In their simplest form, self-limiting beliefs are assumptions or perceptions that we have about ourselves and about how the world works. They are “self-limiting” because in some way they are holding us back from achieving what we are capable of.
The difficulty with limiting beliefs is that they tend to be sticky. Once we’ve formed a belief — whether political, religious, or about ourselves — we look for more evidence to support the belief and discount evidence to the contrary. While this gives us a foundation for understanding an otherwise complex and confusing world, it also means that beliefs can be tough to shed, even when they’re holding us back.1
[This is an excerpt from Level Up Your Law Practice, which is now available for pre-order.]
Limiting beliefs are self-defeating and self-fulfilling. If you believe that you aren’t fit for a leadership position (even if it is something you want), you won’t put yourself in a position for others to choose you for leadership roles. When you see others chosen for roles that you could have opted for, it will reinforce your belief that they’re better suited for it than you. Self-limiting beliefs stunt our growth and create barriers that keep us from doing things we want to do.
Let’s make this more specific to lawyering. Young lawyers know they need to engage in client development. But creating new business relationships and trying to convert those relationships to clients is difficult, uncomfortable, and fraught with perils. To give themselves on out, young lawyers (and sometimes older lawyers) will tell themselves, “I don’t have enough experience,” or “I’m not cut out to be a rainmaker.” And there may be situations in which those statements are true. But more often, those kinds of limiting beliefs reflect a lack of confidence or feelings of inadequacy, rather than on the reality of their situation.2
When we allow limiting beliefs to instruct our actions, and often our inactions, we create a cycle of self-fulling habits. Dr. Amy Morin writes, “Unhealthy beliefs lead to unhealthy habits. And unhealthy habits produce negative outcomes that ultimately reinforce your unhealthy beliefs. It’s a vicious cycle that can be tough to break.”3
If we want to break the cycle, what do we need to do? First, we have to identify the limiting beliefs that we are allowing to restrain us. Then implement tactics that will enable us to overcome and ultimately change our beliefs. This will not be a one-time measure. It will be a process. One that requires vigilance and manicuring. But you can do it. And to become the most capable version of yourself, you must.
1. Identifying your self-limiting beliefs
Limiting beliefs are often deeply ingrained in us and have arisen because of some experience early in our lives. Because they are so entrenched, they operate subconsciously and can be difficult to identify. An effective way to ferret out your limiting beliefs is to look for symptoms.
When you feel fear or resistance about something, that causes you to think “That’s impossible” or “I have to …,” it could be an indicator that you have an underlying limiting belief that is triggering those reactions.4 Are there things in your life that cause you to immediately buck and say, “I can’t do that”? For some people it’s public speaking. Or maybe you’re a perfectionist, and that mentality stops you from doing things because you will be unable to perform them flawlessly. Or do you think you aren’t smart or talented enough?
Something sparked these feelings and turned them into things that you believe about yourself. Do some digging to find the root of your limiting beliefs. Sometimes this can be painful and may require the help of a counselor. You may be able to point to a singular event that catalyzed your limiting belief. Whatever the case, if you want to move beyond it, you will have to put in the introspective work of identifying your limiting beliefs.
Only after you’ve identified them will you be able to overcome them. Author and entrepreneur Joanna Penn writes, “You need to identify those critical thoughts so they are not just running through your mind like black sand, squashing the life from you.”5
2. Overcoming your limiting beliefs
If you’re going to shed yourself of your limiting beliefs, you need a plan. There is no one-time cure all. These are beliefs that you’ve curated over a long time. It’s not enough to decide to change your beliefs. You have to replace them with new beliefs that align with an attitude of abundance and support your growth and forward progress.
Give it a rest. Once you have identified your self-limiting beliefs, give them a rest. Suspend your belief that you cannot get beyond them, even for short periods of time. Rather than tell yourself that you can’t do something, ask yourself how you can do the thing that you want to do but feel you can’t. Rather than conceding it as being impossible, ask yourself, “How would I?” and begin problem solving. Will yourself into a better position to accomplish the thing or at least find a solution.6
Here is a specific example of identifying and then suspending a self-limiting belief, from leadership consultant Michael Hyatt:
I used to think of myself as an introvert. It was the reason I didn’t mingle with people at parties or even introduce myself to audience members before I spoke in public. But it suddenly dawned on me one day that this was a limiting belief. It was keeping me from having the impact I really wanted. It wasn’t the way things were; it was an excuse that was keeping me from growing. So I changed my belief. I decided that introversion was more of a preference rather than something innate. I could choose which behavior to exhibit — introversion or extroversion — based on what I wanted to achieve.7
Understand their purpose, question their validity: All beliefs have a purpose, and that purpose is usually connected to keeping you safe or protecting you from pain or another negative outcome. As for limiting beliefs, the purpose, while misguided, does exist, and that’s why it’s so powerful.8
After identifying the purpose of your belief and its source, question whether it is still valid. Is it true? And if so, is it immutable? Often, the answer to at least one of those questions is no. So if your limiting belief is no longer true or is changeable, then it’s no longer serving its purpose. It is no longer valid. Instead, your belief is diminishing your capacity accomplish things.
Form new beliefs: To break the hold your old beliefs have, you need to replace them with new ones. We need to believe in something to make sense of the world and to give ourselves stable foundations for navigating it. “So for each of the limiting beliefs you’ve identified, turn it around and formulate a new belief that’s more in line with your values and that’ll support you in achieving your goals.”9 We can’t leave voids where the old beliefs resided, or they will try to take up residence again. We must establish new beliefs, then implement measures to affirm them.
Affirm your new beliefs: Set up habits to support the new beliefs, like deliberately putting the new belief into practice in a small way every day.10 Do things that challenge your self-limiting beliefs. Choose goals that help you move in the direction of your overall objectives. Your goals should be out of your comfort zone; you may not achieve them at first, but the more you work toward them, the more confidence you will build. And confidence is the enemy of limiting beliefs.11
We will discuss goal-setting in more detail in the next section of the book. But it’s important to understand that you can implement goal-setting in myriad aspects of your life. Whether it’s to level up your business or to reinforce new beliefs about yourself and the things you can accomplish.
Perform self-analysis: Figure out where you’re getting in your own way and creating artificial barriers inhibiting your success. Then begin to remove the blockades. Do not give yourself excuses to fail. Failures will invariably happen. But don’t let them occur because you’re sabotaging yourself.
1 Andrew Blackman, “What Are Self-Limiting Beliefs? + How to Overcome Them Successfully,” https://business.tutsplus.com/tutorials/what-are-self-limiting-beliefs–cms-31607.
2 Andrew Blackman, “What Are Self-Limiting Beliefs? + How to Overcome Them Successfully,” https://business.tutsplus.com/tutorials/what-are-self-limiting-beliefs–cms-31607.
3 Amy Morin, “3 Types of Self-Limiting Beliefs That Will Keep You Stuck in Life (and What to Do About Them),” https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/3-types-of-unhealthy-beliefs-that-will-drain-your-mental-strength-make-you-less-effective.html.
4 Gwen Moran, “5 Habits to Get Over Self-Limiting Beliefs,” https://www.fastcompany.com/3058647/5-habits-to-get-over-self-limiting-beliefs.
5 Joanna Penn, The Successful Author Mindset: A Handbook for Surviving the Writer’s Journey, p. 22 (Kindle Edition).
6 Gwen Moran, “5 Habits to Get Over Self-Limiting Beliefs,” https://www.fastcompany.com/3058647/5-habits-to-get-over-self-limiting-beliefs.
7 Michael Hyatt, “Are Your Beliefs Keeping You Stuck?” https://michaelhyatt.com/limiting-beliefs/.
8 Andrew Blackman, “What Are Self-Limiting Beliefs? +How to Overcome Them Successfully,” https://business.tutsplus.com/tutorials/what-are-self-limiting-beliefs–cms-31607.
9 Andrew Blackman, “What Are Self-Limiting Beliefs? + How to Overcome Them Successfully,” https://business.tutsplus.com/tutorials/what-are-self-limiting-beliefs–cms-31607.
10 Andrew Blackman, “What Are Self-Limiting Beliefs? + How to Overcome Them Successfully,” https://business.tutsplus.com/tutorials/what-are-self-limiting-beliefs–cms-31607.
11 Gwen Moran, “5 Habits to Get Over Self-Limiting Beliefs,” https://www.fastcompany.com/3058647/5-habits-to-get-over-self-limiting-beliefs.