Break Free of Your Limiting Beliefs
ou don’t have to look very far to find evidence of how limiting beliefs can hold you back from living the life of your dreams. Take Peter, a former client. He came to see me because he felt stuck in his career. He had goals, but did not seem to be making any progress towards them. Having been bullied as a child, he recognized that familiar feeling in his workplace. Peter had a classic case of imposter syndrome: he believed that he wasn’t good enough; that he was always on the verge of being “found out”; that nobody in his life really had his back.
Through coaching, Peter realized that his mistaken beliefs about his own self-worth were causing him to think small, which was why he hadn’t been viewed as “promotion material” at work—despite his obvious talents. Peter’s colleagues couldn’t imagine him in a leadership role because Peter wasn’t imagining himself that way. Which elements of your life are you unhappy with? Your personal beliefs likely played a role in creating them.
You may be wondering, “How can I spot self-limiting beliefs?” Here are a few ideas to support your inner journey.
Pay Attention to the Language You Use
“I’m not good with money.”
“I can’t attract my ideal partner.”
“My failures are a sign that I’ll never make it.”
These statements are windows into your deepest beliefs about yourself. Repeating them is like digging a groove deeper and deeper into your brain, undermining your efforts for positive change.
Limiting beliefs are known as iceberg beliefs because we are usually not aware of them. They tend to float just beneath the surface of our consciousness. However, we can see their traces in the choices we make. This is true because our actions mirror our beliefs.
What do Limiting Beliefs Look Like?
- You announce to yourself and your family that you’ll start exercising regularly. A few days later, rather than hitting the gym as planned, you’re surfing the web or watching TV.
- You have a great idea to start a business and have every intention of getting it off the ground, but seek the safety of a salaried job.
- You promised yourself a proper vacation but find a reason to spend your time off at home, puttering around the house.
- You want to be more sociable, but you come up with an excuse whenever you receive an invitation for dinner or another social activity.
When what you say and what you do are two different things, a limiting belief is definitely influencing your decision. When you notice this happening, you might ask, “Am I sabotaging myself ?” But this implies an intent to undermine yourself. In fact, the reality is much more positive.
Where do Limiting Beliefs Come From?
The short answer is, our brains’ wiring. Big assumptions about ourselves and our world have a purpose: they are meant to protect us from some perceived danger.
Harvard researchers Kegan and Lahey studied how limiting beliefs actually work, and why we have them. They found that although we no longer live on the savannah, most people live with fear every day of their lives. Kegan and Lahey’s research revealed that our way of coping with fear results in an “immunity to change”. Humans get into a cycle of wanting to change one part of their lives, but acting in direct opposition to their desire. We are, effectively, immune to change.
Here’s how it works: we have well-developed internal systems for managing the anxiety of everyday life. These defense mechanisms help us resist what feels threatening. They contribute to thoughts like, “I will be alone if I divorce.” Or, “I won’t get another job if I lose this one.” And while they do keep us safe in the short term, they also make us believe things that may not be true. The Harvard research shows that these strategies protect us from anxiety in the moment, but they also create false beliefs. These false beliefs convince us that “many things are impossible for us to do” when, in fact, “they are completely possible for us to do!”
When we act on these misperceptions, we set ourselves up for unintended long-term consequences.
The Effects of an Unchallenged System of Limiting Beliefs
Left unchallenged, limiting beliefs can lead to poor outcomes in all areas of our lives: work, relationships, finances, and health. At a minimum, they lead to procrastination, lack of motivation, and lowered self-confidence.
Here is how they work:
These inaccurate assumptions about ourselves and the world become the filter through which we perceive our lives. We then make choices based on that perception.
- We put off starting our taxes because we are convinced the process will make us miserable.
- We decide not to go to university or pursue a higher degree because we believe we are not smart enough.
- We decide not to take a trip because we believe a vacation is an unnecessary expense.
In this way, these beliefs become self-fulfilling prophesies. We stop creating opportunities for good things to happen because we believe the risk is too high.
Limiting beliefs are like rocks in a backpack weighing you down. It takes a lot of energy to lug them around, no matter how beautiful the landscape is. Although carrying the weight makes you tired, you cannot see that lightness and sure-footedness would actually be available to you if you only took the rocks out. Instead, you decide not to climb the very mountain peak that once inspired and motivated you. In effect, you lower the bar in your life to avoid expected pain.
Can You See Limiting Beliefs at Work in Your Life?
- Make excuses – “This happened because….”
- Complain – “This wouldn’t have happened if….”
- Engage in negative thinking – “This never works out for me.”
- Say limiting things about yourself – “I am not smart enough to take this course.”
- Blame others – “I can’t get ahead because of his issues.”
- Resist things that logically make sense for you – “I know I should cut out sugar because of my diabetes, but it tastes so good.”
- Procrastinate – “I can start it later. It doesn’t matter if I do it now.”
- Need to do everything perfectly – “If I have to, I will stay up all night to get this right.”
- Experience anxiety – “I feel nervous that things will not work out.”
Liberate Yourself and Create Empowering Beliefs
I invite you to read the following as general guidelines, rather than as a how-to guide. There is no ‘right’ way—only the way that is best for you.
No two people will process their beliefs the same way. Be prepared to move through these phases with open-heartedness, flexibility, and curiosity.
1 Identify Your Belief System
Inquire of yourself, gently:
- Am I feeling resistance around this goal? If yes, what am I resisting?
- I am experiencing the same obstacle over and over again. What do I get from repeating this pattern?
- Am I hopeful about this situation? If not, what will it take for me to increase my excitement?
- What am I saying or doing that is getting in my own way?
- What does blaming someone else give me?
- What is it about this that feels too hard? What is stopping me?
- Is there a pattern to the occasions when I blame others? Which things am I ready to take full responsibility for? Why those and not others?
- What do I gain from allowing negative thinking to rule my life?
- What do I believe about my ability to reach this goal?
- Do I have a worldview that may be holding me back?
- Have I set the bar high enough for myself? How do I know that?
- What is conflicting with my goal? What am I assuming about this block?
- How am I talking about myself as I work toward this goal? Is it inspiring? Encouraging? Energy-draining? Anxiety-provoking?
- What stories do I tell myself about what I should or shouldn’t do, and about what should or shouldn’t happen? How is this significant?
Use Free Writing to Uncover Your Deepest Thoughts
If the above questions lead to overthinking or confusion, sit down and give yourself 10-30 minutes to free-write.
Simply write out every thought and feeling you have about the goal you are trying to achieve.
Do not edit yourself!
When you feel finished, go back and ask, “What do I believe about this situation?” Once you spot the belief, get to know it well. Be careful not to skip over it, thinking that once you have identified it, the work is done! The better you know it, feel it, smell it and see its face, the more successful you will be in overcoming this false belief.
Here are some common misbeliefs. Do any of them sound familiar?
- If others succeed, there will be no room for me.
- I am not strong enough.
- I am not smart enough to reach this goal.
- I am not good enough.
- I do not have enough time.
- I do not have enough money.
- I am not the kind of person who succeeds.
- I have to stay in this relationship because there will not be another one.
- I will be happy when…
- People do not change. I will never change.
- I am responsible for other people’s happiness.
- I must work harder than other people to be successful.
- I am destined to struggle.
- I do not belong in this world.
- I can’t…
- I will never make the money I want to earn.
- I am too old, too young, too…
- I will likely be rejected if I speak my mind.
- When things go wrong, it’s always my fault.
- I am not worth listening to.
- Promoting myself is unethical.
- I have tried before and failed, so I am going to fail again.
- This is as good as it gets.
2 Acknowledge the Gifts of Your Limiting Beliefs
Faulty beliefs do have a healthy role to play. They may be illogical, but they are a brilliant strategy for avoiding pain. So, what is the need they are designed to fill in your life? Ask yourself:
- How am I deriving pleasure by holding onto this limiting belief?
- What good intention does this belief provide me with?
- What value am I gaining by holding onto this belief?
3 Find the Evidence: Is the Belief True?
As you get to know your self-imposed belief, ask yourself if it is really true. When looking for evidence, encourage yourself to think flexibly. We often hold on tightly to our beliefs because they feel so real. Ideally, you want to explore all the data with an open mind.
- Is this belief really that accurate?
- Have I always believed this? Why?
- Was there a time when I didn’t believe this? Why?
- Are there times, in some situations, when this belief just doesn’t make any rational sense?
- What evidence is there that disproves this limiting belief?
4 Test the Assumptions
- Start small with something that is not too triggering. Ask yourself, “What is something I would not do if my big assumption were true?” Ideally, this will be something that is part of your everyday routine, and not too difficult to act on.
- Identify ahead of time exactly what outcomes would prove the assumption to be false. Remember, this is merely to collect data. Take care not to interpret; instead, simply observe.
- Do you want someone to give you objective feedback afterwards? When we work with our limiting beliefs, emotions can make it hard for us to see what is actually taking place.
- Reflect on the results. What actually happened? How were you feeling on the inside?
- Be prepared: you may need to run more than one test, as our beliefs are not usually completely wrong. Running many small tests over time will tease apart what is true from what is false in your story, until you are free.
5 Recognize Old Patterns
Get to know what might lead you back to old habits. For example, if you identify that having too much to do in a day results in your feeling anxious and working faster to cope, take some time to rehearse a more adaptive response for those moments. What key mantra would support you in responding to the stressor differently? For example, it might be, “This is a moment to slow down. I have tools to organize myself differently so I do not burn out.”
6 Identify the New, Liberating Belief
Once you know that your old, faulty belief is not true, and that it stops you from living the life you want, what would be accurate and truly liberating for you? For example, in the case of the overly full agenda and the limiting belief that you must get it all done faster to preserve your value, the liberating belief might be: “My worth simply exists and I do not have to prove myself. I am free and powerful in making choices about how I spend my time.” Some other empowering beliefs might be:
- When I feel afraid, I can choose to feel excited instead.
- I am responsible for the life I create.
- My learning is a sign of strength and engagement in my own life.
- My dreams are worth striving for.
- I choose to see change as being in my best interest.
- I am beautiful as I am.
- I am loveable as I am.
- I belong in this world.
7 Notice Your Successes: Create an Evidence Bank for the New Empowering Belief
When you live life based on this new and liberating belief, what wonderful and inspiring effects do you see? What are you feeling inside? What happens on the outside? Are people responding to you differently?
Being aware of and paying attention to this truth strengthens it like a muscle. The more you notice your feeling of calm during a situation that used to be challenging, the more you will see the power of your new beliefs. Hold onto that power! Continue to choose yourself, your worth, your value, and your inherent ability to learn.
Ensure Your Success
The process of identifying your false and limiting beliefs is a solo, “inside” endeavour, but you do not have to do it alone. Many people do not realize that the best and deepest learning occurs within community. Breakthroughs happen when you have unconditional support, objective feedback, validation from someone you trust, and the knowledge of where and how to get started.
If one or more of these is missing from your life today, but you are deeply committed to something better, let me know. I want to hear your story. What are your limiting beliefs? What is holding you back?
A complimentary session is my gift to you, with no obligation for anything further. You will leave your coaching experience with clarity, a plan, and some next steps.
Are you experiencing doubts as you read this? Great! This is your first opportunity to make a different choice and take a different action. Say yes.
“Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.”