Limiting Beliefs

What’s Limiting You?

Our thoughts and imaginations are the only real limits to our possibilities.  — Orison Swett Marden

In my last blog post, I introduced the notion that all of us go through our lives wearing pairs of invisible eyeglasses.  The lenses in these glasses, which impact what we see, are made up of the thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world.  Some of these thoughts are helpful to us (in that they have an anabolic, or positive, influence on our mood, energy, and actions — what is possible for us); others dim our view, and so our experiences of life (the energetic consequences are negative, or catabolic — distracting and draining — with destructive effects on our sense of self, health, work life, and relationships).  In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider identifies examples of what I’m describing here — the thoughts and beliefs of dirty lenses — as four kinds of “energy blocks” (129): limiting beliefs, interpretations, assumptions, and gremlins (with “gremlin” being another way to reference what we often call our inner critic).  In my blog post today, I’d like to explore the first of these blocks — limiting beliefs.

Schneider defines limiting beliefs as ideas that we have about our situations, surroundings, other people, or the world that restrict our sense of what is possible.  Most often, we have come to accept these ideas as true because they are communicated to us as true by some source that we have invested with “authority” — someone we know, the media, or a book we once read, for instance.  As an example of a limiting belief, Schneider references the idea that before 1954, running a mile in under four minutes was considered “impossible” for a human being, and even “dangerous” to attempt (129).  On May 6, 1954, at a meet in Oxford, England, a 25-year-old junior doctor named Roger Bannister ran his way into the record and history books with a time of three minutes and 59.4 seconds.  Schneider contends that such an achievement required Bannister’s rejection of a prevailing and limiting belief of his era, and the creation of a new belief for himself — that running a mile in under four minutes was possible.  While I do not know enough to claim that a sub-four-minute mile was considered impossible and dangerous at the time, it does seem to me that Bannister would have had to believe that breaking the four-minute mile was possible for him (no limiting belief there!); otherwise, would he have even tried?

From my own perspective, another example of a limiting belief that may resonate with many of us who identify ourselves as anxious is the idea that our anxiety is a curse or a wound, something “bad,” a way in which we’re broken (and so “bad” ourselves, perhaps).  As a limiting belief, this idea is more complicated because it is often not simply based on something that we have been told, but on our own personal experiences of emotional and physical pain; moreover, our “gremlin” or inner critic frequently gets involved.  Previously, I have suggested that as valid as the view of anxiety as a curse or a wound may be, given what those of us who experience anxiety can go through, it is not helpful to us (The Gift of Anxiety, 2012).  This particular way of seeing sets up a relationship between us and our anxiety that is dominated by feelings of antipathy, resentment, and fear.  In this kind of relationship, we tend to polarize with our anxiety, identifying it as an enemy and taking up a defensive position against it; as we do so, we generate an even greater amount of tension for ourselves (catabolic energy!), and not the increased sense of calm and confidence that we desire.  Personally, I wonder how our experiences of anxiety might be different if we were able to see anxiety not as a curse or a wound, but as a blessing, a source of healing — a gift.  While I acknowledge that this idea may strike some as sounding ridiculous, at least initially, I get very excited thinking about what a different kind of relationship between us and anxiety this energetically anabolic perspective makes possible, and with this different relationship, what becomes possible for us.

There are several ways for us to challenge our limiting beliefs, whether the beliefs concern how we think about anxiety or anything else in our lives.  These ways may sound very familiar to those of us who are already acquainted with various cognitive-behavioral responses to anxious thinking. First of all, we recognize that we do not have to believe everything we think, that our beliefs are not facts, though we often proceed, of course, as if they do reflect a natural order of things (when we say to ourselves, for example, “That’s just how things are!”).  If we inventory and evaluate the influence that a particular belief has had on our life (look at the cost, and ask ourselves, “Is that all right with me?”), and decide that we want to change what we have been experiencing, we can begin by choosing an alternate belief for ourselves, a way of seeing that helps us rather than hurts us.  We can then examine the evidence for the limiting belief (question the proof of its “truth,” in other words), and ask ourselves questions like, “How true do I believe this idea is … really?” and “Where did this limiting belief come from for me?”  (Schneider, 134).  In answering the first question, we may realize that our “buy-in” to the belief is not as complete as it had seemed; in answering the second, we allow ourselves the opportunity to create a context for the belief, which may help us conceive that we need not see it as fact, but simply as something that we have come to accept as true (and so, as something that we can decide to reject).  We can also explore supporting evidence for the alternate idea that we have developed.  In the midst of all of these responses, it may be helpful for us to keep in mind that we have been seeing through this particular set of lenses for a long time, and we may still initially tend to see (or even look for) what we are used to seeing.  Change takes time.  Or is that just another limiting belief … if it’s not helping us?

Over the next couple of weeks, I invite you to examine the lenses in your own invisible eyeglasses of perception for limiting beliefs.  Look for thoughts and ideas that restrict rather than expand your sense of what is possible, that contribute to moods and behaviors that resonate with catabolic energy, which breaks you down, instead of anabolic energy, which builds you up.  There are times that all of us could use an extra “someone in our corner” who wants us to be able to see all the possibilities for thought, feeling, and action that are available to us, so that we can pick which among these will help us move in the direction that we want to go.  I would like, in some small measure, to help you in this way; perhaps, one day, you will pass the help along to someone else!

How is the way that you are seeing things influencing what is possible for you?  What are alternate thoughts and beliefs that would be more helpful than some of the ones that you are currently using?  How can you “clean your lenses” so that your invisible eyeglasses of perception work for you rather than against you?

Here’s to your increased calm and confidence!

Featured image credit: arcady31 / 123RF Stock Photo

For more ideas about anxious thinking and responses to help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, ELI-MP at thoughttonic.com; you can follow Scott Burns Kahler, and this blog, via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Twitter, or RSS feed.  Thank you for reading!

Man Cleaning Glasses

Through a Glass Darkly

Cleanliness becomes more important when godliness is unlikely.  — P. J. O’Rourke

I was in my freshman or sophomore year of college — it is all just a blur, now — when I got my first pair of eyeglasses.  I had been sitting in a large, lecture-style class when I noticed that I could not make out the words that the professor was writing on the chalkboard in the front of the room.  My peers were not having the same difficulty.  I tried sitting in a number of different seats, hoping that a change in lighting or in my distance from the front of the room would help, but nothing made much of a difference.  The course was one in music history and appreciation, and for a couple of weeks, I was playing my own game of musical chairs!   When it was clear that moving around the room, developing a French-Stewart squint, wasn’t helping me decipher the writing on the chalkboard, off I went to see an optometrist.

Because I knew that both of my parents had gotten glasses as children, I was not surprised by the idea that it might finally be “my time”; truthfully, however, I had been hoping that I had escaped any genetic predisposition to need corrective eyewear, and had even managed to pride myself on getting through my childhood and teenage-years without the slightest indication of trouble with my vision (as if I had something to do with it!).  As much as getting glasses was a blow to my pride, though, wearing them was a greater blow to my vanity; I did not see myself as one of those people so easily able to pull off the look that we would later call “geeky chic.”  Worst of all, perhaps, was that I had not yet matured out of exceptionally oily adolescent skin, and I was always navigating the world, then,  through lenses that were covered with smudges.

Given my own experience with eyeglasses, I have often found the image of eyeglasses helpful in explaining the idea that, as human beings, each of us views our world through a specific set of lenses.  These lenses are comprised of thoughts and beliefs that we have developed over time out of our individual experiences, and in the context of constructing meanings of those experiences in our conversations and relationships with other people.  I think of everyone as wearing a pair of invisible eyeglasses (glasses of perception) all of the time.  Some of the lenses in these invisible glasses (such as the lenses I had in college, covered with smudges) limit our vision, restrict what we’re able to see, and so reduce the range of ways in which we’re able to show up in our lives; other lenses (think of those that are clean and clear) augment or otherwise expand our vision, help us to see more of what is possible, and support our focus on whatever we decide matters most to us in our lives — by opening up options of conscious emotional and behavioral response to situations that we encounter.  Please understand that I am not proposing the notion that we can have direct, unmediated (godlike?) access to the “reality” of things (which could be one interpretation of having glasses of perception with crystal clear lenses), or even that we judge the “dirty” set of lenses as “bad” and the “clean” set as “good.”  I am suggesting that the clear or unsmudged set of lenses (having thoughts and beliefs that help us rather than hold us back) offers us increased opportunities to perceive a wider range of possibilities for feeling and responding in any given circumstance, and so the freedom to pick which feelings and behavior we think will work best, or how we want to show up as we move in the direction that we want to go.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are seated in a crowded cafe and think that you may see a friend at a table across the room.  You are wearing a pair of eyeglasses with smudged lenses (or regular sunglasses with smudged lenses, perhaps, if you do not wear prescription eyewear).  You can’t see very clearly with dirty lenses, and feel less certain, less confident, as a result.  You mutter under your breath, a bit perplexed and disgruntled, “Now, is that Susie over there?”  You respond tentatively, even anxiously — finally deciding that because you can’t really tell if that woman is Susie or not, you are not going to approach her, call out, or wave (the cafe is pretty casual!).

If, on the other hand, you are wearing a pair of glasses with clean lenses, you will likely feel less anxious in this same situation, saying to yourself, “Hey, that’s my friend, Susie, across the room there!”  You will move with greater confidence, deciding to get up from your own table to pay her a visit, perhaps, or to call out to her — waving, and smiling widely — “‘Hey, Susie!  Over here!’”

Now, most of us, I venture, prefer the vision of clear, confident energy in the second of these two responses (we can call this energy “anabolic” since we so often experience variations of it as “building us up”); however, if we have gotten accustomed over the course of time to looking through dirty lenses in our invisible glasses, we might not even realize how profoundly these lenses — the often unconscious thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, those people around us, others, and the world — are dimming our view, and so our experience of our life, with a very different energy (i.e., “catabolic” — contracting, and draining since it “breaks us down”)!  In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider talks about examples of what I’m describing here — the thoughts and beliefs of dirty lenses — as falling into four main categories: limiting beliefs, interpretations, assumptions, and “gremlins” (with “gremlin” being one way to reference what we also often call our inner critic).

Sometimes, as happens in the story that Schneider tells, it helps to examine our lenses with the support of someone who wants us to be able to see all the possibilities for thought, feeling, and action that are available to us, so that we can pick which among these will help us move in the direction that we want to go — with a sense of calm and confidence.  In the weeks that follow, I’ll be addressing each of these four obstacles to our experience of anabolic energy one at a time as topics for this blog.  I’ll be offering further definitions and examples, explaining the ways in which I find these ideas relating to the kinds of anxious thinking identified in cognitive-behavioral approaches to therapy, and exploring ideas for how we can respond when we notice ourselves feeling out-of-focus, have the sense that the vision we want for ourselves is blurred — not on account of myopia or astigmatism — but because of smudges of unhelpful thoughts and beliefs on the lenses of our perceptions.

To your calm and confidence!

For more ideas about anxious thinking and responses to help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts at thoughttonic.com; you can follow this blog, by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Twitter, or RSS feed.

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