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What Are Your Self-Limiting Beliefs?

We stay where it's safe for fear of failing, feeling humiliated and looking bad. Self-limiting beliefs are a self-imposed prison, walls we build and maintain to protect ourselves. How can we break out?

A self-limiting belief is a label we apply to ourselves like "I'm not educated enough." This is global thinking: feeling we're not educated enough for anything, but it really only applies to certain things. No one has enough education for some things. A Ph.D. in biology won't get you a job in engineering.

Self-limiting beliefs keep us locked inside places of safety. Because stepping outside our comfort zone is so scary, we leap back in at the first hurdle. We know that it can take a long time to learn a new skill but our fear of failing prevents us from getting enough practice to succeed.

Where Do Self-Limiting Beliefs Come From?

There are several origins: overly protective parents may have given us too many warnings about taking risks. Social pressure to succeed makes failure seem catastrophic, hence better not to try anything with a risk of failing. Because we tend to worship heroes – larger than life role models, it's easy to tell ourselves that we could never be like them.

Children are very quick to ridicule failure in other kids, perhaps to lessen their own feelings of inadequacy – a vicious circle if there ever was one. Teachers, parents and bosses notice mistakes more readily than successes so we go through life getting more negative feedback than positive.

Why do we notice mistakes in others so readily? Well, besides the obvious fact that doing so helps us feel that we're not the only stupid ones, it's simply more efficient.

Habits are efficient, one of which is expecting others to be consistent. Hence anything people do that violates our expectations disrupts our flow and, thanks to the pressure to do so much in little time, we get annoyed and react negatively. Efficiency doesn't lead us to notice positive acts (unless they're extraordinary) because we expect them; they don't disrupt our flow.

By the time we become adults, our self-limiting beliefs are pretty much cast in concrete, so much so that we may be unaware of them. Anyone who tells us "No! That can't be done" is either lacking in imagination or suffering from self-limiting beliefs. Everyone has them, not just those with stifling parents or teachers.

Perversely, when we lack confidence, we focus on what we CAN'T do or the mistakes we have made. Because the things we do well come easy to us, we discount them by saying: "That was nothing. Anybody could have done that." Another vicious circle.

Typical Self-Limiting Beliefs

Are your self-limiting beliefs on this list or do you have some different ones?

  • I'm not smart enough.

  • I'm too old, too young, too fat, too out of shape, etc.
  • I'm not outgoing enough.
  • I lack relevant experience.
  • I could never do that.
  • I lack sufficient formal education.
  • I have too many weaknesses.
  • I don't have the confidence to do that.
  • I don't have enough skills or talent.
  • I don't have what it takes to succeed.
  • I'm terrible at managing my time, money, etc.
  • I don't know what I want to do with the rest of my life.
  • I would fail for sure if I tried that.
  • I'm really stupid when it comes to X.
  • I make too many mistakes when I try something new.
  • Taking risks always turns out bad for me.
  • The way I have operated in the past works well enough.
  • I'm comfortable doing what I'm doing now.
  • Successful people are just lucky.
  • I deserve better.
  • I work very hard, isn't that enough?
  • I'm a failure.
  • I'm a slow learner.
  • Too many people are smarter than me.
  • My parents didn't do enough for me.
  • My partner isn't supportive enough.
  • Other?

Breaking Free

We may not be able to shed all of our self-limiting beliefs but we can break free from some of them and do damage limitation on others.

We first need to identify the beliefs that are holding us back. This may not be easy because they are so much a part of us and because it feels risky to question any characteristic that helps us feel safe.

Try asking yourself this question: "If I could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing I would change about myself?" Then examine this characteristic critically. Is it really true of you or just something you have always believed?

What steps can you take to disprove or change this characteristic? Convince yourself that your self-respect will get a greater boost by trying and failing than if you fail to try.

Another tactic is to list all the things that others do that you feel you absolutely can't do. Generate as long a list as you can. Then pick the top few that you'd most like to change and challenge your thinking: What evidence do you have that you can't do it? How much effort have you invested in trying to learn how to do it?

Watch out for global thinking. For example, the statement: "Life is horrible" really should be: "A, B and C are horrible, D, E and F are OK."

We also need to beware of our tendency to protect ourselves by blaming others or our circumstances, but regardless of how we acquired any particular belief, WE are maintaining it.

It's important to distinguish between real weaknesses and self-limiting beliefs. Not being able to speak a foreign language is a real weakness if it's something you need. The self-limiting belief is that you can't learn such a language.

Once you have identified the few key self-limiting beliefs you want to get rid of, make a plan to acquire your new skills, recognizing that it may take loads of practice over an extended period of time to become passably competent.

Work with a buddy who also wants to change a self-limiting belief. Support each other with regular updates and celebrations of success, even small progress steps.

The importance of celebrating small successes on a regular, frequent basis can't be overemphasized because of our tendency to discount successes we find easy to achieve. Have you tried our confidence exercise to test your confidence?

See also: Engage Yourself, Should You Always Play to Your Strengths?, The Post-heroic Manager, How's Your Confidence Today?, Cultures of Disengagement, How To Be An Engaging Manager. Also Collaborative Assertiveness.

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