When I first went to college, the last thing I cared about was learning to cook. Neither of my parents had a degree, and by the time I was in middle school, it was clear to me that higher education was my only ticket to salvation.
I remember running errands with my mom one afternoon and seeing her bump into an old classmate she knew from high school. “Oh, hi! Wow, I haven’t seen you in 20 years.” It was obvious the two of them had no real desire to keep up with each other. They were just being polite for etiquette’s sake. The school they attended was a few blocks down the street, and I knew it would be my fate to go there as well. Class of ’97. Go Vanguards.
"Learning to prepare and cook food didn’t register as anywhere near necessary... clearly I had 'better' things to do."
It didn’t take much for my brain to leap forward two decades and imagine myself in her shoes, shopping at the same Albertson’s with my own children in tow, casually running into one of the mean kids who called me names and harassed me all year long when I was 14. I couldn’t imagine anything worse.
My fear of ending up in the same unhappy environment I grew up in became the driving force in shaping my personality for the next several years. I was fiercely ambitious and completely focused on doing well in school.
Learning to prepare and cook food didn’t register as anywhere near necessary, let alone important enough to take up space in my overly intellectual brain. Clearly I had “better” things to do.
My Limiting Belief
In retrospect college would have been much easier (and I probably wouldn’t have gained 25 pounds those first two years) if I had known how to cook. More important, my transition to becoming a foodist would have been far less difficult had I not been starting from scratch in the kitchen.
As with most new habits, the number one limiting factor in creating change was my own mind. More specifically, the limiting beliefs I had about myself and my identity.
If I’m completely honest with myself, there was a time I thought I was too good for cooking. Obviously this is ridiculous and far from true, but at the time, it prevented me from making cooking a priority or even trying something new. Even more ridiculous: I was proud of being so blockheaded. (Will someone please go back in time and smack me with a spatula?)
The trouble comes when we limit ourselves too broadly, in ways that are no longer useful.
Limiting beliefs come from within, but they are shaped by the world around us. For instance, had I grown up in a culture that put more value on home cooking, say in France or Italy, I probably wouldn’t have belittled it so much in my mind. Is it surprising that I finally learned how to work a stove while studying abroad in Italy? I don’t think so.
Typically there is some benefit to holding onto a limiting belief in the beginning. In my case, distancing myself from my mother and my hometown helped me excel as a student, ultimately earning two prestigious degrees—not too shabby.
The trouble comes when we limit ourselves too broadly, in ways that are no longer useful. My belief that I needed to focus exclusively on my career meant that I also believed spending time on domestic tasks was a waste of time. I took the positive value of a strong work ethic and projected it too far, letting it keep me from trying things that could have drastically improved my life.
Limiting beliefs hold us back in ways we don’t even realize. How does this apply to you? We all have limiting beliefs that hold us back. Maybe you believe you can’t take care of your own health because you need to give your children and family all of your attention. Maybe you believe you can’t exercise because you hate running on the dreadmill. Maybe you believe you can’t lose weight because everyone in your family is “big-boned.”
How to Recognize and Change
A limiting belief typically manifests as a vague sense of discomfort or defensiveness around a topic. What I’ve learned is that if I have a broad, sweeping reason I can’t do something instead of concrete, specific reasons, then there’s a good chance I’m being held back by a limiting belief.
Recognizing your limiting beliefs can be hard, but you get better at it with practice. For instance, if you say you can’t cook dinner because you’re “just way too busy,” I’d wager that a limiting belief is preventing you from even trying.
Perhaps you haven’t practiced cooking much, so every time you try it’s frustrating and takes a substantial amount of time, as is true with anything you’re learning. Another possibility: You can cook, but you’re accustomed to complicated recipes that require many different components and lots of attention to detail. You’re actually just too tired at the end of the day for that kind of effort.
In one case, you tell yourself you don’t have time, when you actually just haven’t acquired the skills. In the other, you believe all cooking needs to be complex and time-consuming. In both instances, knowing a few simple cooking techniques and having a weekend shopping habit plus a handful of home court recipes would solve the problem.
If you get past the limiting belief, you can tackle these much simpler, more practical concerns. Instead of having to move mountains to find an extra hour in your day, in a few weeks you’ll be able to walk in the door after work and whip up something in under 30 minutes.
Recognizing your limiting beliefs helps you turn a seemingly insurmountable problem into a smaller, more manageable challenge you can actually handle. There are creative solutions to almost all simple problems, but you have to be willing to consider them.
This post originally appeared on Summer Tomato. Darya Rose, Ph.D., is the author of Foodist and creator of Summer Tomato, one of TIME's 50 Best Websites. She eats amazing things daily and hasn't even considered going a diet since 2007. For a free starter kit to help you get healthy, sign up for the Summer Tomato weekly newsletter.