Personal Transformation: What's Holding You Back in Life?

The tricky question is learning to tell the difference between what you can do or become and the kinds of limitations that are holding you back.
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Are you living up to your potential or down to your perceived limitations?

For 21 years, the U.S. Army used the recruiting slogan, "Be all you can be." That slogan still resonates with many because it speaks to the truth that most of us can do or be more than what we have settled for so far in our lives. The tricky question is learning to tell the difference between what you can do or become and the kinds of limitations that are holding you back.

Seth Godin's recent blog on excuses got me thinking about how people hold themselves back in life. In my 35 years of helping people achieve more in life, I have certainly encountered many versions of limitation, some "real," and some more of self-imposed variety. To be sure, each of us do encounter limitations of one sort or another, some of which truly are of the "real-world" variety.

While few of us have the physical or mental ability to excel at world-class levels of performance, most of us hold ourselves back from achieving or experiencing more of what we could become. I'm not talking about the kinds of "you-too-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be-in-life" hyperbole that often comes packaged in instant success infomercials -- you know, the ones that promise that a spoonful of visualization and a dose of affirmations will propel you to glory.

However, I am talking about the commonplace tendency of many people to sell themselves short, to accept as gospel a limitation that is more tied to self-doubt or faulty conditioning than it is to actual physical or mental fact.

We've all heard the story about baby circus elephant chained to a post in order to keep it in place. As the story goes, the young elephant learns that the chain is stronger than the elephant and so even the adult elephant can be kept under control simply by putting a chain around a leg.

I have no idea whether that is true or not, but I do know if we need to keep our dog, Sadie, confined to one part of the house or another, all we need to do is put up a little, white free-standing "fence" made of light weight wire. The wire fence weighs less than a pound, stands just about eight inches high, and if Sadie were to simply put a paw on it, the fence would collapse in an instant. However, for some reason, Sadie views the wire fence as indomitable, and so that's all we need in order to keep Sadie from wandering too far.

Do you have your own equivalent of the elephant's chain or Sadie's fence? What is holding you back from becoming more of whom you would prefer to be? Again, I'm not talking about some kind of fanciful dream of conquering the world. But I am talking about exercising greater control over your life circumstances and the quality of life you settle for.

Growing up in my family, I heard two somewhat conflicting themes that took considerable awareness and effort on my part to reconcile and then move forward. On the one hand, my mom held out a constant theme of "do whatever you want in life." That was great -- no pressure that I had to become a fireman, doctor, lawyer or school teacher, just the reminder that it was my life and I could choose whatever direction I wanted to go.

On the other hand, I also heard a regular litany of how difficult life was and how less well-off we were than others accompanied by the mantra of "we may not have much, but we do have food on the table, clothes on our backs, and shoes on our feet." So, I grew up with the notion of do what you want, but don't expect much.

Taken together, these two mantras set me up for a great set of internal conflicts. Just about the time I would begin to make some kind of progress in my life, something else would apparently turn up to spoil the party. Fortunately for me, I wound up working early on with a mentor who counseled me to pay attention to the limiting stories I was telling myself about life: "Life isn't fair," "You're not smart enough," "Other people have it easier/better," "Even if you start to get ahead, it will only be taken from you," and so on.

Over time, I discovered that I had been using the fact that our family had gone bankrupt and my father had died when I was 19 as part of my excuses for not doing more with my life -- bad things happen to us, it's just not meant to be, etc. My mentor helped me learn that while the past may have set up some challenges in the present, those challenges did not have to predict or control my future.

As I dug through the stories, I learned that I had more potential than I was allowing myself to experience. Potential is one of those curses many people carry with them in life, and so it was for me. The curse lies in the paradox that while each of us may have the potential to do more with our lives, many of us find ourselves frustrated due to limitations of one kind or another. Discovering the difference between a "real-world" limitation (mental aptitude, physical incapacity, etc.) and a self-imposed limitation (self-doubt, negative outlook on life or even baby-elephant-like conditioning) may be the key to releasing your potential and becoming more of who you can be. It certainly was for me.

Remember, it's not a question of letting go of reality and living in fantasyland but of identifying the excuses you use to not even test what's possible for you. If you are like most people, you are so much more capable than you give yourself credit for.

In next week's article, I want to dig into the challenge of how to identify your potential and what you can do to actualize it. Part of the puzzle is to identify what stories you tell yourself that hold you back.

So, what do you want? Really? What stories do you tell yourself that wind up holding you back? What's in your way of moving that next step forward?

I'd love to hear from you, so please leave a comment here or drop me an email at

If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and how you can take a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, download a free chapter from Russell's new book, "Workarounds That Work."

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about his work by visiting his website at You can contact him by email at

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