How to Beat the Illusion of Limitations


Lift Me!

“I can’t go on…”

I was lifting weights the other day when that thought crept into my head.  I was reaching a point where I was doing more than I normally did – past my limitations.

I almost listened to it.  I almost packed up my stuff and left.

But I didn’t.  I know that the only way to get anywhere in lifting is to go beyond your limits.  That’s how you get stronger and build muscle.

When You’ve Reached Your Limit

It’s funny how limitations creep into your head like that.  Your mind just seems to know where that point is and always steps in to remind you when you’ve reached your limits.

As a regular gym-goer, I’ve had to struggle with limitations.  It’s that point where you go to the gym over and over again, but never make progress.  You just keeping doing the same workouts and never see any results.

You know what I’m talking about, right?  I’m talking about the plateau.

When you plateau, you:

  • Do the same things over and over again
  • Never see any better results
  • Feel as if you’ve reached your highest level
  • Struggle to push yourself past it

You hear about the plateau a lot in the gym, but the same thing happens in any situation when you’re trying to build a skill.

The concept applies to pretty much anything that requires motivation and willpower.

There’s another term for a plateau.  It’s called limitation.

It’s when you’ve reached a point when you don’t think you can push yourself to learn and grow anymore.  In other words, you’ve hit a ceiling and your brain is telling you that you can’t go on.

Busting Through the Plateau

I’ve hit a lot of limits inside and outside of the gym.  Each time it took a lot of concerted effort to push past my previous level.

In each instance, I hit points when I didn’t think I could push myself to do any more.

But I was always wrong.

The truth is that limitations are an illusion.  They appear real, but fade away when you examine them more closely.

What seems so real at first turns out to be nothing but a mirage.

Don’t get me wrong, they can still hold real power over you.  Perception can be a powerful thing.

But it all takes place in the mind.

Your mind acts like a map.  It knows the territory you’ve visited already and feels comfortable there.

When you push past your limitations, you enter new territory.  You’re doing things you haven’t done before so it’s brand new.

Entering that new territory makes your mind feel lost.  It gets uncomfortable.

So it tells you things like:

“Stop, you’ve never done this before.”

“Are you sure you can handle this?”

“You shouldn’t do this, stick with what you’re familiar with.”

That’s what limitations are.  They’re your brain being uncomfortable with territory it’s unfamiliar with.

It’s telling you what you can’t do, but not because you can’t do them.  It’s because it’s unfamiliar with you doing them.  That’s the illusion.

Here are some ways to break through that illusion:

1. See through your limitations

It’s easier to see the illusion of limitations once you’ve passed them.  Look back on another time in your life when you did something you never thought you could do.

I remember a time when I was a little kid and I saw older kids studying things for school – things I couldn’t understand.  I knew I would eventually study those same things, but in my head I never thought I would be able to grasp it.

Of course, when I finally reached that grade level, I understood it.  The limitation was only in my head.

The trick is to remember moments like that and how it felt to look back at them.  Those limits don’t seem so powerful once you’ve passed them.

Now imagine yourself in the future after you’ve pushed past the limits you’re currently facing.  Remind yourself that they really aren’t there – just like they were never there all those other times.

2. Remember that doing the same things gets you nowhere

Sometimes a limitation appears to be there simply because of your approach.  Simply put: do the same things and you’ll see the same results.

I’m trying to build muscle when I lift weights.  That means pushing my muscles to lift more than they ever have.

So when I do the same lifting routines over and over again, I don’t see results.  I only see results when I change something: the reps, weight or number of sets.

When I don’t change any of those, I don’t see any results.  All I do is plateau.  And when I plateau, I think I’ve reached my limits.

The same goes for any skill.  Your limits might be there simply because you keep doing the same things over and over again.

Change it up.  Increase the pressure and keep going past the point when you think you should stop.

3. Train yourself to ignore limiting thoughts

Your limitations are formed by how you think.

How far do you think you can go?  How much do you think you’re capable of doing?

The trouble with our brains is that we often only believe things we see.  So if you have never seen yourself do something before, your brain has a hard time accepting that you can do it.

Sometimes you have to override your mind.  Do something despite those thoughts.

Train your body to take over when your mind is negative.  Your body doesn’t tell you what you can’t do, it’s only there to act. That makes it perfect to overcome limiting thoughts.

Want to talk to that cute person you see in the bar despite those limiting thoughts?

Train your body to go over to the person without thinking.

Want to finish running a marathon, but your mind is telling you to quit?

Train your body to keep going.

The Only Limit

Since most limitations are made in your head, they exist only when you accept they exist.

Get used to pushing past that point and bust through the illusion.  Once you’re able to break that hold over you, there’s no telling how far you can go.
photo credit: Keith Davenport

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  1. Steve – this mind-body control thing! Takes work!

    I’m totally with you on training your body to do something the brain thinks isn’t possible. It takes practice though.

    This is going to sound a little wishy/washy/woowoo but visualisation techniques work really well for me. Especially for up coming events.

    If I need to have a difficult discussion with someone, my brain is happy to procrastinate and postpone the meeting.

    If I visualise how I see the meeting going, how I feel, how I sit, my tone of voice, etc, this trains my brain to quit the negative thoughts and just get the job done.

    – Razwana

    • While I think some people oversell the power of visualization, there is something to it – at least from some of the studies I’ve read about it.

      I do it on occasion and it seems to work well for me. It’s as if you’re giving yourself a trial run. If you extend my “mind is a map” metaphor, you could say you’re just letting your mind become familiar with where you’re about to go.

  2. Steve,

    Great point!

    Many times people are their own worse enemy. Whether it comes from imposing false limits or simple self doubt, it can be far to easy to throw up boundaries OURSELVES.

    I love the way you give practical advice to beating these falsely imposed limits.

    • It’s amazing how often we stop ourselves just from our own thoughts. Sometimes I wonder if we are the biggest obstacle to our own success.

  3. This post is so incredibly timely. Thanks for the inspiration, Steve, and I’m going to write a post that was inspired by this one.

  4. I have always struggled with losing my breath quickly, even when I was in shape. Especially uphill. My mom has it too, she thinks it’s genetic.

    But when I decided to go to the gym, and get in the best shape I could be, I just put on music, and started running. And after a week, I was running for over 50 minutes per session. Sure, I got tired after 5 minutes, it started hurting after 15, but I kept going till 50.

    But I am a very auditory person, so music helps me a lot. My bench press is terrible, and despite trying hard to increase the amount I could lift, the progress was pretty much nonexistent. All other areas I managed to improve a lot.

    When it comes to limiting beliefs in other areas, I’m afraid I still have them. I still have doubts about my writing, among other things. But the cool thing is, I no longer doubt my ability to improve.. I believe that I can adapt.. which is probably the most important thing.

    Because it enables me to actually challenge myself in ways I would never have bothered with before.

    • I think being able to adapt is a very important quality. We’re all adapting to change all the time. I think the thing is to keep going and learning all you can. Persistence is another important quality – if you have that, no limiting belief is powerful enough to stop you.

  5. “Doing the same things gets you nowhere” is so true! While it might feel comfortable, it’s a comfortable rut. If that is really where you want to be 5, 10, 20 years down the road, I guess that is okay. I doubt if that would be okay for you or any of your readers.

    • That’s a good way to describe it: a comfortable rut. They’re easy to get into, but if you want to grow, you have to break out of it.

  6. Man, those weights look heavy, Steve. As a classical guitarist, I have changed my practice routine dozens of times as I accommodate innovations in technical workouts. When I revisit old pieces that were once difficult and play them with ease, I know that I’ve improved. It can be very hard to see progress unless we find the right vehicle for it like my old difficult pieces. I love how you’ve made a habit of plateau busting, Steve! Great post, as always!

    • I have a similar experience in the gym. When I see guys struggling with weights that I used to do, it just emphasizes to me how far I’ve pushed myself. It’s good to look back once in a while to see how far you’ve come. I find it inspires me too in that I think I can do even more.

  7. I can relate when running. I either ease up or walk when I have picked a turn around point. I know I can keep running but I ease up because I have decided that is my limit. It really isn’t! I know I have pushed my Mt Bike 40mi out of Denali NP along with biking 40mi all in a 22 hour period. As long as my body has fat to burn I can keep going. The brain needs rest. I try and not set a turn around point. I just go to when I feel like it is time to turn around and keep running…..

    Dam Limitations!

    • I’ve experienced that when running too. Just knowing that you’re about to hit the turn around point or finish line makes you want to ease up. Those are the times you just have to make your body take over and keep going.

  8. Totally agree with this man. Our limits are just false beliefs.

    No matter what happens, there’s always a way to push through. Lifting is an awesome example.

    Another solid example I thought about today was changing up my means of communication with my blog. I don’t think I’ve reached my limit, but my results and personal joy have stagnated. So I decided to look at it from a different angle and discovered that video would be an awesome way to break through the plateau and fine new light.

    • That’s awesome. Video can be a great thing to do in order to switch things up on your blog. I’ve seen a few other blogs add videos and it worked well.

  9. Enjoyed this post Steve and the connection between your limitations in the gym to the rest of your life. All solid tips here. I can relate to a new habit I’ve picked up recently – running! When I feel like stopping, I think about something else sometimes so I ignore it. Sometimes, I change the distance in my mind so I’ll finish a shorter distance. But when i finish that shorter distance, I feel like going on more. Also, instead of demanding far distances every day, I take it one day at a time and do a little bit of running each day so not to overwhelm myself. And if I don’t reach my limit that day, i try to not beat myself up over it and try again the next day.

    Change also helps me break the limitations – i.e. running faster, slower, in a different area, different path. Physical exercise shows us that we can break through those pesky limiting beliefs in other areas of our life.

    • As a runner, I can relate to what you’re saying. The time you feel like stopping is usually the time you should keep going. I can’t remember how often I’ve had to keep myself going just to run a little more.

      That’s interesting that you’ll change the distance in your mind to keep going on more. I’ve done that too. Just adding a little more and more to your run can add up. Before you know it, all those little distances you add can result in a really long run.

  10. Love this man. Especially the weights metaphor.

    The thing is, our mind is really what holds us back. There is a reason human beings can lift cars when they HAVE to do it, but there is struggle when in different circumstances.

    Limitations are real, but primarily limitations of the mind rather than the body. Absolutely.

    • That’s an interesting point about people lifting cars when they have to do it. There are times when people have done some really amazing feats like lifting cars. I remember someone asked a person who did that once what they were thinking – it turns out they didn’t think, they just acted.

  11. “The truth is that limitations are an illusion. They appear real, but fade away when you examine them more closely.”

    What you say about limitations being an illusion is true. And when we think we can’t possibly push through, well, we find out we are so wrong. I’ve done quite a few things in my life that I can’t imagine how I managed to get through. I’ve had people ask me more than once “how do you do that” or “how is that possible?” I have found myself more than once responding that I truly don’t know or that when I stop to think about how it’s possible, I realize that it probably isn’t so I don’t stop to think about it. (Did you brain explode there?) Maybe that’s the key…if you stop to think about whether something is possible or not, you will likely come to the conclusion that it isn’t and that’s the end of the story. Why not just go for it and worry about the realistic possibility factor later…after you’ve done something great…when it’s irrelevant whether it was possible or not?

    • That’s the way I look at it. If you stop and think about whether something is possible or not, you’ll probably tell yourself it isn’t possible. At least in my mind, when you start asking whether you really can do something, you can usually come up with a lot of reasons why you can’t, but only a few of why you can. I’d rather just go for it and then use my brain. It’s crazy how often, you actually can do things if you just go for it.

  12. Pushing the limits of your mind is the hardest task! Those who succeed in doing it will get all the awards: successful business, nice career, great health or simply good looking muscles :) Great article Steve!

    • There are a lot of great things that can come out of pushing your mind past its limits. Never underestimate the power of a great idea or mind.

  13. I recently started working with a trainer at the gym. I’ve never done strength training before, but am enjoying it a lot. I’ve gained confidence, lost 15lbs, and feel great (but sore). I’d add finding a coach to help get you past your limitations.

    • When it comes to the gym, I say soreness and feeling great are the same thing. I’ve never used a coach in the gym before, but I know others who have and say great things about that approach.

  14. Hi Steve – I loved this post! Several weeks ago I was at the gym, and noticed the weight that I was lifting on a machine felt a bit heavier than usual, but I kept trucking along anyway. It wasn’t until after my workout that I realized that I was lifting about 25% more than I always had on that machine!

    It’s funny how many limits we set up for ourselves, and how we see false limits as actual limits even though they’re just bullshit.

    Thanks for such a great post.

    • That’s an awesome story. Isn’t it crazy how that can happen? It just shows that what we can do is often all in the mind. I wonder what would have happened if you saw how much that weight was before you did it.

  15. Hey Steve,

    great post on one of my favorite topics.

    You’re right limitations exist in your head and the mind is a very poswerful thing – at the very least we can turn a limiting belief (e.g. which is linked to a physical limitation) into a more empowering question about what we’re going to do to get over that hurdle.

    On the subject of limiting beliefs, check this guy out:

    take care,

    • Thanks for sharing the video, Alan. The mind – and the self-limits we have in them – can be powerful. It’s good to learn to get over them any way we can.

  16. Great post, Steve! I try and speak and think myself through limits. I totally agree with your sentence: “Your mind acts like a map.” I’ve found when we speak and think what we desire, it’s a little easier to break through the limits and to see our personal best come out. The key is to be careful about what we say and think, because it will guide us.

    • It’s good to be careful what we say. Our words can impact our thoughts. Then those thoughts can limit our actions. Just imagine someone who talks about what they can’t do a lot. It’s limiting.

  17. “Your mind acts like a map. It knows the territory you’ve visited already and feels comfortable there.”

    As an avid gym-goer myself, I really identify with this. Especially when trying to set new records. I often find my brain shutting off automatically as a result of not believing in itself. It’s rather annoying when squatting :)

    But nevertheless I continue.

    • Yeah, it’s annoying when your thoughts get in the way. One thing that helps when lifting weights is to distract your mind. Think about something else while you’re lifting. I’ve done that at times only to realize I was lifting a lot more than normal.


  1. […] at Do Something Cool wrote an excellent post on limitations, and suggested that they are only illusions. It was a great post and I suggest you read it. But it […]

  2. […] topics such as why experiences are greater than possessions and how to beat the illusion of limitations, Steve’s blog is an eye opening example of someone who has struck out of the world on his […]

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