Self-limiting beliefs - how to unleash your potential?

How is being aware of your weaknesses and having a realistic outlook on your capabilities different from self-limiting beliefs? Where do such destructive opinions come from? What can you do to limit the harmful impact of beliefs and self-stereotyping? How to overcome internal barriers?

Anna Daria Nowicka

Where do limiting beliefs come from?

Self-limiting beliefs, or self-destructive opinions, that we hold about ourselves, frequently start in our childhood. When our loved ones were very critical of us or kept comparing us with people who were better in some area, we may start to believe that we are weak and that we won’t be able to achieve much. Phrases such as: “You got an A – great! Kate got an A+ though...”, “Don’t even start. You won’t make it anyway”, or “Try harder”, can stick in our mind forever.

We can starting hearing a strong voice of the “Inner Critic” in our mind that keeps nagging: “You could have done it better than that. You could have achieved more. You failed again”. Such a voice hurts us, damages our self-confidence and makes us fear another failure. What is more, we will not be able to notice our aptitudes, even if we actually have them or our progress even if we actually make some! Because you can always get more and there will always be someone who is better than us… You can read more on the destructive impact of comparing yourself to others on your self-esteem in my article Why toxic comparisons with others lower your life satisfaction.

Where does this lack of self-confidence come from?

  • Overprotective parents

Our lack of self-confidence and a belief that we are unable to do things on our own can be caused by overprotective parents. Especially when they took over our responsibilities or shielded us from any difficult or stressful situations. Even if they meant well and wanted to spare our feelings, protect us from disillusionment or failure, the end result is that, unfortunately, we will be hurting even more later on in our lives. We have a low self-esteem. We are full of complexes, fears and anxiety. Since we did not have sufficient opportunity to confront challenging situations, it may be hard for us to believe that we can make it on our own without someone to protect us, and we are not going to fight. That way we become prisoners to our limiting beliefs.

  • Perfectionism as a barrier to our actions

It may seem a paradox, however, perfectionism too can lead to limiting beliefs and low self-esteem. If we are too focused on achieving perfection and beat ourselves up for anything that is less than perfect, it is only natural that we will always feel not good enough. We will start to be afraid of leaving our comfort zone and experiment with things; after all, “all things are difficult before they are easy”. We will come to believe that we are not cut out to do most things only because we did not give ourselves enough time and opportunity to gain experience.

It is only natural that things do not always work out the first time around. Since “practice makes perfect”, we will not be able to find out whether or not we actually have skills to do something until we have practiced long enough.

  • Experiencing abuse

Unfortunately, being a victim of abuse, especially in childhood, frequently undermines our self-esteem. I had many clients during my coaching sessions who had doubted their own abilities because they had been victims of work place harassment or physical or mental abuse in a relationship or in their family.

Limiting beliefs may be a derivative of negative stereotypes relating to gender, sex, background, appearance, personality or illnesses. If we convince ourselves that it is “too late” for us to get a new job (for example), we won’t even try to look for it. We will not find out whether or not we had the ability to fulfil our dreams. Hurtful self-stereotypes (that is stereotypes you hold about yourself or your social group) can take away your courage to even try your abilities in a given area.

It is difficult to overcome obstacles on which you have no influence. It is even harder not to give up when others ridicule your ambitions and plans. Examples? Freddie Mercury (the lead singer of Queen) who was one of the most prominent stars of the music scene kept going forward and made a spectacular success despite the hurdles along the way and a major dental defect. Such a story can also motivate you to focus on your goal and on your strengths, rather than on your weaknesses.

How to overcome self-limiting beliefs?

  1. Begin by realising the positive and negative beliefs you have about yourself. Then, make a list of beliefs that cause you to believe you will fail before you have even started, even though you have never done a given thing before or you don’t have any reasons to believe that you are definitely not going to make it. Reformulate your self-destructive belief so that it is no longer impeding you; for example, rather than saying “I will never earn well enough”, tell yourself “If I want to earn well, I need to do/learn this and that”.
  2. Write down a list of your strengths, advantages and achievements. Read it whenever you get the feeling that you are a complete failure. Recall positive endings to situations that had seemed to overwhelm you. Celebrate your successes – even the small ones!
  3. A realistic outlook on your strengths and weaknesses will help you build a more stable sense of self-esteem and find a healthy balance between your self-confidence and the ability to assess your competences and abilities adequately.
  4. The ability to separate facts from opinions is a valuable skill both when it comes to our evaluation of ourselves and of other people or situations. It may be a fact that you have failed an exam or that learning foreign languages just doesn’t come easily to you. However, “I am not cut out for studying”, “Nothing ever works out for me” or “I will never be able to communicate in a foreign language” is a self-destructive opinion.
  5. Avoid general statements, such as “never”, “always” or “every time”. Whenever you think “I will never learn it”, recall a situation where you had been convinced that learning something was totally out of your reach, and yet you managed to master it! When your Inner Critic whispers into your ear “You always fail”, overcome that belief by recalling situations when you succeeded. 
  6. Find a person around you who is similar to you in certain ways and who achieved what you consider to be unattainable. For example, if you believe that it is too late for you to change your career path, find people who did just that when they were your age.
  7. Read biographies – you will see that everyone had many failures and moments of self-doubt in their lives. A trait that successful people have in common is perseverance.
  8. When someone discourages you from taking an action or gives you a negative feedback, consider both the validity of those comments and the intention of the speaker. Constructive criticism is meant to help you become a better person and not take away your dignity.

Important note: Try to discern the origin of a given belief you hold about yourself. Have you always had it? Maybe someone talked you into believing it was true, for example, a teacher, your parents, your boss or a friend? Other people can often make us have a low opinion of ourselves and a low self-esteem.

The good news is that you can effectively work to strengthen your self-esteem and regain your sense of empowerment (having an influence on your own life) which are of key importance for your well-being and for taking advantage of the opportunities that fate brings you.