Choosing your beliefs: breaking the hold of limiting thoughts

Choosing your beliefs: breaking the hold of limiting thoughts

This year, I finally gave in and agreed that it was time to share the truth about Father Christmas with our eight-year-old daughter. I made my husband have the dreaded conversation; he pushed for it, after all. Neither of us wants her to be the last kid in the playground still insisting that Rudolph really does guide the sleigh, when everyone else has cottoned on. To be fair, she has been asking for a while whether Santa really does exist, so the news wasn’t going to come out of the blue. In fact, in the end, it was rather an anti-climax. “I’ve actually known for a while, Papa”, she said softly. “But, maybe we could just go on believing among ourselves?”

Ah, the joy of knowing that, mature and wise beyond her years as she often proves to be, my baby still loves the magic. Mulder-like, she wants to believe.

Don’t we all, though?

A double-edged sword

It’s a theme of the current season: belief. Whether our faith is in a baby born in a manger, St Nicholas shooting down the chimney, the miraculous oil of Hanukkah, your Christmas wish being granted, or simply the fundamental goodness of humanity, belief is a lifeline – all year round actually. Belief in ourselves, in our friends and loved ones, in our employees, colleagues and managers, even our elected representatives… It can keep us going in tough times, strengthen our resolve, enable us to persevere, inspire hope.

However, the power of belief can – at times – turn against us. So often, having a little faith helps us expand, grow, see the bigger picture, but, when misdirected, it can also cause us to hold back, be less, stay small. Beliefs that have this effect are what coaches call “limiting beliefs”. They are the kind of beliefs that, left unchecked, can sink deep into our bones, resulting in a can’t-do mentality, a lack of self-confidence, and us becoming stuck, paralysed.

The belief maketh the man

Limiting beliefs I have watched – and helped – clients change vary greatly. I’ve heard an aspiring actor affirm, “I’m just not right for comedy – I’ll never get those kinds of roles”. An executive in a large company told me, “Ten is the biggest team I think I could ever really manage – any more and I’d feel overwhelmed”. A senior manager in an international NGO said, “It’s too late for me to go on assignment in the field – you really have to do that in your 20s. I’m too old”.

Needless to say, before we started deconstructing these limiting beliefs, my clients had all been proved right time and time again. They had plenty of evidence to reinforce their beliefs. But, of course, they were self-fulfilling prophecies: the actor never auditioned for comic roles, the exec never put herself forward for positions that required management of large teams, and the humanitarian never even explored his options for assignments on the ground.

To dream the impossible dream

The insidious thing about limiting beliefs is that, before anyone dares – or dares us – to question them, they seem utterly unquestionable. Our belief in their veracity is unshakeable. The thing we believe appears so incredibly, obviously, blatantly true to us that any other option is impossible to fathom. But it doesn’t take much more than a question to cause these hard but brittle thoughts to crack. The coach asks:

  • How is that belief serving you?
  • What evidence do you have for that not being the case?
  • What if the opposite were true?
  • What possibilities would believing something else open up for you?

And – bam – we open a tiny window in our belief system that lets in a shaft of light.

“Well, I did once play Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The reviews were great.”

“I never thought I’d be able to manage a team of 10, but now I do and I thrive on that part of my job.”

“I did hear about one colleague in our New York division who went on a short mission abroad – I think she’s actually older than me.”

What do you choose?

So, what limiting beliefs are currently holding you back? What things do you think are totally true about you and your options – both personally and professionally? The more vehemently you believe them, the more I encourage you to question them; it’s often our most strongly held beliefs that prove to be our biggest obstacles and most unhelpful fictions.

It stands to reason, really. Limiting beliefs always serve some purpose, however unhealthy. Maybe they keep us safe, protect us from disappointment, reassure us, ensure we succeed (by only letting us do what we know we are good at), allow us to exist in our comfort zone. It’s normal that they are hard to let go. Indeed, one client recently hit the nail right on the head when he told me that, “when I start to dismantle my limiting beliefs, they have a tendency to fight back and reassert themselves”.

But, just like my daughter consciously choosing to keep the magic alive and hold on to her belief in the spirit (if not the flesh and blood) of Father Christmas, we get to choose what we believe – especially when it comes to what we believe about ourselves. So, consider what you think about your abilities and potential; look for the places where you say “I can’t”, “I’ll never”, “I have to”. Look for your absolutes, your definites and your extremes, and imagine the opposite is true. And know that the harder your certainty fights back, the more likely it is that you are on track to softening – or even overthrowing – a limiting belief that, if replaced with something more empowering, could open up a world of possibility, perhaps even a little magic.

Are you feeling stuck? Dragged down by the weight of limiting beliefs that hold you back and keep you small? Do you want to rewrite the narrative you tell yourself about your capabilities and potential? Working with an encouraging, clear-sighted and energetic coach can help you clear away the thoughts that no longer serve you and make room for more positive, helpful beliefs – so that you can build your life and career with confidence, on purpose and with purpose. Contact me to find out more about working together.