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Friday, March 09, 2007

How to Overcome our Limiting Beliefs

Our beliefs are at the core of who we are. Beliefs guide our decisions and behaviour in all areas of life. They determine what we think is or is not possible. More often than not they prove to be self-fulfilling prophecies. Some of our beliefs are not fully our own, but rather blindly taken on from others. Once a belief is formed, we work overtime to prove it right, even if the belief is something negative like “Nobody likes me” or “I am a failure.” Do we have to let our beliefs govern us, even if they are harmful to others and ourselves? Can we consciously make changes to what we believe?

In the first half of the 20th century the world believed that it was impossible to run a mile under four minutes. When, on May 6th 1954, Roger Bannister ran a mile in 3.59 minutes, everyone was in awe. Then, a curious development took place. Within the following year many other runners ran the mile under four minutes. It was as if a spell had been broken. To understand this phenomenon better, we have to take a closer look at our beliefs, and how they affect us.

Some of the beliefs we hold give us great strength and empowerment. Studies show that, on average, people who believe they are healthy live 7 years longer than those who think they are unhealthy, regardless of their actual health condition at the time of the survey.

Other beliefs zap our energy. They tell us that we cannot achieve our goals or that we are not worthy of other people’s acceptance. Those kinds of beliefs are called ‘Limiting Beliefs’. They typically sound like “I am ugly”, “I will never be successful”, “I can’t work with those kind of people”, etc.

Groups Limiting Beliefs into three categories:

Hopelessness: My goal cannot be achieved under any circumstances.

Helplessness: My goal can be achieved, but I lack the ability to achieve it.

Worthlessness: I don’t deserve to achieve this goal, because of something I am/am not or have/have not done.

Limiting beliefs can be a result of significant experiences (reference experiences) in our lives. Consider the story about the man who, as a nine-year-old, killed his friend’s three-year-old brother, while playing baseball. He was focusing so hard on his next swing that he did not notice the young boy running behind him. As a result he formed the belief “If I go after my goal, I end up hurting others.” This belief made it very difficult for him to succeed in his adult life.

When attempting to overcome limiting beliefs the first step is to become aware of them. This can be challenging, since our limiting beliefs have a way of hiding from us. They like to stay in the background, where they don’t have to explain themselves. It is almost like they are afraid that they will be proven wrong, if examined too closely.

In order to uncover limiting beliefs, ask yourself questions like:

In case of Hopelessness: Why is this goal unattainable?

In case of Helplessness: What skills do I lack to attain it?

In case of Worthlessness: Why don’t I deserve to achieve this goal?

If you calmly ask yourself these types of questions, you will uncover the limiting beliefs that stand in-between you and your goal. It is important to note that beliefs tend come in clusters. Keep analyzing your beliefs, until you feel satisfied that you have uncovered all of the limiting beliefs that stand in your way. Once you are aware of your limiting beliefs and the way they affect your behaviour, they will start to loose some of their power over you.

Analyze you beliefs for their purpose. Ask yourself, “How does holding this belief serve my best interest?” Often beliefs serve a purpose. If you do get some payoff from holding a belief, but at the price of some unpleasant side effects, look for a belief that gives you the same payoff without the side effects. For example, replace a belief like “Men are trouble” by “Some men are trouble and I need to be careful to make sure I choose a man with a good character as my partner.” The payoff of both those beliefs is “being safe from pain”, but the second belief is less limiting.

One way to stop believing that you cannot do something is to just try doing it. Once a belief has been proven wrong it looses its power, as was evident when Roger Bannister ran the mile in under four minutes. Of course, common sense should be applied with this approach as to avoid harm to self and others.