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Photo: Barcroft Media

I’m as guilty as the next person for collecting inspirational quotes about how anything’s possible if you simply believe in it hard enough, or how we are the only things holding us back from success.

But that’s not quite true, is it? It isn’t as simple as visualising a goal and bam!... it happens.

There’s a lot of work involved in unpicking self-limiting beliefs and then re-programming your thought patterns with a more helpful perspective. It can be quite painful, in fact, to realise you may have mis-spent a lot of time and energy on living a negative way of thinking and behaving. At which point it’s tempting to beat yourself up for being so stupid for all that time. Better not to think about it at all, right?!

Ok, so it’s hard. But doesn’t that show that it’s important?

And once you’ve got that insight then get this: it can actually be fun to plan and practice a new way of seeing or behaving.

Why do we have self-limiting beliefs? Basically, negative beliefs spring from a place of protection – either for yourself, or over-extended to others. If your inner voice is saying, “You’re miserable but so’s everyone else,” it means you’re unlikely to make a potentially risky change to your life. If it’s saying, “You’re rubbish at making small-talk,” you’ll stay quiet in social situations, or avoid them altogether, and no-one will be able to judge you (or laugh at you). If it’s saying, “You’re the only one people can depend on to fix this,” you’ll take the risk on behalf of everyone else, work super-hard and protect everyone else from hardship. Sure, there’s a risk of burn-out but better that you suffer than everyone else, right? (Also, do you realise how powerful that makes you?!)

What are your self-limiting beliefs? Here are some negative, self-limiting beliefs I’ve heard lately. The belief-holders at this point absolutely hold their belief as 100% fact.

  • “90-95% of people don’t really like what they do for a living.”

  • “Everyone needs me to have the right answers and I’m going to let them down.”

  • “People think I’m boring when I don’t have a drama going on.”

  • “I’m overweight and look a state so people can’t trust me to handle anything.”

One way to identify them is to recognise a thought pattern that starts, “I always…” or “I never…” or “I can’t…” or “I hate…”. If you’re feeling uncomfortable in a meeting, for instance, what’s your internal chatter saying? Is it, “No-one’s interested in what I’ve got to say, I’m going to stay quiet.” Or, “It’s obvious there’s one solution – mine – why won’t they agree? I’m going to have to shout louder to press my point.”

It’s generally a self-limiting belief if it involves recurring situations where you’re fearful, frustrated or even angry. So the first thing to do is to recognise when you’re feeling discomfort and then note your belief about the situation.

What’s the best way to deal with self-limiting beliefs? Martin E Seligman’s ‘Learned Optimism’ is my go-to book for proof that it is completely possible to challenge and re-frame self-limiting beliefs. He has an ‘ABCDE’ model to address the negative belief and create a new one. My version is this:

1) Note the discomfort – are you feeling tearful, embarrassed, cross?

2) What’s your self- belief about this situation? “I’m not good enough,” “No-one’s interested in what I’ve got to say,” “I’m a mess,” “I’m never good at this sort of thing.” “Why’s it always me that has to come to the rescue?”

3) What IS the situation? Public speaking? A conversation with your mother? A night out with people you don’t know? Presenting a report to the board?

4) What’s the consequence of your belief – how did you respond in this instance? Did you cry? Stay silent? Make a hurtful or self-deprecating comment? Stay even later to get the work done?

5) What’s a different way to look at this? Take the situation and consider the following: a. What ACTUALLY happened? (Not what was going on in your head.) b. What are alternative ways of looking at this? Get creative if you need to – negative self-beliefs sometimes need a firm nudge out of the way with a deliberately positive perspective. c. Your negative view might be right! But if so, what’s the likelihood of the thing you believe, happening? And if it does, what are the real implications? Note them down with your realistic head on – it’s pretty much never going to be as bad as you’ve imagined. d. How useful is it for you to hold your negative self-belief right now? Maybe it’s good to consider the risks, but if it’s preventing action that’s needed in the moment, put it to one side and deal with it later. If it’s not at all useful, pop it in your brain bin and re-try point b above.

6) Which of the new insights you now have feels like a perspective that would serve you better? What action can you take to put this into effect? Make a commitment to yourself, like, “Next time, I’ll speak up/be the one to introduce myself first/consider a compromise...” and find a creative way to remind yourself that’s the course you’ll try. Have you got a meeting agenda printed out? Draw speech bubbles on it to prompt you to speak up. Or a cartoon face with a plaster on its mouth if you’re going to see what happens if you DON’T give all the answers. Need to have a difficult conversation with a partner? Try wearing a watch or bracelet that reminds you of super hero wrist deflectors, or make your phone screen saver a picture of a shield that protects you from harm and gives you strength. You could wear red pants/socks if that’s the colour you associate with bravery. It’s like having a secret pact with yourself – be as silly or deep as you need, as long as it’s meaningful for you.

The one thing I know is that it’s impossible to think your way to a different thought pattern. You need to articulate it – in writing to yourself (keeping a private journal is great for this) or by talking with a trusted friend or colleague – and DO something different, to set the new way of operating into in motion. The more creative or fun your approach, the more you’re likely to do it and succeed.

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