No matter what type of person we are – whether we think of ourselves as confident or insecure – almost all of us carry around self-limiting beliefs.
Self-limiting beliefs are negative thoughts that we have about ourselves. They tend to hold us back, and they’re usually formed in childhood, though their harmful effects can be lifelong.
To achieve our full potential, it’s important to overcome self-limiting beliefs – but when they’ve been embedded in our minds for so long, this can be extremely difficult to do. And when you factor in that many of these beliefs exist only in our subconscious, so we don’t even know what they are, it becomes even trickier.
Luckily, there are steps we can take to conquer these types of negative thoughts, and start believing in ourselves a bit more…
1. Recognise the self-limiting belief
The very first step in overcoming self-limiting beliefs is recognising that they exist in the first place.
The thing about limiting beliefs is that, despite how much they guide our actions, we’re usually unaware of them. It’s like driving down a road with invisible signs; we may not be able to see the signs, but we’re still compelled to follow them, so we find ourselves braking when we shouldn’t, or veering off down roads that lead nowhere.
It’s important to consider the fact that behind each limiting belief is a good intention – because the whole reason we develop limiting beliefs in the first place is to protect ourselves from the pain of disappointment. But the problem is that most limiting beliefs form in our childhood, and then become part of our adult identity – even though these beliefs are almost always false or misguided.
So what are some of the most common self-limiting beliefs? Thinking you’re no good at writing, so never trying to pen that novel, is a self-limiting belief. Believing you’re unattractive, so never trying to find love, is a self-limiting belief. Thinking you’re not artistic, so deciding not to go to an art class, is a self-limiting belief. Believing you’re too old to make a career change, so staying in a job you don’t like, is a self-limiting belief.
As we can see from these examples, these beliefs exist to ‘keep us safe’. We hold these beliefs to protect ourselves from the short-term pain of rejection and humiliation – but all these beliefs are really doing is causing long-term pain. Faced with fear, we don’t try something new, we don’t take risks, we don’t put ourselves out there, and we don’t become the person we want to be.
So, try taking a few moments to think about your own self-limiting beliefs. If you’re uncertain whether something is a limiting belief, consider that these types of beliefs often manifest as a critical voice in our head that tell us things like, “I’m not clever enough”, “I’m unlucky”, “I don’t deserve this”, “I’m too old”, “I’m unlovable”, or “People don’t like me.”
2. Figure out where the belief came from
Once you’ve identified a self-limiting belief, it can be helpful to figure out where the belief came from. Understanding how a particular belief was formed can help you to overcome it more effectively, as often it serves to highlight to us just how unreasonable or inaccurate that belief really is.
So many of our limiting beliefs are linked to childhood experiences that are totally irrelevant to us today. For example, maybe a school teacher was scathing about a story you wrote, so you still believe you can’t write a book – despite the fact you now have decades of experience under your belt. Maybe a friend made a mean comment about an item of clothing you wore, and since then you’ve felt you could never wear shorts, or a skirt, because you don’t look good in them.
Not all self-limiting beliefs are formed in childhood, of course. Perhaps as an adult, we were betrayed by a partner, and since then, we feel like we could never trust in a relationship again. It’s also common to use age as a reason not to do things we want to do – whether that’s returning to learning after a long break, making a career change, dating again, or learning new skills.
It can be helpful to remember that people of all ages do this. People from younger generations might put off travelling or starting a new business because they might worry about a lack of stability, and how this will impact their future. While older generations might feel that it’s simply too late to get stuck into something new.
So, next time you have a self-limiting belief, it can help to ask yourself the following question: “How did I develop this particular self-limiting belief?” Then, once you’ve figured out where it came from, try asking yourself another question: “What has made me cling to this belief for so long?”
Unravelling these types of memories can help you let go of certain experiences, and perhaps even forgive the people who hurt you and helped these beliefs to develop. You may also be able to forgive yourself for holding onto them for so long – which can be helpful in allowing yourself to finally let go.
3. Write down how this belief has held you back
Now you’ve identified one of your self-limiting beliefs, and hopefully figured out what caused it to develop, the next step is to acknowledge how that belief has held you back.
Writing down how a belief has harmed you can be a very effective way of getting your subconscious to recognise that this belief isn’t helping – and the best way to do that is to think of all the pain it’s caused you over the years.
This isn’t always an easy task, and going over painful memories, or questioning what might have been, can be upsetting. But it’s really important to fully grasp how harmful self-limiting beliefs can be, and how vital it is to move past them. So if you can, try to embrace any feelings of pain or discomfort, even if just for a moment.
You might want to try writing down every single way this belief has held you back. For example, if your self-limiting belief is feeling like you don’t deserve good things, then you could write down everything you could have achieved had this belief not been weighing down on you. Has it affected your career? Your relationships? Achieving your goals? Maybe it’s even affected your health?
If you feel pain reflecting on all these lost opportunities and wasted chances, it helps to try to think of it as a good thing: it’s going to give you the impetus to move past these beliefs and make sure they don’t hold you back anymore.
4. Challenge the belief
Now you’ve confronted how these beliefs have held you back and stopped you from achieving your full potential, it’s time to challenge the beliefs. The best way to start doing this is to understand that your thoughts are not facts. They may feel true, but they don’t reflect the truth about you, or what you’re capable of.
A good first step to challenge the belief is simply to ask yourself if you might be wrong. Usually, limiting beliefs lose power as soon as we recognise that they might not be true, so try questioning yourself. You can’t write a book because you’re not creative enough? What if you’re wrong? You can’t find love because people can’t be trusted? What if you’re wrong? Challenge yourself to think about a world where your belief is false: what would it look like?
Then, try actively thinking about ways to prove these beliefs are wrong. If you feel you’re not funny, think about all the times in your life you’ve made people laugh. If you feel you’re unconfident, think about a time you were brave. If you think you’re disorganised, think about a time you were organised. Just by doing this, the belief loses power, and your thinking may change from, “I am disorganised” to “I can be disorganised, but I can also be organised.”
Because limiting beliefs are usually so entrenched, it’s inevitable that at times, those thoughts will creep back into your mind. Try your best to be aware of your thought processes, and when you feel your old beliefs try to worm their way in, try to respond to them.
A good response is to simply say “stop” whenever you feel the old beliefs beginning to reappear. By doing this, you’re refusing to let them take hold of you.
5. Choose a new belief
To move forward and truly conquer your self-limiting beliefs, the next step is to create a new, empowering belief. The key thing for this step is that the new belief must be believable. If you can’t believe it, you won’t be able to act on it.
So, for example, if you’re experiencing body image issues and believe you’re overweight, saying to yourself, “I have a body that I love,” is unlikely to feel true enough to you – and your subconscious will know you don’t really believe it.
In this case, the first step might be to say something like, “I have a strong body that’s keeping me alive” – or even “I have a body and it works”. It doesn’t have to be the most emphatic statement, but it does need to feel positive and believable.
Of course, conquering self-limiting beliefs isn’t as easy as just choosing new beliefs and then instantly believing them. But what you’re doing, by making small changes in your behaviour and thought processes, is paving the way for bigger changes to the way you feel about yourself.
It’s really important to understand that we need to give ourselves time, patience, and compassion as we undertake these developments and challenge our deeply-rooted beliefs.
As you continue to question your old beliefs and try out new ones, you’ll start to realise that you have options. You don’t have to believe your negative thoughts. You can actually control what you choose to believe, which brings us to the next step…
6. Take back your power
Realising that you are in control of your thoughts is essential for overcoming limiting beliefs – so the next step is to seize as much control as you can. You are in power. You’re in the driving seat – nobody else.
Many of us view ourselves as victims of our own limiting beliefs, but it’s important to remember that the only reason that we created these beliefs is because they served us in some way – no matter how misguided they were.
If you find yourself blaming other people or the wider world for your thoughts, it can be helpful to try to stop this and to keep in mind that you, and you alone, have the power to change your thoughts and the course of your life. It might also help to remember that a negative thought is still just a thought, and an unpleasant feeling is still just a feeling. They’re fleeting, and they’re not the truth – they will pass.
Next, it can be useful to think about ways you can empower yourself and your new belief. Try thinking about what kind of behaviours or habits could strengthen your new belief. Are there any phrases or quotes you could say out loud to yourself? Are there any inspiring self-development books you can read? What about other people – are there any people you see as role models, who can encourage you and help bolster your new belief?
One of the most powerful ways you can seize control is to put your new empowering belief to the test. So, if you’ve previously felt you weren’t creative enough to go to an art class, then why not go to an art class? If you’ve always felt too shy to ask someone out, then why not ask them out?
Of course, it may seem scary to do something you’ve always felt you couldn’t do, so if this step feels too daunting, perhaps take smaller steps instead. You could tell yourself you’ll try the art class for just 10 minutes, or go with a friend for a confidence boost. Instead of asking someone out on a date, you could strike up a friendly conversation instead.
It’s key to keep testing these new theories and beliefs. The more you test them, the more your courage will grow – and the sooner you’ll begin to unlock your full potential.
7. Be kind to yourself
As great as it would be to be able to discard our self-limiting beliefs as soon as we’ve identified them, this isn’t going to happen overnight. It takes both courage and patience to conquer self-limiting beliefs, so give yourself time to challenge your thought processes, and be kind to yourself.
If your old beliefs keep finding their way back into your mind, try not to worry or feel bad about yourself. Old habits die hard, so remember that each time you go through these steps and begin to question these beliefs (and create new ones), you’ll become stronger.
What’s more, you’ll become more in tune with the way your psyche works – and being aware and conscious of our minds is the first and most vital step to overcoming limiting beliefs.
It’s important to continue to practise new beliefs and challenge old ones, even after a slip-up. And above all, try to be proud of yourself for having the courage to address harmful, and often painful, behaviours. Celebrate your dedication to personal development, and remember that no matter where we are in our lives, there’s always room to grow.
Conquering self-limiting beliefs isn’t easy, and it takes honesty, self-reflection, dedication, and time to change. Plus, it isn’t a one-time thing. Overcoming these beliefs is an ongoing process that we must continually revisit – and if we want to succeed, we must be ready to commit to it.
But putting in the time and effort to conquer limiting beliefs is one of the most beneficial and rewarding things we can do for ourselves. Not only can changing the way we think make us feel so much more positive about who we are, but it also gives us the self-awareness and confidence we need to create positive new beliefs, and encourage powerful, purposeful action.
For more tips on building confidence and self-esteem, you might want to check out our article on the subject here.