A Fish Tale: Are You Limiting Yourself?

A young guy hears about this great fishing stream and being an avid fisherman, he decides to check it out for himself. He goes to the stream, he throws in his line and he waits for a bite.

Meanwhile, he happens to notice an elderly fisherman just downstream. This guy is throwing in his line and is just pulling in one fish after another.

The interesting thing is that every fish he pulls out of the stream, he takes it and he lays it down on the edge of the bank and measures the fish using a broken-off ruler. If the fish is bigger than the broken-off ruler, he unhooks the fish and tosses it back in the stream. If, however, the fish is smaller, he unhooks it and he puts it in his bucket.

So the young guy is thinking, “Why is he doing that? Why is he unhooking the big fish and throwing them back, and just keeping the little fish?”

He’s bewildered and intrigued. Since he’s having no luck catching anything, he decides to go over to the man to find out what’s going on. He asks, “Excuse me, but why are you throwing the big fish back and only keeping the little ones? Do the big fish have a lot of bones or don’t taste good, or is there some ordinance about taking the big fish out of the stream?” 

The man looks at him and says “Son, look at this. See that broken-off ruler right there?” The younger guy says “yes, I was wondering about that.”

The man continues, “I measure every fish by that broken-off ruler because that ruler is broken off at exactly the size of the frying pan I use.”

You’d probably laugh at the older fisherman who did that, but unconsciously, you and I do the same thing. The stream of life tosses us a big dream, a “big fish,” and we measure it by the frying pan we’ve got. We think:

  •  “Ooh, this dream is too big for me”
  • “I don’t have the money”
  • “I don’t have the education”
  • “I’m too old”
  • “I don’t have the contacts”
  • “My current circumstances do not predict my ability to make use of that big idea”

 So, we toss it back to the stream of life and say give me an idea — a fish — that fits my frying pan.

This story illustrates, in a comic way, one of the key elements that keeps us living a life of default, stuck in old habits that thwart our ability to change. The culprit: limiting beliefs (or as I wrote about in post #20 — paradigms).

My intention for writing this blog is to introduce you to new concepts from a variety of viewpoints. In my research for today’s post, I came across an article in one of my favorite publications, Fast Company. The author, Gwen Moran, takes a modernist and simple approach, and though her style is different than mine, we agree on the overall lesson.

In Moran’s article, she looks to Andrew Shatté, Ph.D. and chief science officer at meQuilibrium, for his take on this issue. He uses the term “iceberg beliefs” (my terms: limiting beliefs or paradigms), which are the self-limiting beliefs that we all sometimes have that lie just below the surface of our consciousness. These iceberg beliefs can have a devastating impact on our confidence level, mental state, and accomplishments.

"We often find that an iceberg — like ‘I should get everything done perfectly’ — drives people to excel, so it really does have an upside. But unfortunately, human beings, being what we are, we never get anything done perfectly,” he says. Constantly falling short of that yardstick can lead to sadness, shame, despondency, and frustration, Shatté adds.

In the article, she lists five steps to move beyond your limiting beliefs.

 1) Check Your Language

A big warning sign that you have an iceberg is when you say things like, “That’s impossible” or “I have to,” says mental toughness consultant Andrew D. Wittman, Ph.D. and the author of Ground Zero Leadership: CEO of You. When you’re feeling fear or resistance about something, it could be a sign that you have an underlying belief that is triggering those reactions.

 2) Look For Roadblocks

Where do you feel “stuck” in your life? Where do you overreact emotionally? Shatté says exploring areas with which you are dissatisfied and looking at why you don’t make changes can be a good way to identify self-limiting beliefs. Icebergs typically fall into three categories, he says:

  •  Achievement

This is where you believe you have to get everything right and perform perfectly, or that you have to do everything yourself. Neither of those beliefs is possible to achieve.

  •  Social

You may feel that you have to subvert your own needs to make others happy, and find yourself taking on “roles” to please others.

  •  Control

Here, the beliefs are typically chasing after impossible levels of control in your life and believing life will be better when you achieve them. You spend energy trying to achieve the impossible.

 3) Suspend Disbelief

Your icebergs may have been formed when you were a child, so they could be pretty well-entrenched and hard to shake, Wittman says. But once you find them, you need to give them a rest, even for brief periods, by suspending your disbelief that you can get beyond them. If that sounds impossible, you need to think again — you do it when you get lost in a movie or other experience that you know is not real, he says. Once you’ve silenced the belief, ask yourself how you can do the thing that you want to do but feel you can’t.

“If you say, ‘How would I?’ your brain will go to work and find all the information that would back that up, and so that puts you in the position of where you can find the solution to whatever you’re facing,” Wittman says.

4) Set a Stretch Goal

Once you’ve started mapping out a way to get to where you want to go, the next step is to set a stretch goal toward what you want to achieve, says New Jersey psychologist Patricia Farrell, Ph.D. and author of How to Be Your Own Therapist: A Step-by-Step Guide to Taking Your Life Back. Choose a goal that will help move you in the direction of your overall objective, but make sure it’s slightly out of your comfort zone, she says. You may not achieve it at first, but the more you work toward them, the more confidence you will build — and confidence is the enemy of self-limiting beliefs.

 5) Get Used To Being Off Autopilot

Walking around with self-limiting beliefs is like being on autopilot, letting some other force tell you how to maneuver in the world, Shatté says. When you start to identify and eliminate those beliefs, it can be very liberating, he says.

Now, you have some useful tips here to help you move beyond your limiting beliefs — your paradigms — that are keeping you stuck. And remember, don’t let the size of your frying pan limit your possibilities.

Because the truth is — your big fish — it’s out there.


Time to Dine: Cooking for Joan

This recipe was introduced to me by a former co-worker when I was looking for a salmon dish to serve at my dear friend Suzanne's birthday dinner. Not only was it easy to make, it was quite delicious. The tangy mustard, combined with the punch of horseradish, complimented the rich salmon perfectly. 

This summer, I invited my friends, Emilya and Jim, to dinner. Jim is a chef and I was a bit nervous to make a meal for him. I looked in Cooking for Joan and came across this salmon dish, and thought, I can do this! Well, the meal turned out wonderfully (and I fully took advantage of an expert to help). I didn't serve it with the cabbage and potatoes, rather, I made mashed potatoes cooked in cream and butter (divine!) and orange-glazed asparagus. 

Mustard-Crusted Salmon with Red Cabbage and New Potatoes

Prep Time: 15 min | Cook Time: 40 min | Makes: 6 (Scaled) | Difficulty: Easy


  • 12 cups shredded red cabbage (from half a small head)
  • 30 halved new potatoes
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 6 skinless salmon fillet
  • 6 tablespoons grainy mustard
  • 6 tablespoons horseradish
  • Zest of 1 lemon plus lemon juice


Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Toss cabbage and potatoes with olive oil; season with salt and pepper. Roast for 25 minutes.

Smear salmon with a mixture of mustard, horseradish and lemon zest. Nestle in pan, and roast 10 minutes. Squeeze lemon juice over all. 


Categories: Personal Growth - Action Plans

Tags: life coach , life coaching , limiting beliefs , paradigms , Are you limiting yourself , achieving your goals , Fast Company , achievement , salmon recipe , mustard crusted salmon