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Limiting beliefs

Limiting beliefs are mindsets that restrict us because they exclude a wide range of possibilities and restrict our options. For example someone who has a mental model that is excessively optimistic will tend to make decisions based on a very positive assessment of the situation, which could cause them to overlook things that could go wrong. On the other hand a person who views the world and people as implacably hostile towards them will tend to assume that things will always go wrong, and avoid trying.

These limiting beliefs can be hard to spot until pointed out. During a coaching course I was set the task of investigating my own limiting beliefs, and I came to realise that I had one which said "I can't succeed". It was hard to see how I had acquired this belief, because I had been in business for many years at this point, and had experienced many more successes than failures. I've since learned that our brains have an in-built psychological bias for remembering the bad things that happen to us more strongly than the good. In the wild this bias has survival value, but for me it had become inhibiting and counter-productive.

It was interesting to observe how the belief was self-fulfilling. Telling myself that "I can't succeed" meant that I approached each new situation with a tentative attitude, not investing enough time or resources to ensure success, and being ready to pull out when the inevitable setbacks occurred. Instead of tackling failures in a resilient way - learning from them and bouncing back - I would quickly give up, with my limiting belief reinforced.

Having recognised this pattern it was not difficult to change. I could remind myself of the times when I had been successful, and I could make sure that anything new I started was properly planned and resourced. If I was getting into difficulties I could ask for support, and I coudl treat setbacks as challenges to be overcome rather than signs that I should give up.

My story illustrates an important point - we tend not to question our thinking processes, which is why our limiting beliefs go unchallenged. Once we are aware of these mindsets we generally know what to do to correct them. Others often spot our biases before we do, so listening to honest feedback can be very helpful. The technique of 360 degree feedback is a formalised version of this process.

Examples of limiting beliefs

Arrogance  "I must be right", "I know all the answers"
Denial   “I don't want to believe it so I'll ignore it"
Pessimism  "It will never work", "I can't do it"
Depressive thinking  "I'm worthless, useless, unpopular, unlucky, a loser"
Perfectionism             "I must do everything perfectly or not at all"
Entitlement    "The world owes me"
Victim "I'm weak, vulnerable and people abuse me"
Martyr             "I deserve to suffer"
Damaged        "No one will accept be because of my defects"
Impostor         "I'm a fraud, I'm going to be found out"
People pleaser "I have to try hard to make people like me"
Excess             "More is better"

You may find different limiting beliefs in yourself if you take some time to stand back and look. If you find you're not getting the results you hoped for from your actions then it's worth evaluating what you do to see if a limiting belief is at work! Once you've identified a limiting belief it's your awareness that keeps it in check. Stay alert for times when it might have crept back in unnoticed!

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