Do these thoughts — or some version of them — swirl in your head? Do they consume you daily? Or arise whenever you try something new or make a mistake?
These thoughts are examples of limiting beliefs, according to Lea Seigen Shinraku, MFT, a therapist in private practice in San Francisco. Limiting beliefs derive from a variety of sources. One source is childhood. Naturally, none of us grows up in a “perfect environment,” where each and every need is met.
As such, “each of us has to grapple with our own suffering as infants and young children — a time when we are not fully equipped to metabolize challenging emotions, and a time when we form beliefs about how the world works.”
If a child’s need for attention and connection consistently goes unmet, that child may start to believe that it’s because of them, and they have to do something to earn acceptance and love from others, she said.
Another source is the media. According to Shinraku, the media perpetuates the idea that people must perform and compete in order to be worthy and loveable.
Social media also plays a role. “[W]ell-curated posts on social media can leave you with the impression that others are happier and more successful, and that they ‘have it all figured out.’”
The biggest reason limiting beliefs are problematic is because they crush our most fundamental need, according to Shinraku: our need to belong.
“Limiting beliefs reinforce an experience of separateness and exclusion; they keep people thinking that they are alone in their humanness.”
But you’re not stuck with these beliefs. You can start working through them, slowly examining, questioning and then setting them aside. Because limiting beliefs are deeply engrained into our psyches, it’s important to have patience during this process, Shinraku said. These specific strategies can help.
Recognize your limiting beliefs.
According to Shinraku, limiting beliefs are typically “absolute, rigid and final,” and include words such as “always” and “never.” They also include beliefs about being “damaged” or “broken,” she said. They don’t leave any space for “alternate perspectives, possibilities, or change.”
Whenever you find yourself thinking a limiting belief, name it. Acknowledge it. Doing so is your first step in unpacking the belief and lessening its power, she said. Limiting beliefs “can’t hold up under closer examination, because they aren’t true.”
It also can help to write down these beliefs in a notebook, including the time of day you had the belief, what triggered it and what emotions you were feeling, Shinraku said.
Explore your limiting beliefs.
Exploring what reinforces your beliefs today can be incredibly helpful. (It’s also helpful to explore how your beliefs were formed but this is often harder to pinpoint and isn’t necessary in order to work through them, Shinraku said.)
Everything from keeping your limiting beliefs a secret to striving for perfection to overworking can bolster limiting beliefs, she said. Once you know what fuels your false beliefs, you can work on minimizing these habits and behaviors. For instance, you can talk about your limiting beliefs with someone you trust, thereby weakening them, Shinraku said.
Bring curiosity to your beliefs.
Instead of berating yourself, explore other explanations and perspectives for your situation. Be curious. Shinraku views genuine curiosity as a powerful form of self-compassion.
For instance, she said, instead of saying “What’s wrong with me? Why is everything so hard?” say, “This feels really challenging for me. I wonder why it’s so difficult.”
Then explore the different things that may be making this situation challenging. It could be everything from you not getting enough sleep to needing to learn a new skill to asking for help.
Shinraku also suggested asking these questions to tap into your curiosity: “Is there any other way to see myself and this situation? Is there some other way that I might respond that would feel better?”
Work with a therapist.
“For most people, limiting beliefs have been part of their internal world for so long that the beliefs feel ‘normal,'” Shinraku said. She likens it to a background we don’t even notice anymore. This makes it harder to recognize these beliefs.
Working with a therapist can help. A clinician can help you uncover limiting beliefs, understand how they were formed, interrupt the limiting patterns and create new, adaptive ways of understanding yourself and your world, she said.
Limiting beliefs can be stubborn. But by tuning into your rigid beliefs, exploring what reinforces them and cultivating curiosity, you can see limiting beliefs for what they are — untruths — and begin to relinquish them.