Emotional Icebergs: The Barrier to Success No One’s Talking About

UPDATED: May 21, 2024
PUBLISHED: May 7, 2015

There are plenty of barriers to success, but there’s one substantial obstacle that few people know about. It’s your iceberg beliefs.

Wellness experts Jan Bruce, Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., and Adam Perlman, M.D., M.P.H., authors of meQuilibrium: 14 Days to Cooler, Calmer, and Happier, say from the moment we can think, we’re building beliefs about ourselves, our world and our place in the world.

Some people’s beliefs are about how things work:
A squeaky wheel gets the most grease” or
“Good things happen to good people”

Others are about how things should be:
I should get everything perfectly right” or
“Sacrificing for others is the right thing to do”

Research suggests that by the time we’re around 8 to 12 years old, these beliefs are solidifying, and by the time were in early adulthood, they’re largely set in stone. They’re called icebergs because, typically, we’re only aware of the tip. The bulk of the berg lies under the water, in our unconscious. The problem is these icebergs are limiting, if not downright self-defeating.

Take Robert, a broker in a large financial firm in Philadelphia. He had the “squeaky wheel” iceberg without really knowing it. And while it did win him the big corner office, it also gained him the bruised egos and resentment of his colleagues who did not get the grease.

Then there’s Jean, a retail manager in Columbus, Ohio, who wanted a promotion to senior leadership but was passed over because, according to her boss, she didn’t assert herself enough. Jean drilled down to uncover her iceberg—”Only conceited people push their own opinion.” She was surprised that she was carrying that iceberg around, but also instantly acknowledged it was a message she often heard from her mother growing up.

Trevor needed help to uncover his iceberg—”I should be all things to all people.” In a demanding senior management position in pharma, with three children and a large and needy extended family, no wonder Trevor was pulled from pillar to post, had little work-life balance and was experiencing escalating levels of stress.

The good news is there’s a simple three-step process to successfully navigate around these icebergs:

Step 1: Map the iceberg.

Think of your life as a map.  If you know where the icebergs are, you’ll be able to sail around them.

Choose a life issue where you’re blocked—you can’t get that promotion or break through on that productivity metric—or a time when you had surprisingly big emotional reaction.

Ask yourself a few questions about the event. What’s the worst part of that for me? What does that failure mean to me? If I were to achieve that goal, what would that say about me? Do this in a few iterations and the iceberg will pop.

You’ll know you’ve got it if there’s a “should” or a “must” in your belief.

Step 2: Challenge the iceberg.

Once you’ve got the iceberg belief out of your head and on the table, examine it.

Is it accurate? Is it useful?

It may have been helpful when you were 8 years old, but now it’s a museum piece that is dragging you down.

Can you keep the part of the iceberg that’s a positive value (“A good person looks out for their family”), while at the same time dropping the black-and-white belief that’s impossible to achieve (“I should always be here for all the people I love”)?

Step 3: Melt the iceberg.

Know when you’re most vulnerable to hitting your icebergs.

Is it when you’re interacting with authority, like your boss?
When you’re pulled between work and home?
When you’re with your in-laws?

Have a mantra ready to melt the iceberg.

For “squeaky wheel” Robert, it was, “It’s in my best interests to share resources—at least occasionally.”

For Jean it was, “I have things of value to say and voicing them is not a sign of arrogance.”

And for Trevor, who was trying in vain to be all things to all people, it was, “I don’t have a cape with an ‘S’ on it. I can only do the best I can.”

If you follow the three steps and master your icebergs, you can reap significant benefits in performance, burnout relief, stress relief and emotional calm.

What iceberg did you discover about yourself? Share in the comments below.

Learn how to erase self-limiting beliefs and break out of your can’t-do mindset to achieve big goals.

Andrew J. Shatté, Ph.D., is the founder and president of the training and consulting company Phoenix Life Academy and a leading expert in resilience and how to boost it. He is a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Executive Education, a former professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and he currently serves as a research professor in the College of Medicine at The University of Arizona. He is the Chief Science Officer for the stress solution “meQuilibrium” and co-author of the new book meQuilibrium: 14 Days to Cooler, Calmer, and Happier.