What Are Self-Limiting Beliefs? +How to Overcome Them Successfully
“I’m too old.”
“I don’t have enough experience.”
“Someone else has probably done this already.”
These are just a few examples of self-limiting beliefs that can prevent you from achieving your goals in business or in life. There are plenty more limiting beliefs out there, and you probably have a few of them—we all do.
So read on to find out more about what self-limiting beliefs are and to see some self-limiting beliefs examples. And, more importantly, we’ll go through the process of identifying and overcoming your own limiting beliefs.
This could be a very powerful exercise for you. If you’ve been trying and failing to reach certain goals that are important to you, it could well be due to self-limiting beliefs. And, what’s worse, you may not even be aware that you hold these beliefs, let alone know how to overcome them.
So, if you’re ready to take a big step forward in achieving what’s important to you, let’s get started by looking at what limiting beliefs are.
1. What Are Self-Limiting Beliefs?
To put it simply, self-limiting beliefs are assumptions or perceptions that you’ve got about yourself and about the way the world works. These assumptions are “self-limiting” because in some way they’re holding you back from achieving what you are capable of.
That’s a quick overview, but let’s unpack the term a little more by examining each of its components, starting with what beliefs are and how they’re formed.
How Your Beliefs Are Formed
From a very early age in childhood, we begin to form beliefs about the world and our place in it. Our brains are very good at spotting patterns and making associations, so we constantly process the stream of information about the world around us and use it to form beliefs. Generally, the purpose of belief formation is to help us understand the world and stay safe.
In early childhood, these beliefs are usually based on our own experiences and shaped by our parents or other dominant figures in our lives. If I hit someone, I get punished, so hitting people must be bad. If I say “please” and “thank you”, I get rewarded. So, being polite must be good.
As we get older, we start to form more complex beliefs and are able to draw on a much wider range of sources such as books, movies, TV advertisements, the behaviour of our peers, and so on.
Nevertheless, the core beliefs that we formed as young children can be very powerful, and even when we encounter new information or explanations, we often cling to our old beliefs.
For example, a young boy with hard-working parents who are often absent may form the belief: “I’m not good enough for them to want to be with me.” Later, he may come to understand that his parents work hard for many reasons, including their love for him and desire to provide for him, but that early belief may be so deeply engrained that he continues to hold onto it.
Part of the reason for this is that we don’t like being wrong. Once we’ve formed a belief, we tend to look for more evidence to support that belief and to discount contradictory evidence. This gives us a stable foundation for understanding a world that would otherwise be very confusing, but it also means that beliefs can be tough to get rid of, even when they’re holding us back.
Why Some Beliefs Become Self-Limiting
So, as we’ve just discovered, belief formation starts early in life, and once beliefs are formed, they’re quite resistant to change.
That should go a long way to explaining why many of our beliefs are limiting. Patterns that we observed as children and that helped us to navigate kindergarten or the school playground may not serve us in the adult world.
If you grew up in an abusive or neglectful environment, it should be pretty clear that you’ll have a lot of toxic beliefs about yourself. But even if you grew up in a loving home, you can end up with limiting beliefs. Parents who support you and jump in to defend you from every playground enemy can leave you with the belief that you’re not capable of resolving your own problems. Overpraising can lead to the belief that praise is not trustworthy.
Beliefs aren’t facts. They may or may not be true or helpful, but they still dictate the way we behave in life. If we believe that we’re not good enough, we won’t put ourselves forward for promotion—and seeing someone else get promoted ahead of us will then reinforce that same belief. So beliefs like that are self-limiting—they limit our horizons and hold us back from doing things that we want to do.
2. Examples of Limiting Beliefs in Business
OK, enough about childhood. Now that we’ve got an idea of where beliefs come from and how some of them can be limiting, let’s fast-forward to the adult world and look at the real impact of self-limiting beliefs when it comes to achieving your goals, particularly in business.
Beliefs lead to actions—or in some cases lack of action. We saw an example of that at the end of the last section, with the missed promotion. Let’s look at some more self-limiting beliefs examples that could be preventing you from achieving business success.
“I Don’t Have Enough Experience/Qualifications”
This is a very common limiting belief. We often believe that we need a résumé as long as War & Peace before we can think about moving forward in our careers.
There are particular situations in which this is a real issue—you can’t be a doctor without a medical degree, for example. But there are also plenty of situations in which it’s a limiting belief based more on lack of confidence or feelings of inadequacy than on business reality.
All of us start out with no experience. So if you can’t get your dream job, get a job that’ll get you closer to it. If you need qualifications, try to find a way to get them.
In entrepreneurship, lack of experience is rarely a problem except in the mind. To take a simple example, Mark Zuckerberg had no experience of running social networks—or, indeed, of running anything much—before founding Facebook. Look at many successful entrepreneurs, and you’ll find people whose only real qualifications were confidence and determination.
“Someone Else Can Probably Do This Better Than Me”
Have you ever had a business idea, only to give up on it because you thought someone else had probably already done it, or could do it better?
This is another limiting belief. Sure, there’s always going to be competition out there, and some of your competitors will have more resources or will do certain things better than you. But you can still find your own competitive advantage. See these tutorials for help on getting started:
Yep, this one can go either way, which is a hint that it’s probably not true. Some of us believe we’re too old to start a business or pursue whatever goal we’ve got in mind, while others believe we’re too young.
The reality, of course, is that age is no barrier except in the mind. Check out these examples of child entrepreneurs and “seniorpreneurs” for some evidence of that.
“I Don’t Have the Money”
Lack of capital is, of course, a real barrier in the business world. But there are often ways to bootstrap a business without much money or to raise funding—see our learning guide about funding a business or this tutorial on starting a business with little to no money:
Like lack of money, lack of time can be a real problem, but it can also be overcome. If you’re using it as an excuse for inaction on your business idea, it could be because it’s a limiting belief for you.
Entrepreneurs and other successful people sometimes seem like a different species, don’t they? They seem to have so much more energy and motivation.
The reality, though, is that they’re people just like you, and most of the time they’ve struggled to motivate themselves to continue. But they haven’t taken that lack of motivation on board as a permanent, defining characteristic of their lives. Here are a few tutorials to help you out of the trap of lacking motivation:
These are just a few examples of limiting beliefs in business. There are loads more out there, such as the belief that you shouldn’t do something unless you can do it perfectly, the belief that you’re defined by your failures, and many more. I’m sure you can think of some right now. In the next section, we’ll look at how to identify your own limiting beliefs.
3. How to Identify Your Limiting Beliefs
Most limiting beliefs are subconscious, so it may take some work to uncover them. Here are some strategies you can use to discover your own self-limiting beliefs.
Many of us set goals or resolutions, often around New Year, and many of us fall short—often around February. Then we beat ourselves up over our lack of willpower, and start the cycle all over again next year.
If that sounds like your experience, it could well be that limiting beliefs have held you back from achieving your goals. So lay the blame aside for now, and try to analyse what went wrong.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
Were your goals realistic?
If so, why didn’t you meet them? Was it due to external factors, or your own behaviour, or a combination?
Focusing on your own behaviour, what could you have done differently?
Why didn’t you do that at the time? What outcomes were you most afraid of or worried about?
What patterns can you observe? At times when you’ve felt blocked or stalled, what is it that prevents you from taking action? What stories do you tell yourself?
Continue asking questions like this, trying to tease out the deeper causes of your past behaviour. You can also use similar questions if you’re struggling right now with a project or goal that intimidates you.
Make notes, without any judgment or blame, as if you’re analysing the situation from the outside. This is a fact-finding mission, and nothing more.
Also try some free writing—“I can’t possibly do X because….” (where X is an important goal for you). Write down all the reasons that come to mind, as quickly as you can, without judging how valid they are. Some of them will probably sound ridiculous or crazy, but some (maybe even the crazy ones) will point to limiting beliefs.
As we discovered in the first section, many of our self-limiting beliefs are formed early in life, so the next step is to go back and make notes on your early experiences and belief formation.
At first, just describe your upbringing:
What were your parents or guardians like?
What were their values?
What did they teach you about the world?
What did you learn from them about things like taking risks vs. being safe, what’s possible in life and what isn’t, what you’re capable of and what you’re not?
What about your wider environment, like school, extended family, local community, and/or religious institutions? What did they teach you about yourself?
What did you learn about your identity (nationality, gender, ethnicity, economic status, physical appearance, etc.) and how did that affect your sense of possibility? Were you ever told things like “Girls don’t do X” or “People like us can never do Y”?
Did you feel confident or lacking in confidence? Or did you feel confident in some areas, but not others? Which ones?
As you grew older, which of these early lessons did you react most strongly against? What did you learn about yourself that contradicted what you’d been taught?
Again, these are just some questions to get you started, but try to continue and ask as many as you can, making notes all the time and being guided by your own experiences. The idea is to get a clear picture of the environment you grew up in and how it shaped your belief formation.
Put It Together
Once you’ve finished, try to look for patterns between the two sets of notes, and find some causes and effects. What early beliefs might you still hold, and how could they explain some of the actions you’re taking today? Could any of them be limiting beliefs that no longer serve you? Could they be responsible for the problems you identified in your blame-free analysis?
As I mentioned, self-limiting beliefs can be hard to identify, so you may need more time. Use these questions to get you started, but the process may take longer. And consider seeking the help of a therapist or other professional, especially if you had a difficult childhood and the “time travel” part raises complex issues for you. This is not something you’ve got to do alone.
4. How to Overcome Your Limiting Beliefs
Once you’ve identified your limiting beliefs (however long that takes), of course you want to overcome them. Again, this is not a simple task, but let’s look at six techniques that can be helpful:
1. Understand Their Purpose
This may sound strange. These are limiting beliefs that are holding you back, so what purpose could they have?
The point is that all beliefs have a purpose, and usually that purpose is somehow connected to keeping you safe or protecting you from pain or another negative outcome.
In the case of limiting beliefs, this purpose may be misguided, but it does exist, and that’s why it’s so powerful. For example, you may be blocked from making progress by the belief that you shouldn’t do anything unless you can do it perfectly. This kind of perfectionism can be crippling, but at its root, it’s probably aimed at protecting you from the pain or humiliation that you believe will result if you put less-than-perfect work out into the world.
2. Question Them
Once you’ve identified the purpose of your belief and where it came from, start to question whether it’s still valid or useful.
In the perfectionism example, ask yourself what the outcome would be if you did let yourself launch a product or business that contained a tiny flaw? Is that worse than the outcome of doing nothing? Overall, does your perfectionism lead to more positive or negative results?
Go through this process with each of the limiting beliefs you identified. Even if you think you know the answers already, you might come up with something new, and the very process of overtly questioning your limiting beliefs can be helpful in reducing their power.
3. Laugh at Them
Humour can be a very effective unblocking tool. It’s hard for something to have power over you when you’re laughing at it.
So try to make jokes out of your limiting beliefs. Take them to extremes and come up with absurd scenarios that make you laugh, or at least not take yourself and your beliefs so seriously.
4. Formulate New Beliefs
To break the power of your old beliefs, you also need to replace them with new ones. You need to believe in something to make sense of the world and to give yourself a stable foundation 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. For example, instead of “I always have to do everything perfectly,” you could say, “I’m OK with small imperfections as long as I’m doing what’s important to me.”
5. Retrain Your Brain
Although the brain tends to hold onto beliefs, it can also be retrained. Beliefs are basically patterns that the brain has identified, so by feeding it new patterns, you can start to rewire it.
There are lots of techniques you can use here. You could try affirmations (writing or speaking your new beliefs repeatedly at specific times every day). You could use a physical object, like a stone you carry in your pocket, as a constant reminder of your new intentions. You could set up habits or rituals to support the new belief, such as deliberately putting the new belief into practice in a small way every day (make a small, intentional mistake if you’re battling perfectionism, for example).
6. Get Inspiration
To sustain you in what will be a long and sometimes difficult process, look for examples to follow. Find people in business or other areas of life who embody the beliefs you’re trying to adopt for yourself.
Once you’ve identified people to follow, read books by them or about them. Find out how they achieved their success and what they had to overcome. Track down inspirational quotes and images and put them where you’ll regularly see them. There’s plenty of general inspiration stuff out there on the web, but what you’re looking for is something specifically tailored to the limiting beliefs you’re grappling with and the empowering beliefs you’re trying to solidify.
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this tutorial. We started by looking at what self-limiting beliefs are and how they’re formed. Then we looked at some common self-limiting beliefs examples and how they can affect you in the business world.
After that, we got into the nitty-gritty of how to identify and overcome your limiting beliefs. We looked at some specific techniques and exercises you can use to help you get to the root of these beliefs and replace them with new, more empowering beliefs.
As I mentioned, this will probably be a lengthy process. Beliefs take a long time to form, and they can’t be changed overnight. But if you stick with it and work at it consistently, you’ll be able to make real, measurable progress and experience some powerful changes in your life.