When I was 24, I worked as a legal support person in a respected law firm, and for one of the best legal brains in the place. I was good at that job… eventually.
The first six months were a bit of a shit show. My very expensive education hadn’t prepared me for the fast pace of a litigation environment, and I could never shake the feeling of inadequacy (or rather, I lacked self-management skills at that time). That early experience knocked my confidence more than it should have, and I never saw myself as capable of succeeding in the legal profession.
Even though later on everyone, including my boss, told me to apply for a training contract at the firm, I insisted that a career as a lawyer wasn’t what I wanted anymore. And so I left the legal profession to enter into legal publishing.A limiting belief is basically an unmanaged emotional experience Click To Tweet
This is the power of a limiting belief – which is basically an unmanaged emotional experience – to shape the course of our lives. I cannot regret that fork-in-the-road decision I made in my twenties, because of how my life is now. That said, I would regret continually letting an idea that I am inadequate in any way from shaping my identity.
This post is about what limiting beliefs are and how to overcome them in a realistic way.
How limiting beliefs form
Before we continue: the whole idea of having limiting beliefs can of itself be a limiting belief!
If you have found your way to this article because you believe you have a limiting belief to eradicate, or have been told that you have, then I would question that focus. Limiting or hidden beliefs are just prolonged thinking habits. There is nothing permanent about your beliefs, unless you attribute them with permanence.Beliefs are just thoughts that have been repeated a lot Click To Tweet
So how do we end up thinking negatively about ourselves and our capabilities and potential, as well as other people and life?
It happens through our reactions to life experiences, like mine above. Our minds – on receipt of trauma, failure, embarrassment or a rejection – are swift to compute a behavior or characteristic of ours that is ‘flawed’ or ‘bad’. Then if the wound cut deep emotionally, or if the failure/embarrassment is sustained over time, then eventually it’ll affect how you see yourself. Limiting beliefs about other people and life happen the same way: just poorly processed experiences.
How limiting beliefs affect different life areas
Most of us share similar concerns: the quality of our relationships; success around career/ money; feeling personal fulfillment. So how does the presence of a limiting belief affect these aspects of our lives?
Individuals with limiting beliefs around themselves and self-worth tend to experience problems around connection, love and intimacy. I am not saying that if you haven’t had a long term relationship for a while that you definitely have a limiting belief, because you might not! But if you do notice repeated frustrations or negative patterns in your love life, then you may have underlying beliefs motivating behaviour patterns that aren’t helpful.
Scarcity mindset – the belief that there isn’t enough to go around – can be a huge one. If you have a scarcity mindset around love and connection without noticing it, it might cause you to act clingy around people, and give away too much of yourself at the outset. Or if you have the psychological belief that you are fundamentally unlovable because of an early childhood experience, you might find that you attract partners that reflect that belief. What we believe about ourselves, other people will believe. It is that simple.What we believe about ourselves is the same as what other people will believe Click To Tweet
The way you see yourself and your environment are also, of course, going to impact how you go about your career.
Beliefs around money work slightly differently in my experience. They are inherited directly from our parents/primary caretakers, or at least shaped by our parents’ attitudes towards money. It is well-known that people who grow up in impoverished backgrounds, who come into wealth quickly, tend to lose all of their money with similar speed. This happens when a person’s beliefs around money haven’t had the chance to ‘catch up’ with their external circumstances.
Beliefs around fulfillment and how to experience it are wide-ranging.
Probably the most limiting belief: the dogmatic ‘I am’
The most dangerous limiting belief, and one virtually inherent in our conditioning, is the dogmatic ‘I am’. This just means seeing your identity as a fixed thing. A person that uses the dogmatic ‘I am’ sees their personal qualities – even useless ones – as immovable. But ‘I am’ is actually a complete sentence!
Our personal qualities are not immovable. I first learned this five years ago. Henry Ford got it right when he said ‘whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right’. Self-descriptors are self-fulfilling. We talk our futures into being with our thoughts and words.
In the book, Three Magic Words, US Anderson says:
“You are not the same ‘I’ you were ten years ago, nor are you the same ‘I’ you were a week ago. You are always the product of your thought and represent at any time the sum total of your thought to that moment.”
We all have the ability to look at where we are, where we’ve been, and decide where we want to go. When we use the dogmatic ‘I am’, we are saying who we have been, and not where we can go. We unthinkingly limit our creative potential.
A tip for avoiding talking yourself into existence
A thing you can start doing right away to counter the effects of a dogmatic self-concept is to notice the language you use about yourself. Although social convention requires us to use over-simplifications in describing our personal traits, be mindful of using phrases like ‘I am always x’ or ‘this is just the way I am’.
Let’s take some common ‘I am’s’:
- an executor
- a planner
You might not be introverted all the time. You might not even be introverted at all. Question all of your judgments and consciously develop your self-concept so that it is empowering across every single life area.
Here are some language swaps you can use instead:
- ‘I can be xyz’
- ‘yes, sometimes’
- ‘more before than I am now’
- ‘less and less’
- ‘it’s the direction I am going in!’
Using ‘I am’ to describe your emotions and state
Using the dogmatic ‘I am’ about your emotional state might be an even larger problem.
Let’s take depression as an example. A person who is identified with their depression doesn’t even see themselves as being depressed. But if you asked them, they might say ‘I am depressed.’ There would be no acknowledgement of the depression being a temporary state. It is the permanence of ‘I am’ – it’s pervasive, final quality – that means shifting that lower state even more challenging.
Most of us see an improvement in our psychological wellbeing when we adapt our language from ‘I am overwhelmed’ to ‘I feel overwhelmed’; or ‘I am ashamed’ to ‘I feel ashamed right now’. The same applies to overly identifying with any physical conditions that we have.
Our beliefs give us security
Okay, let’s zoom back out to looking at negative beliefs more generally. What is their purpose?
It is important to appreciate the value in holding a negative belief. Our beliefs give us a sense of security, even when they aren’t serving us. They are like anchors that help us to make sense of the world. We are required to forgo that security if we want our lives to reflect a deeper understanding of ourselves.
Here are some examples of the pay-offs of limiting beliefs. I have selected two ‘global’ beliefs rather than psychological beliefs about yourself:
Say you often feel unrecognized at work, and the people you live with are ‘taking too much’ from you. It is possible that you are orchestrate your working and home life this way, to sustain the worldview that you are indispensable and needed by the helpless weaklings. There’s the pay-off.
Or let’s say that you keep finding people to be in a relationship with that are on the anxious side, which reinforces your free-spirited nature and independence. The pay-off is your Peter Pan self-image gets to stay.
Basically, we all tend to use people and conditions to support our worldviews, which absolves us of the responsibility for doing anything about the state of our lives. It keeps us dependent rather than independent.
Figuring out your limiting beliefs
If you’re serious about this, I would really suggest sitting down with a piece of paper and listing the beliefs you have under different life categories:
It can be quite challenging to step outside of your beliefs for long enough to observe them. They’re so entangled in our perceptions, expectations and language. And they influence every aspect of our lives. But exercises like this do help.
For each area, list three or four beliefs: the ones that immediately spring to mind. You should aim to give three answers to the question:
What do I tell myself about my ability to enjoy total freedom and happiness in this life area?
For example, in the area of love and relationships, beliefs that might be affecting your enjoyment/empowerment:
- I need to deceive people and hide my true self in order to be loved.
- Vulnerability is weakness.
- Finding a quality connection is rare.
If you’re having trouble identifying your beliefs, list things you want, affirmation style (‘I will create my own successful business!’) and then create a list of ‘yeah buts’.
For every negative belief you identify, ask yourself:
- How has this interfered with my life or limited me?
- How has it served me?
- Am I willing to change it?
Having an ‘Upper Limit Problem’
Even if you don’t have a full blown negative belief, you may find that you have caps on the happiness you’ll let yourself enjoy.
The upper limit problem was discussed in Gay Hendricks’s book, The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level. It’s all about our tendency to self-sabotage during peak moments in our careers and relationships.
How the upper limit works exactly is this: each of us has an inner thermostat setting determining how much love, success and creativity we can enjoy. When we exceed that setting, we do something to take ourselves back down and re-enter a more familiar emotional terrain.
Gay says that the upper limit cannot be solved – it needs to be dissolved with awareness.
The four hidden barriers
The four hidden barriers are the false beliefs upon which an upper limit problem is based. I suggest that you carefully consider each of them.
1. Feeling fundamentally flawed
If you had an experience in your childhood which made you feel rejected by one of your caretakers, then this could be one of your beliefs. It is usually accompanied by the related fear of that going big in life will result in failure.
2. Feeling like being successful will result in abandonment
If your unconscious mantra is that expanding into your success will mean leaving people from your past behind, this could be yours. Ask yourself the questions:
- Did you break the family’s unspoken rules to get where you are?
- Despite being successful, did you fail to meet the expectations your parents had of you?
3. Believing that more success brings a bigger burden
If the unconscious message from your childhood was that your presence in the world was a burden to others, then this could be yours. Carrying this painful belief is likely to mean that you’ll not expand into your full capacity for success and enjoyment, because it means being an even bigger burden.
4. The outshining barrier
This is the most common among gifted children. They get their parents’ attention, but also receive the powerful subliminal message not to shine too much at the risk of making others feel bad.
If you think you have an upper limit problem, then I suggest avoiding over identifying with that, but just seeking to bring your awareness to high stake moments during which you tend to self-sabotage. Slowly, you can begin to take control of your response during such times.
Using the power of beliefs
So how can we use what we know about how beliefs work?
Once you appreciate how your beliefs are the invisible architecture of your reality, you can begin proactively to instill some positive ones. In other words, you can leverage the power of your mind.
There are various ways to do it that I have come across. People use affirmations for example, to instill empowering beliefs in life areas that aren’t doing so well. Then there are techniques such as Emotional Freedom Technique.
As I haven’t personally created long lasting change through any specific one technique, I will tell you what has worked for me.
Improving the quality of our thinking
Until we comprehend the power of hidden beliefs over our lives, we are unlikely to take measures to improve the quality of our thinking. This is probably the most important piece of information in this article.
We can spend a lot of time trying to figure out what our limiting beliefs are and from where they stem. We can go back to those events in childhood. And this is definitely what I was led to do during my late twenties.
In retrospect, I would seriously question the use of going on the hunt for limiting beliefs. Instead, I would look at the life area I am struggling with, and ask myself to consider what a proactive approach would be to tacking the issues. I would put myself at the source of power of being able to change my experience of the situation.
And so here is my humble advice for overcoming limiting beliefs:
- Develop freedom and choice over how you respond to things – I wrote about how to do that here.
- Get a good mindfulness game, because this is how you will develop a close awareness of how you fall into negative thinking. I wrote about how to practice mindfulness here.
If you do these two things, then over time your beliefs will change quite drastically. This is because these two attitudes will lead you to new behaviors, and you’ll break old habits. And then everytime you do the new behavior, it gets ingrained. You’ll find you aren’t at the mercy of old emotional experiences anymore, which will be reflected in your actions.
Overcoming limiting beliefs isn’t some weird, spooky process.
In my experience, to finally stop using people and things to confirm our worldviews takes a simple commitment. This is hard initially and takes a lot of self-honesty, but everyone can do it.
After that, the key thing is to develop choice over how you interpret the events of your life, and where you place your energy and attention. If I had done that all those years ago, I would be happily typing away in an office right now…