Have you ever noticed that there are certain ordinary topics that trigger a negative emotion in you? It could be a subject that comes up in conversation with friends occasionally, or one that you stumble upon on the Internet from time to time. Whatever it is, it’s able to shake you emotionally when you come across it.
If so, you’ve likely discovered an area for growth in yourself in the form of a limiting belief. These are beliefs that are usually instilled in our childhoods and hold us back in some way in the present. Our minds have self-reinforcing patterns of thinking, and even if our conscious minds recognize that these beliefs aren’t constructive, our subconscious minds are unable to let them go.
Perhaps it’s one of the following common beliefs. You can tell if you have a certain belief if it triggers some familiar negative emotional response from you:
- I am not worthy of love unless I behave in a certain way.
- I won’t be respected unless I behave in a certain way.
- If I let myself be happy or content, I’ll never get anything done.
- The world/my loved ones/my bosses owe me something.
Even if none of these strike a chord, if you have the sense that something internal is holding you back from living a full and meaningful life, it could very well be a limiting belief. Fortunately, any limiting belief can be overcome, given enough effort.
One key thing to know about limiting beliefs is that they do not reflect reality. This has two implications. First, even though they may feel real, they are only constructs of your mind created through your habits and experiences. Second, you can change them.
Another key thing to know about every limiting belief you have is that some part of you believes that it serves you. It might be a part of your conscious mind or your subconscious mind, but it’s certainly there. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t have held onto the limiting belief for so long.
One belief I held for years was that I had to feel guilty about not spending enough time with my parents. When I examined this further, I discovered that the belief was there because I truly thought the guilt was necessary for me to feel compelled to visit my parents. I thought that the only way I could compel myself to behave in a desired way was to instill the fear of guilt in myself.
Another one was shame. I believed that shame would make me a better person, because it would make me feel so terrible after doing something shameful that I would never do it again. Once again, I didn’t trust myself to take a constructive path towards developing desired patterns of behaviour.
Sometimes, the limiting belief is there simply because we’re afraid of change. Perhaps we subconsciously associate the belief with some part of our identity, and we’re afraid we won’t recognize ourselves without it. Or perhaps we tell ourselves the false (but common) idea that we’ve survived with this belief for so long, it might be necessary to our survival.
This was the case with my limiting belief about anxiety. For as long as I could remember, I’ve been an overachiever – and incredibly anxious. I was scared that I would no longer be able to accomplish wonderful, productive things if I let go of my anxiety. Subconsciously, I saw it as a blessing rather than a curse, which left me unhappy for a long time.
It never occurred to me that these beliefs could be destructive. I never thought about how cruelly I was disciplining myself. And in fact, when I finally found the courage to let these beliefs go, none of the negative effects I had feared happened, and I became a far more productive and all-around better person.
Uncovering Your Limiting Beliefs
[D]evelop awareness of all the self-limiting, fear-based beliefs that make you unhappy. You take an inventory of all that you believe, […] and through this process you begin the transformation.
– Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements
There are a few structured steps you can take to uncover your limiting beliefs.
The first step is empirical. It examines your past and present experiences to uncover situations that have made you feel powerless, angry, upset, or otherwise negatively. If you notice that the subject of money seems to trigger a nervous sinking in the pit of your stomach, that’s an indicator. If you notice that thinking about your parents makes you queasy, that’s another one. And so on.
The next step is to probe at statements surrounding the subject of negativity that elicit a strong emotional response from you. It may not be the first statement you think of, because our minds will frequently come up with less painful, better sounding reasons for our reactions as a self-protection mechanism.
For example, you might think that your limiting belief is Money is only earned by dishonest people. But the actual belief might be I am undeserving of having money. For most people, the latter is more painful to confront.
Have a way of recording these as you discover them – perhaps in a notes app or on paper. The idea isn’t to fixate on these beliefs, but to make sure you can come back to them when you’re ready to overcome them.
Overcoming Your Limiting Beliefs
When I discover a limiting belief, the first thing I do is play out a What-If dialogue with it. Suppose I have a belief that I have to satisfy all of my partner’s whims and wants in order to make them happy. The dialogue I’d have with myself might be as follows:
Q: What if I didn’t have this belief? What’s the worst that would happen?
A: I would be a terrible spouse/partner. I wouldn’t be able to make my partner happy in our relationship.
Q: What if that wasn’t true? What’s causing me to feel this way?
A: I know that I tend to be tired and irritable often. I’m afraid of sparking an argument with my partner, so instead of risking a confrontation, I’d rather just give in and do everything he/she asks of me. I also don’t know what else to do to make him/her happy.
Q: What if there are other ways to be a supportive and loving spouse/partner? What might they be?
A: I could be more honest with my partner about not wanting to do some of the things he/she asked of me. I could also take the time to start communicating my likes and dislikes. This would help my partner learn more about me, strengthening our relationship.
Q: What if this belief actually holds me back from being a loving spouse/partner? How might that work?
A: That could be possible. Sometimes I feel resentful at having to satisfy my partner’s every desire, and this makes me less able to be emotionally present in the relationship. If I make my emotional needs a priority as well, I could actually empower myself to be a more loving partner.
Next, I like to dedicate a period of time where I experiment with acting, thinking, and embodying the opposite of the limiting belief. With the above example, I might give myself a week where I didn’t simply give in to every want that my partner had. I might instead choose to first filter for the things that made me happy to do. Regardless of how uncomfortable this feels initially, I commit to doing this without exception.
Finally, I’ll look at what changes occurred throughout my experiment. Most of the time, nothing negative whatsoever happened. If that’s the case, I’ll consciously continue to embody the opposite of the limiting belief, until it becomes second nature. For certain beliefs – the ones where I need it – I’ve dedicated extra time towards meditating on and journalling about the irrationality of the belief.
Limiting beliefs exist in each of us, through no fault of our own. Taking the steps towards learning about and overcoming yours is incredibly liberating, and something I would suggest to everyone. I wish you all the best in this journey.