I think the topic of liming beliefs falls into “personal development basics,” so to speak, but it is something that’s useful to think about every now and then. It’s also a topic I have never written about before, so hopefully it will be of interest to you :)
Now, what exactly is a limiting belief? Let’s start with some examples:
- I love photography but I’m never going to be good enough to make it for living.
- It’s always someone rich and famous who gets the kind of girl/guy I want.
- I was bullied as a kid which made me an introvert, and because of that I can never become successful in relationships.
- I am not smart enough to do well in business.
- I would love to write a book, but I don’t have the talent/patience/creativity.
- My kids don’t respect me because I don’t have a well-paying job.
- Women/men don’t like me because I’m fat.
- I’m overweight because of my genes, so I can never become fit.
As I’ve written before, our interpretation of the world and what happens around us is largely based on our beliefs. These beliefs can be roughly divided into two groups; positive and negative, or enabling and limiting. It’s the negative, limiting beliefs that prevent us from achieving what we want in life, whereas the positive, enabling beliefs support us when we’re reaching for our goals.
If you have a limiting belief that “you’re not smart enough to do well in business” – even if you would say it modestly and still think you’re pretty clever – it will inevitably affect your unconscious mind and how you behave. The only job of a belief is to prove itself true, and if you keep hammering that kind of belief into your head, sooner or later you will start to act according to it. Worse are of course the limiting beliefs that you really deep down know to be true.
It’s worth to consider for a while where these limiting beliefs come from. I would say that there are roughly two sources; external influences and inner reasoning. By external influences I mean situations where a limiting belief is imprinted on us by outside forces, and by inner reasoning I mean our own thought processes; how we seek to understand, interpret, and explain events that happen around us, and consequently create beliefs on how the world works.
The external influence can be something our friends or parents have led us to believe, such as “You can’t get a good job unless you get a university degree.” We’re also continuously bombarded by messages in media that guys need to be tall, have 6-pack abs, tan etc. to land a beautiful woman, whereas women are led to believe they need to be blonde, super skinny, yet paradoxically maintain large round breasts and small but firm butt (unless you’re Jennifer Lopez or Shakira, that is).
There have been different beauty standards for ages and that is not the real issue. The problem lies deeper: As we almost inevitably fail to meet those standards, we start to believe that we can’t have the kind of guy/girl that those same standards say we should desire. As we start to believe that and get into relationships, we can’t escape this underlying, gnawing feeling that we have somehow ‘settled’ for that relationship because we can’t do better. It’s not what we really, truly desire, but it’s good enough. Now obviously it’s not a very healthy basis for a successful long-term companionship if both partners feel from the beginning that something is missing, that something could be better than it is.
Us humans have a built-in tendency to create patterns in our quest to understand the surrounding world. This tendency has helped us greatly to survive as a species, and to create all the amazing technology we have today. However, it works for both good and bad. We learn rapidly by associating different things to each other, giving birth to these patterns. We have been doing this already since we were toddlers; if we want mom’s attention we simply need to cry and we get it. Or if we eat a lot of chocolate cake and then feel sick, our brains create a connection between eating the chocolate cake and the feeling of sickness that follows.
I think it’s important to realize, that being able to create these kinds of connections is a very powerful ability. What if we didn’t have it? Eating a chocolate cake and the feeling of sickness would be two completely separate events. We would be blind to the causality. Now just think how advanced this ability is in humans! All the sciences are based on it. Without being able to observe different phenomena and create patterns out of them, we would have only a rudimentary understanding of the world.
The problem with this amazing ability is, that it can also do us a disservice by creating connections that are false and potentially harmful to our wellbeing. A lot of people live their lives locked inside a limited set of rules. Rules that are conveyed from their beliefs. If you have observed as a child that other people in school get better grades than you, reasoned that maybe it’s because you’re stupid, and then started to really believe it, how do you think having that kind of belief will affect your future life? You’re creating a reality in which it is an impossibility for you to get those good grades, or otherwise achieve same things the “smart people” do.
Or let’s say you approach a woman in a bar who turns you down, and then witness another guy hit it off with her. Your built-in tendency starts to come up with reasons why the other guy was successful and you weren’t. Maybe he was taller than you, so that’s why you failed, or maybe he had more expensive clothes.
In the end it doesn’t matter whether or not a belief is true. The limiting belief that “I’m overweight because of my genes, so I can never become as fit as the people in beauty magazines.” might very well be spot-on accurate, but what if there are two people who both have similar genetic disadvantage, yet only one of them carries this belief? I’m certain that the person who has the limiting belief will not even bother trying to become fit or otherwise improve her health by exercising, whereas the other person keeps on working out, eating healthy and consequently improves her quality of life!
In essence, limiting beliefs create boundaries. They tell you what you can’t do, what you can’t achieve, what you can’t be. Switching these negative limiting beliefs into positive enabling ones can hugely increase your faith and confidence in your abilities, and what is actually possible in life.
We have been creating these beliefs – both positive and negative – all our lives in our attempt to understand what is going on around us. And most people are completely oblivious to the fact that they have these beliefs. So the first step is to become aware that you have them, and then assess them critically. Which beliefs are such that help you achieve more in life, and which ones are holding you back? After this it’s time to manually unlink those harmful connections and dismantle the limiting beliefs.
These beliefs usually contain three parts: external behavior, inner condition, and a link between the two. Here are couple examples:
“I am not smart enough to do well in business.”
- External behavior: do well in business
- Inner condition: not smart enough
- Link: to (do)
“Women/men don’t like me because I’m fat.”
- External behavior: women/men don’t like me
- Inner condition: I’m fat
- Link: because
Reframing is a cognitive technique that can be used to blast those limiting beliefs into oblivion. It can be used to destroy both existing beliefs and ones that are just starting to form inside your mind. In fact, it can become a very powerful tool to learn to recognize a limiting belief in the making, while the connection between external behavior and inner condition is still being created, and use reframing to prevent it from gaining foothold.
Basically reframing means consciously arguing against, or reasoning with the belief you have created. If you take time to think about a belief you have and apply reframing to it, you’ll notice that the belief is most likely irrational and cannot be true, so why not just abandon it? After all, you are a rational person, aren’t you?
Here are some ways to reframe a limiting belief. Let’s use “Women/men don’t like me because I’m fat.” as an example:
- Counter example: Think of a time when a woman/man has liked you, or liked someone else despite the person being fat.
- Be specific: How does a guy/girl move from not knowing you to not liking you step-by-step simply because you’re fat? The idea of there being an instant ‘I see you – you’re fat – I don’t like you’ causality is ridiculous, so what is really going on there? If you can’t figure it out, then why are you still having this belief?
- Outcome orientation: Think about what is going to happen to your success level if you keep thinking this way? What if you’d think differently?
- “All”-ness framing: Do you think every single fat person in the history of the world has gone through their lives without another man/woman liking them?
- Reframe external behavior: People fancy different things. Not all men/women are bothered by you being fat. Some might even find it sexy.
- Reframe internal state: It’s not that men/women don’t like you, but you’re probably not what they are ideally looking for in the opposite sex. This means you have an advantage, because you can come under the radar and surprise them with your other good qualities like sense of humor or wittiness.
One of the nicest examples of reframing (although it wasn’t called that in the actual study, the principle is still the same) in real life that I’ve read about was done in a secondary school where the kids were divided into two groups for workshops. Both groups were taught study skills, but the other one also received a special module where they were taught that brain is not static, but more like a muscle that can be improved by working it out and doing proper exercises.
As a result, the kids who began to see their brains as something that develops and becomes better with practice started improving their study habits and grades. For me this is a clear example of how the limiting belief of “I’m not good at school because I was born stupid.” was reframed. The walls built by that belief were torn down, and it became possible for the kids to do something that they couldn’t have done before.
Please share your own thoughts and ideas in the comments! If you know of more ways to reframe limiting beliefs, let the rest of us know! :)