next to you about farming bees in the city is totally irrelevant and doesn’t deserve your attention.

This is somehow shocking to grasp: we think we always deal with complete information, but we never do. The brain is constantly trying to save energy and minimise its need for resources.

The average human brain makes up 5% of the person’s weight, but requires 25% of the total calorie spend. It had to evolve to be complex enough to outsmart other animals that were far better predators and athletes, but remain small enough to survive, be carried around, and allow safe(ish) births.

But there’s more.

Real-time Photoshop

Once information has been perceived, filtered by the nervous system, and passed on, it’s finally time for the brain to do its bit: make sense of it.
Perception becomes experience once we apply our own system of beliefs and past experiences to make sure we can interpret that information in a coherent and safe way. Having to reinterpet everything from scratch would be an awful waste of resources, so generalisations, labels, and approximations are all game.
We shape each new experience to make sure it fits the mental jigsaw puzzle we’ve been working on for many years.

This is another great way for the brain to reduce the need for resources: it’s more efficient to protect your current system of belief and warp a single experience, than to overhaul the whole system to protect a single perceptual experience.

Senses don’t shape our reality: our beliefs do.

Since information gets filtered, chopped, and changed before it’s processed, the filter has more impact on our experience of the world than our perception does.


Imagine you were bedridden for a month, only able to experience the world through your computer. Now, imagine your browser had a filter set to show you only crimes committed by people with ginger hair. At the end of the month, you’d probably never listen to Ed Sheeran again, and any film starring Amy Adams would suddenly turn into a horror movie.

The information available hasn’t changed, only the filter has.

Belief or action: which comes first?

If this sounds scary, it doesn’t have to be: you’ve managed so far.
But being aware of the photoshopping going on in your head can help you flip the negative scripts going on in your head and spot opportunity.

We think of change as hard work, patience, and a lot of time.
But change happens in a moment. It happens in that moment when something clicks in your head and your beliefs shift from limitation to possibility: only then can we use the power of consistent action to translate our belief into our everyday life.

If you believe you won’t find a job, your actions will reflect your belief.
You will filter out opportunities around you in order to protect your belief.

If you believe you don’t deserve better friends, your actions will reflect your belief.
You will find evidence to rationalise and protect your belief.

If you believe work has to have the priority over your health, your actions will reflect your belief.
You will not question your time management and keep protecting your belief.

Change your limiting beliefs, and change will follow. In a moment.

Over to your now. What’s something you used to believe that you no longer think to be true?
Send me an email, and let me know.

– Matt