You 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. 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
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?
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.
In this way, these beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies. 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?
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:
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 for freewriting.
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?
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.”
– Mahatma Ghandi