One of the main focuses in cognitive behavioural coaching is to eliminate self-limiting beliefs. Your mindset is everything, and when you remove beliefs that limit you and hold you back in life, your potential for personal growth and success is unlimited.
In this article we will cover what self-limiting beliefs are, how you can recognise them and offer strategies to overcome them.
What are Self-Limiting Beliefs?
A self-limiting belief, simply put, is a belief which you hold about yourself which is negative and which stops you doing something. A key characteristic is that these beliefs are typically not substantiated by evidence or ground in reality and are often based on assumptions rather than ‘truths’. A few simple examples would be ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I’m rubbish at doing presentations’.
A common thread with self-limiting beliefs is that they are often driven by fear, fear of failure, fear of getting it wrong, fear of being ridiculed, fear of being caught out etc.
Previous life experiences can have an impact on this, perhaps as a child you were repeatedly told you couldn’t do something, or it may be in response to societal conditioning where rules and expectations are imposed, e.g. girls don’t become car mechanics etc. Often these experiences and conditioning build recurring patterns that create self-limiting beliefs.
Recognising Self-Limiting Beliefs
The first step to changing a self-limiting belief is to recognise that it exists. We cannot change what we don’t see!
Self-reflection and self-awareness
The main way to identify self-limiting beliefs is through self-reflection. When we self-reflect and invest time to think about how we feel, our thoughts and our behaviours this helps us to build self-awareness. When we become more self-aware this helps us to identify patterns of behaviour which trigger the self-limiting beliefs.
Identifying patterns and triggers
Identifying triggers and patterns of behaviour related to self-limiting beliefs is critical to changing these patterns and replacing them with healthier beliefs that support us to grow and develop.
A simple example to illustrate this might be…. every time you’re in a meeting and your boss asks for a volunteer to lead the next session, you start to feel anxious, you get hot and sweaty, you busy yourself on your phone and avoid eye contact. These are emotional triggers of anxiety which are related to fear.
Even though you are the most qualified person in the room, your fear of being the centre of attention and of failure, which is related to feeling like an ‘imposter’ or not being good enough, means you never volunteer.
Once the self-limiting beliefs are identified and the triggers start to be recognised, the next step is to learn how to overcome these beliefs. A powerful way to achieve this is by learning to shift your mindset.
Embracing a growth mindset
A popular term which emanates from the work of Carole Dwek, a psychology professor from Stanford University, is the Growth Mindset. When we have a growth mindset, we are more likely to be open to learning and see mistakes as opportunities for learning and improving.
In contrast, with a fixed mindset, we are more likely to limit our potential by seeing abilities as finite and fixed, we avoid mistakes and we see them as failures, this inhibits growth and limits potential.
Challenging and reframing self-limiting beliefs
A first step to overcoming the self-limiting belief is to challenge the belief and reframe the way we think about it. Challenging the belief involves being critical and objective and exploring the validity of that belief. This is about gathering objective evidence which proves that the belief is correct or incorrect.
Without evidence, the belief remains subjective. The second step is to reframe the way we think about that belief, so that a negative belief is replaced with a positive one.
To share a personal example – I was invited to do a presentation at a large vet conference with over 1,000 people in the audience. Initial thoughts, were yikes, I’ve never presented to such a large audience, that feels overwhelming, I’m not sure I can do this. Negative thoughts start to appear, based on the fact that I have no previous experience of this at scale.
Now, if I was to give in to these emotional triggers, this would lead to more anxiety, fuelled by fear,… ‘no-one will be interested in what I have to say, what do I know about this topic, I’m an imposter really’! Sound familiar? However, this is when I challenged my thinking, by interrupting this negative thought pattern. Instead, I decided to reframe my thinking and replace these negative thoughts with more positive ones.
The narrative goes like this…. ‘I have a PhD on this topic, I have done many presentations and have a lot of experience, people will probably be very interested in what I have to share, I find it interesting and so will they’. This replacement helped me feel confident and excited even, so I accepted the opportunity which opened up many more.
Building self-confidence and self-esteem
An important consideration when challenging and overcoming self-limiting beliefs is the role that self-confidence and self-esteem play in this equation. When we have self-confidence and self-esteem, we are more likely to believe in ourselves, we value ourselves more and we are therefore more likely to have a positive self-view.
In these circumstances, self-limiting beliefs have a harder job in establishing themselves in our thought processes.
Strategies for Overcoming Self-Limiting Beliefs
There are a number of strategies that can help us to overcome self-limiting beliefs, which we will explore, these include:
- Self-exploration and awareness
- Setting realistic goals
- Positive self-talk
- Challenging comfort zone
- Seeking support
- Continuous learning and professional development
Self-Exploration and Awareness
Self-exploration and awareness involves getting to know yourself better. Some practical exercises that can help with this are journaling and self-reflection exercises. Journaling involves writing down your thoughts and feelings and gathering feedback. This process helps you to identify any triggers or patterns of limiting beliefs that emerge so that you can start to challenge and question these beliefs.
Gathering feedback is important as this gives different perspectives which forms part of the validation process. When we rely too heavily or exclusively on our self-view, this can lead to distorted or biased thinking, especially when faced with limiting beliefs. An outside view can be helpful in bringing perspective and balance to our thinking.
Setting Realistic Goals
Another step we can take that can help overcome limiting beliefs is setting realistic goals. When we set goals which are realistic, following SMART principles, this helps bring some structure to our thinking and behaviour. A SMART goal is a way of breaking goals down into manageable steps, this approach takes us closer to our goals.
When we achieve small wins, it is important to celebrate these as this is a very important way of building confidence.
Positive self-talk is another useful strategy that can help overcome limiting beliefs. Positive self-talk involves managing the way that you speak to yourself in your head, or out loud. This means surrounding yourself with positive influences and practicing self-compassion, where you are kind to yourself and you practice self-forgiveness.
A positive affirmation is a statement, or set of words that you repeat to yourself daily to reinforce positive messages, e.g. I am good at my job, I am a kind, generous person, I am happy with myself, etc. Whilst this may initially feel uncomfortable this technique is in fact backed by science.
The empirical research behind positive affirmations comes from positive psychology and self-affirmation theory (Steele, 1988). This supports the view that with repetition new beliefs are reinforced, which over time, become embedded in a new way of thinking and behaving.
Challenging Comfort Zones
Challenging yourself to get out of your comfort zone is another useful strategy for dealing with limiting beliefs. When we sit in a ‘comfort zone’ this means we stay with what feels safe and familiar. In these circumstances we don’t risk failing, we stay exactly where we are, which stifles personal growth, especially if that space is full of limiting beliefs.
When you are stuck in a pattern of limiting beliefs and ‘comfort zone’, you need to move to a different zone which frees you from beliefs that limit and step into the unknown. This involves taking some calculated risks and trying new experiences and activities. It is about making mistakes, embracing failures and learning from them.
When you are willing to do something different, outside of your comfort zone, you start to reshape the way you think and behave by being exposed to new perspectives and avenues for growth.
Another option to try to help overcome limiting beliefs is to seek support. This may involve working with a specialist, such as a coach, or joining communities with groups who can offer support and encouragement to try new things and to build confidence.
Continuous Learning and Personal Development
Overcoming limiting beliefs may also involve developing yourself through continuous learning by reading self-help books and listening to podcasts and audiobooks that reinforce positive messages and broaden your knowledge and thinking. It may also include attending workshops or seminars that offer learning and personal development opportunities.
Overcoming Common Obstacles
Overcoming obstacles is part of the process when eliminating self-limiting beliefs. Here are three things to consider in this regard.
Fear of failure and rejection
It is important to recognise that a fear of failure and rejection is both a common and normal way to feel. In fact, learning to see failure as opportunity is important because it starts to reframe thinking and it provides valuable opportunities for learning.
When we make mistakes, we can learn from these mistakes and apply this learning and knowledge for personal growth. It is when we embrace failure and rejection in order to capture the lessons that real growth and learning takes place. We don’t hold ourselves back.
Comparison and imposter syndrome
A second thing to consider which acts as an obstacle is when we make comparisons with others and we experience imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is when we feel like an ‘imposter’, we don’t feel qualified enough, and at some point we think we will be caught out.
This is a common way to feel when we compare ourselves with others, we never match up to the comparison. The important thing to remember here is that everyone is on their own personal journey. Comparisons which reinforce a negative self-view are unhelpful and should be avoided.
Dealing with setbacks
Dealing with setbacks is another obstacle that we need to learn to overcome. When we experience a setback in life, we have two choices, we can view this positively or we can view this negatively. When we see this negatively, the setback will impact resilience and further reinforce a negative belief.
However, if we view the setback positively and see this as a temporary setback, this is a helpful way of overcoming this obstacle. Setbacks can also be seen as part of the learning process and journey. It is important not to over inflate the setback.
To conclude, self-limiting beliefs are views that we hold about ourselves that limit our potential and stop us from reaching our goals. Often a self-limiting belief is not based in reality or supported by evidence. Self-limiting beliefs are typically negative beliefs which hold us back and can often be associated with low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence.
We can deploy strategies to overcome self-limiting beliefs which include increasing self-reflection and self-awareness to identify the triggers for these negative thoughts. We can then learn to change our mindset and develop a growth mindset where we see mistakes and failures as learning opportunities and we can learn to reframe the way we see things, so we replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
The important thing to remember, is to stay open-minded, be patient and learn self-compassion. Small steps take us closer to our goals, which builds confidence and reinforces a new way of thinking and behaving. Importantly, when we shift our mindset we can remove limiting beliefs and unlock our full potential in life.
If you’re looking to learn more about self limiting beliefs and how to overcome them, then you may one to take a look at our mindset training course. This course is an automated programme designed to help you understand your mindset, and improve it to develop a more confident and growth based mindset.
You may also want to take a look at our certified coaching course for beginners. This course was created for those who may be looking for a career change, or just want to deploy more coaching practices into their life. If you’re in a business, and you’re looking to upskill your managers to take a more coaching approach to their managerial style, then check out our coaching training for managers.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How long does it take to overcome self-limiting beliefs?
This depends on how motivated someone is to change the way they think and behave. Typically, the more effort, the quicker the result but consistency is important.
Can coaching help in overcoming self-limiting beliefs?
Coaching is an excellent way to help someone remove self-limiting beliefs. A coach acts as the facilitator for the mindset shift needed to reframe thinking.
What are common signs of self-limiting beliefs?
Some of the common signs to watch out for include negative self-view, low self-esteem, lack of confidence, fear of failure, imposter syndrome etc.
How can I differentiate between a realistic limitation and a self-limiting belief?
A realistic limitation will have more basis in reality and is likely to be substantiated by evidence, rather than a self-limiting belief which is self-imposed, often subjective and has no real evidence or basis to substantiate the belief.
Can self-limiting beliefs be completely eliminated?
There is no reason why with the right support, expertise and effort that a self-limiting belief can be completely eliminated. However, we need to remember that personal development generally, is an ongoing process of continuous development.
How can self-limiting beliefs affect relationships and career prospects?
Self-limiting beliefs can impose constraints in all aspects of our lives, including relationships and careers. We are more likely to focus on the negative aspects of self, which can lead to all types of restrictions and complications. It could lead to not applying for the promotion, not sending in the job applications, aiming too low, putting up with unhelpful relationships etc.
What are some practical steps to challenge and reframe self-limiting beliefs?
Practical steps which help us challenge and reframe our thoughts, include finding evidence to substantiate a limiting belief, remove the emotion and subjective view and find objective evidence, reframe negative thoughts and replace these with positive ones, take care of language and replace negative words with positive words, use positive affirmations, shift mindset to establish a growth mindset etc.
How can I build self-confidence while working on overcoming self-limiting beliefs?
There are many useful and practical things we can do to build self-confidence. Self-esteem is like a muscle, the more we train that muscle, the stronger it gets.
You can start journaling and capturing positive statements about your strengths, ask for positive feedback and capture this in your journal, take small steps out of your comfort zone, learn by taking small calculated risks, this will reinforce new behaviours and will strengthen confidence, listen to empowering podcasts, employ the skills of a coach, learn to self-coach and start to shift your mindset etc.
Steele, C. M. (1988). The Psychology of Self-Affirmation: Sustaining the Integrity of the Self. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 21, pp. 261-302). Academic Press. ISSN 0065-2601. ISBN 9780120152216.
About the Author
Jodi is the founder and driving force behind Engage. She is an occupational psychologist and executive coach with a PhD in Coaching Psychology, who for over 20 years has dedicated her career to helping people thrive and be the best version of themselves.
As a leading expert in coaching, she has worked globally with blue chip clients. She combines this wealth of experience and passion for human development with the scientific rigour of evidence-based research which underpins the Engage toolset.