What Are Limiting Beliefs and What Do We Do with Them?
Updated: Aug 28
We all have limiting beliefs. The reason limiting beliefs matter is because they have a tremendous power in holding us back in our growth and dictating important choices in our lives. In this article, we'll define limiting beliefs, learn how to identify them and what we can do about them.
Limiting beliefs: What are they?
Limiting beliefs are stories we tell ourselves about who we are, about our capabilities and the world around us that prevent us for living to our full potential - taking good choices, embracing new opportunities, living as we desire.
We can trace the origin of our limiting beliefs by looking at our family beliefs, education and experiences." or "Money comes only with hard work" or "Men are cheaters"? These are examples of limiting beliefs that box you, the world and people around you into strict and often false definitions.
What is the origin of limiting beliefs?
We can trace the origin of our limiting beliefs by looking at our family beliefs, education and experiences.
Growing up, parents have instilled consciously and more often unconsciously their own morals and beliefs, ideas about how we should be and how the world should be. They could be about how to choose our careers, how to behave, how to engage with others.
Growing up hearing " You can't live from being an artist" or "Don't talk back, an educated girl doesn't act like that", "Nobody is nice to you, they all want something from you" has the high potential of forming us and influencing how we think and how we act to confirm what we believe to be true. As adults, we might discover we have never chased our creative talents for fear of not being able to make a living. Or we will not make our voices heard out of fear of being perceived as uneducated. Or we might confirm over and over what we believe by engaging with people who take advantage of us.
Authority figures - parents, teachers - heavily impact what we hold and respect as being true. The constant share of ideas, information and beliefs about how the world woks play a major role in what we adopt to believe and not challenge.
Early, particularly negative experiences often lead us to conclusions based on limited data and influenced by emotions. They can strongly shape our limiting beliefs for future experience.
No matter where they come from, it is interesting to notice that these beliefs stem from a time when our world and our experiences were limited compared to the present moment. Some of these beliefs might have been true, valuable and offered to us with good intent at one point in our life. It is not keeping an open mind, adding new perspectives and challenging these truths whenever we notice they are holding us back that turns them into limiting beliefs.
Why do they matter?
Henry Ford said: "Whether you think you can, or you think you can't, you're right".
Our world is an accurate reflection of our belief system. Much of our reality is created by our thoughts. Our thoughts, repeated over and over, assigned as being true, become beliefs. Beliefs create a lens through which we perceive and interpret events in our environment. This lens serves as a selective filter through which we screen for evidence that matches up with what we believe to be true.
Our brains are wired to look for what we hold as being true. It actually shuts down competing neural networks, so we have a hard time seeing evidence to the contrary of an already existing belief. That is why if we believe people are dishonest we will run into more dishonest people. It is also why we are so convinced that our view of the world is the “truth.” What we often fail to realise is we are participating in creating our own version of the truth.
What we take in from the world through our belief filter becomes our self-concept. Our self-concept is constructed of "I am" beliefs about who we are presently and "I can" beliefs about who we are capable of being in the future. These statements are the starting point of stories and narratives about who we are. And we tell these stories to ourselves and people around us everyday. "I am not good enough", "I am not lovable", "I can not do it". We are the main characters in our stories and we have created these stories based on our self-concept.
We write the story of what we think is likely or possible based on what we believe is true and then we take actions consistent with those expectations. Acting on what we expect will happen before it actually happens, we participate in creating the experience. For example, having a negative self-concept, fearing rejection because we believe we are not good enough when we go for a job interview, we are likely to present ourselves anxious and act in a way that is more likely to result in rejection. We act in ways likely to bring evidence to what we believe is true, the self-fulfilling prophecy. This is how we are creating our reality.
How to identify limiting beliefs?
There are a few ways to identify our own personal limiting beliefs. It requires self reflection and self awareness in order to bring them to surface.
Write them down
Taking time to reflect on anything that we feel strongly about in our daily life can reveal what we believe as being true. It can be about our job, finances, love life, parenting, family and health. When we take the time to examine each, we are able to see how what we hold as being true supports or limits our growth.
Consider instances in our life where we get stuck, disappointed or frustrated with how we are handling things. Looking closely at our reasons for certain behaviours, we might discover that the underlying cause is limiting beliefs.
For example: A limiting belief such as "conflict is bad" may lead us to be be quiet when it is important to speak up and have a difficult conversation or could keep us from being truly intimate in our relationships for fear of not creating conflict by speaking our mind and heart.
Areas where we are challenged
Noticing where we get challenged repeatedly in our lives can lead us to our limiting beliefs. Whether we are unlucky with finding the right partner, or we are always overlooked for the job promotion, it is worth reflecting on how these situations are the result of what we have adopted as truths about ourselves or the world. What is it that we think to be true about relationships, about love? What is it that we think about recognition?
What is the best approach when it comes to limiting beliefs?
A fair question after identifying one or more limiting belief is - so, now what? Simply discovering and noticing is not enough. So what is it that we need? We often, after identifying these stories we believe to be true, feel the need to discard them. We finally acknowledge how they kept us stuck for years, how they impacted our decisions and our view of the world. Sadly, discarding them without replacing them with something else to believe as truth doesn't really work. It also takes up a lot of your energy since limiting beliefs are enmeshed in so many areas of our lives, sometimes in very subtle yet powerful ways. A route worth considering involves releasing the limiting belief and creating a new, sustainable, actualised belief.
Releasing a limiting belief
Name the belief - Don't get discouraged if it is not clear in the beginning. Allow yourself not just to identify your belief but how you formulate it in your stories. What is it that you think to be true?
Acknowledge the belief - Sometimes we discover beliefs about ourselves that we wish to avoid. Making a conscious choice to sit with the discomfort and acknowledging what we hold true is essential to the process.
Accept the belief - This can be hard to do. Accepting our belief when it isn’t positive goes against what we were taught. However, bringing awareness and acceptance to what is holds the power to move us forward.
Release and let go without attachment - This happens all on its own once we fully accept we hold this belief to be true. Depending on how deep it is and how attached we are to it, its enmeshment in different parts of our lives, it may happen easily or it may take a while.
This last stage is offering us a clean canvas where we can start creating a new belief aligned with who we are now, our values, experiences of the world and desires for ourselves.
Here are a few questions to reflect on while taking the steps to release a negative belief:
Where has the belief come from? - A family member, teacher, the church, a friend
When did I form this belief? - It may be something definite or a sense
What was happening in my life when this belief was formed? - Give it context
Does this belief still serve me? - Checking in with how it feels
Where in my life has this belief been inaccurate? - Enmeshment with other parts of life
Creating new, sustainable, actualised beliefs
A clean canvas requires a creative mind, heart and hand.
Here is a writing exercise to help define new, sustainable, actualised beliefs.
What do I want to believe about myself?
What would I have to believe about myself in order to create the life of my dreams? - Now is the time to turn off our analytical brain and turn on the dreamer inside us.
What do I want my life to look like, sound like, and feel like? - This is a time to be creative, not to edit.
If I had a magic wand and could have whatever I wanted, what would it be?
How do I want to feel about myself?
What could I accomplish if I had no fear or if I absolutely could not fail?
If things would work out for me from now on, and I could have whatever I wanted, what would a day in my new life be like?
If I were to truly believe in myself and my own worthiness right now, what immediate changes would I begin to make in my life?
What is the first step I would take?
Building on these answers, we should be able to create new beliefs about ourselves to be able to achieve and experience all we have imagined. At this time, believing them is not necessary. They will be cemented as we go along.
The results should look like:
Reinforcing new beliefs
Self-talk is the cornerstone in reinforcing new, sustainable, actualised beliefs. When we start by talking to ourselves from a different place - one of appreciation, respect and love, we begin to notice: a different tone, a different wording. Through self talk we drive our thoughts to different conclusions about ourselves and the world. We then continue with looking for supporting evidence to our new created beliefs. The more evidence we can find, the more we are going to believe it as our new truth. With each evidence added our self concept will have transformed, our decisions and actions will be influenced in a new, self sustaining and actualised way.
Our beliefs are powerful and impact almost everything we think, feel and do. When we make the time and effort to closely examine them, we are able to single out the ones that prevent us from living the life we want to live. We can then replace them with ones that will empower us in ways that we never imagined.
The process of replacing limiting beliefs takes time, patience, self-awareness, acceptance, love. An investment worth making in ourselves. Remember “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.”