Did you enjoy listening to stories as a child? Maybe you loved fairy tales or fantasies. Perhaps you were into sci-fi or action adventures. Those types of stories can enrich our lives and fill us with wonder. However, there are other types of stories that can be damaging to our psyche- the limiting beliefs we tell ourselves.
As an example, I was the “shy” kid when I was younger. I was pretty quiet in certain situations and often had my head buried in a book. When I entered a room full of strangers, I would hang back and observe before deciding to engage (still do!). In addition, I didn’t freely share my thoughts with others unless I really felt the need to do so.
All of these attributes are classic characteristics of a natural introvert. However, I wasn’t truly a shy person. I wasn’t easily frightened or timid. I was able to get up on stage and dance my heart out without fear. I could have a conversation without being completely awkward (at least most of the time;).
Yet, I heard the word shy so often that it eventually became part of the story I told about myself. “Shy” became as much of my identity as the fact that I have brown hair and eyes. Because of that, I wouldn’t speak up in class unless I was specifically spoken to, even if I knew the answer to a question. I also was hesitant to voice my opinion in a group, especially with strangers, and usually just kept my thoughts to myself.
That is what happens with the limiting beliefs we tell ourselves over and over again. They become so ingrained in our subconscious that we don’t even think to question them. They become absolute truth. I thought that being shy was part of my identity and played the part perfectly. It’s taken me a long time to realize that it’s okay to have a strong voice and to speak up. To realize that the stories from my past don’t have to be my future. I understand that I deserve more than that and so do YOU.
Contents of this post:
The Science of Limiting Beliefs
How do limiting beliefs develop and affect us? Why should we care?
First of all, what exactly is a limiting belief? In short, they are beliefs that we hold about ourselves or the world that limits how we think or act in some way. They restrict us from reaching our goals or progressing in our lives. They can hinder our relationships and careers. They also become that little voice in the back of your mind that tells you “you can’t do that.”
In addition, keep in mind that we often create limiting beliefs as a way to protect ourselves from distress. It doesn’t feel good to fail. We get uncomfortable when we try something that’s out of our comfort zone, especially if we don’t have the skills yet. Consequently, our brains will invent these limiting beliefs to shield us from that pain and discomfort.
Next, it can help to understand the different beliefs that we have using Rokeach’s structure of human beliefs. This is a five-layered hierarchy system of beliefs ranging from those that are generally agreed upon as being fact (Type A: Ex- the earth revolves around the sun.) to those that are inconsequential matters of personal taste (Type E: Ex- type of cleaning products you use).
You could picture this as layers of an onion with Type A being on the inside layer and Type E being the outside layer. The inner layers are the most resistant to change and the outer layers can easily be changed.
Type B and C beliefs are our core beliefs and shape our limiting beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. They become more ingrained in us than the outer layer beliefs and can be difficult to change.
Type B, primitive, are our opinions of ourselves that develop over time based on our experiences in life. These beliefs are extremely resistant to change and are NOT based on fact. These beliefs include your own personal identity. Using the example from above, my Type B belief was that I was a shy person. I believed that because I was naturally quieter in certain situations than others and would often hear it from people around me. This belief developed in response to how I saw myself and compared myself to others.
In addition, Type C, authority, beliefs come from a trusted authority, whether it’s a news outlet, professor, community leader, etc. These beliefs can be changed more easily than Type B, but still might be somewhat resistant. They can include ideas that you’re taught at school or in a career. Using my aforementioned example, my Type C belief would be that being quiet equates to being shy, because that’s what my teachers and other adults would frequently say.
You might be thinking thanks for the psych lesson, but how does it pertain to ME? Why does it matter what kind of beliefs I have?
It matters because if you understand where a belief came from, you will better understand how to change it. This is especially important when it comes to limiting beliefs.
“What did you learn today? What mistake did you make that taught you something? What did you try hard at today?”Dr Carol Dweck
Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset
What’s the difference between fixed and growth mindsets and how does this relate to limiting beliefs? The extensive research of Dr. Carol Dweck answers this for us.
Harboring limiting beliefs can lead to a fixed mindset- where you believe that your basic qualities like intelligence or talent are fixed and can’t be changed. You’re simply born with certain abilities and that’s it. You think you can’t get any better, because you don’t have the natural gifts to do so.
The problem with this is that you limit yourself in life. You think that you can only go so far and that’s it. You might tell yourself that you can’t go to medical school because you’re not smart enough. You might not try to climb the mountain because you think you’re too weak. You believe that it’s pointless to put in extra effort, because you’ll be stuck in the same place anyway.
Furthermore, when faced with a challenging problem, fixed mindset individuals will run away. They will avoid the problem or actually cheat to find the answer. They also might seek out people who they think are less intelligent than they are, in order to make themselves feel better.
Contrast this with a growth mindset- where you believe that intelligence and abilities can be developed over time. With this mindset, you embrace challenges and see failure as simply a step towards success. You aren’t afraid to train for that 10K or to switch to a new career. You believe that you can progress and succeed with proper training and effort. You get excited about a problem that you can’t solve right now. You understand the “power of yet,” as Dr. Dweck calls it.
A perfect example of a growth mindset is Bethany Hamilton- the surfer who lost her arm due to a shark attack (and the inspiration for the movie “Soul Surfer”). Before her attack, she had a promising career in surfing. After the attack, she could have said it was too hard and given up surfing forever. After all, how can someone with one arm possibly make it as a surfer? However, she accepted the challenge and ended up winning or placing high in multiple championships. What most people would consider a career ending disability, Bethany embraced as a bump in the road, a speedbump, if you will. THAT is the power of a growth mindset.
Limiting Beliefs Don’t Have to Be Your Truth
Think about the limiting beliefs that you have told yourself over the years. Review the following list:
- “I’m not a runner/athlete/yogi.”
- “I’m too shy/slow/old/fat.”
- “I’m not good with money.”
- “The system is against me.”
- “I can’t do that.”
- “I’m not smart enough.”
- “I’ve already tried everything and nothing works.”
- “That might work for you, but it won’t for me.”
- “I could never afford that.”
How do you feel reading this list? Do any of these resonate with you? Can you think of other phrases like these that permeate your thoughts? If so, those limiting beliefs could be holding you back from something you desire.
Maybe you don’t even realize that’s the case. Maybe you’ve never thought about those limiting beliefs in a conscious way. If that’s true, NOW is the time to truly analyze what you’ve been telling yourself for years. This is the inner chatter that you carry with you every day, so it’s important to be aware of it.
Think about whether this self talk is helping or hindering you. Have you ever thought about how distracting those thoughts can be? How much time and energy is wasted on your negative thoughts? We have thousands of thoughts every day and the majority of them are negative in most people. That’s a lot of mental baggage to lug around with you every day. That’s why it’s time to create a new inner monologue.
How to Create a New Inner Monologue
Now the question becomes, how do we create new self talk that lets go of those limiting beliefs and promotes a growth mindset?
One thing to keep in mind is that changing your thoughts and beliefs won’t happen overnight. It might take weeks or even months, depending on the type of belief that is present. Remember Rokeach’s belief hierarchy from above? Those Type B and C beliefs are going to be tougher to alter, because they feel so real and rooted in absolute truth. You will likely feel intense resistance to changing those, which is to be expected. Just be sure NOT to let that resistance interfere with your growth.
Think about this example. Imagine that you’ve held the belief that you’re a fat slob who can’t succeed because of your weight, for all of your adult life. That Type B belief is so embedded into your psyche, that it’s going to feel earth-shattering to change that. Yet, that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible or worth doing. Clearly, having that fixed mindset about yourself is holding you back from doing what you want to do (as opposed to your size). Consequently, it’s a belief that needs to transform.
The first step towards change is to simply believe that it is possible. If you don’t at least entertain that idea, you won’t ever make any lasting, real transformation in how you think. Therefore, keep an open mind, even if it sounds ridiculous. Our brains have a tremendous ability to change and adapt (called neuroplasticity) in response to life experiences. Be open to the possibility of something different. Then, make a commitment to yourself to try the following ideas.
- Use the “Power of Yet”– Instead of saying that you can’t do something, say that you haven’t done it yet.
- I haven’t run a mile straight through “yet.”
- I haven’t figured out how to solve that work problem “yet.”
- I haven’t completed that masters program “yet.”
- Think of the brain like a muscle, not a rock– The aforementioned Dr Dweck has had major success with teaching children that the brain can grow and become stronger (remember neuroplasticity?), instead of thinking that the brain is stagnant and never changes. The more you believe this, the more likely you are to succeed. Therefore, give it a try and tell yourself that your brain is limitless in its abilities. Your brain will believe it if you say it enough times.
- Identify your triggers– We all have those things that immediately send us into a fixed mindset tailspin. Maybe when you fail in your job. Perhaps when you see someone who is better than you at something. If you’re aware of what triggers that negative, limiting response, it will be easier to reprogram it. Keep in mind that the goal here is to create new beliefs about your triggers, not avoid your triggers. You can’t avoid challenging situations forever, but you can change how you think and respond to those situations.
- Call out your limiting beliefs– You wouldn’t allow a stranger to tell your child that they’re stupid or worthless, right? Then, why do you talk to yourself that way? You deserve better Mama. Remember those limiting beliefs you wrote down before? Acknowledge them and thank them for trying to protect you from harm. Next, you’re going to dispute those. Write down the evidence that makes your belief untrue, along with how that belief is helpful or unhelpful.
- Replace your limiting beliefs– Now you can replace your previous belief with a new statement that is helpful and allows you to grow, instead of bringing you down. Instead of saying, “I’m so clumsy, I could never learn how to do ballroom dancing,” replace it with “I have never tried ballroom dancing, but I can follow directions, so I’ll try it and have fun with it.”
I have created a worksheet you can use to bust through your limiting beliefs. You can access it below.
As you’re working through your limiting beliefs, remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither should you. This process of reprogramming our brains takes time and effort, but is so worth it.
Going back to my example from the beginning, I now have a different story I tell myself. One where I view my introversion as an asset, instead of a hindrance. One where I’m confident to share my thoughts and look forward to engaging in discussions, even with strangers. It’s taken me a while to get here, but I’m thankful for the journey.
Now I ask, are YOU ready to create a new story Mama?
How Psychology Combats False & Self-Limiting Beliefs (positivepsychology.com)
Carol Dweck: A Summary of The Two Mindsets (fs.blog)
Mindsets: A View From Two Eras (nih.gov)
Albert Ellis’ ABC Model in the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Spotlight (positivepsychology.com)
Mindset- The New Psychology of Success, Carol S. Dweck