There is something great and wonderful within all of us: We each have the capacity to grow, to discover our strengths and to learn that we have a reservoir of resilience that we can draw from in tough times. When we start from this place of hope and possibility, we can make further changes to our brains to flourish more in life and start to ask questions such as: What do we really want to be doing in the world? Who do we want to be? Furthermore, we can shed light on those self-limiting thoughts and beliefs of the past that would encourage us to just settle and get by. In this blog we will explore where self-limiting thoughts and beliefs come from and share some strategies from both neuroscience and positive psychology to help you become who you want to be to in order to live your meaning and purpose in life.

Self-limiting thoughts and beliefs are based on our perspectives. They reflect our worldview, which has been shaped by our experiences as children, teens and adults. Throughout these stages we have created stories and looked for evidence that matches the experiences that shaped these stories. Some of these stories and beliefs limit us or stop us from reaching our full potential, especially if we have experiences of criticism or pain inflicted by others or internally by our own dialogue. What has gotten in the way of a goal or hope you might have had in your life? Can you think of an experience that shaped you? Say, for example, that you had a love of art and your teacher or a parent created a story for you to just keep studying as you can’t make money from art. How might something like this get in the way of your goals or influence your mindset? Just as we can re-examine our thoughts and beliefs and how they might have influenced our stories and goals, so too we can redefine our purpose. When we live with purpose and meaning, we generate positive emotions, love for others, compassion and appreciation, which reduces stress and supports a healthier brain throughout life. As people, we have this amazing ability to conjure up between 60,000 and 80,000 thoughts per day and we can get caught up in these thoughts and believe them. The brain does not know what is real or imagined and will take each thought or belief as a fact and build up the story if we don’t challenge or resist it. There are some things we can do to understand and change this situation. Firstly, we must bring awareness to it and rediscover our goals and values. If we realise that there are beliefs or limiting narratives that are getting in the way of our dreams, we can do something about this.

Every thought we have generates a chemical reaction in the brain, and a neurotransmitter is produced and released into the body. If it’s a positive thought, we release dopamine. Bring self-compassion (best friend thoughts) to this process to really create a larger cascade of positive emotions and brain change. An example of this is: I’m still learning to understand my past negative beliefs and am being patient with the process. A negative thought (including worry, fear of something that might happen, and anxious thoughts) will generate the release of adrenaline or cortisol (the stress hormones). In other words, the body understands the thought through feeling; it feels how we think. As a response to this exchange of messages, the brain starts to observe how the body feels and creates thoughts to match those feelings. Examples of negative thoughts and beliefs are: this won’t work, this won’t be good, it’s impossible, etc.

Even when there are stories in our past that generate negative thoughts, beliefs or feelings we can change them for our future success. Imagine this was the story: My mother left me when I was young and this helped me become stronger, which helped me as a mother and gave me more resilience in my adult life. This process allows us to identify moments when we needed to make a change and we made a success story out of that change. We can use this successful experience in our new, changed inner thinking and dialogue.

What do we say to ourselves about the areas of life we choose to work on? What is the story we tell ourselves? What is the language we have for these areas? Re-write the inner dialogue about your limiting beliefs using the arguments of a past success story (self-compassion) and the benefits that the change has brought you. It’s the simplest way to talk to the brain and to convince it that it has no reason to resist change. Continue to identify moments from your past when you were successful, despite adversity or odds or what you believed at that point. Remember a time when you implemented a change or had success in a specific situation, such as you succeeded in doing something even though you weren’t sure you could do it or you passed a test even though you hadn’t studied all that hard or thought you wouldn’t. Now, re-write the inner dialogue about that limiting belief using the past success story. This technique helps us make a success story from an unpleasant event or experience in our lives, and since we are repeating a certain “script”, the new inner dialogue, we are tapping into the brain’s need for routine, creating a new routine and comfort through this repetition, which is very calming. When we are calm, the brain is more open to learning new information and letting it reach the subconscious mind.

Once you have done this, celebrate your success. In the past, and this is true of many cultures, we were educated to observe failures and to correct them, so we have a fear of failure due to the criticism we received when we were growing up. We can change this within ourselves and in our culture because the satisfaction of success and the implicit release of happiness hormones (both dopamine and serotonin) are like medicine to the brain and body. The brain knows how to create more powerful neuropathways if we put emotion into our thoughts; the more emotion, the stronger the pathway. This is when the brain starts producing more serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and all the neurotransmitters that are known as the happiness hormones. It works the same way with stressful, sad or painful thoughts or memories, producing cortisol, the stress hormone. If you have strong limiting beliefs and find it difficult to think of a success story in your past experience, think of the people close to you whom you admire and remember that if you admire in other people qualities or strengths you also have and you recognise that they have those qualities and strengths, then so do you. If they could do it, so can you. Your brain’s abilities are no different. Remember that the brain loves to learn and to make new pathways (neuroplasticity). Well done, you have now wired new neurons together to create new stories and pathways in the brain.

Now that you have uncovered those thoughts and beliefs that get in the way of your dreams, you can change your brain to flourish in your life, as increased dopamine increases our overall wellbeing. Why shouldn’t we all live the life we choose?