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Why It's Hard to Let Go of Your Self-Limiting Beliefs

Research explains why there's a good chance you're more capable than you think.

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“Bill” came into my therapy office saying, “I’m not meant to be a leader.” He’d been offered a promotion but was planning to decline the invitation. He felt certain his supervisor’s confidence in him was misguided.

But there was a bundle of evidence that proved Bill could be a great leader; people naturally sought out his advice, he stayed calm in the midst of crisis, and he was passionate about his work.

In addition to the support from his supervisors, his wife often told him he should apply for a leadership position. She thought he had great potential to lead a team.

Bill, however, couldn’t see himself as a leader. He’d grown up a shy kid who preferred to sit in the back of the classroom. He once overheard a teacher tell his parents, “He’s more of a follower than a leader.”

Twenty-five years later, Bill was convinced he was meant to live the life of a follower. Although he really wanted to lead, he believed he lacked the innate talent to be a good leader.

Much like Bill, all of us hold onto the beliefs we developed during childhood with all our might. And quite often, we let those negative self-beliefs prevent us from being as successful as we could be.

Your beliefs stick—even when they don't serve you well

Whether you’ve concluded that you’re not very smart or you’ve decided you’re socially awkward, those beliefs will stick because of a psychological principle is known as “belief perseverance.”

Once you believe something, whether it’s a political belief or a belief about yourself, you’ll filter out evidence to the contrary. Someone who believes they’re stupid, for example, may chalk up a good grade on a test to luck or she may declare her success is a random fluke.

In addition, once you’ve developed a core belief, you’ll pay close attention to any evidence that reinforces your belief. So if someone who believes she’s stupid passes nine tests but fails one, she’ll conclude the one failed test serves as further proof she’s unintelligent (as opposed to thinking the nine successful tests may mean she’s smart).

It isn’t just beliefs about yourself; you’re likely to cling to beliefs you hold about other people. For decades, studies have shown it takes more compelling evidence to change beliefs than it took to create them.

In a 2008 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers asked participants to grade an individual’s score on an intelligence test. Scores were manipulated so grades either reflected the individual was either in the 93rd percentile or the 36th percentile.

Then, after scoring was complete, researchers told participants they were accidentally given the wrong answer key so the scores were inaccurate. They were also told there was no way to recover the tests to grade them with the correct answer key.

Later, participants were asked to estimate the individual’s mental acuity. And their estimations were in line with the scores the individual had received on the test. Participants who were initially led to believe an individual had above average intelligence, continued to view that person as smart.

Even though they were told their grades were erroneous, they couldn’t shake the initial beliefs they’d developed.

This is why making a first impression on others is so important. Once they form judgments about you, it's hard to change their opinions.

But clearly, we do the same things to ourselves. We cling to our beliefs even when they don’t serve us well because it’s hard to essentially “unlearn” what you know to be true.

What beliefs are you holding onto?

You learned about yourself from various sources over the years: tests you took, the feedback you received from teachers, what your parents said to you, and how your peers treated you. And there’s a good chance you developed some inaccurate self-limiting beliefs along the way.

Take time to consider which beliefs might be limiting your potential. Perhaps you are smarter than think, more capable than you give yourself credit for, and stronger than you know.

But before you can change your beliefs, you have to be open to the possibility that those things you believed to be true for all these years might not be 100 percent accurate.

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