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What It Really Means to "Think Outside the Box"

Does the phrase “think outside the box” make you want to retch? It’s tired. Overused. A cliché.

And apt.

We all live inside a box, defined by our experiences and beliefs. Until we examine the box, we don’t even realize we’re living inside one.

I certainly didn’t. I distinctly remember the moment it dawned on me.

I was attending my first day life coach training, and we were learning about the connection between what we think, what we feel and what we do. It hit me: I was living life by default because I was afraid. Up until that point, all my decisions — and lack of decisions — had been unconsciously based on fear.

The box I lived inside had become very small.

I didn’t date, for fear I wouldn’t measure up. I didn’t disagree with my friends for fear that they would no longer like me. I didn’t disagree with anyone in my family, for fear that they would shun me. Most things I did because I was “supposed to,” not because I enjoyed them.

And it was killing me. My rules for living led to overeating, overdrinking and getting fired from a job I never really wanted.

In order to live, I had to chuck my rules and start over. And let me tell you, growth is never comfortable.

How is your box constructed?

Everyone has a box that confines our thinking. It’s defined by our experiences and how we interpret them; what we were taught by the adults who raised us; the society and cultural influences based on where we live, the time period, technology and economic forces; who are friends were and are; what we were taught in school, etc.

From these multiple experiences, we create stories about how the world works and rules for living that we believe will keep us safe and happy. Because the sides of the box are so well-built, e.g., ingrained into our unconscious brain, it doesn’t even occur to us to question them, much less deconstruct them.

We feel trapped, but can't see a way out.

At some point, we all outgrow our boxes.

The thing is, most of us don’t realize that what we believe is only an interpretation. We've spent years believing our stories and collecting ample evidence to support them. It doesn't mean we like the story; it's just what we know and we call it "reality." Because we so completely believe these rules and stories, we find ways to work inside the belief system and don't even try to climb over the wall. Brain research shows that once we believe something, we seek the data and experiences that support the belief, thereby strengthening it.

Until life happens and it shatters our belief systems.

That’s the gift of life. It just keeps poking at us and delivering results we don’t want until we become willing to try something different to see if it serves us better.

When we feel trapped, it’s because of what we believe.

Being stuck and miserable is a very, very important signal that our lives are no longer working and that it’s time to examine what we believe. The problem is that most of us don’t look at what we think; we look at what we DO and try to change our actions. But the first step is examining what we think.

Try This

Choose an area of your life where you feel stuck. Consider what stops you from changing your situation. What comes to mind will be the rules that you live by—and they are what’s keeping you stuck. Some examples:

I can never leave this job/company; the money is too good.

My boss should see how hard I am working and reward me.

In order to make money, I have to work full-time for a corporation.

If I work harder, I will get ahead.

No one will love me if I’m overweight.

Putting others first means I won’t feel guilty.

When I get everything done on my to-do list, I’ll be able to relax.

If I’m not successful, it’s because I’m not working hard enough.

There are no jobs I want in ____ (name your city).

There’s no money in ______________ (name a hobby/passion).

Now, take ONE of these beliefs/rules.

1. What is the opposite of that belief? Write it down.

2. Imagine you believe it. What do you picture in your mind?

3. Now, answer these questions, if you truly believed this thought:

  • What would you pay attention to or focus on?

  • How would you feel?

  • How would you act differently?

  • If you took the action above, what result would you likely get?

Here’s an example.

For a long time I’ve believed, No one will ever love me if I’m overweight. The result is that I feel depressed, and when I feel depressed, I overeat and isolate. Overeating makes me feel even more depressed, so I eat more and isolate more. Ergo, I don’t even try to date, and thereby prove my thought: No one will ever love me if I’m overweight.

If I choose the opposite, Someone will love me if I’m overweight, I start thinking about all the people in my life who already love me. And I start to imagine who that "someone" could be. I feel warm and fuzzy and I am more likely to venture off my couch and out into the world, making it more likely that I’ll meet "someone."

This is why self-fulfilling prophecies are a real thing. Your belief system tells your brain what to pay attention to.

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