What are limiting beliefs?
Limiting beliefs are the stories you tell yourself that you think are the absolute truth. Whether it is about yourself, ideas, how you interact with people or how the world works, this belief holds us back. It imprisons us by keeping us from trying because of our fear of rejection, failure, or change.
Limiting beliefs start at a young age, and they often get more rigid as we age. I had a limiting belief that if I let friends get to know me, they would reject me. This belief was because my best friend in 7th grade told me that I didn’t fit into our group anymore. Since that time, I have been constantly doubting whether people would really want to be my friends. So, for many years I quit trying and focused my life on my work and my family.
My limiting beliefs changed my life, but not for the better. They stopped me from forming healthy relationships with people. They were based on a fact that I thought was true, but with 20/20 hindsight I see it was false. Even with the knowledge that while some people might reject me, many others would not; it was very difficult for me to get out of my comfort zone to reach out to potential friends. While intellectually I knew I could make friends, deep down, I did not believe it. So, I gave up before I even started. I sabotaged friendships by holding people at arm’s distance and not putting in the effort needed for friendship. For me, the limiting belief was a defense mechanism to keep me from being rejected again. I put boundaries on my relationships that kept me in my comfort zone but didn’t allow me to be a good friend.
Limiting beliefs may tell us that we don’t have the time, skill, or strength to do something. Or they may tell us that we don’t deserve love or success. Let’s look at where these limiting beliefs come from.
Where Limiting Beliefs Come From
Family values and beliefs
Our parents and other family members teach us limiting beliefs, often with us not even being conscious of it. So many of these beliefs aren’t even yours, they were passed down to you. A grandparent may point out the difference between us and them, whether “them” is the rich, another race, another religion or some other group. Often mothers pass on the belief that it is a woman’s role to take care of others before taking care of yourself. My father passed me the belief that you must know everything and do everything to be enough.
Culture and life experiences
My grammar school experience gave me a feeling that to this day I remember. For many years, that experience dictated how I interacted with people. I was pushing other people away. When you believe that you must do everything to be enough, you don’t have the time or energy to just be there for people. I have spent years examining my limiting beliefs, so that I can learn to cultivate fulfilling relationships.
Our culture tells us that it is weak to ask for help. That limiting belief keeps us from reaching out when we could use help. We feel like we must be independent and do everything ourselves. We often can’t even accept help when it is offered to us.
Whether you are learning from a teacher, family, or friends, you absorb their beliefs. The more you like and respect the “teacher, the more likely you are to believe whatever they tell you. The culture wars about what can be taught in school shows how important this limiting belief source is.
Reflect on some of the limiting beliefs that have been passed on to you or others you know by family, culture, life experiences or education?
Uncover and Change Limiting Beliefs
We all have limiting beliefs. Often, they are exhibited as automatic habits that we don’t even question. For example, because of the limiting belief that was instilled in me growing up on the south side of Chicago, I automatically tense up when I see a black male. For many years, I didn’t even question it. But teaching at prison has shown me that the belief, all black men are dangerous is false. Now that I see that limiting belief isn’t true, I can treat black males with the respect they deserve.
In this case, my limiting belief revealed itself. But usually, you must take a step back and think about your daily life. So here are some steps you can take.
1. Reflect on your behavior & write down your limiting beliefs
Evaluating your behavior can help show you what causes your limiting beliefs. As you explore, try writing down your general and detailed beliefs — the personal ones, the vague ones, and the ones that you feel very strongly about.
- Think about times when someone hurt your feelings and you needed to speak up for yourself. What was your reaction? Did you speak up, or did you walk away from the situation without letting the person know how you felt? Situations like this can show you that you might have a limiting belief that you should avoid conflict at all costs, but that negatively impacts your relationships.
- Think about the times you wanted to say no, but you said yes. How did you feel? Taken advantage of, resentful, unappreciated? Your limiting belief may be that unless you do everything someone asks you to do, you are not enough.
- Think about things that challenge you. What is stopping you? Whatever it is, it is not a fact, but a limiting belief.
2. Assess the accuracy
Is it true, partially true, used to be true? Often our limiting beliefs feel real even though they are not true. Do you believe that rejection reflects your worth? It doesn’t. Do you believe you are selfish if you put your needs on par with others? You’re not. Do you believe you don’t deserve a fulfilling life? You do.
“Beliefs are hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be guarded”. Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner
The way you look at challenges can train your mind to see the positives in everyday situations rather than the negatives. Instead of trying to prevent getting hurt, look at how you can promote your growth. For example saying, “That didn’t go well. What can I do better next time?” Reframe what you currently see as obstacles as opportunities. This allows you to see possibilities instead of feeling hopeless.
Adam Grant, author “Think Again,” calls this problem “cognitive laziness.” What if we could change our sense of what’s possible? What if we could reframe our assumptions about goals that are “impossible” to achieve? This type of thinking is not easy to resolve and requires discipline and consistent habits.
4. Overcome Limiting Beliefs
It’s challenging to identify limiting beliefs, but it’s even harder to overcome them. Beliefs have a super hold making them hard to let go. What is stopping you from letting go? Sometimes we hold on to the belief, so we don’t have to experience the vulnerability of not knowing. We would rather be certain, even when it’s painful. It requires getting out of our comfort zone.
You may want to explore:
- How do you benefit from your limiting beliefs?
- Who would you be if you didn’t believe your limiting belief?
- How would your life be different if you didn’t believe it?
- What is the worst that could happen if you took the risk instead of staying in your invisible cage?
The pathway out of the limiting beliefs that imprison us is mindfulness. If we keep paying attention, suffering keeps waking us up telling us to look at this. Once we see the bars, they are no longer invisible.