How to overcome limiting beliefs

Picture this scenario. Two people are at work looking at the virtual company noticeboard. Ten minutes before, they learnt that a new position had become available, representing a step-up. The information is the same on the computer screen for both individuals, but their responses to it differ dramatically. Both employees want the job equally, but one feels excited and confident, and the other anxious and full of doubt. So what accounts for the same piece of information being perceived in such polarised terms? The answer is limiting beliefs, which are the focus of this blog, How to overcome limiting beliefs.

How to overcome limiting beliefs. Computer screen with a powerful message of ‘Do More’.

What is a limiting belief?

A belief is something that we assume to be true, and because we all have beliefs, it means we all have ‘limiting’ beliefs. However, some types are more harmful than others. The least damaging – held by everyone on planet earth! – are limiting beliefs based on an incomplete understanding and knowledge of the world. The most detrimental type, which professionals like myself help people, is when someone believes themselves to be ‘less’ than they are – less of a person, less capable. The fact that a person believes them to be true makes limiting beliefs hard to spot for the holder and difficult for others to discuss. However, the good news is that we can become aware of limiting beliefs and replace them with what are called ‘supportive’ beliefs, or those that help, motivate and encourage.

How to overcome limiting beliefs: conversations

One of the best places to look for limiting beliefs are our conversations, those we have with ourselves (self-talk) and those we have with others. Although limiting beliefs exist independently of our conversations, they heavily depend on them for their ‘airtime’. Changing conversations, therefore, takes away one of the life supports of limiting beliefs. Coaches and therapists, for example, help clients tune into their conversations to pick up on the words and phrases they use to express their limiting beliefs. Once gathered, it is a straightforward exercise to build a vocabulary of antonyms or opposite meaning words and phrases, which clients can practice using. The self-talk of the anxious employee above might go from…

  • “I won’t get it. I know who will apply, and they’re bound to succeed. I’ll make an idiot of myself in the interview.” (limiting)

…to

  • “Yes, this is exactly what I have been waiting for. I’ll speak to my coach and get some interview practice booked.” (supportive)

I am not suggesting that we only need change our conversations to eradicate limiting beliefs. If it were that easy, I’d be out of a job. But consistently engaging in positive conversations will have an individual effect and amplify the effectiveness of other approaches. In the section below is my Conversations With Impact Questionnaire. Completing these can highlight whether your conversations are based on limiting beliefs and what you can do to address them.

Conversations With Impact Questionnaires

Start by listing your existing conversations, including your self-talk. Then, looking at the list below, consider the importance of each quality or characteristic to you. Choose a number between 1 and 7 (1=none at all, 7=all that you need) that reflects the degree to which a conversation possesses each quality or characteristic. If one is not essential to you, i.e. it makes no difference one way or the other, give it a 7. For those that are important to you, score it appropriately. For your self-talk, replace ‘the person’ with ‘myself’ for the first statement, and then replace the pronouns for the others. For example, ‘I trust myself,’ ‘I understand myself and what I need from me.’

  • I trust the person
  • They understand me and what I need from them
  • I feel respected by them
  • They have the ideas, skills and knowledge I need
  • They do not judge me and accept me for who I am
  • They have the ideas, skills and knowledge I need
  • The conversation follows my agenda, not theirs
  • They believe in me and my potential for change
  • They give me the time that I need
  • I feel challenged by them in a good way
  • They respect my need for confidentiality
  • I feel they genuinely listen to me
  • I can say what I really want to them
  • They are truly interested in me
  • They help me to make sense of my situation
  • They help me set clear, realistic goals and strategies
  • They help me find solutions
  • My conversations with them make a difference
  • They have the X-Factor

As a general rule:

  • Scores of 3 or below usually indicate conversations based heavily upon limiting beliefs
  • Scores of 4 or 5 usually indicate conversations based moderately  on limiting beliefs
  • Scores of 6 or 7 usually indicate conversations based significantly on supportive beliefs

What did you discover? If your scores are mainly low, how can you transform your conversations into ones that create supportive beliefs? Can you ask your existing support network to help, or do you need someone new to talk to? Or if your scores are mainly high, how can you ensure your conversations continue as they are?

Making sense of limiting beliefs

A fact about human development is that our beliefs about ourselves and the world are formed mainly by the age of seven. Beliefs emerging after this age tend to be variations of the originals. This is significant because the period between our birth and seventh birthday is marked by a near-total dependence on the adult world, which means our limiting beliefs probably belong to other people, namely those who were the biggest influences on us at the time. It’s a list of the usual suspects, of course – parents, older family members, teachers – but understanding that we might have unwittingly taken on other people’s limiting beliefs at an age when we didn’t know any different can help us to:

  • make sense of our limiting beliefs and how they came to be in the first place
  • understand the source of their longevity, strength, and power
  • set us free to choose our own supportive beliefs by handing back the originals to their rightful owner

Setting ourselves free involves the careful disentanglement of past beliefs that no longer serve us from the present ‘supportive’ ones that do, like removing the weeds and leaving the flowers. We want to end up with beliefs consistent with our adult flourishing. The activity below can help.

The Meaning Map activity

Below are the areas that make up all of our lives, which I call my Meaning Map, and where we will find our limiting and supportive beliefs. The first stage of the exercise is to identify which of your areas are in good or not-so-good shape. The second stage is to connect the beliefs you hold in each area to their original owners, such as a parent, a close or extended family member, or a professional such as a teacher. 

Stage one: using a 0-10 scale (0=very bad shape, 10=very good shape), choose a number that represents the state of each area for you right now. Low scores usually indicate the presence of limiting beliefs and high scores of supportive ones.

  • Identity: self-esteem/worth, role and status
  • Home and family life
  • Relationships
  • Work/Career/professional
  • Health (mental and/or physical)
  • Financial
  • Lifestyle
  • Social and cultural
  • Environment
  • Past, present or future

Stage two: for each area, consider whether you hold limiting or supportive beliefs, and who they really belong to. Below are examples of beliefs for you to use as a guide. 

  • “I am not worthy of being loved.” (L), “I am worthy of being loved.” (S)
  • “I am not smart/pretty/talented enough.” (L), “I am smart/pretty/talented enough.” (S)
  • “I could never open my own business.” (L), “I could open my own business.” (S)
  • “I don’t have enough time/experience/resources to pursue my passion.” (L), “I do enough time/experience/resources to pursue my passion.” (S)
  • “I should avoid failure at all costs.” (L), “I should embrace failure as an opportunity to grow.” (S)
  • “I should never question authority.” (L), “I should challenge authority.” (S)
  • “I am too old to go back to school, college or university.” (L), “I am not too old to go back to school, college or university.” (S)
  • “No one will want to date me because I’m divorced.” (L), “People will want to date me because I’m divorced.” (S)
  • “It’s too late to adopt a healthier lifestyle.” (L), “It’s never too late to adopt a healthier lifestyle.”

What did you discover?

Patterns of belief

One reason limiting beliefs are harmful is that they shape our patterns of thought, behaviour, feeling, and relating (to people, places and ‘stuff’). Beliefs are like instructions that our patterns carry out, which is why people holding limiting beliefs can become stuck in a vicious cycle of transforming them into their daily reality. Too often, people’s attempts at personal transformation focus on changing patterns alone, leaving their beliefs untouched. New Year’s Resolutions are the best example of this. Take someone who wants to lose weight. If they don’t believe they can, no amount of positive thinking, behaving, feeling and relating will make the difference they are after. The only way is to work on beliefs and patterns simultaneously. Hopefully, my blog will enable you to work on your limiting beliefs, while my Pattern Builder activity will help you to work on your patterns.

The Pattern Builder

The Pattern Builder can help you build up a detailed picture of a difficult personal or professional challenge, such as losing weight or changing jobs, that is dominating your patterns of thinking, behaving, feeling and relating. The activity can increase your awareness of the issue and what you can do about it and make a valuable contribution to the work on your limiting beliefs.

  1. When, where and with whom were you when your problem started?
  2. What stressors or changes were occurring in your life around the start of the problem?
  3. How often does the problem occur and how long does it last
  4. What significant persons are present or absent when the problem occurs?
  5. Where does the problem occur?
  6. What are the steps involved in the generation of the problem? Put another way, can you identify the stages where you go from not doing the problem to doing it?
  7. When does the problem NOT occur?
  8. What do you think other people know about your problems e.g. friends, family or colleagues?
  9. What are your beliefs about the problem? For example, I can never change it? It’s my fault that I have it? Or I can change it and I am not to blame?

The Pattern Builder activity is worth repeating as doing so can help you to build up a helpful level of detail that you can act upon.

The power of acceptance

In my definition, I said people with limiting beliefs consider themselves to be ‘less’ than they are – less of a person, less capable.’ Put another way, they struggle to accept some aspects of:

  • Who they are
  • What they do
  • The life they lead

However, as human beings, we have no choice but to accept our current reality, however difficult it might be. When we don’t, we open up what I call a Fantasy-Reality Gap, which is the difference between:

  • Who we think we are and who we actually are
  • What we think we are doing and what we are actually doing
  • The life we think we are leading and the life we are actually leading

The bigger the FRG, the more trouble we are in. Let me give you an example. I once worked with a young man whose whole life was shaped by the limiting beliefs drummed into him by an abusive father. When we first met, he found it impossible to accept he had value and worth, strengths and potential. In one sad but telling comment, he said that even at primary school, he believed he would be the one who wouldn’t go to university. When we met, he had no qualifications or job. Fast-forward three years, and he was well on his way to becoming an accountant, not bad for someone ‘was good for nothing.’ So what changed? In therapy, my client learned to accept themselves as someone who did matter and who possessed the potential to make something of his life. Through the power of acceptance, he transformed his limiting beliefs into supportive ones that saw him gain an accountancy degree and take the remaining steps to become an accountant.

Acceptance can be hard, especially if, like my client, someone has spent a lifetime believing themselves inferior. But once we accept, transformation is possible because acceptance is not resignation but the first stage of transformation in learning how to overcome limiting beliefs.

Making challenge work

There is a close connection between limiting beliefs and the concept of challenge. On the one hand, limiting beliefs make life more challenging because they cause people to give up on life or try too hard. And on the other hand, effective use of challenge makes limiting beliefs easier to overcome. A few years ago, when studying the positive role challenge could play, I came up with an idea to help people make the concept of challenge work for rather than against them that I called The Goldilocks Principle of Challenge.

Taken from the famous tale of Goldilocks and The Three Bears, the Principle can be stated thus: not too little challenge, not too much, but just right. When we find the right amount of challenge, all the energy lost to negative states such as hopelessness (too little challenge) or burnout (too much challenge) becomes available to us once more, boosting our motivation to transform limiting beliefs into supportive ones.

So how do we find the right amount of challenge? Firstly, we need to appreciate that too little or too much challenge is always a matter of resources and that we don’t have enough of what we need. Secondly, we need to identify the resources we lack and where they can be found, which my Challenge Audit has been designed to help with.

The Challenge Audit

Look at the nine categories of resources below, and then complete the steps underneath.

  • RESOURCES (information, knowledge, technology) Do I have what I need? If I don’t, can I find them myself, or does someone else have what I need?
  • SKILLS & ABILITIES Do I have what is required? If I don’t, can I develop them independently, or will I need support?
  • CONFIDENCE & BELIEF Do I have enough? If I don’t, can I build these qualities on my own, or will I need the backing of others?
  • WELLBEING Do I feel resilient? If I don’t, can I increase my own resilience, or will I need encouragement?
  • SUPPORT Do I have enough around me? If I don’t, where does it exist, and who will provide it?
  • MOTIVATION Do I feel sufficiently energised? If I don’t, can I galvanise myself, or will I need inspiration from colleagues and peers?
  • TIME Do I have spare capacity? If I don’t, can I create it individually, or will I need to collaborate?
  • ENVIRONMENT Am I in the right environment? If not, can I change my existing surroundings, or do I need to be somewhere else?
  • STRATEGY Do I have the right strategy? If I don’t, how will I acquire it? On my own or through co-operation

To establish if you have the resources you need to replace limiting beliefs with supportive ones, choose a number between 0 and 10 (0=none at all, 10=all that you need) that represents how much of each you currently possess. As a general rule:

  • Scores of seven or above indicate you have an ample amount of a resource
  • Scores of five or six indicate you have some of a resource but will need to obtain more of it soon
  • Scores of four or below indicate you are severely lacking in a resource and need to acquire more of it as quickly as possible

If you have more high scores than low ones, there is a good chance you are making The Goldilocks Principle of Challenge work for you. However, if your scores are on the low side, the opposite will most likely be true. Whatever you discovered, you now know what resources you need to preserve or find more of as you learn how to overcome limiting beliefs.

How to overcome limiting beliefs: T is for Transformation

Finally, I look at two ways we can use the concept of transformation in learning how to overcome limiting beliefs. Firstly, we can view transformation as the journey we need to go on to ‘transform’ limiting beliefs into supportive ones. Secondly, we can see transformation as the destination or the place we reach when supportive, not limiting, beliefs no longer shape who we are, what we do and the lives we lead.

Of course, the journeys taken and the destinations reached will be unique to the individual, but they will also have much in common. When you think about it, my blog maps out a journey of transformation you can take through:

  • conversations
  • meaning
  • patterns
  • acceptance
  • challenge

All we need now is to get you to your desired destination when your transformation is complete, and there are two ways you can achieve this goal. Get your journey right by following the stages in this blog, and I am 100% confident it will take you to a fantastic destination. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. The other way, which is the focus of my Destination Finder activity below, is to start at your future destination and then travel back in time along a journey that can take you there.

The Destination Finder

My Destination Finder activity can help you visualise your desired destination, a life based on supportive beliefs, and the journey to take you there. So consider your priority areas from The Meaning Map that are most important to you and follow the steps below.

  • Step One: establish your current reality: how is your life right now? Describe yourself, what you do, and the life you lead – and importantly, factor in the influence of any limiting beliefs.
  • Step Two: now establish a desired future destination for yourself based on supportive beliefs. Who would you like to be, what would you like to be doing, and what life would you like to be leading?
  • Step Three: establish a timeline of when this transformation might occur, i.e. when you have reached your destination. Is it a month, 6 months or a year?
  • Step Four: take some time to deepen the ‘vision’ of your destination. Make it a multisensory experience: imagine, engage and fully ’embody’ this future state for yourself. Some questions you can ask are: What is happening? What do I see? Who am I now? What am I doing? What has changed? How have I changed? Speak as if your desired future were a reality, i.e. “This is who I am, this is what I am doing, and this is the life I am living.”
  • Step 5: from this future state, look back and describe the journey you took to get to your destination. Travel back through the stages you went through, speaking in the present as if you are there, e.g. “To get to this stage, I achieved this,” or “To get to that stage I achieved that.”
  • Step Six: Then bring yourself back to the present—the now—and explore what this exercise has given you in terms of learning, understanding and insight. What actions will you take to start the journey that will take you to your desired destination?
  • Step Seven: approach this exercise as a work in progress. Repeating regularly will help maintain your progress towards a life based on supportive beliefs, not limiting ones.

How to overcome limiting beliefs: getting support

I hope you have enjoyed my blog, How to overcome limiting beliefs. If you would like support, I’d love to hear from you. My IMPACT Model and IMPACT Programmes have helped many people achieve to live a life based on supportive beliefs (read my testimonials).

To book an initial consultation, visit my Make a Booking page. You will have the opportunity to tell me about what you are going through and find out how I can support you. Even if you choose not to work with me, I promise your consultation will give you more ideas, knowledge and insight than you had before.

Here is another good article on limiting beliefs.