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Limiting beliefs are false beliefs that we hold about ourselves. They restrict and inhibit us and generally make us feel miserable.
“I am not as qualified as the others, I cannot speak in the meeting.”; or
“I am too overweight to wear that dress.”
Limiting beliefs hold us back from doing things because we incorrectly believe that we can’t or shouldn’t do some of the things that we would like to do.
They exist unquestioned in our minds. We simply accept them as rules that we must live by. Everyone has them and they have usually resided in our brains for years.
Belief or Truth?
In believing limiting beliefs to be true, accurate, and factually correct we stop interacting openly and freely with certain aspects of our lives. This can have very significant consequences without us even realizing it.
People often confuse beliefs with truths, when in actual fact the two are completely different things.
A belief is a personal acceptance that something exists or is true. Beliefs don’t require evidence or proof, and they often rely on trust, faith, and having confidence in something or somebody.
Truths on the other hand conform with reality. Based on facts and evidence, they can be verified as real and certain. They cannot be argued with.
Just because we believe something, doesn’t necessarily make it true.
Of course, some of the beliefs that we hold are purposeful and protect us from harm (for example, if we touch the cooker we will get burned). These beliefs absolutely accord with the truth.
However, this is not the case with limiting beliefs.
The Truth about Limiting Beliefs
Limiting beliefs are constructed from our past experiences. Often shaped and formed at an early age, they are naive, misinformed, shrouded in inaccuracy, and usually simply wrong.
In short, limiting beliefs aren’t truths. They are not the factual entity that we perceive them to be.
Despite this, we treat them as sacrosanct and sacred.
We accept them without question and don’t interfere with them.
Sadly, they have a devastating effect on the way we live our lives. They hold us back, they cause us to make inaccurate judgments and they curtail our enjoyment of life.
Even worse, it’s an epidemic! We all have limiting beliefs; we hold them about ourselves, others, our relationships, and the world in general. These beliefs guide us, we follow their rules and we don’t question their validity. We hold beliefs about what we are able to accomplish, about the rights and permissions that we have, about what we are allowed to do.
Some examples of limiting beliefs include feeling:
- You’re not good enough.
- You don’t deserve X, Y, or Z and feel that you’re not a nice person.
- You’re not attractive/ intelligent/ funny enough.
- You will fail.
- You can’t make a fuss and need to keep quiet.
- You’ll embarrass yourself if you…
How are Limiting Beliefs Formed?
Limiting beliefs are commonly formed in childhood and adolescence. They are a product of our experiences. However, a significant experience at any point in our life can give rise to a new limiting belief.
Like the tip of the iceberg above the water level, limiting beliefs are actually based on a complex body of evidence that sits beyond our frame of immediate consciousness. In other words we may not be able to even explain why we accept as true some of the limiting beliefs that we hold.
Often, the evidence base is thin and inaccurate, rather like a bad police drama on the TV.
The role of the RAS in Limiting Beliefs
When we encounter an experience, our brain draws conclusions from the encounter or the action. Every experience leaves an impression, which is processed and stored. A part of our brain called the Reticular Activating System (or RAS) organizes all of this information so that it can be consulted again when needed – just like our own personal reference library.
For example, “I fell over when I didn’t tie my shoelaces. I must tie my shoelaces to stop myself from falling over.”
The RAS does a remarkable job at recalling and filtering information. It’s why when you’re thinking about buying a red car, all you see everywhere you go are red cars. The RAS hums along quietly in the background, providing us with the information that we need on demand.
However, there is a problem. The course taken by the RAS is determined by our focus and our beliefs. The RAS is incredibly compliant. Hence, if we think that we are a failure, for example, the RAS will kick into action and provide you with all the evidence you need to conclusively prove this belief – one glorious bit after another! Always happy to help! Handy right?!
The Immature Brain
However, the immature brain of childhood and adolescence is not perfect, and some of the information stored by the RAS is based on inaccurate conclusions drawn from childhood inexperience and even emotional trauma in later life.
In short, whilst the RAS is great, it also has its distinct downsides too. It’s just doing its job – regurgitating information. But just like the internet, some of the information it contains is junk. It will always do its best to make the evidence fit the belief – distorting, deleting and generalising like a crooked lawyer in a criminal trial.
In the words of Tobias van Schneider:
“The RAS seeks information that validates your beliefs. It filters the world through the parameters you give it, and your beliefs shape those parameters. If you think you are bad at giving speeches, you probably will be. If you believe you work efficiently, you most likely do. The RAS helps you see what you want to see and in doing so, influences your actions.”
Common Sources of Limiting Beliefs
Have you ever noticed the lunacy of your childhood beliefs? This can sometimes be quite amusing, especially when you notice some of the rules that you follow because they were implanted by your parents early on in your childhood. For example, I cannot leave food on my plate because I was taught from a child that this is not allowed under any circumstances. (I’m certain that this is the source of my curvaceous hips – thanks Mum and Dad.)
As children, we take at face value the things that our parents tell us. We believe them without question. After all, why would they lie to us?!
The same applies to people in positions of authority. Unfortunately, not everyone is in full possession of the truth or even a balanced view.
As children we are often fed inaccurate information, which is then filtered by an immature brain and stored in our RAS leaving a lasting impact. For this reason, most people can trace their fear of speaking in public back to a traumatic event in childhood like speaking in front of the class and getting tongue tied.
Generalizations and Excuses
As sophisticated creatures it’s actually surprising how quickly we make decisions, often based on very little factual information, relying heavily on feelings. Have you ever been a situation where, no matter how hard you try, the other person does not want to hear the truth or accept the facts?
As David Straker from Changing Minds summarises:
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.
Fear and Failure
Fear is a common cause of limiting beliefs. Social fear, the thought of being laughed at, judged or criticised, is a powerful and unhelpful motivator. Too often we simply don’t take a risk because are certain of the consequences. How wrong we are.
Failure is also a culprit in the creation of our limiting beliefs. As Straker, continues
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.
Straker, D. (2019). Limiting Beliefs. [online] Changingminds.org. Available at: http://changingminds.org/explanations/belief/limiting_beliefs.htm [Accessed 17 Oct. 2019].
The Barefoot Coaching Handbook (2019)
Van Schneider, T. (2019). If you want it, you might get it. The Reticular Activating System explained. [online] Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/desk-of-van-schneider/if-you-want-it-you-might-get-it-the-reticular-activating-system-explained-761b6ac14e53 [Accessed 17 Oct. 2019].