3 ways your brain is holding you back

….and what to do about it.

We have all been the struggle town of reaching a big goal – to change something significant in our lives . It seems so difficult to achieve. 

So why is it so difficult to change?

3 ways the brain holds you back from change

 It comes down to three facts about the brain that hold you back:

#01 – Your brain is wired for survival, to keep you safely within your comfort zone.

#02 – As adults, you ability to generate new neural pathways to learn and change (neuroplasticity) is geared towards ‘off’.

#03 – Your brain automates repeated thoughts, and over time those thoughts potentially become a limiting belief.


#01 – Survival

Rule #1 of John Medina’s book Brain rules is the Survival – the human brain evolved too. It was “designed to solve problems related to surviving in an unstable outdoor environment”. Because our brain’s purpose is survival –  it’s wired to keep us safe. And change is uncomfortable. Every time we even contemplate a change – we trigger that survival mechanism.   

I wish I was your fairy godmother and that I could wave my magic wand and command your brain to rewire yourself! But unfortunately, it’s not this easy.

If you think about it change (and goals) is difficult to achieve, otherwise we wouldn’t need the goal to change in the first place!

It involves doing something new – a behavioural change.

This pushes you outside your comfort zone. When you are outside your comfort zone, alerts start ringing. Subconsciously, the amygdala activates the fight flight or freeze response in your brain. Without you even consciously knowing it.

#02 – Neuroplasticity

When changing anything, you are creating new neural pathways in your brain. This is called neuroplasticity. It’s the way the our brain changes while we learn new things.

 As adults our capacity to change is very different from when we were children.

 You can ‘teach old dogs new tricks’ but there are limitations. As the neuroscience,  Dr Sarah McKay, says “In the adult brain, various molecular and physiological brakes act to dial the plasticity switch towards ‘off’.

 Change is harder. But not impossible. 

#03 – Limiting beliefs

One of the biggest obstacles holding us back is mindset – which is basically your beliefs. After all, our thinking creates our emotion, which impacts our behaviour + beliefs, which impacts our results.

 A belief is a thought that we have told ourselves over and over again. To be efficient and conserve energy for new thinking and ideas, our brain has automated this thought – and over time this has become a belief. And it may just be a limiting belief that is subconsciously holding you back!

 So the critical step in any change is to master your thoughts.

What to do about it!

So, your brain is wired to hold you back from making lasting change. Once you have this knowledge, it’s a game changer. When you understand how the brain works, you can leverage it for your advantage!

 There are many tools and techniques that leverages this knowledge and facilitates your progress towards lasting success.

 Let’s turn to the world of psychology to learn some of the stages of change though Prochaska’s transtheoretical model of behaviour change.

 The model has four stages: pre-contemplation; contemplation; action; maintenance.

 It is important to know that you don’t move through these stages in a linear manner. Often it can feel like one step forward, two steps back.

 There are times when change is really frustrating. You just feel like you are mastering it. Then, an obstacle gets in your way and you feel like you are failing again.

 There are different strategies you can use at each stage to move on past that point of feeling like a failure. To set you up for success again. And it should be no surprise, that much of it has to do with your thinking. And potentially a limiting belief.   


Pre-contemplation is the stage where a person is aware of the desire to change, but at this stage has no intention to change, usually from the lack of full awareness of the problem. There may be a hunch or a clue that there is a problem, such as other people making occasional comments.  To progress through this stage, the person needs to become motivated towards the change.

You know you are in pre-contemplation stage when you are noticing the clues around you that it might be time to change. A clue can come in the form of people mentioning the issue or you noticing others discuss a particular issue (eg in Ads, News, general discussion).

You generally have an thought, an inner whisper ‘maybe this is something I should consider or do?’. You may be experiencing a survival trigger, and your thoughts may be driving you to fight, flight or freeze. 

Pre-contemplation strategies: 

If you find yourself at this point, then it is clear that you have been listening to the clues around you that something has to change. You may have a hunch about what that change is, but right now, you need to motivate yourself toward that change.  

1. Do some research on the behavioural change up for debate

2. Review the benefits of the change

3. Explore the possibility of a fixed mindset about this change. 


Contemplation is the stage where the person digs deeper into the benefits of the change, and acknowledges that change is required. The person in this stage digs deeper into the benefits of the change. This is potentially the stage that people spend the longest time in. There will still be uncertainty, and possibly a sense of feeling stuck if the person is not quite ready to make the change.

 You know you are in the contemplation  stage when you acknowledge change is required. You will know if you have fallen back into this stage when you know the change is required, but you have stopped doing something about it.

 You also know you are in this stage when your thoughts have shifted from that inner whisper of “maybe this is something I should consider” – to “I really need to do something about this”.

Contemplation strategies:

If you find yourself stuck use these strategies to shift that feeling of being stuck. Tet your pen and paper and start ‘brain-streaming’ everything that comes to your mind:

1. Think through the pro’s and con’s of the change.

2. Unpack the obstacles (and the con’s) by digging deeper into your thoughts to see if there is a limiting belief holding you back.

3. Write down a way that you may overcome that barrier.


When a person enters the Preparation stage, there is an active intention to make the change. The person may also be experimenting with a few small changes at this stage. Typically this stage is short, and is characterised by planning, organising and delving even further into the detail.  This is the make or break stage. If the planning is not done sufficiently, then after experimenting with a few small changes, the change effort stalls or completely stops.

 You know you are in the preparation stage when commit to do something about it. You will also know if you have fallen back into this stage when you still want to make the change, but daily action toward that change has stalled!  

You also know you are in this stage when your thoughts have shifted from ‘I really need to do something about this” – to “how will I make this change”. Be aware of survival triggers here too, particularly if there is complexity or a long period of time to achieve the goal. Listen for the thoughts ‘I can’t do this’. This is just an obstacle that you can overcome. They key is to bring those subtle or quiet thoughts to the surface. 

Preparation strategies

Follow these strategies to get you through this stage, and insure that you don’t end up here again!

1. Write out a clear goal.

2. Think though all the obstacles and write an if…then…this… statement. If x obstacle happens, I will do x. These are called implementation intentions.

3. Write out an action plan to achieve your goal.


The action stage is the stage where the most commitment is required. The person is making daily steps toward the goal. It can take three to six months of consistent deliberate practice / action to make this change sustainable.

You know you are in the action stage when you are focussed and consciously pursuing the change. It won’t always feel easy, but you know why you are doing and you are consistently following the action plan that you set for yourself. It takes time to make change. The new neural pathways need to strengthen. It takes on average 89 days to make sustainable change. 

You also know you are in this stage when your thoughts have shifted from “how will I make this change”, – to “I am making this change”. It won’t necessarily be easy, but you are sticking to it. 

Action strategies

To keep yourself on track and in this stage:

1. Review your goal at least once a week.

2. Regularly measure your progress (and celebrate!).

3. Refine your action plan as you review and measure your goal.


People enter the maintenance stage when they feel that the change has become a part of being, doing and having. It’s something they no longer think about. This stage is critical to making sustainable change. And it’s the riskiest! The risk of relapse is greatest in the maintenance stage. The change is becoming routine but old habits may creep back in slowly over time. The trick is now to make this new change a habit.

You know you are ready for this maintenance stage when you have achieved your goal. You will also know you are at this stage when your thinking has shifted from “I am making this change” – to “I have done it!”.

Maintenance strategies

To make sure you make this change sustainable, try these strategies:

1. Turn the goal into a habit statement.

2. Track the habit daily until you feel it is embedded.

3. If you feel yourself slipping, go back to the preparation and action stage to strengthen those neural pathways again.

Final words

So there you have it. 3 ways your brain is holding you back for achieving change, and what to do about it! My last piece of advise on this matter is to really pay attention to your thinking. Limiting beliefs can pop up at any time. Don’t forget to download the Growth Mindset Worksheet. Complete this worksheet regularly when you fee stuck.