How Your Mind Is Holding You Back

Jul 18, 2022

Your subconscious programming and deeply held beliefs impact how you react, how you feel, what you do, and the decisions you make. Learn how your mind is holding you back.


I love to think of our brains and minds as amazing and powerful biological computers. The interaction of the hardware (brain) and software (mind) not only keeps us alive, but it makes us who we are and drives us to do the things we do.

Just like our computers have operating systems and programs that run behind the scenes allowing them to interact with the outside world, so do we. From day 1, our minds are constantly scanning our environments, taking in information, and forming programs and rules about how the world works and our place in it. These programs - which are really deeply held beliefs -  serve as the filters through which we see the world. They govern how we process our experiences, drive our reactions, and dictate our decisions and actions. 

For example, if you have a program that says skills and abilities are things that can be learned and developed, you're likely to try new things, not get discouraged by failure, especially early on, and to persevere until you master it. In contrast, if your programming holds that skills and abilities are innate or natural, then you are likely to give up quickly if you are not good at something immediately, or you may not even try it because there's no point. (These specific programs, by the way, are called growth mindset and fixed mindset, respectively). 

Much of our programming is quite helpful or, perhaps, innocuous. Some of it, though, is quite problematic.


Self-limiting Beliefs

You may have heard the term "self-limiting beliefs" before. These are beliefs - subconscious programming or rules - that hold you back in some way. The rub is that it's the beliefs that are holding you back, not reality.  

There's a classic story that really highlights the power of self-limiting beliefs. I first heard it on an episode of Westworld a few years ago, but it's all over the place. It goes something like this:

A traveler comes across a giant elephant being held in place by a rope tied to a tiny stake and asks the owner, "Why doesn't it just run away?" The owner replies, "Because it doesn't know it can. You see, when it was just a baby, it was held in place by that same rope. At first, it struggled and pulled against the rope trying to get free. It was too small and weak, though, so it gave up."

Of course, we know that a full grown elephant is one of the largest and strongest animals out there, but it doesn't know its true power.  


Uncovering your Subconscious Programming

Because so much of this operates behind the senes in our brains, we're often not aware of the deep down belief systems that impact us.

I'm a psychologist who thinks about thinking Every. Single. Day. I like to think I'm pretty self-aware and have uncovered and revised a lot of my unhelpful, self-limiting beliefs, but there's always more work to be done.

I have a visual impairment that makes me legally blind. I've done a lot of work over the years to let go of self-limiting beliefs like "I am flawed. I am less than because of my vision." I thought I had made a lot of progress in reprogramming my mind, but a real break through happened a few years ago.

Every so often, my vision shifts for the worse. I get some telltale symptoms like wobbly focus and headaches for a few days, then it stops, and I've lost a bit more sight. These shifts happen unpredictably, and they used to really freak me out. 

I was out for a run one night and the wobbling started, followed by me, of course, freaking out. I was scared and sad, but I couldn't talk to anyone about it because of the rejection that I thought would inevitably happen. I felt completely alone. 

Except that I wasn't.

I had an "Aha" moment as I realized that it was the belief that no one will want me if they knew the extent of my flaw that was making me feel alone. This rope was holding me back from talking with my then-partner about what I was experiencing. That lightbulb was powerful. I picked up my phone and called. I told him what was going on and that I was scared...and he listened and supported me. And I felt so much better. 

I still don't love when the wobbling starts, but I don't freak out much anymore. I've been able to break some of those ropes that were holding me back.

What ropes are holding you back?


Changing Your Programming

By definition, subconscious processes happen out of our conscious awareness, which means that we're not readily tuned into them.They happen behind the senes in a place we're not privy to. Fortunately, with effort, there are some things we can do to become more aware of our programming, and awareness is the first step in being able to change it.



Taking time to reflect on our experiences, to really pause and consider what happened (especially internally) and why, can help. This reflection may take the form of quiet introspection, journaling, self-monitoring or tracking your reactions (like what you thought and how you felt in various situations), processing with a trusted person, or therapy. Regardless of how you do it, it's valuable.


Drilling Down

It's often easier to catch the surface level automatic thoughts that run through our minds in any given situation. If you can grab one, you can drill down into it to uncover the deeper belief. Ask a series of questions like "If that is true, what would be so bad about that or what would it mean about me?" Continue drilling down until you get to the bottom. 

For example, maybe you're stressed out because you're juggling kids, a project at work, and the usual household management tasks. You think "I'll never get it all done."

Then you drill down by asking what would be bad and/or what it would mean about you. Maybe it goes something like this:

 - So what would be so bad about not getting it all done?

 - I'll drop the ball at work and miss out on that promotion, and my kids will be impacted because I'm not spending quality time with them.

 - If that's true what does it mean about you?

 - It means that I'm doing a bad job all around.

 - If that's true, what's so bad about that or what does that mean about you?

 - It's means I'm a failure.

 - If that's true, what's so bad about that or what that mean about you?

 - It means that I'm a terrible parent. I'm incapable. 

That right there is some deep dark programming that might be holding you back in some areas of life. What might you do to start changing it? 



Building your mindfulness skills is another important way to increase your self-awareness and uncover those self-limiting beliefs and unhelpful mental programs. Mindfulness can help you step back and observe what is happening in your mind as it unfolds, bringing some of those beliefs to the forefront and shining light on them.

We don't get to choose our initial programming. It's like our minds download a bunch of apps before we're even able to consider whether we want them or need them. As we age, though, and gain agency, we can change that. While the original programming may always be there, we can cover it up with new, more helpful beliefs. As we like to say at Peak Mind, your mind can be your most valuable asset or your biggest barrier. You get to choose. 

Choose to do the work and break free from those mental ropes that are holding you back.


"The right belief is like a good cloak, I think. If it fits you well, it keeps you warm and safe. Wrong fit, however, can suffocate."
 - Brandon Sanderson, The Final Empire


Written by Dr. Ashley Smith

Peak Mind Co-founder

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