What you believe is what you get

Updated: Jul 24

Here we are, another Monday and I promised to deliver a new article for Manic Mondays but all I can think about is that I am not an expert, nobody will be interested in what I have to say, asking myself where to start looking for solid evidence to back up every statement I am going to write… If I listen to all these voices in my head telling me that I’m not good enough I will never even start! So I breathe deep and I decided that this is going to be the first topic I am going to write about: limiting beliefs, how they affect our career as scientists and how we can overcome them.

First of all, what are “limiting beliefs”? We are all familiar with these insecurities, which almost sound like voices in our head, stopping us from taking any action to avoid the prospect of a terrible embarrassment or failure.

Then where do the limiting belief stem from, and why? Trying to answer this question I stumbled upon an interesting TED talk by Alison Ledgerwood, a psychology professor at UC Davis, about negativity and positivity bias, that is how the way a situation is presented or described can affect how people feel about it, and it turns out that our brains tend to fixate on the negative aspects over the positive ones.

The cause for this negative bias seems to be evolutionary, as our ancestors would be able to pass on their genes only if they would survive until reproductive age, and the ones who focused on negative information would be protected from danger and have higher chances to survive until they reproduced, compared to fearless or distracted individuals who would perish along the way. So, it looks like these limiting beliefs are built in our mind to protect us from danger, but what they end up doing in our everyday life – which is very different from our ancestors’ – is discouraging our action in any challenging situation to keep sitting safely in our comfort zone.

How does this translate to our career as scientists? We deal with a stressful job, in which the amount of effort doesn’t correspond to the amount of results. We are constantly under the pressure of deadlines and we have to work until we obtain positive results, even if negative results are what we obtain most of the time. During my PhD I learned that dealing with stress and frustration is an everyday job, which can seem hopelessly negative and overwhelming, but at the same time, the way we react determines the kind of person that we become. Since we cannot change what is not in our control, the only thing we can work on is our mindset.

Instead of considering our limits as obstacles we can transform them into opportunities to learn and grow. As PhD students, we have the right to learn and not be expected to be experts on something already from the beginning. So it’s crucial to give ourselves the time to learn and to make it very clear to our supervisors, specifying the time that is needed for a course, to attend lectures or to practice some techniques. But most importantly, we should change our perception. This time is not wasted or ‘stolen’ from our project. On the contrary, it is invested in our personal and professional growth, from which our project can only gain value.

So how can we deal with our limiting beliefs? We have to understand that instead of protecting us from dangerous situations or wrong decisions they hold us back because they are not objective and build on our fear of failure.

1. The first step is awareness: recognize the limiting beliefs and negative self-thoughts when they pop up in your mind.

2. Understand the pattern, as most likely these thoughts will indicate some areas of insecurity that need to be attended to.

3. Every time they pop up we have to actively counteract them with positive affirmations.

Photo by @captured_deguia on Unsplash

We need to train our minds to focus on the positives, and it’s a process that doesn’t happen overnight. It requires effort every day to rewire our brain and make it a habit of not comparing ourselves to others, of remembering our achievements, of seeing the challenges of our PhD not as obstacles but as occasions to grow. The resilience that we gain in this process is probably the best gift of our PhD.

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