It is said that we are what we believe ourselves to be.
Our beliefs are so powerful that they create our reality.
They shape our thinking, our feelings, our behaviour, the actions we take or do not take – and as a consequence our experience of life.
Holding positive beliefs about ourselves serves us well. They cause us to feel good; they empower us and fuel healthy behaviours.
Limiting beliefs, on the other hand, undermine our well-being. They fuel unhealthy emotions and cause us to behave in self-defeating ways. Left unchallenged, they have a profoundly negative effect on our lives.
I see evidence of this every day in my therapy room.
Many of my clients struggle with limiting beliefs that keep them stuck, miserable and unfulfilled.
While we all carry certain negative beliefs that affect how we see ourselves, there are some that seem to be particularly pervasive and deep-rooted. In my experience, the most common are:
- I’m not good enough
- I’m not worthy
- I’m not lovable
- I can’t trust anyone
- I’m not safe
- I can’t handle it.
A limiting belief constrains and inhibits. It curbs your freedom. It disempowers you and leads you to play small.
For example, if you believe you aren’t good enough, you will suffer from low self-esteem, tolerating unwanted situations and perhaps even poor treatment by others. If you believe you can’t trust anyone, you will avoid or sabotage intimate relationships. If you believe you are unsafe, no matter where you go or who you are with, you will feel fearful and anxious and therefore avoid places and experiences that could be life-enhancing.
Whatever you hold as your truth internally will be mirrored in your external reality.
However, your beliefs are not facts. They are simply assumptions you have made – personal evaluations that derive from your experience and perception of yourself, other people and the world around you. And these evaluations can be wrong.
It’s not always easy to know what your limiting beliefs are because they may be hidden deep within your unconscious mind.
Emotional discomfort is the most obvious sign you are holding a limiting belief. If there’s a situation in your life that causes you to feel upset, anxious, fearful, guilty, ashamed, depressed or self-critical, or to react in a disproportionate manner, there’s a strong likelihood you are harbouring a negative belief about yourself.
If you frequently feel guilty about saying no to other people’s requests and demands, for instance, you may believe you must always put others first.
Or if you constantly feel anxious about your work performance, you may have an underlying belief you are not competent.
It’s important to work at identifying your limiting beliefs, not only to boost your emotional well-being but also because without doing so it is virtually impossible to achieve what you want in life.
Here is an exercise that will help you go deep within and unearth any limiting beliefs that may be holding you back.
It’s best done with a trusted friend or confidante who can lead you through the series of questions shown below. But if this isn’t possible, then it is equally effective done alone as a journalling exercise; you simply write down your responses to each of the questions.
Before you start, identify a challenging situation in which you want to act differently but feel unable to do so.
Here are some examples: I want to leave my job, I want to ask him/her out, I want to lose weight, I want to stand up to my spouse, I want to get out of debt, I want to earn more money.
Now follow these steps:
Carve out about half an hour of quiet time – a time when you’re feeling relaxed and won’t be disturbed.
Think about the situation you have identified and describe everything you know about it, all the facts, in as much detail as possible. What is the situation? Who’s involved? What’s the specific scenario in which you want to act differently?
Identify a single action you wish to take in this situation. What specifically do you want to say or do in this scenario?
Now ask yourself, What would happen if I did this? For this part of the exercise, it’s essential that you say or write down the first thing that comes to mind. Don’t dwell on the answers or try to craft or censor them in any way. Just express whatever comes to mind in whatever way it appears. The trick is to capture the essence of your initial response without giving your mind time to hinder or distort the message in any way.
Now ask, What would happen if this were to occur (your response to point 4)?
Continue asking this same question repeatedly in response to each answer you come up with: And then what would happen? Asking and answering these questions in quick succession will allow you to tap into your deepest fears and beliefs.
Continue going deeper and deeper into each of the responses your mind offers up. Don’t think about what you’re saying or writing, and don’t censor it in any way. Just continue until you have nothing left to add.
Now either ask the person you’re working with to recap what you’ve said or read over what you’ve written down. You should have some idea of the negative beliefs you’re holding about yourself.
Next, ask yourself, What would I lose by taking this action in this particular situation? After each answer, ask, What else? Keep going until you run out of ideas.
Now ask, What would I gain? How would taking this action in this particular situation benefit me? How else? Again, write down everything that comes to mind.
- By this point, you will have covered a lot of ground if you’ve engaged with the repetitive questioning format suggested. When you have nothing more to add, invite the person you’re working with to summarise what you’ve said or look back over what you’ve written. You should be able to pinpoint the specific negative beliefs that are preventing you from acting as you truly desire.
You can repeat this exercise with any problematic situation in your life that causes you pain or discomfort in which you would like to act differently. You may find that you identify some limiting beliefs that are specific to the situation (e.g. I will never get a pay rise in this company), while others wield an adverse influence on almost all areas of your life (e.g. the belief I am worthless will impact your relationships, career, finances and health).
Gaining clarity is the essential first step – only when you know what your limiting beliefs are can you take action to address them.
And the good news is that because you didn’t come into the world with these beliefs already residing within you – you merely acquired them as a result of your life experiences – they are not fixed.
This means you have the power to change them.
Once you have pinpointed the specific negative beliefs that are lurking in the shadows, you can take steps to challenge them and then consciously replace them with beliefs that empower you. This is a topic I’ll be covering in more detail in my next blog.
As the author Serge King says,