What’s Holding you Back: Limiting Beliefs

Guest post by Kira Swanson

There are three general strategies that we can adopt for overcoming our limiting beliefs.

My friend, Denise, recently posted something that caught my eye. It said something like this: “If you had someone who was following you around criticizing your every move, saying bad things about your appearance and your competence, you’d kick them to the curb, right? Yet, that’s how you talk to yourself everyday.”

It’s a great reminder.

But why are we talking to ourselves like that in that first place? What is the purpose of all this self-flagellation?

Negative Talk is For Our Protection

Most of our negative self-talk springs from limiting beliefs that we hold about ourselves. Often times the limiting beliefs developed for reasons that might have seemed worthy at the time, like avoiding embarrassment, saving our resources for the winter, or not being eaten by the saber-tooth tiger.

Limiting beliefs are beliefs that don’t serve us in reaching our highest potential. They keep us playing small. They are rooted in playing it safe.

There is a biological wisdom behind this. The brain’s imperative is to maintain the status quo. It has a huge show to run, and when you’re getting all stressed out, throwing all sorts of evil chemicals into your system, and trying to operate on sub-optimal amounts of sleep, the brain is just trying to do everything it can to keep things running smoothly.

It doesn’t care about chasing dreams. Your brain is hanging out at the lowest rung of Maslow’s hierarchy. It’s just obsessed with survival.

Limiting beliefs are beliefs that don’t serve us in reaching our highest potential. They keep us playing small.

The Cost of Negativity

But having all this negative messaging dogging us all the time comes at a great cost. It creates the feeling of being stuck, the feeling of overwhelm, and the illusion that we don’t have enough time to pursue what we want most in this life. It is like trying to accelerate with one foot on the brake.

Tony Robbins likens limiting beliefs to poison: “Holding these limiting beliefs is equivalent to systematically ingesting minute doses of arsenic that, over time, build up to a fatal dose.”

Breaking the Pattern

Limiting beliefs pull us into destructive patterns. Breaking out of these patterns is hard work and takes discipline. But the pay off is profound.

I know because I have been derailed by damaging limiting beliefs and I’ve done the work to overcome some of my most problematic beliefs.

I am a shy, introverted person. For me, the shyness used to be absolutely debilitating. The belief that “it is not safe to put myself out there” took root during my childhood, and well into my 30s, it undermined my behavior.

I was reluctant to interact with other people. I had this fear that I was bothering them, so I avoided communication. I made myself do it in professional contexts, but it was always a struggle and I’m sure that my underlying belief impacted the effectiveness of my communication.

The Wisdom of Joe Dispenza

Everything changed when I went to a workshop by Dr. Joe Dispenza several years ago. Dr. Joe taught me that my belief is reinforced by the feelings that it evokes. As it turns out, I was addicted to those rotten feelings. You see, whenever we think certain thoughts, neuropeptides are released in the brain. Feelings are created when neuropeptides link up with cells. A given type of peptide needs a matching cell receptor site in order to link with the cell. As they replicate, cells adapt to the peptides that are most readily available.

So, in my example of shyness, the associated feeling was sheepishness. The feeling would arise whenever I thought about reaching out to someone. If I did actually reach out, then that sheepish feeling would go into overdrive. This led to a condition where I had created an abundance of cell receptor sites for sheepishness. Worse, these sites were created at the expense of other types of cell receptor sites, like those for, say, happiness or love.

Since I had restructured my brain to expect sheepishness, it began to crave sheepishness. My brain needed it in order to maintain the status quo. That’s how I became addicted to my shyness and the corresponding feeling of sheepishness. The cool thing is that I was able to I use my insight about being addicted to my feelings to break the nasty cycle. More on that in a bit…

The Varieties of Limiting Beliefs

Limiting beliefs come in many different shapes and sizes. Some examples include:

  • “I can’t ask for what I want because I might get rejected.”
  • “I’ll never succeed.”
  • “It’s because of my childhood.”

There are some core beliefs that tend to underlie the other beliefs, such as “I have to be perfect,” or “I’m not good enough.”

Some limiting beliefs might be hidden from us. In his book, The Big Leap, Gay Hendricks argues that many of us have a belief that takes the form of an unconscious money ceiling (he calls it an Upper Limit Problem). When our earning power approaches the Upper Limit, we begin to unwittingly sabotage our behavior so that we won’t exceed the threshold. Our finances will remain stagnant until we uncover and root out this belief.

The Structure of Belief

What’s particularly troubling about the Upper Limit Problem, and many other limiting beliefs, is that they are unconscious. See the diagram below to understand how this works.

On the left-hand side of the diagram, you will see that beliefs are often below the threshold of awareness. We are not conscious of them and this allows them to operate unchallenged. Secondly, our beliefs are supported by evidence. The evidence might be flimsy – based, for example, on only one incident – but some evidence generally underlies our beliefs. And finally, on the right-hand side of the diagram, you will see that our beliefs are part of a self-perpetuating system. Our beliefs impact our interpretations of events and those interpretations feed back into the beliefs that we hold.

As Robin Sharma explains, one of the tricky things about our beliefs is that they become the lens through which we see the world: “Remember, we see the world not as it is but as we are. Most of us see through the eyes of our fears and our limiting beliefs and our false assumptions.”

Don’t believe me? Here’s a quick exercise to illustrate the point. Check out this brief video and I’ll debrief below. SPOILER ALERT: don’t proceed without watching the video unless, of course, you want to deprive yourself of some fun.

Did you see the the unexpected element in the video? In my experience using this video in training classes, 75% of participants don’t see it. Why? It’s simple: they weren’t expecting it. Their attention was focused on a specific task. The unexpected element was inconsistent with the task, and so they didn’t see it.

We often hear about the elephant in the room. Well, I like to talk about the gorilla in the room. To me, that means the opportunities that we lose because we are blinded by our beliefs.

So, how do we loosen the grip of these damaging beliefs?

Overcoming Limiting Beliefs

There are three general strategies that we can adopt for overcoming our limiting beliefs.

1) We can bring our limiting beliefs to conscious awareness

2) we can create a new empowering belief

3) we can find ways to break the self-perpetuating cycle.

I walk through the process for banishing limiting beliefs in detail in my free workbook that you can grab on my website.

Let’s take a closer look at how to break the limiting belief cycle.

Thought Stopping

Remember my story about my shyness? After hearing Dr. Joe’s presentation, I decided that I wanted to end my addiction to the feeling of sheepishness. I knew that, like with any addiction, this would involve withdrawal symptoms. I also knew that I had to disrupt the pattern. I made up a technique (and then later found out it was a real thing: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy’s Thought Stopping).

Here’s how it works. When you catch yourself thinking your limiting belief, feeling the feelings associate with it, or engaging in the behavior that it promotes, yell “STOP!”

Yell it as loud as you can. If, for some strange reason, you’re not able to yell it, whisper-shout it. Scream it in your head.

Be as dramatic as you can about it. The more dramatic the better. You’re trying to build up a new neural network in your brain and this is best done by really startling yourself.

Next, immediately replace the limiting belief with a new empowering belief. For example, one of my new empowering beliefs was “it is worth the risk to put myself out there.”

Notice that I didn’t jump straight to some crazy belief that was a real stretch, like “I’m a bad ass extrovert.” You want your new belief to be, well, believable. Just make it incrementally better than the limiting belief.


Now, remember, your brain is going to resist this new belief. And you’ll be experiencing those withdrawal symptoms. Acknowledge them, welcome them, in fact. They are the price that you have to pay to change your brain. But you CAN change your brain. It just takes practice and discipline.

In my case, deliberately practicing overcoming my belief led me to reach out to an old boss. This was a guy that really intimidated me at my former job. But once I started challenging my limiting beliefs, my behavior started to change. So I picked up the phone and called Alfredo. And guess what? It led to a lucrative corporate job.

So you see, you really can change your life by changing your thinking.

Take the next step and download the workbook and free yourself from those unpleasant beliefs.

Kira Swanson

Kira Swanson

Chapter Leader, Portland Oregon

I’m a mindset coach for entrepreneurs and creatives who find that the old ways of bigger, faster, more are no longer satisfying. Instead, they favor simpler, smarter, better. They’re looking for creative and sustainable responses to the increasingly chaotic world around them. I help them shift their perspective and tap the power of their own wisdom to unveil new ways to thrive in these complex times. If you’re interested in one to one coaching please contact me at [email protected] or check out my services at kiraswanson.com/services/.