Self limiting beliefs

Self-limiting beliefs and how to turn them off

This article builds on last month’s topic of Meaningful conversations.

When you build relationships and interact with people – whether at work or in your personal life – you will often find others react differently to you in a situation you both face.

In that case, it is likely that the other person is having an emotional trigger that may have started in childhood. When these triggers manifest in ways that appear to be unhelpful or disproportionate, it is likely you are seeing a self-limiting belief in action.

This may also apply to you. Do you ever find you react differently to others, or hold yourself back because you don’t believe something is possible?

Self-limiting beliefs are a problem because they limit our potential to flourish in life. We also risk passing our unhelpful thoughts on to others, including our children (the opposite risk is that other people recognise reject our unhelpful thought patterns but then swing too far the other way).

This month’s article explores this topic. As usual, my advice includes a blend of theory and practical.

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.”
Henry Ford

Defining self-limited beliefs

Our beliefs are very deep-rooted as they based on our experiences throughout life. They start in early childhood, and depend on the way we’re treated by the adults in our life – usually, our parents.

My instinct is that we all have at least a few self-limiting beliefs, because nobody has a 100% perfect childhood. Some caregivers empower and enable children while others limit them, even though they probably didn’t intend to.

  • If you were loved as a child, and treated as though you were lovable and worthwhile, chances are you will feel lovable and worthwhile as an adult
  • If you grew up in a neglectful family where you didn’t receive much love, you may grow up feeling unlovable and worthless

“They f••• you up, your mum and dad
They may not mean to, but they do
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you”
Philip Larkin

Beliefs aren’t real, but they feel as though they are. As such, they can inform your mindset, behaviours and reactions. They serve as the basis for how you react to events throughout life.

The longer you allow unhelpful beliefs to continue, the more embedded they become and the more they will limit you. Your beliefs make you human, but you don’t have to be fatalistic about it, thinking: “It’s just the way I am”. You can change any beliefs that don’t serve you.

Three categories of negative core beliefs

Aaron T Beck proposes three main categories of core beliefs. Do you recognise yourself in any of these?

  • Helplessness: Feel incompetent, vulnerable and inferior
  • Unlovability: Feel unlikeable and incapable of intimacy
  • Worthlessness: Feel insignificant and a burden to others

His research is deemed to be one of the most well-validated in this area. Here is an extract outlining his findings:

“Several layers of cognition were proposed in A. T. Beck’s model. At the most basic level, people experience situation-specific automatic thoughts when they experience emotional reactions to particular circumstances that they face in their lives. However, A. T. Beck also proposed that people’s underlying beliefs explain the specific types of automatic thoughts that are experienced under these circumstances. At the most fundamental level, people are characterized by core beliefs, or central beliefs that they hold about themselves (e.g., “I am worthless”) or others (e.g., “Others will hurt me”). According to cognitive theory, negative core beliefs are activated in times of stress and make people vulnerable to experience emotional distress.”

Read more in this academic study: Negative Core Beliefs Inventory (NCBI)
Source: Journal of Cognitive Psychology

A lesson from Socrates

Socrates was a Greek philosopher (born 470BC) who taught his students by asking them questions, conversationally (a bit like coaching!). He didn’t write his approach down, but one of his pupils did – that was Plato.

This rigorous method of education assumes the student has the highest level of knowledge, while the teacher takes on a mindset of ignorance. From a personal development perspective, the Socratic approach is still helpful today, whether in teaching, therapy, coaching, learning groups, and even when helping a friend.

Asking the right questions makes you a thinking partner who can help people challenge their core beliefs through conversation.

“One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.”

Socratic method

Socratic questioning follows these steps. The order may not always proceed exactly this way, but this process gives you a starting point:

  1. Understand the belief
    Ask the person to state their belief clearly
  2. Sum up the person’s belief
    Play back what they said to clarify your understanding of their position
  3. Ask for evidence
    Ask open questions to uncover misconceptions, inconsistencies and contradictions
  4. Challenge their assumptions
    If exceptions or counterexamples are identified, ask the person to disregard the belief or restate it more precisely
  5. Repeat the process to drill down into the core of the belief
    Continue (as required) until both parties accept the restated belief

“An unexamined life is not worth living.”

Socratic questions

The purpose of Socratic questioning is to challenge thinking in a way that acts to move people towards their ultimate goal.  Below are some different approaches you could take, either if you’re working on yourself or if you’re helping someone else. If you’re helping someone else, of course, it is essential to be curious and non-judgemental to create both space and an environment of psychological safety.

“To find yourself, think for yourself.”

Conceptual clarification

Ensure you understand exactly what they are thinking.

  • Why do you think that?
  • What do you mean when you say x?
  • Can you expand that point further?
  • Can you explain that differently?
  • Tell me more…

Challenge assumptions

Question their assumptions to make them think about what basis their belief is founded on.

  • How do you know that?
  • How did you choose those assumptions?
  • Why would you assume that?
  • What else could you assume?
  • What would happen if you changed your belief?

Collect evidence

Get them to provide evidence for the underlying concepts behind their belief.

  • When did the belief start?
  • What caused you to feel this way?
  • Can you provide an example?
  • Is there any information missing?
  • Are there any reasons to doubt the evidence?

Explore perspectives

Show that there are alternative viewpoints.

  • Why is this belief necessary?
  • Who benefits from it?
  • Why is X better than Y?
  • What would X person think?
  • How could you look at this another way ?

Probe implications

Their argument may have implications that can be forecast.

  • Why is X important?
  • How does X affect Y?
  • What if you change your belief?
  • What if you don’t change your belief?
  • What’s the best option?

Questions about the question

You can get ‘meta’ and ask questions about the conversation itself:

  • Why do you think I asked that question?
  • Is there something I’m not understanding?
  • What question should I ask you?

Read more about Socratic questioning on Wikipedia

Changing beliefs

As always, you need to raise your own self-awareness before you embark on any kind of change.

  • First, decide what you want, and then take action daily to re-programme your thinking.
  • Hold a mindset of lifelong learning
  • Keep a journal, noticing your patterns
  • Try to break bad habits
  • Go for baby steps, initially, and gradually get braver
  • Stick at it. If you want to change an attitude you may have held since childhood, you need to practice your new thinking daily for at least a month

“Because one believes in oneself, one doesn’t try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn’t need others’ approval. Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her.”
Lao Tzu

What this means to you

Coaching and therapy both help raise awareness of self-limiting beliefs. For example, if a person believes they lack confidence, it always comes from a limiting belief held somewhere inaccessible in their unconscious mind.

Therapy can be very helpful. It looks backwards to understand and unlock deep trauma and/or assumptions. On the other hand, coaching takes you from where you are now, and helps you move forward. The focus is on working out what you want and how to get there.

I’m certified to use the LCP tool. This can be very revealing because it looks at your creative competencies and reactive tendencies. If any of these reactive tendencies are overdone, it can sabotage your performance as a leader or colleague.

I’m often asked to deliver workshops using this valuable tool, and frequently use it as part of my coaching practice.

Depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, sessions can run from half a day to two days. They are usually supported by one-to-one coaching which helps individuals get to the heart of the matter. To discuss the possibility of running a workshop for your team, please ask.

Helpful beliefs

Here are some affirmations from LCP that might be useful to replace any self-limiting beliefs you may hold. Repeat them to yourself until these thoughts become your new habit:

One’s sense of self-worth comes from complying with the expectations of others

      • I am here to show up fully, to speak up authentically
      • I am not responsible for how others live or feel
      • I define me, no-one else does

One’s sense of self-worth comes through withdrawal, being cynical, superior

      • I engage others with honesty and compassion
      • I am part of the system I critiquing, I am “them”
      • I share my humanity without losing my ‘self’ and/or my objectivity

One’s sense of self-worth comes through task, accomplishment and personal achievement

      • I am more than my work, performance and achievements
      • I have my achievements, they don’t have me
      • I define success for me

Related reading

If you found this information useful, you might also enjoy my other articles:

Next month

Escaping mind traps: These patterns are useful when life is fixed, but not so useful when life is more complex (as it seems to be all the time these days).