Let’s explore the metaphor that we are all acorns. Each of us has within us the instructions and ingredients to become a mighty oak tree. All that is needed is the right set of conditions – a good patch of soil, water, sunlight and time to flourish.
It is the same in life that we are all immensely capable of reaching our potential and doing great things in the world. That might be excellence in a field of study, creating a social movement, starting a successful business venture or being a loving and nurturing role model in the family.
As children we dream big about achieving great things but as we grow far too many of us encounter the wrong conditions and so our potential is stunted. This may come in the form of lacking education, experiencing poverty or even being mistreated. One of the factors that can seriously hold us back from what we are capable of is our own limiting beliefs. They can stop us from taking opportunities, sharing our ideas or being who we want to be.
Read on, because there are things we can do to overcome limiting beliefs and grow into the oaks we were meant to be.
In the world of psychology, you may hear the terms limiting beliefs and limiting assumptions used synonymously.
Belief / assumption – when we accept certain things to be true about ourselves or life, often without tangible evidence.
Limiting – where holding that belief or assumption means that we experience negative outcomes. For example; not making a positive change, giving up on a dream, feeling anxious about a situation, declining an opportunity or not reaching our potential in some way.
This closely relates to the concept of life scripts which was developed by Eric Berne. These are a set of understandings and decisions about the world that we make as children based on the messages and reinforcement we receive from adults in our early lives. Although these are based on evidence (our own experiences) they can still be limiting if the messages we were exposed to were negative ones.
The majority of our limiting beliefs and life scripts are formed in our childhood. We are exposed to messages that adults in our lives portray both directly through their words to us and indirectly by watching the way they behave in the world. Our parents may tell us “You are not strong enough to do this job for me.” Or they may simply imply a lack of strength by always asking the older sibling to help instead of you.
In transactional analysis the most common messages we receive are sorted into two types; injunctions restrict us by telling us what not to do (e.g. Don’t be a child) whereas counter injunctions put pressure on us to be a certain way to gain approval (e.g. Try hard). While the counter injunctions are not strictly negative, they can play out in negative ways if we feel pressure to be a certain way in order to please others.
“The Drowning Person” diagram shows how the counter injunctions drive us upwards whilst the injunctions pull us down – both battling to form our belief system.
Our limiting beliefs are also shaped by other adults in our early lives; Teachers, close relatives and sometimes figures in the local community and media can influence our understanding of who we are and what we should believe about ourselves and the world. For example
Children’s TV may tell us ‘Boys should play rough whilst girls should be polite’
Teachers may reinforce the belief that ‘People like me more when I do as I’m told’
Whilst many of our limiting beliefs come from childhood – new ones can be introduced in adult life, or old ones shaped in new ways. A classic limiting belief is imposter syndrome; believing that you are not as capable (or sometimes deserving) of a role as others believe you to be. This can be heavily influenced by your experiences of the workplace in adult life.
Whatever stage of life they come from, limiting beliefs are formed when we begin to internalise and hold true the negative messages that are fed to us – or that we tell ourselves – about who we are and how the world works.
In her book, Time to Think, Nancy Kline identifies three types of limiting assumption that can hold people back from good quality thinking.
Facts – These are things which are objectively true (and so technically not an assumption!). However, some facts can get in the way of us reaching our potential. For example, the fact that you are not the manager of the team may limit your sense that you can make decisions on the team.
Possible facts – These are objective statements about what may or may not happen in a set of circumstances. For example, “If I share my idea, people might laugh at me.” There is no denying that is a possibility but the likelihood of it happening and the impact of it are arguable.
Bedrock assumptions – These are subjective and quite firm beliefs that form a large part of our decision making and operation in the world. They are split into two types;
Bedrock assumptions about the self:
Bedrock assumptions about the world:
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT for short) is a branch of therapy that focuses on addressing how what you believe shapes your feelings and behaviours. They have a number of models for helping people to challenge and reframe thinking over time in order to replace limiting beliefs with more constructive ones.
A useful model from CBT we can follow is called the A-F model.
A – Activating situation: when does this belief show up for you?
B – Beliefs: what is the belief? Is it about the self? The world? The situation?
C – Consequences: when you have this belief, what happens? How do you feel? What do you do / not do?
D – Dispute: This is where you challenge the belief you hold in part B, and can be done in a number of ways:
E – Exchange: What would be a healthier or better thought process? Using the ideas from part D can help with this process.
F – Future planning: The next time your old limiting belief crops up, how are you going to tackle it or reinforce the new belief?
In practice this may look like:
A: When my boss doesn’t email me back within a day.
B: I believe that they are angry that I haven’t done something correctly.
C: I get anxious and start asking other team members if they have heard anything. I find it hard to concentrate on my work.
D: There’s no evidence that I did anything wrong. In the past when I’ve made errors, they have told me up front about it. Thinking I’ve done something wrong is unhelpful because it lowers my productivity. Alternative explanations are that the boss is doing something else or has missed my email.
E: Healthier beliefs might be; “I am a competent worker.” “People will get back to me when they are ready.” “It is other people’s responsibility to tell me if they have a concern.”
F: I will stick these on a post it note near my computer to remind myself of the new thoughts.
Following this process and reinforcing the new, more positive belief over time is a great way to undo the limiting beliefs that have built up over time. It can take time for people to genuinely adopt the new belief, depending on how deeply ingrained the old limiting belief was.
Another tool for overcoming limiting beliefs is ‘Incisive questions’ (Nancy Kline) which are named so because they help to cut through limiting assumptions. It is hard to say whether they fully remove the assumption, but they certainly side-step the belief in order to help people generate new ideas about how they could respond or act in situations where they were previously stuck.
The process to follow involves:
The incisive question may not remove the limiting belief in the long term because our brains are not good with ‘if’ – but what it does in the moment is allows someone to brainstorm positive courses of action for their situation. This is really beneficial when people get stuck. Asking the question multiple times can help the other to generate more responses, ready to take positive action.
Overcoming limiting beliefs is possible alone if you use well thought out processes to help you reflect and give yourself the time and patience to work through them. However, many people find that working with another person or service is beneficial. This may be for a number of reasons; their expertise, the accountability, actually dedicating time to the process and another person’s perspective or observations on what you say or do.
If you are interested in further support for overcoming limiting beliefs then the following routes may be helpful:
Therapy – there are a number of different branches of therapy. In general, therapy is a conversational process which helps a client to overcome an issue by looking into the past, understanding root causes and healing trauma in order to go forwards. This route may be useful for people who have deeply ingrained or very damaging limiting beliefs.
Coaching – Coaching is a close cousin of therapy but is different as it is usually non directive (the coach doesn’t give you advice) and is more present and future focused. Working with a coach may help you to identify how limiting beliefs are showing up in your life and work with you to develop new ways of thinking or behaving to overcome them.
Social Support – having even a small number of high-quality relationships can make a difference to your limiting beliefs, even when those people are not psychological experts. Being surrounded by people who reinforce your positive qualities, abilities and a generally optimistic outlook on life can help to subtly counter the limiting beliefs and lead to new ways of thinking.
Want support in handling limiting beliefs in yourself or your teams? The Self Leadership Initiative provides development training and coaching to help you reach your full potential. Book a consultation here.