What Are Limiting Beliefs and Are They Holding You Back?

Back when I was finishing college and trying to make a decision about what I was going to do next, I met with my advisor. I was terrified in that meeting. I was always a bit timid in the English department at my university, where I saw myself as the least dedicated or intelligent in a group of incredibly dedicated and intelligent students.

So in that meeting, when she asked me what I was planning to do after graduation, I hemmed and hawed.

I told her I didn’t really know.

what-you-want

I was working as a bartender at the time to help pay my way through college. It was great money, honestly, and for the most part it felt easy. When I pictured life after college, I figured I could just sort of keep doing what I was doing. I mean, it was close to my house. I wouldn’t have to learn anything new. I could walk out with cash in my pocket every night.

I guess that was what I “wanted” to do…?

How were you supposed to know?

“You can’t really do much with an English degree,” I told her, reciting the words so many had said to me before I chose my major. She asked me if I had considered graduate school.

I told her I didn’t really think I was cut out for it.

At the end of our meeting, I got up and walked toward the door. She stopped me for a moment and looked straight in my eyes and said:

“If you want to go to graduate school go to graduate school. You can do what you want.”

Of course I left her office muttering to myself about how that wasn’t totally true. What if I wanted to be in the WNBA? Did she think I could do that? What I couldn’t see at the time were the many limiting beliefs at play there and how profoundly we can hold ourselves back.

Are you holding yourself back?

Do you ever get the sense that you are holding yourself back? That there is more you have to offer to this world, more buried deep inside of you, but it feels like there is some invisible force getting in your way?

What if that invisible force is you?

I read a quote once by Marianne Williamson. You’ve may have read it at some point, too. It goes like this:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” —Marianne Williamson

Have there been times in your life when you could have made a move toward a better job, or a healthier relationship, or even toward a more challenging, happier existence, and you just didn’t?

What are we so afraid of?

What is a limiting belief?

A limiting belief is something you believe to be true about yourself, about others, or about the world that limits you in some way. These beliefs may hold you back from taking chances, keep you blind to opportunities in your path, prevent you from accepting gifts offered to you, or simply keep you stuck focusing on the negative aspect of your circumstances.

The challenge with limiting beliefs is most of us don’t think we have them and they can be really hard to spot.

The first time I heard the phrase “limiting belief” I wasn’t sure. I mean, were my beliefs really that powerful? Did the have the power to limit me? Did beliefs come from what I experienced in the world—or did what I experienced in the world reflect what I believed about it?

Honestly the first one sounded far more plausible.

And even if limiting beliefs were powerful enough to impact the reality of my circumstances, did I have any limiting beliefs? If you would have asked me then, I would have said “no”. But consider the beliefs dictating the conversation with my advisor that day:

  • You can’t make money with an English Degree.
  • I’m not the “kind of person” who would do well in graduate school
  • It would be better to stick with what was easiest than challenge myself with my work.

Can you think of some limiting beliefs that might be getting in your way? Here are a few common ones.

  • I’m not very smart (or pretty, or interesting, or funny).
  • My brother (or sister) is the successful one.
  • Money is hard to come by and easy to lose.
  • I’m not cut out for that job.
  • That activity is really more of a guy thing (or a girl thing).
  • Men (or women) are liars and they will always be unfaithful to me.
  • Relationships always end in heartbreak.
  • Nobody loves their job. Work is supposed to be boring at best, miserable at worst.
  • Women (or men) are manipulative and they can’t be trusted.
  • I am not worthy of being loved
  • Only the lucky people succeed at what they care about
  • Nobody is really all that happy.
  • The only way to get what you want is to be dishonest
  • Life is pretty much meaningless

The most challenging thing with limiting beliefs is that they are often buried deep in our consciousness, so that we don’t realize they’re there and we can’t see what they’re doing to us. From our perspective, life is just “happening” to us and it isn’t until we begin to see the negative patterns play out, again and again, that we stop and say:

How did I get here?

Could my beliefs about myself or the world have something to do with it?

How do limiting beliefs work?

The problem with limiting beliefs is that most of us do not consciously decide what to believe, nor do we recognize the many ways these beliefs are limiting us. It happens quietly, behind the scenes and beneath the surface. Not to mention, it can be difficult, if not impossible without serious help, to admit we have played a role in the very pain that has so devastated us.

It’s terrifying to consider that we have, all along, had the power to release ourselves from the painful cycle that has been torturing us.

When I turned 22, a year and a half after I graduated with my degree, I decided to take a major step of faith and quit the bartending job and do something that would challenge me. The problem was I hadn’t addressed my limiting beliefs. And what can often happen when we take action without addressing our limiting beliefs is we just recreate our old scenario somewhere new.

So yes, I quit my bartending job and moved away from the town where I was living. But months passed, and surprise surprise, no one came to knock on my door to offer me a new, better job (I didn’t even know what kind of job I wanted). So eventually I ran out of money, and can you guess what happened next?

I ended up getting a job…working in a restaurant.

Pretty much the exact same job I’d had before.

This is the power and danger of limiting beliefs. They can dominate our stories and dictate them, no matter where we go. That is, unless we make a conscious choice to change them.

Wherever you go, there you are.

Go back for a minute to the beliefs you acknowledged above. How might those beliefs be limiting you as we speak? How might the beliefs you have about yourself, others, or the world, be limiting your ability to take chances, seek opportunities, or see the gifts already sitting right in front of you?

How do you discover your limiting beliefs?

To discover limiting beliefs, we must pay attention to patterns.

In my life personally, I’ve had the most success uncovering my limiting beliefs by paying attention to the less-than-desirable patterns in my world and then tracing them back to a belief connected to them. So, for example, when I found myself working at another restaurant in my 20’s, feeling miserable, I started digging to see what beliefs might be limiting me.

I spent time writing and journaling—because those are the ways I process best, and what I found were the following thoughts:

  • I’m only good at waiting tables—I’m not sure if I can do something else.
  • I’m not sure if I even deserve to have a job that satisfies me more deeply than this one.
  • I’m not the “kind of person” who succeeds in life.
  • The economy is bad. There just aren’t that many jobs out there.

And just like that, I started to see how my negative beliefs about myself and about the world around me were keeping me from creating the life I desired and from having opportunities to bring my gifts to the world.

My own beliefs were keeping me small.

Are you starting to see how limiting beliefs can work to create the very negative realities we are hoping to avoid?

How can we overcome limiting beliefs?

Honestly, discovering you have a limiting belief is such a huge step forward, if you’ve gotten there, it’s time to celebrate! You know the saying, “knowing is half the battle”? It’s really true. When you know and acknowledge your limiting belief as just that—a belief you can choose to change that is limiting you—you are on the right track.

This is really the hope of this whole thing right here: we can choose to change these beliefs!

We have control over what we think.

1. Replace your beliefs

One thing I’ve done to help me overcome my own limiting beliefs is to create affirmations or little prayers for myself that help me to retrain or reroute the negative pattern that takes place in my head. There is a considerable amout of research that shows how our neurological pathways can change as we choose to think differently about the world.

So I went through my own list of limiting beliefs—the ones I saw showing up in my life the most often—and wrote new thought patterns I wanted to form to replace those old, limiting beliefs.

Here are the affirmations I’m using right now:

  • I am safe and protected in the world.
  • The abundant resources of the universe are available to me.
  • I deserve to prosper.
  • Everything that happens to me is an opportunity to learn.
  • I release the need to identify as the victim.

I say these affirmations to myself every single morning. I try to say them multiple times each day. Anytime I’m in a situation where I think to myself, “This always happens to me!” I replace that thought with, “Everything that happens to me is an opportunity to learn.”

Each time I catch myself thinking, “that person doesn’t even give a crap about me!” I remind myself: “I release the need to be the victim.”

And every time I feel myself thinking that my life is such a bummer and it must be nice to be one of those “other people” who have everything handed to them, I tell myself: “I deserve to prosper.”

Slowly but surely, it is changing the way I think about myself and even more powerfully than that, it’s changing the way I experience my life.

2. Work with a therapist.

Sometimes you will need help—even professional help—to overcome your limiting beliefs. You’re working with neurological pathways here, and it’s like skiing in ruts that are 10 feet deep. You can try and try to change your path, but until you’re lifted out of the rut you’re in, you’ll have a hard time skiing a different way down the mountain.

And truly, even when you’re lifted out, you will have a tendency to slip back in.

So working with a therapist is a totally reasonable, logical, super helpful thing to do to help you overcome that invisible force that is keeping you anxious, frustrated, stuck and depressed.

For most people, limiting beliefs have been part of their internal world for so long that the beliefs feel ‘normal,’”…Working with a therapist can help. A clinician can help you uncover limiting beliefs, understand how they were formed, interrupt the limiting patterns and create new, adaptive ways of understanding yourself and your world. —Margarita Tartakovsky, Psych Central

I’ve been in and out of therapy for several years of my life and I truly don’t know how I would have survived without the people who have supported me through my darker times. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

3. Make Something

I read something recently by Brene Brown that caught my attention. A reader had reached out to thank her for her work on shame but this person had a question. He asked: how do you go about making positive changes in your life once you realize where you’ve been letting shame dictate your actions?

Her response was so simple and yet profound.

She said: create.

From all of her research and interactions with people over the years, she had come to the conclusion that one of the best ways to solidify new and positive changes in our life is to put our hands to something—grow a garden, write a book, journal, write poetry, paint, design, engineer something, invent, innovate.

There is something about the act of creation that helps us to see ourselves, that helps us carve those new neurological pathways, that helps us manifest the life we can see in our heads and feel in our hearts but we can’t seem to make make a reality in our lives.

I can’t help but agree with her.

The act of creating is not a frivolous activity. It is not something “extra” for the margins of our lives, if we have time. It is the very way we live our lives. It is a lifeline. Where would we be without it?

If you’re interested in reading more about limiting beliefs, I’ll share a few articles below that have been helpful for me.

  1. The Backfire Effect: The Psychology of Why We Have A Hard Time Changing Our Minds (via Brain Pickings)
  2. Where Belief Is Born (via The Guardian)
  3. Overcome 8 Common Limiting Beliefs That May Be Keeping You Stuck (via Tiny Buddha)

Also, I’d love to hear from you. Do you have limiting beliefs that are holding you back? What are they? What are some steps you are taking (or can take) to help re-route those pathways?

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Allison Fallon

I write books. I help people write books. I believe a regular practice of writing can change your life.

21 thoughts on “What Are Limiting Beliefs and Are They Holding You Back?”

  1. Thanks Allison! Love your post! Shifting limiting beliefs (mindsets) has been a huge practice in my personal development…and coaching practice. I am now keenly aware of my own and hear limiting beliefs daily in people’s stories, reactions, and responses. How we develop limiting beliefs continues to intrigue me. We sure aren’t born with them! Thanks again for all you do!

    1. mm
      Allison Vesterfelt

      It is amazing how once you realize how limiting beliefs work you start to see them showing up all over the place—in your life and the lives of those you love. Here’s to slowly chipping away at those beliefs so we can move forward in our life and bring our remarkable gifts to the world.

  2. This is exactly what I needed to read tonight as I am going through a season of challenges and changes that come with looking for a new job, or perhaps an entirely new career. Lots to process and ponder! Thanks!

  3. A lot of what you wrote here resonated with me. I feel like I know that I have limiting beliefs, I know where they come from, and I know what I should do to change them, I just don’t do it. I’m not sure what holds me back from making powerful, lasting change. I’ve been in and out of therapy for years too, and I’ll feel like I have all the tools and resources to do the work, but somehow I keep holding myself back from actually doing it. I like your idea of repeating mantras or little prayers throughout the day. I may have to steal that from you.

    1. mm
      Allison Vesterfelt

      Hey Jessica, thanks for your honest here. The fact that you can see exactly where you’re stuck (that you aren’t taking action to overcome your limiting beliefs) is huge. What a gift. One thought that comes to mind is there might be a limiting belief preventing you from working on your limiting beliefs. That might sound crazy, but here are a few limiting beliefs that come to mind:

      People can’t really change.
      I can’t really change.
      It’s pointless to try.
      No matter what I do, I’m always going to be ________.

      If any of those hit home, maybe try a mantra like, “I give myself permission to grow,” “I move easily and effortlessly from this place,” “I deserve to be happy” “I accept and trust myself just as I am,” or even “I release the need to be a victim”.

      Hope some of that helps.

  4. I used to be so afraid and insecure that I didn’t want to try anything I really cared about in case I failed. I wanted to live with the potential of succeeding.

    I truly believe it’s never too late to try something new — it will look different now than if I had attempted it ten years ago, but it’s worth following my heart 🙂

    1. mm
      Allison Vesterfelt

      Hey Bethany—I can really resonate with that feeling. There’s a great Ben Rector song called “Fear” on his new album Brand New that talks about this. You should check it out. The lyric that has stuck out to me is: “I’m learning to dance with the fear that I’ve been running from.” I would also recommend reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book Big Magic. You’ll love that one.

      It is always worth following your heart!

  5. Thank you for this post, Allison.

    Right now my two big limiting beliefs are that I won’t be able to get my writing off the ground and that I won’t be able to lose weight.

    I’ve been really focusing on building some traction with my writing but I’m having a hard time getting subscribers. Sometimes I feel like I’m writing for nothing. Too work on this I’m going to look into taking a writing and marketing course.

    I’ve also been struggling with my weight. It seems no matter how hard I try to lose it it just won’t come off. It’s been a struggle for me my whole life. So I’m going to consult with a nutritionist to see what I can do about it.

    1. mm
      Allison Vesterfelt

      Jeff, thank you so much for sharing this. One thought that comes to mind (take it or leave it, depending on if it makes sense to you) is that there could be a connection between your struggle to lose weight and your struggle to write. Often times our physical mirrors our emotional. A few questions for you to just think about:

      Are you holding onto something, or holding back with something?
      Are you afraid to show your true self?

      Just some things to ponder. Hope it helps.

      1. Those are great questions, Allison! I’ve never connected these two things together before, but I think you’re right; they are probably related. You’ve definitely given me a lot to think about. Thank you!

  6. Such a helpful post. I think one of the major limiting beliefs I’ve had for as long as I can remember is: I’m a bad person always doing the wrong thing. It made me a perfectionist, a people pleaser, and a performer – those were the patterns I’ve only recently been able to identify. I used to think these qualities were just part of my nature but now I see they are reactions to my belief, and my actions were really defense mechanisms to protect me from getting hurt/rejected. Thanks for giving me a new way of looking at this.

    1. mm
      Allison Vesterfelt

      Juni—I can totally understand that limiting belief. I have been there. As far as affirmations, here are a few to try if you like them:

      I give myself permission to make mistakes.
      I accept myself just as I am.
      I am making good decisions for myself.
      I am a smart, thoughtful, wise person.

      Hope that helps. 🙂

      1. Thanks so much! I’ve been repeating the one about accepting myself as I am. Took me forever to learn self-acceptance since I used to roll my eyes at the concept. But now I know I really have to accept myself right where I am and not some ideal future self I dream of. Another one I’m using is: I love myself and I love others. It’s been very helpful.

  7. Fabulous! EXACTLY what I needed to read today. Thank you so much for sharing. Would elaborate more, but I used up all my best words and thoughts creating something on a blog not far away, to counteract my own limiting beliefs! 😉

    You go, girl!

  8. Thanks, Allison! This definitely hit home for me. I’m at a transitory stage in my life right now: I finished my Master’s degree earlier this year, and have been working odd jobs ever since then. Although my resume is impressive in itself, I tend to self-sabotage by applying for jobs at organizations where I wouldn’t be challenged – because I don’t think that I have what it takes to live out what’s really on my heart. Once in a while, I try applying to organizations where I would be challenged, and then very quickly have second thoughts when I get a glimpse of what I’d be getting myself into.

    This article was good food for thought. 🙂

    1. mm
      Allison Vesterfelt

      Thanks Meiling! I’m so glad it has you thinking. Here are a couple of affirmations to consider to help you overcome some of those limiting beliefs. If you like them, take them. If not, ignore 🙂

      I am smart and capable of doing anything I put my mind to.
      I enjoy being challenged.
      I am confident in my ability to solve any problem.
      Any company would be lucky to have me.

  9. Your posts and some dear friends have encouraged me to consider therapy to unravel what I call the tangle of Christmas lights inside my head. After reading this, I’m pretty excited to have my first appointment tomorrow. Thanks for your writings!

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