How To Hack The Beliefs That Hold You Back

We all have beliefs that are holding us back. Sometimes we're aware of them, sometimes not. Entrepreneur Daniel Tenner tells how he overcame his own mental blocks — and how you can too.

One person I know, an entrepreneur who shall remain nameless, admitted (after quite a lot of wine) that he has a block around sending invoices. He was perhaps exaggerating when he said that before he could send an invoice he had to down a bottle of wine and get drunk so he could hit the send button, but even so, it was clear that he had a serious issue around asking people to pay him.

As an entrepreneur, that's obviously a deadly flaw. In terms of "holding you back", struggling to ask people for money for work that you've done is like wearing blocks of cement as boots. It won't just slow you down, it will probably stop you dead in your tracks.

Myself, I have — or used to have — similar blocks. Generally, many geeks early in their entrepreneurial career tend to have a general dislike of things like marketing and sales, that (in my opinion) often are rooted not only in fear of an unknown activity, but also in beliefs about money. For example, I used to believe (subconsciously) that money was bad. I would spend money as quickly as (or more quickly than) I earned it. If your first thought when you're given $US10,000 is how to spend it (rather than how it adds to your wealth), you probably have a similar belief that money is something to be gotten rid of, to push away. That's not a belief that's conducive to making money and becoming comfortably well off, because you have to have a saving-oriented, wealth-building mindset for that.

Another would-be entrepreneur I spoke to recently was afraid to quit his job. He hated the work passionately. His wife supported his decision to quit, and he was fairly confident that he'd find something else (he had previously been a successful freelance developer). Yet he couldn't bring himself to actually quit, because he couldn't quite make the leap to believe in himself. Despite the evidence and arguments being stacked in favour of quitting, he felt he couldn't.

Now, perhaps the beliefs holding you back are of a different nature, but even if the "money thing" or the "quitting thing" don't apply to you, don't disregard this article. Chances are there are other beliefs rooted deep inside you that are holding you back, even if they have nothing to do with money.

So, if you're aware of such a belief and want to "fix" it, what can you do to hack your brain?


This feels really cheesy and weird when you start doing it, but it's probably the most effective in the list. Many of the beliefs that we might want to get rid of manifest themselves as "internal monologue" — they're things that your subconscious is telling your conscious throughout the day.

For example, some people have an internal monologue that constantly repeats "you're a failure" to them. By repeating it over and over again, the message becomes true. Some people precondition themselves to fail — they draw the failure to them by accepting this message over and over during the day.

Self-affirmations hack around this by overriding the negative message with a positive one. The way that it's worked for me is:

Craft a brief, positive message (phrase it in positive terms) that overrides the internal message that's bothering you. For example, if "you're a failure" is the message that's bothering you, a positive override might be "I will succeed in many things that make a difference". It doesn't need to be exactly true, but it needs to be something you can stand by, that you can believe in, however briefly.

  • Write this message on a Post-It note or a piece of cardboard, and stick it on your mirror — the one that you dress yourself in front of every morning.
  • Every morning (and as many times during the day as you can), stand in front of your mirror and, looking yourself straight in the eyes, repeat loudly, with all the confidence you can muster in your voice: "I will succeed in many things that make a difference" (or whatever the affirmation is). Repeat it 10 times. Repeat it 50 times. However many times you can.

Three things will happen from this. First, you will feel very silly. That's OK, don't worry about it. It won't pass (you'll still feel silly the 20th time you do this), but it really doesn't matter. The second thing is: you'll feel a good buzz. I haven't quite figured out why that happens. I guess it's a sense that you're taking things into your own hands, taking action. That feels good.

Most importantly, over time (and surprisingly quickly), the internal message in your head will change. As it changes, you will feel the need for the affirmations lessen. Obviously, if the message you're overriding is deeply ingrained, it will take longer, but for me, typically, I haven't needed to do this for more than a few weeks at most before the new message had sunk in.

This is an extremely effective method. You can also try variants of this, like recording a video or audio for yourself, or writing it out by hand 50 times, but in my experience, speaking to yourself while looking into your own eyes is brutally effective.

Brainwashing yourself

When you read stuff and you don't take notes, you're effectively just brainwashing yourself. Most people read whatever comes their way, or whatever they feel like, without much care in the selection, but you can choose what you brainwash yourself with.

If you know that you have, for example, a problem with pushing away money, then there are books that repeat the opposite message over and over again. If you spend a few weeks reading a bunch of those books, chances are you'll come out the other end with an altered outlook. In my experience, it doesn't stick as much as self-affirmation, so if you do this you'll probably want to find a steady source of relevant books so you can keep re-brainwashing yourself until it really sticks.

You don't have to stick to books. Videos, podcasts, blogs or even meetups can achieve the same thing. The key is to keep exposing yourself to information that contradicts the belief you're trying to get rid of.

Of course, you can use this in conjunction with self-affirmation to enhance the effect.

Who you hang out with

Another strong influence on your internal message is, sadly, who you hang out with. People have certain expectations and perceptions of you, and it's very hard to shake them off if they are one of the sources of the negative messages you're struggling with.

Obviously, if your parents or your friends constantly tell you you're a failure, that's going to work just like positive self-affirmations, but with the effect of convincing you that you are indeed a failure. If they expect you to fail, and you spend a lot of time with them, you will probably fail.

This is a tricky one, since these sources of negative influence are often not deliberate. Your parents or friends probably don't want you to fail or be poor or whatever, and if confronted, they'll almost certainly agree to change their ways — but they won't. Changing habits is very, very hard, and if people have got into the habit of perceiving you in a certain way, the change of perception has to come from you.

Sadly, I think the only thing that can be done here is to spend less time with people who project their negative perceptions on you, at least until you've properly dealt with the negative message so that it's no longer holding you back. But even then, be aware that exposing yourself to that external, repeated message again could bring it back.

Digging to the root

Finally, one last technique which also helps, especially when combined with all the others, is to truly examine your beliefs, and figure out where they come from, how they grew in you over time, and what role they've played in your life.

Now I'm fully aware that our memory of these sorts of things is often very hazy, and very probably the "explanation" or "history" that you come up with will be, in many ways, a fabrication. But despite that, this somehow still works.

For example, through this type of introspection, I realised that my lack of interest in accumulating money was something that had been with me since childhood, that had been encouraged by my parents, and that was one of the components of why I'm generally a "happy person". Through this insight, I also realised that one of the reasons why I found it hard to bring myself to care about money was that I associated caring about money, and accumulating it, with unhappiness. The belief there was not so much that "money is bad", but that "people who care about making money are unhappy, sharks, obsessive people who live empty lives".

Once I discovered this reasoning in my subconscious, I was able to target it directly with self-affirmations like "I want to make more money so that I can do more good" — which replace the link between money and unhappiness with one between money and capacity to do good.


These techniques may not work at all for you. Or you may think that they're hocus pocus. However, they worked for me and have helped me, and I've discussed them with enough people to come to the conclusion that many people don't know or haven't thought about these types of tools, and most people are not using them. Some of them (such as self-affirmations) are standard tools that therapists use to help people, so there's some validation for these things working in a wide range of cases.

The main thing holding you back from achieving what you want is often yourself. These tools give you a means to fix that. If they don't work for you, you won't have lost anything, except perhaps for the terrible experience of feeling mildly silly while talking to yourself in front of a mirror.

If they do work, then you can gain a lot — specifically, you can give yourself the ability to achieve what you want in life. That's pretty valuable, I reckon.

How to hack the beliefs that are holding you back [Swombat]

Daniel Tennerwrites about startups on, based on his experiences running GrantTree, which helps growing tech companies get UK government funding, Woobius, a collaboration hub for architects, and others.


    Good grief. We've now had 30 years of detailed research in psych labs, and the evidence is in: self-affirmations don't work. "Worked for me" is anti-scientific nonsense (sample of one, no control conditions, etc, etc,et bloody cetera).This guy probably thinks the Earth is flat, and global warming is a commo myth.

    I'm sorry. That's hilarious Bob. They have tested self-affirmations in a lab? What a cracker... I want some of that funding.

    As a tip. I've got a lot out of He has quite a few free chapters so you can try him with zero-risk.

    It hasn't been tested in a lab though so be careful.

      Wow. You can debunk whole sciences, all on your own! I guess your aching bunions debunk climate science, too?

        Bob, saying "We’ve now had 30 years of detailed research in psych labs, and the evidence is in: self-affirmations don’t work" and not putting any reference or proof just contradicts your scientific method.

          @Dasith: scientific method says nothing about how to conduct web forum conversations. It's lazy of me not to trawl through my database for the refs, true, but I'm little motivated to do so. People to whom superstition is attractive are rarely interested in empirical evidence, and will always turn and attack ad hominem. Note @Craig's comment above: he doesn't ask for references, he just assumes a whole area of science he clearly knows nothing about is crap, and then implies its practitioners must be motivated (to make the crap up) by greed.

          What use references (empirical science doesn't deal in 'proofs') in such an environment?

        ^ love this bob troll
    This is from 1997.
    And another from 2009.

      Good articles but they don't prove your point. They do prove that what is being suggested that it 'may' work for 'some'.

      A quote from the article you suggested: "So although positive psychology surely has a useful role to play for some of us, it just as surely has its limits."

    Many of the techniques mentioned in this article have worked for me and still work. Yes it does sound silly, but it honestly does work. When you can change your inner monologue to be positive instead of negative you will find your life will begin to change. Often the hardest part is simply believing that we can change and that we deserve the change and a better life which will result from that change.
    What have you got to loose?

    Positive affirmations are a con, a self-inflicted con, which only work when everything is going well. As soon as the problems start, you're back to square one. Think about it for a moment. Would you believe yourself if you heard yourself telling you that something you had serious doubts about was true? Without any proof that it was true? No, of course not, you'd recognise it as bullshit.

    Affirmations don't actually change anything, because there is nothing to reinforce them to prove that you have changed. They have to be backed up by real-world results - often over a long period of time. You have to do something - over and over again to make it real, not just say it repeatedly.

    It's true, Debasis, when our body or soul suffer it's dluficfit to concentrate on something other. And this is the main prolem. But even suffering our mind is looking for the ways to overpass the suffer. And there are moments when we can to pass attention to this aim. Once you understood the situation, you can try to do the practices. At least try -and it helps too.I did so different times that is why I know that it's possible.

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