What are limiting beliefs?
Limiting beliefs are those which constrain us in some way. Just by believing them, we do not think, do or say the things that they inhibit. And in doing so we impoverish our lives.
We may have beliefs about rights, duties, abilities, permissions and so on. Limiting beliefs are often about our selves and our self-identity. The beliefs may also be about other people and the world in general.
In any case, they sadly limit us.
We may define ourselves by what we do or do not do. I may say ‘I am an accountant’, which means I do not do marketing and should not even think about it, and consequently fail to sell my services well.
Another common limiting belief is around how we judge ourselves. We think ‘I don’t deserve…’ and so do not expect or seek things.
We often have limited self-images of what we can and cannot do. If I think ‘I cannot sing’ then I will never try or not go to singing lessons to improve my ability. This is the crux of many ‘I can’t’ statements: we believe our abilities are fixed and that we cannot learn.
We are bound by values, norms, laws and other rules that constrain what we must and must not do. However, not all of these are mandatory and some are distinctly limiting. If I think ‘I must clean the house every day’ then this robs me of time that may be spent in something more productive.
I am/am not
The verb ‘to be’ is quite a pernicious little thing and as we think ‘I am’ we also think ‘I am not’ or ‘I cannot’. For example we may think ‘I am an artist’ and so conclude that we can never be any good at mathematics, or must not soil our hands with manual work.
‘I am’ thinking assumes we cannot change. Whether I think ‘I am intelligent’ or ‘I am not intelligent’, either belief may stop me from seeking to learn. ‘I am’ also leads to generalization, for example where ‘I am stupid’ means ‘all of me is all of stupid and all of stupid is all of me’. A better framing is to connect the verb to the individual act, such as ‘That was a stupid thing to do’.
When coupled with values we get beliefs about whether a person is right or wrong, good or bad.
Just as we have limiting beliefs about ourselves, we also have beliefs about other people, which can limit us in many ways. If we think others are more capable and superior then we will not challenge them. If we see them as selfish, we may not ask them to help us.
We often guess what others are thinking based on our ‘theory of mind‘ and beliefs about them. These guesses are often wrong. Hence we may believe they do not like us when they actually have no particular opinion or even think we are rather nice. From our guesses at their thoughts we then deduce their likely actions, which can of course be completely wrong. Faced with this evidence, it is surprising how many will still hold to the original beliefs.
How the world works
Beyond the limiting beliefs above there can be all kinds of belief about ‘how the world works’, from laws of nature to the property of materials. This can lead to anything from the beliefs that all dogs will bite to the idea that aeroplane travel is dangerous.
Why do we limit our beliefs?
A key way by which we form our beliefs is through our direct experiences. We act, something happens and we draw conclusions. Often such beliefs are helpful, but they can also be very limiting.
Particularly when we are young and have few experiences we may form false and limiting conclusions. Nature builds us this way to keep us out of harm’s way. We learn and build beliefs faster from harmful experiences. Sticking my finger on a hot stove hurts a lot so we believe all stoves are dangerous and never touch a stove again. If punching another child results in a sound beating we may henceforth believe ourselves weak.
When forming our perceptions of the world, we cannot depend on experiences for everything. We hence read and listen to parents and teacher about how the world works and how to behave in it.
But our teachers are not always that well informed. We also learn from what peers tell us and are ‘infected’ by their beliefs, which may be very limiting.
Education is a double-edged sword as it tells you want is right and wrong, good and bad. It helps you survive and grow, but just because you were told something, you may never try things and so miss pleasant and useful experiences and knowledge.
In decisions, we make ‘return on investment’ estimations and easily conclude that the investment of time, effort and money is insufficient, and that there is a low chance of success and high chance of failure. The return may even be negative as we are harmed in some way.
People make many decision errors, for example based on poor estimation of probabilities. We take a little data and generalize it to everything. We go on hunches that are based more on subconscious hopes and fears than on reality.
The word ‘because’ can be surprisingly hazardous. When we use it, it seems like we are using good reason, but this may not be so. We like to understand cause-and-effect and often do not challenge reasoning that uses the mechanisms of rational argument.
One reason we use faulty logic and form limiting beliefs is to excuse ourselves from what we perceive to be our failures.
When we do something and it does not work, we often explain away our failure by forming and using beliefs which justify our actions and leave us blameless. But in doing so, we do not learn and may increasingly paint ourselves into a corner, limiting what we will think and do in the future.
Limiting beliefs are often fear-driven. Locking the belief in place is the fear that, if we go against the beliefs, deep needs will be harmed.
There is often a strong social component to our decisions and the thought of criticism, ridicule or rejection by others is enough to powerfully inhibit us. We also fear that we may be harmed in some way by others, and so avoid them or seek to appease them.
There is also the question of whether limiting beliefs are actually good for us and whether they keep us from harm. In practice some beliefs which limit us are actually valid beliefs which are worth keeping. The problem is telling the difference. The reality is that many of us err on the side of perceived (and not necessarily real) safety. Limiting beliefs are erroneous, being based on wrong ‘facts’ and so prompt us to treat things with undue caution.
So if you want to overcome limiting beliefs, first recognize them and then act to change what you believe.