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Overcoming Self-Limiting Beliefs

Change the thoughts that are holding you back.

Key points

  • Everyone experiences limiting beliefs about themselves, their lives, and their potential.
  • Often times, people just accept self-limiting beliefs as reality and don't question them.
  • However, it's possible to identify and change self-limiting beliefs.
Molnár Bálint/Unsplash
Source: Molnár Bálint/Unsplash

There’s a technique in cognitive-behavioral therapy called the Downward Arrow. When a client shows signs of a self-limiting or negative belief in the way they talk about themselves or a situation, a therapist might choose this technique to help uncover it. The therapist essentially asks the client repeatedly, “And if that were true, what does that mean about you?” It sounds simple, but it’s one of the most effective tools in figuring out what’s truly holding someone back. I’ll show you how it works in a moment, but first, let’s look at what self-limiting beliefs are.

What Are Self-Limiting Beliefs?

Everyone has self-limiting beliefs. They’re the perceptions and thoughts you have about yourself, others, and the world. And they’re self-limiting because these perceptions and thoughts are preventing you from doing something that you’re actually quite capable of doing (even though you don’t think you are!). For example, you might believe you’re introverted and, therefore, unable to go for a promotion you really want because the new job requires some networking and talking in front of large groups. You might think, “Well, I am introverted. That’s not a belief; it’s a fact about my personality style. And I hate networking and talking in front of large groups. This isn’t a self-limiting belief; this just isn’t a good fit.”

But let me show you how it is a self-limiting belief. You’ve already identified that this is a promotion you want, so let’s assume that’s because it’s a good fit in every other way (desired salary, matches your training and education, etc.). However, you have a perception and thoughts of yourself (e.g., you’re introverted, you hate networking and speaking in front of large groups) that are preventing you from doing something you’re capable of doing (you’ve had to network and speak in front of large groups before, and it’s been fine). So, the self-limiting beliefs would be, “I’m introverted, I hate networking, and I hate talking in front of large groups.”

So often, we accept our self-limiting beliefs as facts. We think that just because we think or feel something, it must be true. But that’s a complete fallacy. We think thousands of thoughts a day and ignore most of them; however, we cling to our self-limiting beliefs like they’re our lifelines.

Identifying Your Self-Limiting Beliefs

To be able to undo your self-limiting beliefs, you must first know what they are. This requires some self-awareness on your part. You may need to do some journaling or work with a therapist or coach to uncover them. Or perhaps you have a trusted family member or friend who’s good at recognizing when you’re holding yourself back. No matter how you go about it, you’ll want to be on the lookout for thoughts about yourself, others, and the world that you treat as facts.

  • Look for pervasive thoughts and assumptions that show up repeatedly. Red flags to look out for include statements like: This is just how I am; I’ve always been this way; that’s just how the world is; this is what always happens to me; etc. When you hear yourself saying one of these red flags, you’re likely close to a self-limiting belief. Ask yourself what assumptions you’re making or what “truth” about yourself or the world these statements are creating. Write them down so you see them outside your head, and keep a list going so you can notice patterns or how often they’re showing up for you.
  • Use the downward arrow technique on yourself. Ask yourself the magic question, “If this were true, what does this mean about me?” to go deeper. You might realize that you think you’ve uncovered a self-limiting belief, but really, you’ve only touched the surface. You might need to ask the magic question multiple times. For example, if you think, “I’m introverted,” and you ask the magic question, you might find your answer to be, “People don’t expect much from me in groups; I don’t have to speak up.” So you ask the magic question again and get, “I don’t have much to say.” You ask the magic question again and get, “I don’t add value.” Bingo. When you get a simple statement about yourself or the world, you’ve just uncovered a self-limiting belief.

Changing Your Self-Limiting Beliefs

As you become more aware of them, you will need to start challenging them. Otherwise, what’s the point of noticing them? And remember, these beliefs are holding you back. We want to undo them so you’re living up to your potential and doing things you’re capable of doing.

  • Challenge your self-limiting beliefs. Write one on the top of a blank page and list all the reasons why this particular belief isn’t true or might not be true. Gather all your evidence from previous experiences and write down each time this belief turned out not to be true. If you don’t have evidence from previous experiences, then come up with reasons why it might not be true. You don’t need to be 100 percent convinced; you’re just looking for possible reasons why you could be wrong. Keep these lists open so you can add to them continuously.
  • Monitor your self-talk. Self-limiting beliefs show up all the time in how we talk about and to ourselves. Catch them in your self-talk and immediately challenge them. Don’t let them slide, either! Quickly label a self-limiting belief, come up with a reason or two why it might not be true, and move on. You don’t need to spend a ton of time on this, but you’re making sure those beliefs don’t sneak into your day.
  • Continue gathering evidence to dispute your beliefs. As you become more aware, gather new evidence as to why each isn’t true. Pay attention to your day, interactions, feedback, and results, and each time you notice something that disputes a self-limiting belief, add it to your evidence lists.
  • Create new beliefs. Maybe you’ve discovered the self-limiting belief of “I don’t add value,” and you gathered evidence that shows maybe this isn’t really true after all. What might a new belief be? Perhaps it’s something like, “I add value in most situations.” It doesn’t need to be an over-the-top thing that’s true all the time. It just needs to be something you can get behind most of the time.

Identifying and changing self-limiting beliefs takes work and time. But imagine a life where you’re not holding yourself back! A life where you go for the things you want rather than avoid them out of baseless fears. That’s a life you’re excited about, and that’s what I want for you.

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