As he thinks, so he is; as he continues to think, so he remains.
James Allen, As a Man Thinketh
What sets some people apart from others? What did Elon Musk, Barack Obama or Oprah Winfrey do differently to propel themselves to the dizzying heights of success?
While many will either assume that these things simply aren’t possible for ‘normal people’ or look for a tickable checklist to copy the exact steps, the answer is slightly less tangible but absolutely within anyone’s grasp.
It is as simple as this: some people tell themselves better stories. They overcome their own limiting beliefs.
I’ve had all sorts of limiting self-beliefs throughout my life – “I can’t do that because I’m afraid,” “I’m socially awkward and uncool, “I’m not a confident driver.” Or that hidden belief I uncovered I’d been carrying around since childhood: “I have to be perfect and achieve things to be lovable.”
Like identifying your personal values, identifying your own limiting beliefs is not something that we’re ever taught how to do. But challenging these deeply ingrained narratives is one of the most empowering and exciting things you can do to change your life.
In this article, we’ll explore self-limiting beliefs in more depth, before looking at some common limiting beliefs examples. Then we’ll go through the step-by-step process for rewriting your own beliefs so that you can design a life of unlimited potential!
What Are Self-Limiting Beliefs & What Causes Them?
Self-limiting beliefs are assumed truths about yourself that are firmly lodged in your conscious and subconscious mind. These inner narratives shape your self-perception and powerfully dictate the course of your life – often keeping you firmly rooted within your comfort zone and preventing you from achieving the things you’re capable of.
We can think of a limiting belief as a psychological defence mechanism – usually acquired in childhood as a response to difficult feelings or situations. In this way, self-limiting beliefs are simply your mind’s way of trying to protect you. But despite the best of intentions, limiting beliefs often continue to do more harm than good in our adult lives. They will stop you from:
Reaching your full potential
Going after your personal and professional goals
Believing your dreams are possible
Experiencing healthy relationships
Taking actions required to move forward
When you are a child, you are like a sponge; your interpretation of the world is a passive process of osmosis. Your personal beliefs take shape based on your experiences and those who had the greatest influence, resulting in a complex web of values and beliefs handed down to you from your parents, family, teachers and friends. There are also subtle yet pervasive factors at play like advertising messages and social media.
Your limiting beliefs can show up in your conscious mind as a negative inner stream of self-talk. But beneath the surface, there is also an undercurrent of subconscious limiting beliefs that you probably aren’t even aware of. For instance, I grew up with parents that traded time for money in order to live for the weekend. As such, I held an implicit belief that I had to work a 9am-5pm job – something I didn’t even realise was holding me back from my full potential.
Is It Hard to Change Your Self-Limiting Beliefs?
What you have to understand is that your belief system is an integral part of your identity. Changing your beliefs therefore ultimately means letting go of who you think you are.
While this may sound hard, it is possible to overcome your limiting beliefs. The real problem is that most people want to change their lives but don’t realise the inner work required.
It might be helpful at this point to think of your mind like a computer. There are many automated programs running in the background that result in what you see on the screen. If the screen is the surface action of your life, then imagine trying to make changes here without fundamentally reprogramming the backend.
Of course, it simply isn’t possible. This is why so many of us try to make positive changes but don’t get very far. We haven’t overwritten the limiting beliefs that are running the show in the background. We need to reprogram our inner belief system to make lasting and sustainable outward change.
10 Common Examples of Limiting Beliefs
So that you can see the effects in action, let’s take a look at some of the most common limiting beliefs – do you recognise any of them being present in your own self-talk?
I can’t: “I can’t complete this task.”
I’m not good enough: “I’m not good enough to go for that new job opportunity.”
I’m too old/too young: “I’m too old to change my career now.”
I don’t have enough time: “I don’t have enough time to cook healthy food from scratch every day.”
I’m too stupid: “I’m too stupid to read a book.”
There’s nothing special about me: “There’s nothing special about me, I’m just an average person destined for a mediocre life.”
I always fail at everything: “I always fail at everything so there’s no point even trying.”
I don’t have anything to contribute: “I don’t have anything to contribute that’s worthwhile so I’ll stay quiet and let others do the talking.”
I’m unlovable: “I’m unlovable, so even though they’re behaving badly, I’m lucky they want to be with me in the first place.”
These negative beliefs come from a place of fear, insecurity and low self-esteem. But don’t worry too much – they are not unique to you, everyone has them. The choice we have as self-aware adults is whether or not we decide to pay any attention to what these voices are saying.
The trick is to learn how to identify a self-limiting belief when it arises and then reframe it. Trying on a new set of new beliefs is like trying on a new pair of shoes; it feels strange at first before eventually becoming second nature.
Despite any initial discomfort, this process is essential to get out of your comfort zone (read: your comfort zone is killing you!) and live your best life.
Why Self-Limiting Beliefs Are Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
The major problem with self-limiting beliefs is that they can’t help but influence your behaviour and performance, meaning that they can quickly spiral into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Basically, we live in prisons of our own construction.
For instance, if you think that you are too stupid to pass an exam, you probably won’t spend as much time revising because you think it’s a waste of time… and then you’ll end up actually failing the test. Or, if you think that you’re a bad driver, it’s likely to cause you to become flustered and make lots of mistakes, which only means another traumatic experience to add to your list of reasons why you’re not a good driver.
After a while, you’re constantly on the lookout for further proof of your self-limiting beliefs. Your perception of the world becomes skewed to prove your own insecurities and reinforce your identity even further. So, please know that it’s often perfectly normal to have plenty of real-world life experiences to back up your negative beliefs about yourself.
Of course, this can make it even harder to break free from a destructive cycle – but change is always possible! Read on for a beginner’s guide on how to overcome limiting beliefs, one step at a time.
3 Steps to Overcome Your Limiting Beliefs
When you understand that everything you tell yourself is a story, it’s an incredibly empowering realisation, because it means that you can then intentionally craft your own narrative and develop a growth mindset. So in order to let go of old beliefs and cultivate your own set of new, more positive ways of thinking, let’s take a look at my 3-step process to overcome limiting beliefs.
The awareness phase is simply about doing the inner investigation to identify limiting beliefs – what are you carrying around with you when it comes to your core beliefs about yourself, others, or the world at large? It’s also about understanding the effect that these negative thoughts have on your life and where they may have come from. Make sure to approach this task with a healthy dose of self-awareness, curiosity and kindness; there’s nothing to feel ashamed of.
Identify your self-limiting beliefs
Sometimes, identifying inner beliefs can be straightforward. Perhaps it’s something you have a habit of reminding yourself every day – “Dating is impossible, I’m going to be alone forever,” or, “I’m just not cut out to go to the gym.” However, there may be other dormant beliefs that need more thorough excavation.
Here are a few tips to intentionally discover your own limiting beliefs:
- Examine your daily life – what does your behaviour say about your beliefs? How do you react when you make mistakes? What is your typical train of inner self-talk?
- Write down everything you believe to be true about each section of your life. Don’t overthink this – usually, the thoughts that first pop into your head are representative of the limited beliefs you hold. Try splitting it down into sections like:
- Family & Friends
- Partner & Love
- Money & Finances
- Career & Work
- Health & Fitness
- Fun & Recreation
- Physical environment
Make a list of anything in your life that you find particularly challenging (e.g. romantic relationships) or that you completely avoid due to fear (e.g. public speaking). Generally, the areas in our lives where we feel the most stuck are the areas we should focus on.
By the end of this process, you should have a list of limiting beliefs that are unique to you as an individual. And with knowledge comes power!
Understand the impact your limiting beliefs have on your life
Next, it’s helpful to gain an understanding of the impact your limiting beliefs have on your life – how are they preventing you from living the life of your dreams?
For instance, I was painfully aware that my fear of driving limited what I could do, where I could go, and reduced the number of experiences I was opening myself up to in life. Yes, I could catch a train if I wanted, but it didn’t give me the same kind of independence as hopping in my car. In particular, I hated the thought of getting onto motorways from sliproads, and I didn’t like the thought of busy city driving either, so I avoided these things at all costs.
Go through your list and write down how each negative belief is having a detrimental impact on your life, and then flip it and imagine how you’d feel if you didn’t have any fear holding you back.
Question where your limiting beliefs came from
We develop limiting beliefs over the course of our lifetime, so it isn’t always immediately obvious why we’re carrying them or where they came from. It could be as simple as one comment your teacher made that stuck with you – “You’re not a numbers person” – or it could be an accumulation of things developed from your family’s views, your education and your culture – “You must go to university in order to be successful.”
In the case of my driving example, I recognised that ever since a young age, I had always been told things like: “You’re not a very practical person,” or “You have your head in the clouds,” so I had low self-efficacy when it came to non-academic pursuits in life. I didn’t pass my driving test first time and then quickly after I did, I had a traumatic experience getting lost in a city I didn’t know very well.
Getting to the bottom of these beliefs gives you more clarity to successfully navigate the next phase – eliminating these self-limiting beliefs for good!
Undoing a fixed mindset is not easy – after all, your mind has worked hard over the years to rationalise its belief system and your identity has solidified based on these assumptions. However, in order to lead a fulfilling life, it’s vital to start believing that you can change. You are the designer of your own reality and have control over your thoughts. So let’s take a look at how you can abolish these limiting beliefs for good.
Consider the possibility that your limiting beliefs aren’t true
I know from experience that this part can be tricky. But try to keep an open mind and just suppose for one moment that there are other possibilities that exist alongside your perceptions of yourself and the world. As we’ve already established, false beliefs can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
If you’re struggling with this, then it can help to find any example in your life where you’ve proved yourself wrong. For instance, I used to think I was awful at socialising and making small talk. However, working in a shop forced me to hone my social skills and after a year or so, I recognised that it was something I’d become surprisingly good at.
If you can find even one example in your life where you’ve accidentally overcome a self-limiting belief, then it helps to make the mental shift that the same may be true of others, too.
Find evidence in your life to support this
Consider that you may have always gone looking for evidence to support your limiting beliefs. But now, it’s time to be an objectively fair judge. When you start to re-evaluate the evidence, your view of yourself will begin to naturally soften:
What is the evidence for and against this belief?
Am I basing this on facts or is it just my interpretation of events?
How else could I look at this? What would I say if it was my best friend?
Does the way I’m looking at this encourage a growth mindset?
How could I reframe this belief more positively right now?
For example, when I considered the evidence for and against my driving skills, I realised that I wasn’t giving myself all that much credit. One of the clearest things that jumped out at me was that I had, after all, passed my test – an instant signifier that I couldn’t objectively be a terrible driver.
Develop a new set of beliefs
Affirming that I was an excellent driver didn’t compute at this point, so I just reframed the statement into one that supported a growth mindset: “I have felt nervous driving in the past, but I am willing to put the work in to gain confidence.”
Developing a new set of beliefs takes time and practice. But, as with the above example, a good start is to go through your list of beliefs and write down an alternative view.
“I can’t” becomes “I know it’s possible, so I’ll take a class and learn the skills required.”
“I’m not very good at that” becomes “I know I’ll improve with practice.”
“I’m just not a morning person“ becomes “This is important to me, so I’ll make the changes needed to adjust my lifestyle.”
Make sure that your new set of beliefs empowers you – lifting you out of victim mentality and excuses into a more inspired and action-oriented way of thinking.
Finally – the action phase. Because writing all this down is all well and good, but it’s nothing without putting in the reps in your daily life. You’re going to have to work hard to challenge those ingrained limiting beliefs – firing and wiring new systems that signify the start of a new relationship with yourself.
Be mindful of your self-talk & what you say
Firstly, you need to develop the self-awareness to critically examine the things you tell yourself. We have thousands of thoughts every single day, so check your stream of consciousness for those limiting beliefs which will inevitably crop up again and again.
Instead of beating yourself up for any negative thoughts that arise, simply have the awareness to challenge your self-talk in the moment, however many times you need to until the message starts to sink in, e.g. “Ah, this is a limiting belief I used to have, but [insert reframed belief here].”
You’ll also need to be mindful of the things you say out loud to others. Remember that your subconscious is always listening, so stop with the self-deprecating comments like “I’ll end up an old spinster with cats!” or “Why do things like this always happen to me?”
Reinforce your new beliefs with mantras & affirmations
You can help to solidify new neural connections in your brain by using mantras and affirmations to reinforce your self-beliefs. It helps if you live on your own, but speak your beliefs out loud in the morning when you wake up! And have them on a self-talk loop until they begin to sound familiar.
Intentionally take action on your new beliefs
Finally, you’ve got to take steps to rewrite your beliefs through the daily actions you take. This begins the process of convincing your subconscious mind through real-world experience that there is evidence to support this new view – as such, it’s the quickest and most effective path to change.
Don’t overwhelm yourself with huge changes – you want to intentionally set yourself up with small challenges that you can succeed at. For instance, when I started pushing myself out of my comfort zone and driving further afield, I made sure to plan out my route beforehand on Google Maps so that I felt confident with exactly where I was going.
If public speaking terrifies you but you know it’s a necessity for your dream job, then plan your next meeting so that you stand up and talk in front of a small group of people you know well. It really helps when you take charge of your own development. This way, it’s within your control and you can push yourself just as far as you’re comfortable with, as opposed to feeling out of your depth.
Do this consistently, and it’s amazing how quickly small successes can snowball into bigger wins that boost your confidence.
Overcome Limiting Beliefs & Be the Architect of Your Life
I remember thinking that if I could take a slip road and get onto a dual carriageway – it would be proof that anything in life is possible. Because there was a time in my life when I sincerely didn’t think I’d ever be able to do this.
And you know what? One day, I did.
This may sound silly to some – “How can anyone be afraid of taking a slip road?!” you may well be thinking. But we all have our limiting beliefs. Perhaps something I enjoy – like writing or learning new things – doesn’t come as easily to someone who is the most confident of drivers. Your life expands and contracts to your own set of beliefs.
Overcoming limiting beliefs can have its challenges. If you find that you’re struggling on your own, then don’t hesitate to seek professional help – a trained therapist will be able to help you work through them. Always remember that this is a continual process rather than a destination to be reached. As you overcome one limiting belief, you’ll reach another ceiling to push through. It is constant work, but it is worth it.
Overcoming limiting beliefs is a key foundational principle of intentional living. And for the perfect accompaniment to this article, don’t forget to define your personal values, too. Good luck, and let me know how you get on!