There’s an old allegory about a baby elephant that is tied to a fence post. As the baby elephant tugs and pulls, it fails to break the fence or break the rope. Eventually, it gives up and makes peace with its fate. The baby elephant is stuck.1
But eventually, the elephant grows up and becomes a big, adult elephant with gargantuan legs and a huge tusk and swirly trunk and it could easily walk away from the fence if it wanted to. But believing the fence to be some immovable thing, the adult elephant remains tied to it, falsely believing it can never get away.
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What are Limiting Beliefs?
Limiting beliefs are false beliefs that prevent us from pursuing our goals and desires. Limiting beliefs can keep you from doing important things, like applying for your dream job or finding the relationship you want (or leaving the one you don’t want). They can also keep you from doing unimportant things, like skydiving in your underwear or trying out that weird Scotchberry ice cream flavor that looks like baby vomit in a cone.
Our beliefs put boundaries and limitations on what we perceive to be reasonable behavior.2 My belief that stealing is wrong limits me from simply stealing the next car that rolls by, Grand Theft Auto-style. This limiting belief is probably a good one to have. Therefore, we can say that not all limiting beliefs are negative. In fact, we need some limiting beliefs in order to, you know, limit us from doing stupid shit.
But some limiting beliefs unnecessarily hold us back from who we want to become. Like the elephant that remains stuck to the fence post, these limiting beliefs keep us in place without us even realizing it. These are the limiting beliefs I’ll be addressing in this article.
Limiting beliefs typically come in three flavors:
- Limiting beliefs about yourself that make you feel like you can’t do something because something is inherently wrong with you.
- Limiting beliefs about the world that make you feel like you can’t do something because no one will let you.
- Limiting beliefs about life that make you feel like you can’t do something because it’s too difficult.
I’ll go over some common limiting beliefs in each of these categories and then explain how to overcome them at the end. Let’s dive in.
Limiting Beliefs about Yourself
Some of the most impactful limiting beliefs we hold are about ourselves. For example, for many years, I falsely believed I was bad at writing.
I know that sounds insane—a bestselling author who spent most of his younger life believing he was a bad writer. But the truth is that I got poor grades in writing when I was in school. And I took those poor grades at face value: I was bad, so go do something else.
It took me many years to realize that the reason I made bad grades was not because I was a bad writer, but because I never stuck to the assignments. I was the kid who, instead of writing an essay about George Washington, wrote a sci-fi fan fiction imagining that the US government was founded by aliens as an experiment in human democracy.
The teachers hated it. But it’s that “outside the box” thinking that actually made me a good writer.
Nothing holds us back like beliefs about ourselves.3 Especially because so many of our beliefs about ourselves are laden with emotional attachments, insecurities, and baggage that often must be unraveled before we can challenge the belief.
Below are some examples of common limiting beliefs about yourself and how to attack them.
Many people use age as an excuse to not do the things they wish to do. A lot of people think they’re too old to go back to school, change careers, start dating again, or even just learn some new skill.
At the other end of the spectrum, I often hear from people who think they’re too young to apply for an awesome job, move to a new city, or change careers.
You can see how nonsensical these beliefs can be when you realize that sometimes, older and younger people use their age to avoid doing the exact same thing. For example, some people think they’re too old to start a business… while others think they’re too young.
Which one is it?
Sometimes we think that a personal trait is holding us back in some area of our lives.
- Maybe you think you’re too dumb to apply for a scholarship, or a certain school, or job, or even just have a conversation about something “smart” with someone.
- Maybe you think you’re too ugly to talk to anyone who’s even remotely attractive.
- Maybe you think that because your right leg is slightly shorter than the left, you’ll never look good in a pair of shorts, so you’re relegated to sweating your balls off each and every summer for the rest of your life.
The tough part about limiting beliefs around our personal traits is that we (usually) can’t change them. So if we’ve decided that the world will simply forever hate us because we’re short… well, we will feel doomed by that for the rest of our lives.
Believe it or not, we often use our emotions as a basis for our limiting beliefs:
- “I can’t meet new people because I’m too depressed and no one will like me.”
- “I can’t go back to work because I’m too embarrassed.”
- “I can’t have a good relationship because I’m too angry all the time.”
But there’s a paradox within these sorts of limiting beliefs: what we need to do to deal with these emotions is the very thing we’re avoiding doing.
If you’re depressed and sad, getting out and socializing will help destroy the depression. If you’re easily embarrassed, facing the judgment of others is the only way to get over that embarrassment. If you’re so angry at someone you don’t want to talk to them, chances are that talking to them will help you get over your anger.
Not doing these things is what leads to the vicious cycle of these kinds of limiting beliefs: we don’t do something we should because of our current feelings, and doing nothing leads to more of those feelings. Go figure.
Limiting Beliefs about the World
But limiting beliefs aren’t merely about ourselves. We also adopt many erroneous beliefs about the world.
For example, I had this bizarre idea when I was young. I believed that anybody who talked to me was only doing so because they wanted something from me. Where this idea came from, I don’t know (more on that in a bit). Probably got pushed into too many lockers or spent too many mopey Friday nights alone as a teenager.
The point is that this belief prevented me from trusting people for a long time. And because I wasn’t trusting people, I wasn’t discovering how wrong my belief was.
Below are a number of other examples of limiting beliefs about the world that we succumb to:
Maybe the most common limiting belief revolves around what other people will and won’t allow us to do.
- “I can’t talk to them because people will think I’m weird.”
- “I can’t quit grad school because mom and dad will be disappointed.”
- “I can’t leave my cushy job to take a lower-paying job that I’d enjoy more because people won’t respect me.”
- “I can’t leave my garbage marriage because I’ll be damaged goods and no one will ever want to be with me again.”
If you’re considering something and your first thought is, “What would people think?” you’ve already lost.
For one, the reality is that people actually don’t care nearly as much as you think they do. They’re too busy worrying about what other people think of themselves to worry about you.
And secondly, even if they don’t approve of what you’re doing, fuck ’em! It’s your life, not theirs.
They don’t have to go to your miserable job every day. They don’t have to stay in the unsatisfying or even toxic relationship you’re in. They don’t have to sit there paralyzed wondering “What if?” for years and years and years.
Sadly, discrimination and prejudice exist in the world. People are racist and sexist and all sorts of phobics. And while it’s important to know and understand these realities, one also has to be careful to not allow them to prevent you from living your best life. Some examples:
- “I’m Asian, and women don’t like Asian men, so I’ll never find a girlfriend.”
- “I’m short, and short people make less money than tall people, so I didn’t try for that promotion.”
- “I’m a woman, and people don’t listen to women’s ideas, so I’ll just keep quiet at work meetings.”
One way to think about these issues is that while they may be true population-wide, they are not true from individual to individual. Yes, maybe women are talked over more often, but that doesn’t mean that your specific co-workers will talk over you.4
Besides, the only way to overcome these prejudices in society is for individuals to stand up for themselves. Why not be that individual?
Most of the examples until now have been of limiting beliefs in which we cast ourselves in a particularly negative way. But sometimes limiting beliefs can make us delusionally positive about ourselves. For example, sometimes we think we’re so goddamn special, the world just can’t handle us:
- “I want to make music, but no one appreciates my eclectic influences.”
- “I want to write comedy, but no one would understand my sophisticated humor.”
- “I have a business idea, but nobody understands my vision.”
This is really just a perverse form of entitlement. We think the world owes us something because we’re so special, but the world doesn’t understand our specialness, so why even try? We’ll never get what we’re owed.
But the world doesn’t owe you shit. And really, what’s more likely here: that the entire world doesn’t understand what a unique, special snowflake you are or that… you’re just sniffing your own farts of self-importance?
Limiting Beliefs about Life
Finally, we develop many limiting beliefs around what a “normal” life looks like. Most of these beliefs revolve around time, being too early/late, and what’s real/imaginary.
Missed the boat
This is the “someone’s already done that/tried that/said that/been there” type of limiting belief where we give up before we even start.
- Wannabe entrepreneurs complain that “someone’s already built that.” But have you ever considered the fact that someone else already making money off something is actually evidence you should start a business and compete with them?
- The aspiring novelist laments that their idea has already been written. Hell, write it better!
- The 40-something divorcee gripes about how everyone their age is already taken.
Underneath it all is the belief that there’s just not enough left for us. There are not enough customers, not enough ideas, not enough money, not enough time, not enough love.
This is bullshit, of course. The world is a big place. There’s plenty of room for you and me and anybody else who wants to dive in.
Possibly the most common excuse I see from people, especially those who are considering a major lifestyle change like changing their diet, exercising more, reading more books, etc., is that old complaint about time:
“I’m too busy. I don’t have the time!”
But you know how they say if someone really likes you, they’ll find a way to spend time with you? Well, if you really want to do something, you’ll find a way to make time for it too.
When someone says, “I don’t have time!” What I hear is, “I don’t care enough!” Because the fact is that if you made that change a priority, you’d clear your schedule and/or re-organize your schedule around it.
And more often than not, what we’re really prioritizing when we “can’t find the time” is being comfortable and “safe.”
It doesn’t exist
Perhaps the most unshakeable limiting beliefs have to do with what actually exists and what doesn’t exist. Sometimes we choose to believe things are impossible as a way to prevent ourselves from trying and failing to achieve them.
- “Love between two people is fleeting at best and made up at worst, so why even look for it?”
- “Success is just a fabricated ideal created by society to control us, so why do anything?”
- “Humans are selfish and will always fuck you over, so why ever get close to someone?”
This one is tricky because we almost always buy our own bullshit. We think we’re geniuses, head and shoulders above everyone else. We believe these things are actually real while the rest of society is clearly deluded.5
How to Overcome Your Limiting Beliefs
It’s hard enough to spot your limiting beliefs. It’s even harder to overcome them. But it can be done. Here are some simple steps to help you get started.
1. Ask yourself, “What if I’m wrong?”
Generally, limiting beliefs lose their power as soon as we consider that they may not be true. Can’t date because of your height? What if you’re wrong? Can’t get a promotion because of your gender? What if you’re wrong?
As a mental exercise, adopt the ability to simply question your own beliefs and find alternative possibilities. Challenge yourself to imagine a world where your assumption is incorrect. What would that look like? What would it take?
Usually, it’s far less than you think.
2. Ask yourself, “How is this belief serving me?”
We like to imagine ourselves to be the victims of our own limiting beliefs, but the truth is that we adopt these beliefs because they serve us in some way. The elephant believes she can’t pull away from the fence post because that belief served her at one time—it prevented the strain and struggle of failure.
Generally, we hold onto limiting beliefs for the same reasons—to protect ourselves from struggle and failure.
Also, we often hold onto limiting beliefs because they make us feel special, self-righteous or that we deserve special attention. It’s not fair that I can’t change careers because I’m too old—look at me! Pity me!
Beliefs only stick if they serve us in some way, figure out how your belief is serving you and ask yourself if it’s really worth it or not.
3. Create alternative beliefs
Now it’s time to get creative.
Come up with ways in which you may be wrong. Sure, maybe the average person isn’t attracted to someone your height, but you’re not trying to date the average person, you’re trying to date someone special. And someone special is going to find you attractive the way you are.
Sure, maybe you are older than most people who start a new career, but who says you can’t still be successful? There’s nothing stopping you other than your own mind.
Now obviously, it’s not as simple as choosing a belief and then you just…believe it. No, what you’re doing is getting in the habit of questioning your beliefs (steps 1 and 2 above) and trying out new ones. Sometimes it even helps to write these down. Write down your assumption, and then come up with 4-5 possible alternatives to that assumption.
This forces you to see that not only do you harbor some limiting beliefs, but that you have options. You are choosing what to believe, in each and every moment, even if you don’t realize it.
With repeated practice in noticing your limiting beliefs and imagining new ideas to replace them, you’ll start to notice the thousands of tiny little decisions you make based on your limiting beliefs without even realizing it. You’ll start to notice that the same limiting beliefs that keep you from looking for a new job are the ones that keep you from ordering the sandwich you actually want to eat or wearing the clothes you want to wear—and you’ll see how ridiculous it all is.
And that’s when you’ll have more control over what you choose to believe.6
4. Test those alternative beliefs to see if they might be true
The final step is to treat these alternative beliefs as though they’re hypotheses in an experiment. Now you’ve gotta go try them out and see if they “work.”
Treat it like trying on a new pair of jeans. Adding a new ingredient to a recipe. Taking a new car for a test drive. Enter your favorite cheesy metaphor here.
Until we’re willing to actually see if these alternative beliefs play out in the real world, we can’t be certain of what is true and what is not. And most of the time, we will find that we were actually wrong about what we initially believed. It simply takes the self-awareness to consider that we may have been wrong and have the courage to go out into the world and see if we were wrong.
In many ways, we can be our own worst enemies. We are confined by our own perceptions, constrained by our understanding of true and false.
Challenge your own understanding. Test new ideas. You are never at the full expansion of yourself. There is always room for growth.
Just make sure you aren’t the only one stopping it from happening.
Cover image: Photo by Ryoji Iwata
- In psychology, this is called learned helplessness. All sorts of experiments have been done to show that animals, including humans, will “learn” to not take action against harmful stimuli in their environments when they think their actions have no impact. I say “learn” in quotation marks because it turns out that the original theory got it backwards: we actually don’t learn to be helpless, our default is helplessness. Instead we have to learn to take control of our actions. It might seem like a subtle, nitpicky difference, but it actually has huge implications for our lives.↵
- Connors, M. H., & Halligan, P. W. (2015). A cognitive account of belief: A tentative road map. Frontiers in Psychology, 5.↵
- Beliefs like this are what Carol Dweck was referring to as “fixed mindsets” in her now-famous book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. A fixed mindset is one in which we believe we just are the way we are and there’s not a lot we can do about it. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is a mindset in which we believe that our skills and capabilities can be learned, improved upon, and cultivated.↵
- Women actually are interrupted more often than men. See: Smith-Lovin, L., & Brody, C. (1989). Interruptions in Group Discussions: The Effects of Gender and Group Composition. American Sociological Review, 54(3), 424-435.↵
- This is a particularly screwed up example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is the tendency for people to think they are better than they actually are in various areas of their lives. See: Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121–1134.↵
- People who believe they have control over important parts of their lives—even what they believe—have what’s called an internal locus of control. People with an external locus of control, on the other hand, believe they have little control over what happens to them. Guess which type of person fares better in just about every area ever studied? See: Ryan, RM & Deci, EL 2008, ‘A self-determination theory approach to psychotherapy: The motivational basis for effective change.’, Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, vol. 49, no. 3, pp. 186–193.↵