What to do when self-limiting beliefs are holding you back


I would define a self-limiting belief as an insidious, not fully recognized or acknowledged thought that pops into your head while attempting something vulnerable, and that holds you back from achieving what you are capable of. Recently I have been experiencing these thoughts before posting on social media or sharing recordings. Finger hovering over “share,” anxious about how it will be perceived and received, one of these vaguely formed, self-limiting thoughts flits into my head and I close the application without a second consideration.

For a long time, I never fully saw the de-motivating thought and realized that the success of a self-limiting belief is its obscurity. There is power in naming a thing. Because the self-limiting belief isn’t fleshed out, you can’t question its validity or create a counter belief that is more in line with your conscious thinking. Instead, vulnerability causes anxious feelings in the body (tight chest, increasing heart rate, shallow breathing, itching to get out of your skin), which triggers fight or flight. Flight is believing the self-limiting thought and closing the application to stop feeling uncomfortable. Fight is sitting in the uncomfortable feeling and listening to the undercurrent of your thoughts.

From doing that work, I’ve recognized some of my self-limiting beliefs and I will share, not because I want to, but in the hopes that someone else recognizes a similar destructive thought and are able to follow through with the things they have talked themselves out of doing.

Nobody cares what I think and they are right, I don’t matter.

I have aged out of opera.

I am not creative.

Why try? It won’t be good enough.

REMINDER: You are not your thoughts. Just because you think it, that doesn’t mean it is true.

The process for understanding your own self-limiting beliefs is two-fold: acceptance and investigation.

Why is acceptance first? Because you will continue to have this thought and feel this way off and on for the rest of your life. There is no problem with having the feeling or the thought, the problem is how you relate and react to the negative thought or feeling. You have to cultivate a working, compassionate relationship with your internal dialogue and anxiety.

For example, I recognize a self-critical thought and instead of believing it, choose to greet it like an old frenemy -

“Ahh, you again. Nice to see you haven’t changed.

But I have. I don’t blindly listen to you anymore.”

I have also enjoyed naming these thoughts. My mom won’t like to hear this, but I call a specific brand of my niggling thoughts Little Peggy.

So you recognize that you’re feeling anxious and vulnerable and you (begrudgingly) accept that you are going to feel that way off and on for the rest of your life. Now it’s time to investigate your reactions to that uncomfortable feeling. When I am doing something anxiety-inducing, what do I think in the moment that pushes me to quit or discourages me from pursuing the idea further? Is there an underlying vulnerable nerve that I want to avoid stimulating? Fear of failure, judgement, or rejection? Is there something negative that I believe about myself or the world that is de-motivating me? In each anxious situation the questions and answers are going to differ, because even though the anxious feeling may be similar, the underlying cause could be different. For this reason, it’s necessary to be curiously present in the anxious experience. It’s a meditative practice to sit with what you are feeling in the moment of discomfort, breathe, and listen to what you are telling yourself so you can respond with what you choose to believe.

To simplify

A difficult situation with an unknown self-limiting belief:

Presented with a new, anxious situation —> vulnerable, anxious feelings develop —> self-limiting belief pops into my head and quickly convinces me to stop the uncomfortable feeling by quitting and avoiding —> stop growing.

A difficult situation with a known self-limiting belief:

Presented with a new, anxious situation —> vulnerable, anxious feelings develop —> recognize the feelings —> breathe —> accept that I feel this way and remind myself that this feeling will not harm me and will not last forever —> recognize self-limiting thought that undermines my confidence and tries to convince me to quit —> provide a counter argument that is reflective of my actual, chosen beliefs —> stick through the uncomfortable feeling and do the difficult thing —> continue to grow.

REAL TALK: You might go through that process and decide you don’t want to follow through with the thing that is making you anxious and that is ok! What matters is that it is a conscious choice and you aren’t being subtly ruled by your self-limiting beliefs. Remember to respond and not react. A reaction is instantaneous, a response is chosen.

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“And now go, and make interesting mistakes,
make
amazing mistakes,

make glorious and fantastic mistakes.
Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.
Make good art.”

                                                     -Neil Gaiman