This summer I was in one of those tourist traps that sell insipid signs like, “I’m on Lake Time” or “Love You More.” They also had one I’ve never seen before, and it has stuck with me ever since. It said, “Life Begins at the End of Your Comfort Zone.”
The one false belief holding you back is that you think that your past determines who you are. If that were true, no one would ever overcome adversity, benefit from a second chance, or improve themselves through education, self-discipline, or perseverance.
Dale Hartley Ph.D., MBA is associate professor and chair of the humanities, fine arts, and social sciences division at West Virginia University, Parkersburg. For 23 years he was CEO of Lionhart Group, Ltd., an education management firm that delivered training programs at military bases in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. He holds a PhD in Industrial-Organizational Psychology, an MBA, and an MA in Mass Communication.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Your past actions, good and bad, can be judged by you and by others. You can learn from your errors as well as your successes. Others can think what they will, but neither your reflections on your past nor others’ opinions of you determine who you are now or in the future.
Believing that your past defines who you are is a toxic fallacy. Consider a circus elephant chained by one leg to a stake in the ground: Why doesn’t the elephant just pull the stake loose and wander away? Because it couldn’t do so when it was young. And so the adult elephant is still restrained—not by the chain, but by its past, or rather, the learned associations from its past (Chain around leg means “can’t walk”).
Cognitive dissonance is the culprit that motivates us to maintain the belief that what we were in the past is all that we ever will be. Leon Festinger originated the concept back in the 1950s. He also proposed the principle of cognitive consistency—that is, that we seek to maintain mental and emotional balance by thinking and acting in compliance with who we think we are. And who do we think we are? The same person we have always been. And so when we attempt to think and act differently, cognitive dissonance sets in.
Here’s the trick— metacognition. That simply means being able to observe one’s own thinking and feelings objectively and unemotionally, so that one can assess what may be “pushing our buttons.” If you want to change but experience cognitive dissonance in the process, metacognition can help you identify dissonance as a normal but unhelpful reaction. With effort you can then master the dissonance and proceed with the changes you want to make, until those changes become the new normal.
Are you chained to the past? If so, that chain exists only in your mind. You can remember and reflect on the past without being defined and limited by it.
What’s stopping you? Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.