Removing Mental Barriers to Creating Amazing Things

The Ascent

When we work to create amazing things, we face a number of external enemies: an indifferent world, a non-existent market, jealous critics, bureaucratic gatekeepers paid to enforce outdated requirements, and a slew of other enemies and obstacles.

However, the most formidable and ferocious enemy of all is within you, lurking right behind your eyes.

Our minds can do great things, but as a means of self/ego-protection, they may create internal barriers that are ultimately restrictive and destructive.

Machiavelli wrote, and I’m paraphrasing from memory, “a fortress becomes a prison.” This means that we might huddle behind walls for protection in order to stay safe but, eventually, our options and our world becomes limited.

Our brain puts up these walls to prevent us from being embarrassed, hurt, or rejected. For example, it says, “I can’t write/sing/start a business/ pursue a creative career because _____….” then we fill in the blank with some excuse. Maybe we present some past failure as evidence. Maybe we can’t shake our cultural conditioning.

“Can’t never could do nothing.”

Unknown, circa early-to-mid 20th century Appalachia.

Mental barriers often develop from uncertainty and inexperience.

Anytime we step into new territory, we’re likely to experience hesitation and fear. This is normal. The problem arises when we take steps to avoid fear altogether. You don’t learn, grow, or succeed if you continue to shirk and avoid fear. You’ll stay ‘safe,’ but you won’t actually do anything, and that’s far scarier.

You need experience to remove mental barriers. To get experience, you have to fall on your face. You have to screw up. And once you start screwing up and making mistakes, you’ll see that the walls aren’t so high. You might not be able to scale them yet, but you can kind of scamper up the side before slipping back down.

With experience, you learn the walls are scalable.

Here are 6 more tips to help you start removing the mental barriers to creating amazing things.

1. Recognize ideas from your cultural conditioning…and work to move past them. I don’t know you personally, but our commonalities probably outweigh our differences. It’s safe to say that we share a lot of cultural conditioning. What kind of conditioning?

  • The idea that you have to have a ‘good’ job. The good jobs are slowly disappearing. Unemployment among young people is ridiculously high. Those that do work full-time are likely doing work outside or below their competency. If they’re really fortunate, they have health insurance.
  • The idea that working on your own projects is inherently self-centered.
  • The idea that there’s something wrong, self-indulgent, or uppity about working to improve yourself or your life.
  • The idea that failure is inherently bad. Failure is a damn good teacher, and everyone who tries fails. The people who don’t fail are those who just don’t do or create anything. Learn to manage the fear of failure.
  • The idea that you have to respect authority. Some authorities deserve respect, but many are there only because of inertia, nepotism, or bribery. Let’s face it, the good ol’ boy system puts a lot of morons in positions of power and authority.
  • The idea that it’s safer to stay in your place, to keep your head down, and to conform to local norms. This is only a good idea when you’re living in a company town and the Pinkertons are looking for union sympathizers.

2. Reframe Your Personal Narrative Starting sometime in mid-to-late adolescence, we start to define ourselves with stories and narratives about the events of our lives. We tell these stories about our past selves as if we’re talking about our present self.

In most cases, our past self is the more fearful and less experienced self. Yet, we forget to take this fact into account; our stories don’t make this distinction. Because of our past actions, we think we’re prone to make the same mistakes, to have the same fears, and to succumb to the same weaknesses. Reframe your personal narrative to reflect the fact that you’ve changed, grown, and learned from the person you were.

3. Learn to manage fear Understand that fear never goes away, but we can learn to manage it, mostly by imagining the worst that can possibly happening. When you do this, you realize that the worst that could happen really isn’t that bad.

Why are we such fearful creatures? We’re genetically programmed to be afraid of things. In the past, this programming has served us well by keeping us safe from predators and from each other, as well as preserving social harmony among small groups.

Today, however, this fear makes us see enemies and threats where the threats are minimal or nonexistent. Some fear is useful, even life-saving, but in our day-to-day life, most fear is irrational.

4. Listen to how you talk to yourself & learn to manage your inner critic. Are you constantly tearing yourself down and subverting yourself? Would you talk to someone else the way you talk to yourself? If your inner critic/internal monologue is really nasty, you could be creating your very own barriers . Do you use the first person “I want to work on this?” or the second person “You should work on this”? The first implies choice and desire, the other (you should) is like something you are forced to do.

5. Stop waiting for the Perfect Circumstances. The perfect circumstances do not exist. We create our own circumstances when we choose how to spend our days. Without actively seeking ways to change them, waiting on the perfect circumstance to occur is only a form of procrastination. Even one hour a day can get you started.

6. Learn to manage your focus and procrastination. This is huge. If you can’t maintain your focus, you will fail (not the good kind of failure. If you continue to procrastinate, you won’t even get to the point where you can decide whether or not you’ve failed.

Finally, remember that there are no magic bullets for removing mental barriers.   Working to remove mental barriers requires patience, experience, consciousness, as well as high levels of introspection. I’m not going to lie to you and say this is an easy task.

However, as long as your expectations are modest, you can start to make gradual progress on recognizing and removing these barriers.


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Photo credit: The Ascent by mikebehnken

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Chase Night December 21, 2010, 8:34 am

    Great post, Seth! Mental barriers have been my worst enemy, and are still a challenge every day, but I’m slowly learning to climb over them or dig under them or blow them to smithereens! Whatever works to get that inner critic out of the way.

  • David Halbright December 21, 2010, 9:39 am

    Hey Seth, I really liked this post. I actually used number 2 (reframe your story) a few months ago to get a new perspective on some events in my past, things that I thought really defined me. Worked great.