How Self-Limiting Beliefs Can Sabotage Us (and what to do about it)
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Many people have self-limiting beliefs which has a damaging impact on their self-esteem, confidence and happiness in life. These beliefs often don’t match up with a close examination reality or the facts. Research has shown that these self-limiting beliefs can be a form of self-deception. The challenge for people who have self-limiting beliefs is how to change them.
What are Self-Limiting Beliefs?
The dictionary defines “belief” as the “acceptance by the mind that something is true or real, often underpinned by an emotional or spiritual sense of certainty.” However, “belief” does not require active introspection and circumspection. For example, few ponder whether the sun will rise, just assume it will.
The origin of our beliefs can be drawn from past experience and our beliefs can be conscious and/or subconscious.
It is this multi-dimensional nature of beliefs, and the fact that they live within you on so many levels, that make them so powerful and so important to understand
Psychologist Robert M. Williams published a research paper in the CAPA Quarterly, says, “Beliefs are like filters on a camera. What the camera ‘sees’ is a function of the filters through which it is viewing its subject. In other words, how we ‘see’ the world is a function of our beliefs and profoundly influences personality. As a result of our beliefs, we define ourselves as worthy or worthless, powerful or powerless, competent or incompetent, trusting or suspicious, belonging or outcast, self-reliant or dependent, flexible or judgmental, fairly treated or victimized, loved or hated. Your beliefs have far reaching consequences, both positive and negative, in your life. Beliefs affect your moods, relationships, job performance, self-esteem, physical health, even your religious or spiritual outlook.”
Beliefs can be conscious and/or subconscious. Advances in neuroscience have provided important information about the subconscious mind.
For example, in a study cited in Harvard Professor Emeritus Gerald Zaltman’s book How Customers Think, neuroscience reports that at least 95% of our thoughts and decisions originate at the subconscious. These subconscious beliefs create perceptual filters through which we create our reality but we are unaware of their influence on us.
In his book The User Illusion, Cutting Consciousness Down to Size, author Tor Nørretranders, describes the processing capacity of the conscious and subconscious minds. He reports that the conscious mind processes information at an approximate rate of 40 bits of information per second. In contrast, the subconscious mind processes approximately 40 million bits of information per second. So our subconscious or unconscious mind’s beliefs has both a far greater capacity and influence over our perception of external reality and our internal self.
How Our Beliefs Impact Our Lives
Beliefs are literally the lens through which you view the world. They can:
- influence your perceptions about the world and people as well as yourself.
- define what is good, bad, true, false, imaginary, real, possible and impossible.
- affect your positive or negative view of the world.
- control or limit the actions you take.
- determine your happiness and well-being level.
Many of our beliefs are positive, practical, inspiring. And your beliefs about a thing or experience can be vastly different than others. This in turn affects what is defined as “the truth.”
Our beliefs are our reality-making blueprint — how we process the mass of information our senses process each moment of the day. Without this filter, we would be overwhelmed by the amount of stimuli we are bombarded with the the flood of information that comes in through our five major sense organs every single moment of every single day. Your beliefs organize the world for you. Without them to help you interpret the massive dose of stimuli that comes at you on a daily basis, you would be overwhelmed the minute you open your eyes in the morning.
What About False Beliefs?
We can also have false beliefs. For example, much of the western world at one time believed the earth was flat or that sun revolved around the earth.
We can have false beliefs about ourselves, others or things that are not only untrue but also limitin..
For example, if you believe you are unlovable, that may result in living a lonely and depressed life but you could also sabotage your relationships so that your not others or events are the cause of your negative state. If we change or eliminate our self-limiting beliefs, especially our false beliefs, we can change our behavior and ultimately change our life.
Self-limiting beliefs are negative or self-critical beliefs you may have about yourself, that not only weaken your sense of self-worth, but hold you back from taking advantage of positive experiences, opportunities, or relationships.
Where Do These Self-Limiting Come from?
The most important programming of the subconscious mind occurs in the first six years of our life according to Dr. Bruce Lipton, Ph.D. cellular biologist and author if the book Biology of Belief. He explains this process from the scientific perspective: “During that time (birth to age of six), the child’s brain is… downloading massive amounts of information about the world and how it works. By observing the behavioral patterns of people in their immediate environment — primarily parents, siblings, and relatives, children learn to distinguish acceptable and unacceptable social behaviors. It’s important to realize that perceptions acquired before the age of six become the fundamental subconscious programs that shape the character of an individual’s life.”
Lipton goes on to say “the predominant brain activity during the child’s first two years of life is delta, the lowest EEG frequency range. Between two and six years of age, the child’s brain activity ramps up and operates primarily in the range of theta. While in the theta state, children spend much of their time mixing the imaginary world with the real world.”
“The predominant delta and theta activity expressed by children younger than six signifies that their brains are operating at levels below consciousness,” says Lipton, “Delta and Theta brain frequencies define a brain state known as a hypnagogic trance, the same neural state that hypnotherapists use to directly download new behaviors into the subconscious minds of their clients. In other words, the first six years of a child’s life are spent in a hypnotic trance! When as young children we ‘download’ limiting or sabotaging beliefs, those perceptions or misperceptions become our truths.”
Lipton says “Usually a single event or thought or emotion is reinforced by an event in early childhood or teenage years. You were told by someone in authority — your parents, other siblings, teachers or teenage peers — that you were not good or capable enough to do or be something or someone. The thought, emotion or memory of your behavior in that first event is continually re-visited by your mind, and whenever you are contemplating the past, or facing a new but similar event, the self-limiting belief is reinforced.”
What are Some Examples of Limiting Beliefs?
You can easily recognize self-limiting beliefs by the kind of language you use: by the verb “am” “is” or “are.” For example, “I am uncoordinated,” “I’m not pretty,” “men are only out for one thing,” “families are dysfunctional,” “success is a matter of luck.”
Here are some common beliefs:
- “I’m not good enough to.…”
- “I’m not pretty/handsome compared to…”
- “I’m not smart or as smart as….”
- “ I don’t deserve….”
- “I’ll never be wealthy as….”
- “When I’m under pressure I always….”
- “I often feel guilty about…”
- “When ______ happens, I get stressed and always feel….”
- “I’m always trying to avoid/stop….”
- “I always feel responsible when ….”
- “If only ______happens, then I would be….”
Is There A Cause And Effect Relationship?
It’s important to understand that your limiting beliefs are the cause of your unwanted circumstances more than you realize, not the other way around. For example, if you are struggling with your finances, you may believe you are bad with money, but the true causality runs in reverse — your limiting beliefs about money creates and perpetuates unwanted financial circumstances. So instead of believing you are a victim of your circumstances, you can change your unwanted circumstances by changing your limiting beliefs.
Strategies to Change Your Limiting Beliefs?
- Positive Affirmations: A positive statement targeted at reprogramming an existing negative belief. Remember, any thought repeated enough can create an unconscious belief as long as the positive thought is consistent with your inner values and morality. Examples of positive affirmations:
- “My body is attractive the way it is, it doesn’t have to look like a model’s”
- “I set and uphold healthy boundaries in my relationships”
- “I invest in myself first before anyone else.”
- “I practice self-compassion as powerfully as compassion for others.”
- “A female leader can be both strong and nurturing, and not have to be like a typical male leader.”
2. Act as If. This is an action oriented strategy that is in fact borrowed both from actor training and neuroscience research. It means you act as if you do not have the negative belief but in fact have the positive equivalent or opposite. Sometimes this is referred to “fake it until you make it.” For example, if you lack some self-confidence in social situations act as if you are very confident (watch first what confident people do in those situations). Start with short duration events or appearances and repeat and expand over and over again.
3. Creative visualization (which has an element of self-hypnosis). In a relaxed state of mind and body, imagine your intended outcome in detail, in your mind as though it already exists in the present time. It’s critical here to not imagine it in the future.
4. NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming Strategies. An example would be the “swish pattern.” Here’s the process:
- Create a picture in your mind of the habit or belief you want to change.
- Let that picture dissolve.
- Create a picture in your mind of the way you would like to be.
- Change the visual intensity of this picture — size, brightness, more color, aliveness, etc.
- Bring back the first old picture in your mind and step into the picture as though you were there.
- Now insert in the lower left hand corner the small darker second picture of the desired state.
- Simultaneously, have the picture of the current negative state you are standing in rapidly shrink and recede to a distant point until it explodes. This must be done fast.
- Step back and view the new positive picture as though you were doing it from a distance.
- Repeat these steps at least 6 times.
5. An alternative written process.
Follow these steps:
- Write down your limiting belief: Eg: I have trouble making conversation.
- Write down your self-talk about that belief. Eg: “What if I go up to someone and they find me boring and leave. That would so embarrassing.”
- Describe your comfort zone — what would be easy for you in that situation: Eg: Just sit there by myself and watch people.
- State the opposite of your limiting belief.
- What does it feel like to have this positive belief?
- Visualize yourself taking action to make this belief happen.
- Act as if you have this belief at the first opportunity to do so.
- Repeat at least 30 times.
6. Challenging the Belief. The following process comes courtesy of Louise Hay: Use the following questions and optional sub-questions with the concept that you are investigating. When answering the questions, close your eyes, be still, and witness what appears to you. Inquiry stops working the moment you stop answering the questions
- Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to question 3.)( Yes or no.)
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Does that thought bring peace or stress into your life?
- What physical sensations and emotions arise when you believe the thought? Allow yourself to experience them now. (Refer to the Emotions List available on thework.com.)
- What images do you see, of past and future, when you believe the thought?
- What obsessions or addictions begin to manifest themselves when you believe the thought?(Do you act out on any of the following: alcohol, drugs, credit cards, food, sex, television?)
- How do you treat that person, others, and yourself in this situation when you believe the thought?
- Who or what are you without the thought?
- Next Step: Turn the thought around. A statement can be turned around to the self, to the other, and to the opposite. Find at least three specific, genuine examples of how each turnaround is true for you in this situation. ( For each turnaround, go back and start with the original statement. Do not turn around a statement that has already been turned around. For example, “He shouldn’t waste his time” may be turned around to “I shouldn’t waste my time,” “I shouldn’t waste his time,” and “He should waste his time.” Note that “I should waste my time” and “I should waste his time” are not valid turnarounds; they are turnarounds of turnarounds rather than turnarounds of the original statement.)
7. Using Cognitive Psychotherapy. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is present-oriented psychotherapy directed toward solving clients’ problems, and teaching them how to modify and change dysfunctional thinking and behavior. CBT illustrates for clients the way that they perceive a situation is more closely connected to their reaction than the situation itself. As part of CBT therapists teach clients to change their dysfunctional thinking. CBT typically deals with the following questions for clients:
- Is the belief false or inconsistent with reality? The client is asked to find some evidence that counters their self-limiting belief either completely or partially.
- Is the belief rigid? The client is asked about the rules of the belief — does it apply all the time or just some of the time or in certain contexts? For example, “I must feel loved before I can lose weight” is a very rigid and confining belief. If you were to substitute the word “must” with “want” and the word “before” with “as” and remove the word “can” things start to change.
- Is the belief extreme? Sometimes self-limiting beliefs are expressed in all or nothing terminology. For example “no matter what I do” or “I never can…”are absolute expressions that are highly unlikely to occur.
- Is the belief logical? Is there a logical and rational connection between what you believe and what is actually occurring, or are you emotionally reacting?
- Is the belief helpful? Consider how does this belief help you? How does it hinder you?
- Use a cognitive reframe. Cognitive reframing is a technique in which the person that consists of identifies and then disputes irrational or maladaptive thoughts.
8. Practice noticing your cognitive distortions and challenge them. A cognitive distortion is an exaggerated or irrational thought pattern that cause individuals to perceive reality inaccurately. According to the cognitive model of psychologist Aaron Beck, a negative outlook on reality, sometimes called negative schemas (or schemata), is a factor in symptoms of emotional dysfunction and poorer subjective well-being.
There are many cognitive distortions, but here are a few of the most common one that can impact limiting beliefs:
- Filtering, Magnification, Overgeneralization, Catastrophizing, Fortune Telling and Negative Predictions.: You take the negative details of a situation and magnify them in your mind, while filtering out all positive or neutral aspects of the situation. You come to a general conclusion based on a few incidents or pieces of evidence. For example, if something bad happens once or twice, you expect it to happen over and over again. You expect disaster or the worst possible outcome. You notice or hear about a problem and start with the “what ifs:” What if tragedy strikes? What if the worst happens? Your overestimate the likelihood of an occurrence. Anxiety and fear often accompany this kind of thinking, because your mind is in the future and not the present.
- Polarized Thinking: You see things as black or white, good or bad. You (or someone else) have to be perfect or you/they are a failure. There is only choice A or B. There is no middle ground or gray area. An even more extreme version is thinking you have no choice, there is only one course of action.
- Perfectionism is one type of polarized thinking — your choice or action must be perfect. Religious or political extremism is also a type of polarized thinking.
- Personalization: This is thinking that everything people do or say is some kind of reaction to you. You also compare yourself to others, trying to determine who’s smarter, better looking, more successful, etc. You think people are secretly criticizing or judging you, constantly watching you. In extreme forms this can become paranoid and narcissistic.
- Control Fallacies: You believe you can and need to control the external world — either events or people. This desire to control usually comes from a need to reaffirm your worth or self-esteem, or sense of security. Often, the need for control is accompanied by anger or anxiety. The reality is the only things you can control are within you — your emotions, feelings, thinking and your behavior.
- Fallacy of Fairness, Reward and Entitlement: You feel resentful because you think you know what’s fair but other people won’t agree with you. You expect all your sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if there were someone keeping score. You feel bitter when the reward doesn’t come. You believe the same rules that apply to others should not apply to you. This is also acting like a victim, because your mental or emotional state is dependent on external events.
- Blaming: You hold other people responsible for your pain or inconvenience, or you take the other tack and blame yourself for every problem or reversal. People who blame others for their negative emotional or mental states (disappointment, frustration, anger etc), are acting like victims and not taking responsibility for their lives.
- “Shoulds”: You have a list of ironclad rules about how you and other people should People who break the rules anger you and you feel guilty if you violate the rules. You are critical either of others or yourself for not acting in a certain way. Judgment, criticism and guilt are often present.
- Fallacy of Change: You believe you can change other people — their beliefs, behavior or emotions, if you exert enough influence, persuasion, reward or punishment. This is self-deception. You expect that other people will change to suit you, if you just hang around long enough or if you pressure or cajole them enough. You need to change people because you feel responsible for them or because your hopes for happiness seem to depend mostly on them. Or you want them to be more like you.
- Confirmation Bias.Y ou have a certain belief or perspective, and you are open to or seek out only those facts and information and people who reinforce your belief or perspective, and are close-minded to others’ perspectives or beliefs.
- A belief that self-criticism and self-judgment are effective ways to improve yourself. Self-criticism and self-judgment actually weaken your ability to improve performance and your self esteem. Practicing self-compassion after taking responsibility for your behavior actually makes for effective improvement.
10. Using Mindfulness to Change Limiting Beliefs
Mindfulness meditation has many benefits. Among those are increasing your capacity to live in the present, be in a state of calm, and reflect on your thoughts, emotions and physical state. Mindfulness helps you become less reactive to people or events that may trigger one of your self-limiting beliefs, and builds the strength to intentionally respond in a calm logical manner.
- Write down the situations in your life where you are not happy with your reality.
- Write down limiting beliefs you have that either caused you to make the decision to get there, or are keeping you stuck in the situation.
- Write down the type of reality you want to create.
- What kind of beliefs does the version of you who lives this reality have?
- How would this version of you live out these beliefs (how would this version of you act, speak, interact with others, walk in to a room? What kind of decisions would they make)?
- What can you choose to believe today to align with the reality you want to create?
Self-limiting beliefs can be debilitating, and contribute to other problems such as anxiety and depression. Dissatisfaction and unhappiness in life can often be traced back to these limiting beliefs, so engaging in a process and activities which identify, challenge and change those beliefs can have an empowering impact on our lives.
Read my book: I Know Myself and Neither Do You: Why Charisma, Confidence and Pedigree Won’t Take You Where You Want To Go, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia and Asia.