Do You Have Limiting Beliefs About Yourself?

Article Summary: 

Many of us have limiting beliefs that detract from our success and happiness. Here we address where they come from and how to change them.


Do you have limiting beliefs about yourself that are holding you back? Chances are that you do, even if you’re highly capable and successful. Most people do, even if they’re not aware of it, and it’s a bigger problem than most people think.

Limiting beliefs are judgments about ourselves that restrict us in some way. They prevent us from achieving our aims and from becoming what we want. In essence, they’re stories we tell ourselves, and they ain’t pretty because they’re a form of negative self-talk and self-sabotage.

Beliefs are the hidden scripts that run our lives.”
-Marie Forleo, entrepreneur


Examples of Limiting Beliefs

Our limiting beliefs generally tell us what we’re bad at or what we can’t do (or can’t do well). Beneath them are assumptions that there’s something wrong with us or that things are too difficult for us.

When we’re under their spell, we may believe that we are:

  • not worthy of love (perhaps the most debilitating limited belief of all)
  • damaged goods (because, for example, we’re out of a job or in a rut, or because our parents may be gone or divorced)
  • a failure
  • too busy or too old to do the thing we want (such as try a new career path, start dating again, learn a new skill, go back to school, start a venture, or pursue our dreams)
  • not smart, attractive, strong, or talented enough
  • not as good as our siblings, classmates, or colleagues (note the comparison trap)
  • not cut out to be a leader or entrepreneur
  • not creative, artistic, confident, our outgoing enough
  • bad at certain things (e.g., public speaking, writing, math, money, etc.)
  • too tall or too short
  • never going to be successful (or as successful as we hope)
  • not ready for what we need or want to do
  • stuck because things are beyond our control
  • lacking what it takes (e.g., knowledge, skills, experience, degree, credential)
  • too young to have influence
  • so far behind others that we’ll never catch up (as if life were a race)
  • fixed in our intelligence, abilities, and talents (what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”)

Most of us have more than one limiting belief at work and, in some cases, several. These beliefs affect our choices and actions.

We may have a limiting belief that we can’t leave a bad job or bad marriage because we’ve put too much time into it already and we won’t be able to get a better situation in the future. Or a limiting belief that we can’t quit law school or medical school because our parents won’t approve. Or that we can’t leave a prestigious or well-paying career to pursue something more meaningful, because we’ll lose respect. (See my article, “The Trap of Caring Too Much about What Other People Think.”)

Often, there are logical leaps we take with these limiting beliefs. If we embarrassed ourselves once in a high school assembly, we adopt the premature belief that we’re terrible at public speaking. If we got a bad grade in a tenth-grade writing class, we conclude that we’re a bad writer.

“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.”
-Richard Bach, writer

These leaps may be understandable emotionally, but they fall short logically. There are all sorts of possibilities at work in such situations. First, nobody starts out being good at anything. Maybe we were having a bad day when the assembly took place. Or the writing teacher was off base. Plus, we can all learn, develop, and grow into new skills and abilities if we apply ourselves diligently and systematically.

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Where Limiting Beliefs Come From

Where do our limiting beliefs come from? Many sources, it turns out, including our:

  • parents and our childhood (including well-meaning but ultimately harmful praise only for things like our intelligence, looks, talent, or performance and not our effort, focus, resilience, and improvement)
  • peers and their comments and judgments about us (which we often blow out of proportion)
  • past experiences (and the false lessons we can extract from them)
  • teachers
  • coaches
  • mentors
  • society and its common assumptions about what constitutes success
  • the media, movies, celebrities, influencers, and social media (with their incomplete and misleading portrayals of what life is like for people)

Together, these can mix into a toxic cocktail of harmful notions about ourselves.


The Effects of Limiting Beliefs

How do our limiting beliefs affect us? They can have profound and lasting effects on our life, work, relationships, and leadership.

Here are ten of the most common effects of limiting beliefs:

  1. lead us to doubt ourselves
  2. lower our confidence
  3. keep us from doing important things (such as going for a dream job or asking someone out)
  4. inhibit our creativity
  5. cause us to reject good options or lose opportunities because we feel we’re unworthy or incapable
  6. keep us in a state of fear, stress, anxiety, or shame
  7. prevent us from approaching or reaching our potential
  8. keep us from achieving success 
  9. reduce our happiness and wellbeing
  10. prevent us from crafting the life we want

When we’re at the mercy of our limiting beliefs, we feel mostly weak, undeserving, unworthy, or incompetent, or just not good enough. And we fail to access our strengths, gifts, resilience, and better angels. Those effects can compound over time into a black hole of negativity that won’t let any of our light escape.

Every belief has a consequence. Long term, your beliefs determine your destiny.”
-Marie Forleo, entrepreneur

Strengths Search

We all have core strengths–the things in which we most excel. Take this self-assessment to determine your core strengths so you can integrate them more into your life and work.


Why Limiting Beliefs Are So Hard to Overcome

Limiting beliefs can be tricky because they’re loaded with emotions, fear, and anxiety. They hijack our brains, moving our cognitive activity away from our more prefrontal cortex (where we do our most advanced thinking) and down into our more reactive limbic system.

Limiting beliefs are often subconscious and deeply engrained in our psyche. Although they originate in our minds, we actualize them through our behavior and habits, creating a vicious cycle.

It gets worse. In some cases, our unconscious minds may prefer limiting beliefs over the effort and uncertainty of trying to change them because at least the beliefs familiar, which can provide comfort of sorts. This part of our brain prefers to stick with the “devil we know” versus the stress, pressure, risk, and uncertainty of something new and different (even if the latter may turn out to be much better). If our amygdala values survival above all else, why not stick with what we know and avoid the fear state that comes with change? It craves certainty and familiarity, even when those states lead to complacency and mediocrity.

Our brains are wired to conserve energy and protect us from pain and danger. This can lead to some lazy default behaviors such as staying in our comfort zone and avoiding risk.

Sometimes we’ve had a limiting belief for so long that it feels like it’s beyond questioning or reproach. It feels like it’s an aspect of reality itself, as opposed to the dubious doling of self-sabotage that it is. It can feel like the truth, even though it’s a despicable lie.


How to Overcome Limiting Beliefs

When you change a belief, you change everything…. All beliefs are a choice and choices can be changed….
You always have more power than you think. Your mind is the most extraordinary tool you have to shape your reality.”
-Marie Forleo, entrepreneur

Now that we’ve seen what limiting beliefs are, where they come from, and why they’re so hard to overcome, the next question is: What can we do about them? How can we overcome our limiting beliefs?

Here are the most effective ways to begin overcoming our limiting beliefs:

Understand that all results begin with beliefs, because our beliefs turn into thoughts that drive our actions.

Imagine how much more we could accomplish and how much more happiness and fulfillment we could have if we transformed our limiting beliefs into beliefs that supported us.

Begin noticing the tone of our beliefs—and whether they’re positive or negative, whether they’re supportive or harmful. We need to get better at listening to the negative thoughts in our head, paying attention to our negative self-talk. Notice whether our beliefs are driven by excuses, blaming, or victimhood, versus taking full responsibility and being creative, resourceful, and solution oriented. Be vigilant and keep watching out for cases where we may have unconscious limiting beliefs.

Identify the source of our limiting beliefs, if possible (e.g., comments from a parent, teacher, or boss, or a bad experience).

Recognize that it’s our unconscious brain that’s holding on to the limiting beliefs, not our conscious mind. With that realization, we can change our perception and then our behavior.

Flip our beliefs from unconscious and limiting to conscious and affirming so they don’t continue on autopilot without our awareness, and so they lift us up instead of holding us down.

Reframe the limiting beliefs. A simple way to reframe a limiting belief is to add “yet” to it. For example:

  • The limiting belief, “I can’t do this,” becomes, “I can’t do this yet” (or “I haven’t yet figured out how to make this work”).
  • The limiting belief, “I’ve never led anyone before and I don’t know what I’m doing,” becomes, “I’ve helped lots of people figure things out and I have good people skills and lots of valuable experience to draw upon.”
  • The limiting belief, “I’m not good enough to manage this project well,” becomes, “I’m committed, hard-working, and capable, and I have what it takes to figure this out.”

Choose one limiting belief to begin working on.

Write down our limiting beliefs about that topic area, also noting how they’re holding us back.

Then, interrogate the limiting belief. What if it’s not true?

Assess the accuracy of our limiting belief(s) by gathering data, from ourselves and others.

Challenge our limiting beliefs constantly.

Prove our limiting beliefs wrong by taking courageous actions that refute the phantom belief and its underlying assumptions. Crush our loathsome limiting beliefs with our incredible capabilities and awesomeness.

Create new beliefs that are beneficial, in doing so changing our self-talk so that it’s positive or supportive.

Strengthen our new beliefs via positive actions that reinforce the new beliefs. (Also consider affirmations and/or visualization.)

Develop a mantra that counters each major limiting belief, replacing it with something better. Examples: “Born ready.” “You got this.” “Everything is figureoutable.” (credit to Marie Forleo for this one)

Seek help from a coach, mentor, or small group that’s supportive and committed to our best interests.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.



Limiting beliefs are judgments about ourselves that restrict us in some way, a nefarious form of self-sabotage. They’re hard to overcome because they’re overloaded with emotions, they hijack our brains, and they’re often subconscious.

We have the power to overcome our limiting beliefs, especially by bringing them into our conscious awareness, interrogating and reframing them, and adopting new beliefs that support instead of sabotaging us.

Sometimes, overcoming our limiting beliefs is a prerequisite for crafting a good life.

“You begin to fly when you let go of self-limiting beliefs
and allow your mind and aspirations to rise to greater heights.”

-Brian Tracy


Reflection Questions

  1. What limiting beliefs do you have?
  2. How are they holding you back?
  3. What will you do about them, starting today, and which one will you address first?


Tools for You


Related Articles

The trap of limiting beliefs doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s related to several of the other common traps of living. Here are several articles addressing related traps:


Additional Resources

Apollos Hester talking about motivation


Postscript: Inspirations on Beliefs

  • “No matter what you’re facing, you have what it takes to figure anything out and become the person you’re meant to be.” -Marie Forleo
  • “The size of your success is determined by the size of your belief.” -David J. Schwartz
  • “Since a leader cannot rise above his thinking, he must assault his limiting beliefs daily through reading, listening, and associating.” -Orrin Woodward
  • “In order to change ourselves, we must first believe we can.” -Marie Forleo
  • “Don’t limit yourself. Many people limit themselves to what they think they can do. You can go as far as your mind lets you. What you believe, remember, you can achieve.” -Mary Kay Ash
  • “I’m not interested in your limiting beliefs; I’m interested in what makes you limitless.” -Brendon Burchard
  • “Learning too soon our limitations, we never learn our powers.” -Mignon McLaughlin
  • “If you accept a limiting belief, then it will become a truth for you.” -Louise Hay
  • “Beliefs have the power to create and the power to destroy. Human beings have the awesome ability to take any experience of their lives and create a meaning that disempowers them or one that can literally save their lives.” -Tony Robbins
  • “Courage is your natural setting. You do not need to become courageous, but rather peel back the layers of self-protective, limiting beliefs that keep you small.” -Vironika Tugaleva
  • “Do the uncomfortable. Become comfortable with these acts. Prove to yourself that your limiting beliefs die a quick death if you will simply do what you feel uncomfortable doing.” -Darren Rowse
  • “It’s the repetition of affirmation that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.” -Muhammad Ali

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Mental Prisons We Build for Ourselves

“Our life is what our thoughts make it.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Though we like to think of ourselves as free, many of us are confined to a mental prison we’ve built for ourselves.

Our most vicious jailer is our unhealthy “self-talk”—our inner critic that savagely sabotages us with haunting doubts and harsh judgments. We’re our own worst enemy.

We’re a prisoner of our “monkey mind”—feeling unsettled or restless and easily distracted by thoughts that bounce around like agitated apes. Often, we’re dwelling on the past or worrying about the future—always neglecting the present moment.

Most of our mental prisons are fictional stories our minds invent to prevent us from potential suffering. The sad secret, though, is that the suffering is wildly unlikely to occur outside our overactive imaginations. Our mental prisons are fear factories.

“My favorite cartoon shows two haggard captives staring through the bars of a prison window. The odd thing is that there are no walls on the prison, the two men are simply standing in the open, holding bars to their own faces with their own hands.”
-Martha Beck in Steering by Starlight

Sometimes our mental prison is the need we feel, often flowing from childhood, to gain approval and be liked or admired, or it’s the prison of the expectations of others (or, more accurately, what we presume those expectations to be, often wrongly).

Here’s the thing: We think we’re struggling with the outer game but it’s actually the inner game that’s tripping us up.

“Happiness is an inside game, literally and neurochemically.”
-Shirzad Chamine, author

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The Toll of Our Mental Prisons

These prisons are harmful in countless ways:

  • Lower confidence, sense of wellbeing, and joy.
  • Decrease in motivation and performance.
  • Distorted perceptions: we’re looking at reality with an overlay of past memories and hurts as well as future hunches and worries, skewing our senses.
  • Loss of our sense of control, agency, and responsibility—sometimes by blaming all our troubles on a single source (such as an ex-spouse, or an addiction), when in reality there are multiple factors contributing to problems (including our own mindset and behavior).
  • Learned helplessness”: a well documented phenomenon in which we give up after a number of futile attempts at something, eventually surrendering our agency even when there may be potential solutions and overlooking opportunities for change.


The Building Blocks of Our Mental Prisons

Building our own personal confinement is a strange endeavor, yet all too common. What drives it?

It begins with root causes that are exceedingly difficult to overcome because they’re often subconscious. First is depending on circumstances for our happiness: “If and when X happens,” we believe, “then I’ll be happy.” The logic seems sound, but it’s deeply flawed. We’re terrible at knowing what will truly make us happy and fulfilled over time, causing us to spend time on the wrong things. Also, with this logic, we’re placing our happiness in the hands of too many factors outside our control. The key is to learn to be happy and well regardless of our circumstances.

Second is our automatic emotional reactions to events, preceding our rational brain’s ability to interpret the situation from a higher level of consciousness and with a broader perspective and openness to different interpretations and possible responses.

There are also more mundane but also significant contributors:

“Most people today live in relatively constant distress and anxiety.
This is related to a low-grade but perpetual fight-or-flight response… in reaction to the challenges of life.”

-Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence
Shirzad Chamine

In her book, Mindfulness, psychologist Ellen Langer identifies several causes of mindlessness that also inhibit our mental wellbeing:

  • Having a narrow self-image, such as defining ourselves solely by our work (e.g., as a project manager, bookkeeper, or customer service rep) as opposed to all of our multifaceted identities (for example, son or daughter, mother or father, friend, colleague, artist, gardener, athlete, etc.). Being overly invested in one part of our lives is risky because it’s likely to go up and down over time—and can even disappear entirely.
  • Having false beliefs about common things. Example: conflating old age with poor health. While they’re correlated, they’re very different, and there are many examples of people who thrive mentally, emotionally, and physically in their later years.
  • Preoccupation with expected outcomes that sometimes fail to materialize (based on many factors outside our range of influence), instead of a healthy focus on the process.
  • Making faulty comparisons with others based on the outcomes they have (e.g., wealth, accomplishments) instead of the process they used to get them.

Our Mental Saboteurs

Shirzad Chamine, an executive and best-selling author of Positive Intelligence, has done important work that can help us understand how we’re sabotaging ourselves with our thoughts.

He identifies nine “saboteurs,” which are “automatic and habitual mind patterns” that harm our ability to function effectively. As you read them, note which ones challenge you:

  1. Judge: finding fault with self, others, or circumstances
  2. Victim: focus on painful feelings as a way of earning attention or empathy
  3. Pleaser: flattering, recuing, or pleasing others to gain acceptance
  4. Avoider: putting off or avoiding difficult tasks or conflicts
  5. Stickler: excessive need for perfection, order, and organization
  6. Restless: needing perpetual busyness and never being content with what is
  7. Controller: anxiety-based need to control situations or others
  8. Hyper-achiever: depending on achievement for self-acceptance
  9. Hyper-rational: excessively analytical processing of everything, including relationships
  10. Hyper-vigilant: excessive vigilance that never stops, seeing danger around every corner (Source: Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence)

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

Enter Carol Dweck and her pathbreaking research on mindsets. Dweck is a professor at Stanford University who studies motivation, personality, and development. She distinguishes between two mindsets:

  1. Fixed mindset: Belief that intelligence, abilities, and talents are fixed. People with a fixed mindset tend to:
    • Want to look smart
    • Avoid challenges
    • Ignore useful negative feedback
    • Feel threatened by the success of others
    • Plateau early and achieve less than their full potential
  1. Growth Mindset: Belief that intelligence, abilities, and talents can be developed. People with a growth mindset tend to:
    • Want to learn
    • Embrace challenges
    • Learn from criticism
    • Find lessons and inspiration in the success of others
    • Reach ever-higher levels of achievement

It makes an enormous difference whether we approach a situation with a desire to look smart or a desire to learn. Our mindset is especially evident in our reaction to failure:

Do we dread the prospect of failure because we view it as an embarrassing reflection on our competencies? Or are we open to the prospect of failure because we view it as a sign that we’re stretching ourselves in new areas?

Dweck notes that mindset plays an important role in virtually all aspects of our lives, from school, sports, and business to parenting, relationships, and more. Our mindsets shape our:

  • enjoyment of challenging tasks
  • goals and ideas about what we’ll strive for
  • honesty when confronted with situations where we may not look as good as we’d like
  • performance on tasks

We’re all born with certain predispositions, and our mindsets can vary in different areas in our lives, but here’s the good news:

“Can mindsets be changed? Can they be taught? Yes.”
-Carol Dweck, psychologist


How to Escape Mental Prison

If mental prisons are common to the human condition, what have we learned about ways to break free? Much, it turns out.

For starters, a surprising intervention involves breath work to change our physical and mental state: breathing deeply and intentionally, as with “box breathing.”

“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness

We also want to start noticing our thoughts more—observing the strange things that pop into our heads and spotting the negative patterns that reappear. It helps to label them (e.g., “My ‘controller’ is making me feel anxious, or “I’m being overly judgmental again”).

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


More Actions We Can Take

  • Focusing on what we can control, and not worrying about the rest.
  • Exploring different aspects of the issue with a sense of curiosity and fascination.
  • Remaining open to new possibilities and alternate interpretations.
  • Avoiding the trap of catastrophizing (assuming the worst or exaggerating our flaws).
  • Changing our context to bring a different perspective and renewed energy, especially to a place that provides sanctuary.
  • Replacing our inner critique with a more charitable and helpful narrative.
  • Cognitive reframing: shifting our mindset to look at a situation or relationship from a different and more helpful perspective, such as redefining a problem as a challenge or puzzle that we become curious to solve.
  • Playing: it often changes our physiology by moving us into a state of deep engagement or flow.
  • Taking action: there’s freedom in action, and it reveals fear for the false phantom it is.
  • Choosing what to think and be mindful about. Many people become passive victims of the random thought-stream in their minds instead of engaging their “observer” or deeper perspective and employing their ability to choose which thoughts to keep and which to dismiss as unproductive or unwelcome.
  • Giving ourselves grace, acknowledging that nobody’s perfect and that the point of life is not to try to appear perfect or successful to others.


Reflection Questions

  • Is your self-talk too negative?
  • Are you disrupted by “monkey mind”?
  • What will you do to start arranging your escape from mental prison?


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Tools for You


Related Traps and Articles


Postscript: Inspirations on Self-Talk

  • “When you fight life you lose but only 100 percent of the time.” -Byron Katie
  • “To me, real success is where I can be at peace in the midst of chaos.” -Peter Crone
  • “I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment.” -Byron Katie
  • “The mind is restless, Krishna, impetuous, self-willed, hard to train: to master the mind seems as difficult as to master the mighty winds.” –The Bhagavad Gita
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • “Everyone fails…. There is one other little question: ‘Did you collaborate in your own defeat?’” -John W. Gardner
  • “If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “What a liberation to realize that the ‘voice in my head’ is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is.” -Eckhart Tolle

Books that Will Help Free Your Mind and Mindset

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!