A thing is not necessarily true because a man will die for it.

Oscar Wilde

Step 1: Unfuck Yourself

(Understand Your Belief System & Overcome Limiting Beliefs)

First thing’s first: being born is a clusterfuck of epic proportions.

I mean, think about it. You’re a collection of insights, mostly formed before you were able to wipe your own arse, mixed together with some random experiences, which you generally had little to no control over, sprinkled with your own unique flavour of fuckedupness in the form of the traumatic events scattered throughout your time here so far.

It’s no wonder the world is so fucked. But crucially – it doesn’t have to be this way.

Unfuck yourself is the foundational first step in any real journey of personal revolution: an unlearning before relearning can take place. Your belief system is like a filter for everything you absorb (1), and everyone knows that without intentional cleaning, all filters get clogged with shit sooner or later.

So, let’s dive in. (To the article, not the shit.)

o

-THE PROBLEM-

How Your Belief System Works

From birth, we go through life accumulating knowledge. This comes from our own direct experiences and our observations (what we see, read, hear, etc). Our clever little brain then uses this to build a map of the world inside our heads.

The more we experience something, the more we think about it. The more we think about it, the deeper and stronger the neural connection in our brain becomes (2). This then reinforces different areas of our map over time.

Think of a tree standing in the middle of a field. Imagine its strong winding roots coming up through the earth, its solid, weathered trunk, the branches splitting off at random in all directions, and eventually, hanging delicately on the end, the leaves, like they barely belong there.

We both just imagined a tree. I did it as I wrote, you as you read. But the trees we imagined would have looked very different in our heads, even with the exact same description. That’s because we’ve seen different trees, and depending on the experiences we’ve had, we’ll have stored certain images in our minds. The ones that had the most impact on us.

(Yes, I am in desperate fucking need of an illustrator.)

Terrible drawing of male and female stick figures imagining different trees

This is true for everything we have knowledge of, from bats to Buddhists to brushing our teeth, each element forming a tiny little place in our own distinct map for the world. But the map is just an approximation of the world. It’s not exact.

This gives us our first rule about beliefs:

Lesson #1

Beliefs are your map for the world.

There’s no problem with me and you seeing different trees when we think of a tree, because this doesn’t impact on our lives in any meaningful way. This is the same for the overwhelming majority of our beliefs. However, some beliefs can form that not only aren’t true, but are damaging to our lives and the lives of those around us.

o

Superpower: Changing Your Mind

It’s impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.

– Epictetus

There’s a key ability that makes each step much easier. For Unfuck Yourself, that ability is Changing Your Mind. And it’s a fucking superpower.

People rarely hold their hands up and say: “OK, I was obviously wrong about that. Thanks.”

But people are wrong about things all the fucking time.

That’s because people associate being wrong with weakness or stupidity. But being wrong is simply a prerequisite for learning. Without first not knowing something, we can’t learn anything.

Admitting you were wrong and changing your mind to fit the weight of the evidence is the single best way to develop a good understanding of the world, and therefore a solid belief system.

To hone this skill, become comfortable with asking the question: could I be wrong?

The more you ask this question, the more fluid and breathable your belief system will become, and the better you’ll be able to understand the world.

o

Limitations of Your Belief System

(Here’s where I get my geek on for five minutes. There’s a shitload of scientific information squashed into this section, but I’ve tried to make it as quick and painless as I can.)

Your brain has evolved to become an efficient learning machine. To do this, it cuts corners though, filling in blanks in what we see (3) and accepting things we hear without even thinking about them (4).

Then there’s what’s known as the streetlight effect (5), which basically states we tend to get our information from where it’s most accessible, which means depending on where you naturally get your information from, you’ll have a different map of the world.

Evolution has also meant the nature of the mind is naturally biased towards negative thoughts (6).  

That’s because when we lived in the wild, learning how to spot snake trails could save our primitive little arses, so we were constantly on the lookout for threats (more on this in step 3). This isn’t ideal now we have no immediate existential threats, but instead have nuanced and complex life situations, like human snakes lurking in your suggested friends list.

Terrible drawing of iPhone and suggested friends list with a snake as a suggested friend

Belief perseverance is another well-documented quirk of our belief system, where first impressions count. Once we believe something ‘is a certain way’ then it’s very difficult to overthrow that belief (7)

Then we have belief bias  – where we accept something only because it leads to the same conclusion we’ve already accepted (8). This makes our belief system somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where seeds of ignorance can grow into fields of delusion, and seeds of self-doubt can grow into great forests of self-persecution all in astonishingly short periods of time.

I know what you’re thinking. “People are fucking stupid, but not me! I know my beliefs are pretty solid!” I used to be exactly the same.

So, here’s one just for you. Yes, you.

A frog saying to a fish: how's the water? To which the fish replies: What's water?
Shifting Baseline Syndrome

Shifting baseline syndrome is where we become blind to what we’re familiar with, because that’s all we’ve ever known (9). Our belief system is like our water – if we don’t explore different beliefs we never really leave the tank.

Now, you might be thinking, “Ok, I might have the odd slightly skewed belief, but I’m not that bad.”

Alright. I hear ya. But let’s say you’re only 1% off course. When we add something called cumulative error into the mix, even a small error in your beliefs can quickly snowball into a delusional worldview.

Graph showing how small errors add up over time to create large errors
Cumulative Error

Imagine this like a little deviation from the truth as just 1%. At first, that’s not the end of the world – but since our beliefs form our compass, when they become tainted it’s very difficult for us to get back on track. That’s because the same broken compass that got you lost is unlikely to help you find your way home.

And, as if our assuming, easily fooled, lazy, negative, stubborn, biased and confused brains weren’t trouble enough, here’s the pièce de résistance: we then use this warped belief system as a filter through which to view absolutely fucking everything.

And, since neuroplasticity still applies if a belief isn’t true – the longer we’ve been lost in the cold blizzard of shit beliefs, the harder it is for us to come back into the warmth and comfort of a healthy belief system.

Lesson #2

Your beliefs are particularly vulnerable to fuckery.

o

A Note on Trauma

The vast majority of people experience traumatic events in their lifetime. Many people continue to live normal lives after trauma, but for some people the trauma creates serious imprints on their belief system and in turn who they become.

Exploring trauma in detail is beyond the scope of this article, if you still suffer from the after-effects of trauma, there are methods that can help to rewire your neural circuitry and heal. Bessel van der Kolk’s book “The Body Keeps the Score” covers this topic in detail, recommending EMDR, yoga, mindfulness and neurofeedback as treatments with excellent results.

Lesson #3

Trauma can fuck you right up, but it can be treated.

o

What Are Limiting Beliefs?

Now that we’ve gotten our geek on about how our belief system can get fucked up, let’s look at how this in turn fucks us up.

Limiting beliefs are a particularly nasty subset of beliefs that can hold you back in life and hurt those around you. And they’re absolutely fucking everywhere.

Let’s break them down into three types: internal (about yourself), interactive (about yourself and the world), and external (about the world).

Limiting Beliefs About Yourself

These commonly form the backbone of our unfounded insecurities and start something like this:

  • I’m too old to…/I’m not good at…/I’m not good enough for…/I can’t handle…

These beliefs are simply self-fulfilling prophecies. At some point, you accepted these based on bad information and have just been adding layers on top ever since using the now-wonky belief system (remember the 1% rule).

Each of these find their strength based on the belief that there is some preordained standard that you’ve fallen short of: age, ability, self-worth, resilience, status, appearance, etc.

But let’s just take a little logical second. There just isn’t.

There’s an easy way to demonstrate this too. Take a self-limiting belief you have and imagine someone you love saying that to you about themselves. When you’re removed from the situation and your own wonky belief system doesn’t kick in, you can quickly see through it. But, ten minutes later you’d convince yourself once again that you didn’t measure up.

Limiting Beliefs About Yourself & The World

These focus on the opinions of others on us, or our opinions on others. Let’s look at a few in turn.

  • Fear of judgement/too much emphasis on approval

There’s an easy trick here that gives us some perspective: do you really give a fuck what other people do with their lives? I’m sure you don’t. Well, that shit works both ways.

These people aren’t paying your bills. They don’t feel your pain. They don’t know your path. And on your deathbed, their opinions of what you’ve done are going to be the absolute last thing that matters.

  • I can’t trust anyone/I don’t need help from anyone

These are naturally debilitating beliefs, as they convince us not to even bother trying to form connections with others or ask for help – but when you look around you see people looking out for each other and helping each other everywhere. So, the evidence doesn’t stack up.

  • Fostering prejudice against others or believing prejudice about ourselves

Prejudice is an ugly form of belief that stems from the brain’s basic need to categorise things as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to help in judgement (10). It is the perfect example of negative beliefs leading to delusional and damaging worldviews.

To overcome these kinds of ugly beliefs in yourself, exposure to the groups of people the prejudice is formed against is key in dispelling these basic and incorrect beliefs.

If you’re subject to prejudice from others, this is an extreme example of the point above: other people’s opinions of you don’t define you. This is particularly true when those opinions are clearly a reflection of their twisted worldview.

Limiting Beliefs About the World

These beliefs tend to take limited and often out of context pieces of information and use them to make sweeping judgments about the world, such as:

  • Money changes people / true love doesn’t exist / people don’t care about the planet

Absolutes like this feel like they help us understand the world in some way, because they definitively explain away a large part of it. But that’s the problem – generalizations like this are very rarely absolutely true, and there’s often plenty of information we’ve overlooked to hold onto these beliefs.

Just because a bucket of sea water contains no fish, doesn’t mean the oceans are void of life.

Lesson #4

Limiting beliefs are everywhere. They come in all shapes and sizes.

o

A Note on Objective Facts

For those that aren’t 100% on what objective truth is, let’s take our tree example earlier.

The images you and I had in our heads were different. They were subjective – because they were due to the brains of each of us (the subjects). If we were standing side by side looking at an actual tree in a field, that would be an objective truth – as in it exists (as an object) outside of our brains.

A huge beautiful tree with the two shitty stickmen drawings from earlier and their imagined trees

Therefore, if you’re five foot tall and want to be an NBA player, or you’re seven foot tall and fancy yourself as a jockey, chances are slim you’ll achieve that. It might not be impossible, but the nature of those sports makes this very unlikely, because you’re missing the characteristics that generally define success and that’s just an objective fact.

This doesn’t mean you should resign yourself to a defeatist attitude though, just get creative. You could become a jockey’s trainer, an NBA coach, or you might able to invent horsketball, a cross of the two. Wait, what?

o

How Limiting Beliefs Play Out

Over time, limiting beliefs become toxic. They make people bitter and disengaged with the world in some way because the lens through which they see the world, their belief system, is warped. This is seen all the time with people who identify as victims no matter what the situation.

I am not good at communication leads to I don’t want to communicate which leads to a life devoid of deep connection.

Fear of judgement leads to I don’t want to try anything new which becomes life is miserable.

Love doesn’t exist leads to there’s no point in connecting with others which becomes I am all alone.

It’s normal to feel negative about things from time to time. Some things are objectively shit. Where the problem lies, is when this negativity is unfounded and impacts your belief system, then remains unchecked and manifests into a narrow view of yourself and the world.

Lesson #5

Left unchecked, limiting beliefs can ruin your life.

o

-RECAP-

Beliefs are your map for the world.

Your beliefs are particularly vulnerable to fuckery.

Trauma can fuck you right up, but it can be treated.

Limiting beliefs are everywhere. They come in all shapes and sizes.

Left unchecked, limiting beliefs can ruin your life.

-THE SOLUTION-

Why Beliefs Are Hard to Change

Overcoming limiting beliefs can be a difficult task. That’s because limiting beliefs actually serve a bigger purpose in our lives. They usually protect us from doing something that pushes our boundaries and makes us feel uncomfortable.

This is because our brain’s job is to keep us safe. But our brain doesn’t do well at distinguishing between the real and the imaginary (11).

Take cold showers for example. They’re exceptionally good for us physiologically, but when we get in our brain begins to panic and forces us to hyperventilate. It doesn’t matter that we know upfront that it’s literally a one-minute shower – our brain goes to battle stations, nonetheless.

Limiting beliefs are like this. They try and keep us in our little safe zones by telling us all sorts of things. But these are just protecting us from the pain of trying, not realising that the lack of effort is far worse – they actually tend to guarantee the thing they’re protecting us from.

I could never do X so I may as well not try. This saves us from failure. But it is literally the only thing that guarantees our failure by forcing us not to try.

People can’t be trusted so I don’t trust anyone. This guarantees we never build trust with anyone.

Money makes people evil. This is a particularly tricky belief that makes us trick ourselves into believing we don’t want to have more money, so we don’t feel any lack. But this can damage our financial health and make us bitter about money over time.

Lesson #6

Limiting beliefs develop to protect you, but they actually hurt you.

Another reason beliefs are difficult to overcome is because, wait for it… we actually believe them.

This sounds silly, but every time new information challenges our beliefs, we actually have a choice. We can reject this new information, dismissing it as false without even considering the alternative, or we can accept the fact that we could be wrong and see how solid this evidence is compared with the evidence we have already.

Flow diagram showing that if reliable new information doesn't match existing beliefs then beliefs must be revised

This takes a particular understanding about how our beliefs interact with our identity.

o

A Note on Identity

Where the flow chart above breaks down is when we let our beliefs form too strong a part of our identity. While our beliefs are indeed a part of who we are, they aren’t who we are.

Beliefs should be changeable as we’re constantly presented with new information. If you were vegan, and you learnt it was actually bad for your health – does this mean your identity changes? This depends on you.

If your identity was based around the belief I am a vegan, then it would.

If instead your identity was aligned to your value of being health conscious, your identity won’t change – as your belief veganism is healthy for me is what changes.

An identity based on values is much more sustainable than one based on beliefs. We’ll delve into values later, but this is key: you are not your beliefs.

This is of vital importance in undermining their power.

Lesson #7

You are not your beliefs.

o

Taking Control of Your Belief System

There’s a famous prayer called the Serenity Prayer. If you somehow aren’t aware of it, here it is:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

The reason this prayer is so famous, like most things, is because of its relevance.

Many people struggle to relinquish what is outside of their control, instead placing too much emphasis on events and situations that they cannot control.

These people are said to have an external locus of control, as in their life is controlled by external forces.

On the other hand, there are people who do manage to focus mainly on what is within their control. These people are said to have an internal locus of control.

This subtle difference in belief systems can have a profound impact on your life (12).

Believing we are in control of our fate empowers us to take control of our lives and work towards a better future for ourselves and others.

Believing fate, luck or the world controls our life has us constantly playing victim and disempowers us, so that we do not work towards a better future, and this only reinforces this limiting belief further.

Lesson #8

You are in control of your life.

o

The Growth vs. Fixed Mindset

Stanford University professor Carol Dweck popularised the terms growth mindset and fixed mindset in her fuckery-destroying book, Mindset.

Basically, people fall into one of these two categories based on their beliefs about themselves and the world.

Those with a fixed mindset believe their abilities are fixed: that people are either clever or stupid, talented or not. Those with a growth mindset believe that growth and development is possible.

Those with a fixed mindset tend to seek approval. Because their ability is fixed, how they’re perceived is supremely important because they can’t change. These people are likely to put a huge focus on their appearance and trying to look as good as possible, and even small failures can have them questioning their self-worth.

Those with a growth mindset are always looking to improve. They thrive on growth. They tend to seek open communication as they want to learn from others, and they see failures as opportunities to improve.

List of characteristics for fixed vs growth mindset

In her book, Dweck goes to phenomenal lengths to demonstrate the power of the growth mindset.

She shows that the growth mindset benefits those in business, academia, sport, art and even love, showing those with a growth mindset often excel in life in spite of difficulties, whereas those with fixed mindsets tend to crumble in the face of adversity. If you have any self-doubt, I am confident this one book will change that fact.

Dweck also demonstrates in a series of experiments that by simply changing the underlying belief in one area, people can change to a growth mindset and create dramatic improvements in their life.

Lesson #9

Your abilities aren’t fixed. If you work hard, you can improve at anything.

o

A Note on Self-Esteem

Mindset touches on an important lesson about self-esteem, that Albert Ellis expands on in his book, The Myth of Self-Esteem. Here’s the crack:

Letting the approval of others feed into your self-esteem actually leads to worse self-esteem over time. This is because you can never get enough approval to sustain you indefinitely, so seeking approval for achievements ultimately leads to disappointment. Bastard, right?

Instead, focus on humility. By working towards goals that matter in spite of the odds of failure or the approval of others, we develop resilience and self-confidence, and therefore have less need for the approval of others. This naturally leads to much healthier levels of self-esteem.

Lesson #10

Fuck seeking approval. Do good work and impress yourself.

o

Take Action

It’s clear that our belief systems can become places where all manner of skullfuckery takes place. The thing is – we usually fight tooth over nail to keep this skullfuckery in our lives, clinging to it like some badge of honour. But it’s really not.

The first and arguably the biggest step in turning a mediocre life into an exceptional one is overcoming your limiting beliefs.

And changing your limiting beliefs is possible. Oxford neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor explains (13):

“Beliefs are mental objects in the sense that they are embedded in the brain. If you challenge them by contradiction, or just by cutting them off from the stimuli that make you think about them, then they are going to weaken. If that is combined with very strong reinforcement of new beliefs, then you’re going to get a shift in emphasis from one to the other.”

Lesson #11

When you find evidence against a limiting belief, you remove its power.

With that in mind, here are some actionable steps to overthrow limiting beliefs:

Write down your limiting beliefs.

(Yes, everyone hates actually doing work but without active involvement this becomes just another self-help article that you’ll forget in a week.)

Example: I am too old to switch careers and pursue my dream job.

Consider each one. Consider why you have it and what it’s protecting you from. Accept that they each serve some purpose.

Example: I am scared that if I try it, that I am shit at my dream job.

Ask yourself if this belief is actually true. Consider what solid evidence you have for it.

Example: None. People start new careers well into retirement age. It’s not 1284.

Replace this belief with an enabling belief. This is the opposite of your limiting belief.

Example: I can switch careers, and if I work hard, I can become good at it.

Go into the world and find direct evidence in support of your new beliefs.

Example: I’ll begin studying for the career I’ve always wanted and make a plan to switch.

Lesson #12

Enabling beliefs can transform your life.

o

Final Thoughts

Our beliefs exist to serve us. It’s literally that simple. If yours are holding you back in any way, then you need to spend the time to fix them otherwise your short time on this rock is going to be wasted. And that’s the biggest risk of them all.

o

-UNFUCK YOURSELF-

Beliefs are your map for the world.

Your beliefs are particularly vulnerable to fuckery.

Trauma can fuck you right up, but it can be treated.

Limiting beliefs are everywhere. They come in all shapes and sizes.

Left unchecked, limiting beliefs can ruin your life.

Limiting beliefs form to protect you but they actually hurt you

You are not your beliefs.

You are in control of your life.

Your abilities aren’t fixed. If you work hard, you can improve at anything.

Fuck seeking approval. Do good work and impress yourself.

When you find evidence against a limiting belief, you remove its power.

Enabling beliefs can transform your life.