Any time we decide that we can’t succeed at something before we’ve even given it a shot, we allow our self-limiting beliefs to dictate our behavior.
Fear of failure, fear of the unknown, sense of inadequacy, and lack of confidence impede personal growth. And while it might not be easy to recognize when we’re being held back by these negative beliefs, recognizing common themes can help us identify the sources of our self-limiting behavior. Let’s look closer at one of the brain’s meanest tricks.
What are self-limiting beliefs?
Limiting beliefs are fixed or rigid thinking patterns limiting your potential for success in various areas of life. Here are some examples of phrases someone struggling with self-limiting beliefs might say:
- “I’m not smart/talented enough to succeed in my career.”
- “I don’t have the resources to start my own business.”
- “I’m too old/young for this kind of challenge.”
- “Nobody takes me seriously, so why bother trying?”
- “That job is for women/men.”
- “Managers don’t look like me. I shouldn’t apply.”
- “I’m too bad at public speaking to give a presentation.”
These beliefs can be deeply rooted and hard to shift, but they don’t have to be permanent fixtures in our lives. Identifying them is the first step towards making positive change — after all, if you know what you’re up against, you have a decent shot at tackling it.
Where do self-limiting beliefs come from?
Self-limiting beliefs begin during childhood and are reinforced by the opinions of family, friends, and society throughout a person’s life.
For example, a child is told by their teacher that they’re not good enough or don’t have the skills to enter a particular field. This might lead to feelings of self-doubt related to those skills far into adulthood. Worse, these messages get internalized; we start to think that negative voice into our own — but it’s not.
At an early age, we start to develop a mental map of who we think we are and what is possible for us. As psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School professor, John Sharp said in his TEDx talk, “It’s the story you’ve been telling yourself about who you are and how everything always plays out.” This can become our internal truth if not challenged by outside perspectives.
But why do we do this?
It stems from the brain trying to protect you from pain. Failure hurts, especially if we’re not used to it or are prone to catastrophizing — and so any situation that triggers this fear response leads our bodies to want to escape. It’s a survival strategy run amok: advantageous when facing a snake or crumbling cliff edge; not so good when the situation is physically safe but emotionally challenging.
What do self-limiting beliefs look like?
One of the most common limiting beliefs that people hold is that they are not good enough.
Women, for example, are often told that they cannot succeed in specific fields. In fact, when it comes to STEM careers, women make up just 24% of the workforce. Why? Because of deeply ingrained beliefs about what girls and women are capable of and what they enjoy — none of which has any bearing in science. Girls often think of themselves as being bad with numbers — when in reality, gender has no bearing on a person’s aptitude for math.
And when it comes to how toys are marketed to children, that belief is not challenged: boys more often get games and tools, while girls get dolls and toy kitchens. It’s no wonder some children grow up believing they’re better or worse at certain tasks because of their sex, class, race, or orientation.
The social problem of self-limiting beliefs
Self-limiting beliefs don’t just affect individuals. They can have profound social implications too.
Researchers found that those who held self-limiting beliefs were more likely to be unemployed or in lower-paying jobs than those who did not. This is because they lacked the confidence and skills necessary to seek better opportunities.
The study also revealed that self-limiting beliefs could be passed down from generation to generation. This means that our parents’ and grandparents’ attitudes and behaviors can shape how we view ourselves and the world around us.
Consider the CEO of a company — any company in the US. Chances are most at the top are white, male, and middle-class. If your self-limiting belief tells you you can’t work towards that job because you don’t see anyone of your demographic in that role, it’s easier to accept the premise and not bother trying. This is why diversity is so vital in business: you’ve got to see it to be it.
How do self-limiting beliefs affect the team?
When people with limiting beliefs are part of a team, they may be less likely to contribute their ideas or take the initiative because they don’t believe their thoughts are worth considering and are scared of rejection. This can lead to a decrease in productivity and morale and an overall lack of creativity and innovation within the team.
Moreover, self-limiting beliefs can be contagious — when one person holds themselves back, it’s easy for others to follow suit and begin to doubt themselves too.
For example, say one team member has a self-limiting belief that they are incapable of leading. This could lead to feelings of insecurity within the rest of the team, making it difficult for them to take the initiative or step up in their roles.
How do you overcome self-limiting beliefs?
The good news is that self-limiting beliefs don’t have to have the last word.
Once we become aware of our negative thoughts, we can start challenging them and re-writing our story. We must remember that we are capable of anything we set our minds to, regardless of gender, race, or class.
Recognizing our own self-limiting beliefs is essential to understanding how they shape our behavior, but it isn’t always easy. It requires us to step back and take a critical look at our patterns of thinking and behavior. One trick? Take note of every time you feel fear and hesitate or say ‘no’ in a professional setting. Chances are, the situation is perfectly safe — but a self-limiting belief has made it appear dangerous. Once you start recognizing this response, it’s easier to overcome it.
Here’s another tip: write down your beliefs and goals, and think about the steps you need to achieve them. Why haven’t you started or completed those steps? Fear could be the culprit.
Once we’ve identified the beliefs that are holding us back, there are a few practical steps we can take to overcome them:
1. Embrace a growth mindset
Instead of accepting our limiting beliefs as facts, it’s important to challenge them and ask ourselves if they’re really true.
In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, wrote, “What are the consequences of thinking that your intelligence or personality is something you can develop, as opposed to something that is a fixed, deep-seated trait?” She proposes a theory: that there are two types of thinking — a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.
Growth mindset vs. fixed mindset (via fs.blog)
A fixed mindset tells us that we’re dealt the cards we have, which are unchangeable. The best we can do is convince people we have a great set when deep down, we don’t believe it. This results in — you guessed it — imposter syndrome, self-doubt, crippling perfectionism, or fear of failure.
Fake it ‘til you make it
On the other hand, a growth mindset means that you see that deck of cards as a starting point for development. Those with a growth mindset believe that we will succeed when we challenge ourselves and trust in our capabilities and the possibility of change.
2. Set realistic goals
Goals help you move forward and build confidence in your abilities. Fear drives self-limiting beliefs — and when we’re confronted with a metaphorical (or literal) mountain to climb, it’s extremely easy to feel daunted and fall back on our tried and tested excuses.
Our tip? Cut that mountain down to size. We can reframe our limiting beliefs by setting small, incremental goals that we can work toward and be proud of achieving. This comes with the added benefit of giving us little shots of confidence when we accomplish these goals.
When it comes to goal setting, make sure they’re SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. A formal framework for goal-setting will help you stay on track and measure your progress.
3. Acknowledge your obstacles
We mentioned that a growth mindset means rejecting the idea that the cards you’re dealt are all you have to play. That said, sometimes people do have a more challenging start.
Sexism, racism, poverty, ill health, and unstable home lives mean that certain people will face more obstacles and adversities than others.
It’s easy to suggest success is simply a matter of hard work, but there may well be external or uncontrollable forces at work preventing you from succeeding as you should. So what should you do? Here are some tips:
- Surround yourself with role models that prove to you what’s possible.
- Acknowledge that you face more challenges than most — and that your success journey might look different from someone else’s.
- Celebrate things that feel like success for you.
- Allow yourself to be angry when faced with prejudice — and channel that anger into positive action.
- Take full advantage of the resources available to you. This could come from your HR department, a friend, social and medical support services, or charities. If it’s there, use it.
- Join groups/communities of people who face the same challenges you do. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people means you can share your battles, support each other, and raise awareness.
4. Find a mentor (and surround yourself with good people)
When it comes to healing from the self-sabotaging lies we’ve told ourselves, things like trust, patience, and support go a long way. Not only can trustworthy friends and colleagues cheer us on — they can provide us with tips and advice, and give us a supportive nudge when we’re holding ourselves back.
Consider a coach or mentor, who will be able to provide guidance and encouragement when it comes to challenging our limiting beliefs and setting realistic goals. They’ll also be able to offer a different perspective and help us learn from our mistakes — as well as help you get back on your feet when you stumble. Swap that negative voice for a positive one.
5. Celebrate successes
Success breeds confidence, and confidence kills fear. So acknowledge and reward yourself for the progress you make, no matter how small. This will help build confidence in your abilities and remind you of what you can achieve.
It also reinforces the idea that with hard work and resilience, anything is possible — not to mention gives you objective proof that whatever it was you previously thought about yourself (or that others thought about you) just isn’t true. Separate the facts from the fiction, including the stories you tell yourself, and you’ll be well on the way.
6. Use positive affirmations
Far from being an empty platitude, positive affirmations can be an incredibly powerful tool for overcoming self-limiting beliefs.
“An affirmation is really anything you say or think. A lot of what we normally say and think is quite negative and doesn’t create good experiences for us. We have to retrain our thinking and speaking into positive patterns if we want to change our lives”, says author Louise Hay.
When you’re feeling down or struggling with a limiting belief, try repeating an affirmation such as “I am capable” or “I can do this” to yourself. Even if you don’t believe in your own statement, saying positive affirmations can help break through those limiting beliefs and lead to a more productive and positive outlook.
While affirmations aren’t a magical cure-all (and they do take work), the consensus is that they can, and very often do, make a big difference. So why not give it a try?
7. Take baby steps
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and discouraged when faced with a challenge or an obstacle — especially if we’re convinced we won’t overcome it. The key is to break down the task into smaller pieces and create a plan that allows you to focus on one step at a time. Taking baby steps will help to chip away and build confidence in the process.
8. Develop coping strategies
Taking the time to develop coping strategies can help us deal with difficult feelings and challenging situations — rather than avoiding them. It also means that when we stumble — a necessary part of growing and improving — we are better equipped to handle that pain. So much so that eventually, you’ll be able to take it in your stride.
Coping strategies could include journaling, breathing exercises, meditating, or talking to a friend when feeling overwhelmed or stuck. Research has shown that these activities can help build resilience and reduce stress.
9. Practice self-compassion
We all have a wounded inner child inside us that needs love — and self-compassion can help foster a sense of acceptance. This means being mindful of our imperfections and flaws without judgment and forgiving ourselves for mistakes and failures.
Self-compassion involves recognizing our shared humanity, offering kindness and understanding to ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, and holding our pain in mindful awareness instead of over-identifying with it.
It can be challenging to practice self-compassion at first — but give it time, and it will become easier. Then, you’ll find that those limiting beliefs start to lose their grip.
Try this trick: picture yourself as a child feeling scared or upset. Now imagine using the same kind of language that you used to console them and direct it towards yourself. You’ll soon see how much better it is than focusing on self-criticism and judgment.
10. Talk to a professional
Sometimes, working through our limiting beliefs can be tricky without external help. In these cases, talking to a mental health professional could be beneficial.
Therapy can help us understand the source of our beliefs, how they stem from our past experiences, and how they impact us today. This can be a powerful tool for developing self-awareness and ultimately, changing our behavior. A therapist can also provide guidance, support, and tools to help you explore and process your thoughts in a safe environment.
11. Challenge yourself
More than vague goals and ideals are needed when overcoming limiting beliefs. Instead, set yourself a series of challenging but achievable goals and objectives that will push you out of your comfort zone and help you start believing in yourself.
It could be anything from taking on a new project at work, pushing yourself to run a half marathon, or starting your own business. When you set goals, make sure they challenge you and push you out of your comfort zone. Only then will you be able to break through the barriers that are holding you back from achieving what you want.
Common self-limiting beliefs in the workplace (and how to fix them)
1. I’m not capable enough
A lack of confidence can be a significant obstacle to success at work. Start by reminding yourself that you have the skills and aptitude to succeed, and focus on the positive things you bring to the table. Take on tasks that will challenge you but are achievable — and approach them by thinking about what you can learn rather than what you can’t do.
2. I’m not as good as my colleagues
Comparison can be a huge enemy of confidence — and it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you don’t measure up to your peers. To counter this, focus on developing your unique strengths and skills rather than comparing yourself to others. Remember that you can measure success in many ways — and it’s not all about being the first to reach the top.
3. I’m not worthy
Feeling like you don’t deserve success is a common self-limiting belief, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Remind yourself that you’ve earned your place and the recognition you receive, and focus on what you can contribute rather than what you lack.
4. I don’t want to fail
Instead of focusing on the potential for failure, focus on the opportunity to learn and grow. Remember that you can always use mistakes as a learning experience, so don’t be afraid to take risks and challenge yourself.
5. I need my colleagues to like me
It’s natural to want to be liked and respected, but it’s important not to let this need for approval stop you from achieving your goals. Focus on building meaningful professional relationships based on trust and mutual respect rather than chasing after the elusive goal of “liking.”
6. I’m not creative enough
If you lack creative flair, don’t worry — you can learn creativity! Take the time to explore different approaches, experiment with new ideas, and collaborate with others. You’ll soon find that your inner creativity will start to shine through.
7. It’s not perfect; I can’t share it yet
Perfectionism can be a major obstacle to success — so don’t let it stop you from getting your work out into the world. Instead, focus on getting your ideas out there quickly and efficiently and remember that perfect is the enemy of progress. And just think about it this way: isn’t it better if you learn about problems early on, when it’s easier to fix them? Don’t be afraid to start sharing and get honest feedback.
How managers can stop self-limiting beliefs and inspire their team
Ask questions: Encourage team members to reflect on their limiting beliefs and ask questions that will help them identify the root cause.
Allow mistakes: Encourage team members to fail without fear and understand that failure can be a great learning experience. And lead by example: if your team sees you fail, they’ll see it’s ok when they do it too — and that it’s neither something to hide nor be ashamed of.
Provide resources: Offer your team access to mentors, coaches, or counselors who can help them gain insight and clarity.
Foster a culture of trust: Create an environment where team members feel safe to voice their opinions, talk openly about their fears, and be vulnerable.
Listen: Make it a priority to actively listen and show empathy, so team members feel heard and understood.
Encourage brainstorming: Create opportunities for ‘blue sky’ thinking where everyone can express ideas without fear of judgment.
Share stories: Use storytelling to inspire and motivate the team. Sharing success stories from within or outside the organization can help remind everyone that anything is possible.
Reward progress: Acknowledge and reward small wins, no matter how small. This will help build a culture of appreciation and recognition, inspiring team members to keep striving for their goals.
Show trust: Showing genuine trust and confidence in your team’s abilities will help them to feel empowered, competent, and motivated. Encourage them to take risks and celebrate their successes, no matter how small.
Encourage collaboration: Encourage team members to work together and support one another while providing the necessary collaboration tools and resources they need to succeed. For example, project management tools are ideal for boosting transparency and autonomy among teams; virtual whiteboards are great for sharing ideas — and chat apps are perfect for sending encouraging messages to workers in a friendly, informal way. These tools will help create community, promote collaboration, inspire creativity, and improve problem-solving.
There are no shortcuts to overcoming limiting beliefs — it’s about self-awareness and developing the right mindset. Once we start believing in ourselves and our own abilities, anything is possible.
As the saying goes, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”
It’s time to start believing in yourself and your potential — because if you don’t, who will?