We all have limiting beliefs, we tell ourselves what we can and cannot do. There is a way to overcome those limiting beliefs and transform them into enabling ones.
“I think we have a lot of self-limiting beliefs. And the self-limiting beliefs, a lot of these come from inside us. Basically, I can’t do this. I can’t do that. This is just the way I am. One of the most common problems is, this is just the way I am as if we have some “real” fixed identity that lives throughout time. And I have to really work on people to change that. Even smart people say things like this, “I can’t listen. I can’t listen. I’ve never been able to listen.” I’ll look in their ears. “Why not? You got something stuck in there? Why can’t you listen? Do you have an incurable genetic defect that is prohibiting you from listening?” As long as we tell ourselves, “That’s the way I am.” Two things happen, both bad. One, we inhibit the odds of ever getting better. Two, even if we do change our behavior we don’t seem authentic to ourselves. We feel like a phony because if the real me can’t listen and you say, “I’m a good listener. You know what I’m thinking?” Well, that’s not the real me. I’m just pretending to be a good listener because the real me is no good at that.”
I heard these words from the famous leadership thinker and coach Marshall Goldsmith in The Knowledge Project podcast, and I realised I hadn’t written about limiting beliefs in Humane Future of Work. It is time to amend this important omission. It is an oversight for a site that prides itself on building a better Future of Work through improved leadership, the power of coaching and helping its readers in their personal development journeys.
You see, our beliefs are one of the most important forces shaping our worldview, and when those beliefs limit our understanding of what we are capable of, they become one of the biggest barriers to our success and growth.
The good news is that limiting beliefs can be worked upon and transformed into enabling ones. Let’s see how.
We all have limiting beliefs
We all have beliefs about the world surrounding us, as otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to function. We all have empowering beliefs about ourselves that make us stronger and better. We all also have limiting beliefs that make us smaller and less capable of dealing with our problems.
I tend to see myself as a shy introvert who doesn’t set a room ablaze with funny jokes. I also believe I am not good at selling or doing anything with a commercial smell. I believe I am not good at presenting to big audiences and that I don’t have anything interesting to say anyway, so why would anyone want to listen to me? (writing is another matter, it’s much easier for me, as I don’t see my audience)
All these are limiting beliefs. There may be some truth to them, or so I think, but maybe not. They are only true inasmuch as I make them true. Limiting beliefs are like self-fulfilling prophecies: they are true as long as you believe them. They will limit you also as long as you believe them. The moment you stop believing them, they stop limiting you.
Limiting beliefs are so ingrained in our worldview that it is difficult to overcome them by ourselves. They are blind spots. It’s as if we were sitting on top of them, and as such, we couldn’t see them until someone else pointed them out to us. Then we get an aha! moment and ask ourselves how we didn’t see them before.
This is why the help of a coach, mentor, or a frank friend we trust can be helpful to overcome our limiting beliefs.
When coaching, we often work on limiting beliefs because of their impact on personal development and performance. Coaches help their clients overcome their limiting beliefs and demolish the barriers they create through powerful questioning or the use of tools such as the Ladder of Inference.
The Ladder of Inference
We can use the Ladder of Inference to combat our limiting beliefs and convert them into enabling ones, with external help or on our own. It is called a ladder because it describes, step by step (or rung by rung), the thinking process we go through to move from facts to an action or a decision. This process is often unconscious, and beliefs are formed at the last steps of the process (see picture below).
When something happens, or we are faced with some facts, there are some filters between those facts and the decision we make about them. First, we are not omniscient and cannot perceive everything that happens around us. We never have all the facts, and even from those present, we can only select just a few, as we cannot process all the information in front of us. We select certain facts and discard others.
Then we interpret those facts in a certain way based on our way of thinking, our previous experiences, and many other factors, including our existing beliefs. Based on those interpretations, we make some assumptions and then get our conclusions. Those conclusions, if reinforced adequately, will help us develop our beliefs about the world, and based on those beliefs, we will then decide to act in a certain way or other.
This process is self-reinforcing: the beliefs we develop will have an impact on the facts we select, how we interpret them, our assumptions about them, and so on. Thus, the process is prone to creating both virtuous and vicious circles.
The Ladder of Inference in practice
Let’s illustrate the Ladder of Inference with an example. Joe is a colleague of yours, and every time you cross each other at the office, he looks away, and he doesn’t say “hi”, even if you have worked together on several projects and he knows who you are. He is rather cold with you. You assume this has something to do with you and the way you behave, and you start to suspect Joe doesn’t like you.
He is not the only one who doesn’t say “hi” or is cold to you, so you must be doing something wrong. You have many good friends but also many people you are indifferent to, and Joe must be one of them. “You cannot be friends with everybody or be liked by everyone!” you tell yourself, and you try to carry on with life, but something inside is nagging you. Some self-doubt starts creeping in, and you ask yourself, “why doesn’t he like me? Am I boring? Or does he think I’m stupid? Maybe I am not a good professional? What did I do wrong?”
You start to develop some negative beliefs about yourself. Next time another colleague doesn’t say “hi”, you will think it has to do with you, not with the other person.
When facing any situation like this, it is worthwhile thinking about what rung of the Ladder of Inference you are on and then go back until you get to the base, the facts. In the example above, the fact is simple: “your colleague Joe didn’t say “hi””. All the rest have been interpretations, assumptions, and conclusions based on your pre-existing beliefs.
When you get to the base, you should start climbing up the ladder step by step, asking the relevant questions in each rung: have I considered all facts or selected only a few? What other interpretations are possible? What different assumptions could I make? And so on.
If you do that in Joe’s case, you will realise there are many interpretations of the fact that he didn’t say “hi” to you. Maybe he didn’t see you, or most likely, he is timid, and he has his own self-limiting beliefs and internal demons impeding him from having regular social interactions with his colleagues.
We tend to blame ourselves or look negatively upon ourselves when facing problems with others, but more often than not, this has nothing to do with us but with the issues other people have.
Apart from limiting, beliefs can also be rigid. “This is just the way I am” is one of the most harmful things we can tell ourselves because it is both limiting and rigid. It implies that you are a fixed entity, with no possibility for change, and whoever you were when you were born, that’s who you still are, and you’ll never be able to change that. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s complete nonsense.
There are some things you cannot change about yourself. Our genetic inheritance and past experiences limit what we can or cannot do. For example, I will never be an NBA basketball player. I don’t have the necessary height, physical strength or skill with the ball, and it is probably too late for me to start practising and get to the right level now. If I had played basketball for 8 hours every day since I was a kid, maybe I would have made it, but probably I wouldn’t. Some things are out of our reach.
Those things aren’t as many as we think, though. We can achieve much more than we think. With practice, dedication and the right mindset, we can do a lot.
If we can overcome the beliefs about ourselves that limit us, we will get far. How far? That depends mainly on you.
A word of caution, you CAN NOT be whoever you want
Notice the word “mainly” in the last phrase; it is there for a reason. It is there because where you get will depend mostly on you, but not only. Other people also play the game. There are external factors, luck or lack thereof, natural disasters, you name it. Many things can go wrong, and they often do, even if you have the right attitude and bravely fight all your internal demons and limiting beliefs.
Positive psychology proponents and self-help books send out the message that if you want to do it and work hard enough, you can make it. You can be whoever you want to be as long as you work for it. This is a laudable message and can help us pull ourselves to reach our maximum potential, but it also has its risks.
You cannot be whatever you want to be. You can try, and you can get to the maximum of your potential, which should be enough to fulfil you and satisfy you, but we all have our limits, and there are also the external factors we mentioned earlier. Still, aiming to reach your maximum potential and fulfilling your purpose in life is as high as you can aim. That should be enough to give meaning and purpose to your life.
From limiting to enabling beliefs
That was a bit of a downer, but it had to be said. Having delivered the unpleasant message, let’s go back again to the exciting world of limiting beliefs and how to transform them into enabling ones.
Let’s recap. We all have limiting beliefs. We believe we cannot do something because we couldn’t do it in the past or our parents or high school teacher told us we couldn’t do it. We didn’t have what it took, the right personality trait or the right skill. Skills can be learned, and some personality traits are more fixed than others, but you can always change who you are, at least a bit, and be a better version of yourself every day.
This means you can overcome your limiting beliefs and see them for what they are: fictions you tell yourself about what you can and cannot do. If that were all, it would be OK, but the problem is that telling yourself you cannot do something ends up becoming true. You can get yourself out of the vicious circle thus created, but it takes time, dedication, and some introspection.
You can do this with the help of a coach, mentor or good friend with some listening skills and empathy, but if you have neither at hand, you can do it yourself. At the end of the day, you will have to do it yourself anyway; they are YOUR beliefs, so only YOU can change them.
Here is how to do it in an easy-to-follow and step-by-step form:
– Think about the beliefs you have about yourself. What are you good at? What are you bad at?
– Then take one of the “bad ones” and ask yourself, “where is this belief coming from?”
– Apply the Ladder of Inference to this belief. In what facts is it based? Were there other facts you didn’t consider? What assumptions did you make? Are there other explanations you haven’t considered?
– What would it look like to be good at this skill, competency, or way of behaving? Can you picture yourself doing it? What would you have to do to get to that level? What barriers would you have to overcome?
The moment you visualise yourself doing it and realise there is a way to get there, even if it will take you hours, weeks, or months of practice and some hurdles to overcome, will be the moment you will realise it is possible.
The only thing stopping you is your own limiting belief. You put it yourself in your own mind, so you are the only one who can take it out.
I mentioned above my beliefs about my shyness, not being good at interacting with strangers, not having a commercial mindset, etc. I have overcome some of these beliefs, and I am happy I did. Some others, however, I am still working on them. One thing is to know the theory, and then another to put it into practice, one day in, one day out.
Nobody said it was easy to overcome your limiting beliefs, but it is worth trying. You can do it, but only if you believe you can.