Four mental barriers that narrow our life options

There are times when life brings so many options, so many possibilities that it can be hard to choose or even narrow them down. Other times we suffer the opposite: not enough possibilities that really seem attractive and so we can feel trapped in our situation.

Very often we keep doing what we are doing due to a lack of compelling alternatives. Here are four mental barriers that limit us from living into all the possibilities that are open to us.

In their helpful book on decision making, Decisive, Chip Heath and Dan Heath explain that the first villain of decision making is narrow framing, which is the tendency to define our choices too narrowly. They write:

“We ask, ‘Should I break up with my partner or not?’ instead of ‘What are the ways I could make this relationship better?’ We ask ourselves, ‘Should I buy a new car or not?’ instead of ‘What’s the best way I could spend some money to make my family better off?’”.

Four circles of possibility

As I have started to think about and pursue more purposeful living, I’ve realised that this is a process where we often need to generate possibilities and new options. We need to avoid those binary choices like “should I stay in my day job or quit to pursue my calling?” Let’s go back to the five-year question: how many options can you envision for that horizon? Perhaps it’s worth playing out a few more scenarios.

I don’t know if you are fan of self-help books. Personally, I find them interesting but I think their real value is often simply to remind us that we can do more than we think we can. Because we are great at limiting our universe of options and running out of creative ideas.

Have a look at the diagram above. Each circle represents a set of possibilities for your life. We all live in the small circle in the middle whereas we could actually have a much larger set of options at our disposal.

Here are the four circles and the barriers they represent. Let’s start with the largest, outermost circle and work inwards.

What you actually can do

This is the outermost circle in the diagram. It is way bigger than what we actually end up doing, or even what we think we could do. You see, we use a fraction of our energy, skills and talents. And what we do use we dissipate across many projects and plans and ideas. But the actual universe of things we could do is huge – if we only put our mind, heart and soul into it and gave it the necessary hard work, practice and time.

What you can imagine to do

The first barrier that shrinks our set of possibilities is the idea (or imagination) barrier. We cannot create what we have first imagined, and we simply don’t conceive of many of the possibilities in that large outer circle of what you actually can do. So our set of possibilities is limited, first and foremost, by our lack of imagination.

What you think you can do

The next barrier is more personal. It’s what I call the confidence barrier. We may imagine many possibilities but quickly rule them out as something that is not practical, not achievable for us. So the circle of what we think we can do is often considerably smaller than what we can imagine to do.

What you dare to do

The fear barrier is the next limiting factor. We may feel able to do something, but the risk feels too great. Too much pain, too much uncertainty, too much we feel we could lose. And so the circle of what we dare to do ends up considerably smaller than what we even feel we could do.

What you might actually do

This is the innermost circle, defined by the final barrier that reduces our array of options: the energy barrier. Actually having the motivation and the energy to prioritise the necessary work and take action. Of course, we can’t do everything – and this barrier forces us to choose. It’s what keeps us from doing all the things in the ‘what you dare to do’ circle.

Expanding your options

Why not take 2 minutes now to expand your options, by focusing on each of the barriers mentioned above and consciously breaking through it?

  • Energy barrier – what seems attractive and worthwhile, but just too much like hard work? How could you increase the payoff or reduce the energy requirements to make these do-able?
  • Fear barrier – what possibilities seem too costly to truly contemplate? How could you increase the benefits, reduce the pain, or mitigate the risks?
  • Confidence barrier – what ideas do you have that seem impractical, unachievable? What could be an achievable intermediate goal or first step towards that dream?
  • Imagination barrier – who could you speak to, what books could you read, or how else could you generate some more possibilities that you’ve not yet thought of?

** How many options are you considering for the future? Which barrier is constraining you most right now – the idea barrier, the confidence barrier, the fear barrier or the energy barrier? **

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