I went to Instagram a few weeks back and asked what topics people were interested in learning more about. One suggestion was ‘limiting beliefs’. At first, I wasn’t sure that I had much to say about the topic (perhaps my own limiting belief?), but then I did some reading and realized that a lot of what we do in coaching is, in fact, challenging these.
A limiting belief is simply a belief you hold that restricts you in some way and prevents you from pursuing your goals. They are often not true.
Maybe they were true at one point in our lives, but we have changed or grown and so they no longer reflect our reality. Somehow, though, they have remained part of our narrative and so hold us back. Or maybe they were never true, but we were told them by someone in a position of authority so we believed them and made them a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Here’s an example from my own experience: I was always a shy child. I hated talking to strangers and my worst nightmare was having to get up in front of the class and say anything about anything. This led to the belief that “I’m too shy to speak in public.” For a long time that was true because I allowed it to be true. I avoided speaking in public if I could help it and when I couldn’t, I ruminated over everything that had gone wrong. One tiny mistake was enough to confirm that I was right. I couldn’t do it.
Over the last 10 years, though, I’ve delivered hundreds of presentations and led probably thousands of meetings. I even started doing an improv class this year and performed in front of an audience. That’s not the behaviour of a shy person who can’t speak in public, is it?
So, if it’s possible to challenge our limiting beliefs and do the things that are important to us, how do we do it?
How do we develop beliefs?
First, before we confront our limiting beliefs, we need to understand how belief works more generally.
We likely don’t spend a lot of our time thinking about all the various beliefs we hold. But, just because we don’t think about how they impact our daily lives that doesn’t mean that the impact isn’t there.
Sometimes, these beliefs impact us positively. I believe that I cannot fly, so I avoid hurling myself off of great heights. I believe stealing is wrong and so I don’t steal. These beliefs have a positive impact on my life in that they protect me from potentially harmful behaviour.
Other beliefs impact us negatively, though, like my belief that I was too shy to public speak. These don’t necessarily have a basis in objective fact and serve instead to prevent us from doing things that may be beneficial to us. If I had continued accepting that this belief was true, I would have missed out on many opportunities.
Beliefs are simply our mental acceptance of the truth of some idea. These can be conscious thoughts or unconscious thoughts and cover all aspects of life, ranging from the important (for example, our beliefs about an organized religion or a political party) to the seemingly innocuous (for example, acceptance that the sky is blue or that rocks are hard). Once you hold a belief about something, that belief forms part of a web of other beliefs which creates the ‘mental scaffolding’ that guides your perception of the world.
In this article about belief formation, the authors describe five stages that we go through to form a new belief.
First there is a ‘precursor’, which is simply a trigger for a new belief. This is some new piece of information that you perceive, which helps to shape and determine the content of the new belief.
After the precursor, we start to search for the meaning for the new information. We try to explain it and accommodate it into our existing web of beliefs.
Next, we evaluate potential beliefs that can explain the new information and make a decision about which belief fits best. In this phase, we’re predisposed to conserving pre-existing beliefs, and finding a way to fit the new information into what we already believe.
Once we’ve selected the belief that fits the best, we adopt it with varying levels of conviction. The amount of conviction we feel will depend on the extent to which it explains and predicts our experience of the world and the degree to which it’s congruent with our other beliefs.
Finally, the belief we chose to adopt has effects on our perception, memory, and actions. The way we interact with the world and perceive new information is changed by the belief we have formed.
Why seek to change limiting beliefs?
Because beliefs aren’t just formed by our perceptions of the world around us, but they actually influence the way that we perceive the world, some can be damaging and should be changed. When we hold a limiting belief and receive new information that challenges it, we may discount or distort it to fit what we already believe.
As an example, if I believe that I’m generally an intelligent person, I may see a positive appraisal on a report that I write as confirmation that I am intelligent. If, however, I hold a limiting belief that I am not intelligent, I may ignore the positive feedback on my report as a fluke or a lie. If I receive criticism, though, this now fits my internal narrative and I’ll accept it as another data point confirming my ineptitude.
As you can imagine, these beliefs and perceptions can also influence your behaviour. When we believe that are simply not capable of something, we are more inclined to pass up opportunities or to avoid practicing to improve. This puts us in a cycle of reconfirming our beliefs. That may be fine for most things, where we believe we can’t do something and we don’t have the desire to do it, but what happens when we want to do something or be something and our beliefs won’t let us?
That becomes a problem.
When your beliefs about yourself stop you from pursuing your dreams, it’s time to challenge them and make a change to free yourself.
Changing limiting beliefs
So, what do you do when you identify that you hold a belief that’s preventing you from succeeding and you’d like to change it?
Although there are likely a lot of complex emotions tied up with a ‘limiting belief’, we can seek to change it the same way we change any other belief we may hold. We need to challenge the existing belief by presenting ourselves with new information that contradicts what we believed we knew.
At one point, if you’re a bit older like I am and remember a time before Tesla, we likely all believed that all cars ran only on gasoline. We only saw gas-powered cars, so we had no reason to challenge this belief. It was descriptive of the world we lived in and every car we saw strengthened our belief. One day, though, you probably saw an electric vehicle. It might have been in person or on the internet, but it would have challenged your belief. Suddenly, you now believed that cars can run on electricity, too.
This belief likely wasn’t core to who you were as a person at the time, so the new information was probably integrated into a new belief quite painlessly. You may not have even thought about this as a belief change until this moment.
You’ll experience many changes like that throughout your life as your experiences grow and the world around you changes. It’s simply a fact of being alive.
For beliefs that feel core to who you are, though, they will be harder to change. These are beliefs about who you are as a person, what relationships should be like, how the world works in general, or any number of other important things. In these cases, you’ll need to work a bit harder.
So what do you do?
The first step is to identify your limiting beliefs. Spend some time thinking about all the things you believe about yourself, your career, the organization you work for, your family, and anything else that comes up. Most of these will probably be true, but just write down everything that feels substantial.
Finally, once you have a pretty impressive list, start a new one that describes what you believe about ‘people like you’. We all categorize people, and it can be helpful to identify what category you have placed yourself in and what beliefs you have about people within that category. A simple example might be ‘young people don’t have enough experience to be leaders’. If you see yourself as a young person, this might reveal a belief you unconsciously hold about yourself.
Once you have your lists, go through each belief and decide how it affects your life and whether it’s likely true. This may take you some time, and you may benefit from asking a trusted confidante what they think if you’re struggling.
Questions you can ask yourself to assess whether a belief is limiting you are:
- How do I behave when I believe this?
- How do I feel when I believe this?
- What would be different if I thought the opposite of this belief?
- What does this belief tell me about how I ought to be?
Look at the answers to the questions and decide if it reflects a version of yourself and your life that feels good. If it doesn’t, you may have identified a limiting belief that you hold.
Now, you can assess the accuracy of those limiting beliefs. Ask yourself:
- What evidence do I have that this belief is true?
- What evidence do I have that this belief is false?
- If I don’t have evidence now, how can I test this belief (safely)?
Change your limiting beliefs
Based on your work in the previous two steps, you should have three categories of beliefs:
- Beliefs that you hold that don’t limit you
- Beliefs that you hold that limit you and are true
- Beliefs that you hold that limit you and are not true
You can mostly ignore the first category and focus on the other two. These are the beliefs that are holding you back from doing what you want.
‘True’ limiting beliefs
For the beliefs that are limiting and true, you will want to change your reality. This may not always be possible, but often there’s something that we can do to support ourselves. If, for example, I believe that I can’t get a business degree because I’m bad at math and it’s true that I struggle with math, I can practice more or get a tutor and become better. Improving my skills will help to change that belief and free me to pursue my goal.
Untrue limiting beliefs
Changing the perceived reality of false limiting beliefs is more challenging. In this case, you may have evidence that disproves the belief, but you’ve chosen to discount it for various reasons.
Here are some ways to combat these limiting beliefs.
- Try on the opposite belief and see what happens — this is as simple as stating the opposite and behaving as though it is true (in my example from the intro, the alternate belief was ‘I am a good public speaker when I learn to feel less nervous’ and that led me to seek out opportunities to practice instead of avoiding it).
- Act as though the new belief is true and see what happens — does acting as though you believed the opposite of your limiting belief allow you to find success?
- Write down every instance that reaffirms the new belief — keeping evidence that supports the new belief and contradicts the old one will help you to make the shift.
You can also use the tool that Byron Katie has posted on her website to help you work through this if you’d like to have a template.
As you go through the process, you may need to find someone to help you challenge some of your more entrenched beliefs. It can be hard to work through this and you don’t have to do it alone. You can lean on a trusted confidante, or hire a therapist or coach who will support you to identify the untrue beliefs and work to change them.
Are you struggling with limiting beliefs? What have you done to combat them?