Skip to main content

How to overcome self-limiting beliefs

March 9, 2020

When it comes to keeping fit, I’ve always reckoned I’m not sporty. But now I’m starting to creak a bit, I’m having to tackle my aches and pains through dedicated exercise routines. Whilst this is testing me, I’ve discovered how satisfying and empowering it is to challenge a long-held, unhelpful belief and it’s given me an appetite to identify and tackle some others.

We all have self-limiting beliefs that hold us back and we all have the power to overcome them.

How to spot a self-limiting belief

Self-limiting beliefs often start with a negative “I’m not…”, “I can’t…”, “I don’t…” followed by an all-encompassing general statement, for example “I don’t make friends easily”. Look behind this and you may find some specific truths (“I find it hard to start a conversation with someone I’ve not been introduced to”) but there will also be things that don’t hold true under scrutiny.

These beliefs are often formed early on. My narrative about sports was probably formed being picked last in a sporty school. Holding this view meant I didn’t even have to try to compete with the athletic girls in my class who, to my mind, would undoubtedly beat me.

Why we develop and protect our self-limiting beliefs

We develop these finite statements about ourselves to keep us safe: in my case safe from the humiliation of defeat and the pain of practising. But then they cement us into a self-perpetuating cycle. For example, since I believed I wasn’t good at sport, I avoided working out on a regular basis which meant I didn’t feel fit which proved in my mind that I wasn’t any good at sport.

We continue to hold on to these views because our subconscious would rather avoid discomfort – whether that’s physical discomfort or the uncomfortable feelings of confronting a ‘weakness’. But if we don’t check whether these beliefs are still valid and update them if necessary, they limit our scope to develop in new and exciting ways.

Change your actions to change your beliefs

Once you’ve spotted your self-limiting beliefs what can you do with them? The trick is to disrupt that beliefs > behaviour > results cycle, but maybe not where you’d expect. It’s tricky to change your beliefs because they are so hard wired and complex by nature; far simpler to start with your behaviour. Change your actions instead and something called cognitive dissonance means your brain will start to alter your beliefs so the two are consistent.

My top tips for challenging self-limiting beliefs

These are some things I find useful to tackle self-limiting beliefs based on my recent experience tackling my own:

  1. Anticipate success: add a ‘yet’ to the end of any limiting statements you catch yourself saying. This gets you into a growth mindset, creating an expectation that change is going to happen. So “I’m not fit… yet.”
  2. Make regular small changes: look for really small changes you can make on a regular basis that disprove your statement every time you do them. I now do a daily Pilates routine: even ten minutes gives me proof to say I exercise daily.
  3. Pick a time for the best chance of success: choose a time when you’re at your best to practise these small changes. For me that’s in the morning: my positive mindset early in the day means I’m more likely to see it through.
  4. Establish a routine: Hang your behaviour change on an existing routine or trigger. I slot my exercise in before I do anything else in the morning so nothing gets in the way. Now it feels odd if I don’t do this first.
  5. Make it a choice: sometimes a feeling of ‘having’ to do something makes you more likely to sabotage it. When I ask myself “do I wish to do my exercise this morning?” I’ve noticed I’m more likely to do it. I’m choosing to take responsibility which feels good.
  6. Focus on the benefits: identify the pros and cons of behaving differently and put up words or pictures that remind you of the benefits that will come your way when you do this.
  7. Create helpful scripts: translate the benefits into phrases that are easy to repeat when you’re feeling less motivated: “when I work out I have less back pain”
How are you limiting yourself?

When you start noticing these self-limiting beliefs – spotting those tell-tale can’ts – it’s surprising how common they can be. But with a bit of reflection, maybe talking about them with someone else to get a different perspective, you can begin to unpick and take steps to overcome the most unhelpful ones.

So what’s limiting you and what could you do about it? I’m going to confront a big exercise-related belief next: ‘I can’t run’. Wish me luck!

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

About me

I’m Celia Clark. I’m a career development coach based in the dreaming spires of Oxford. I help you think clearly about your job, in all its ups and downs, so you can be happy and successful in your work.

Enjoyed reading? Sign up for my blog to get monthly insights and inspiration like this straight into your inbox