How to Stop Limiting Beliefs

Most of us have limiting beliefs: ideas and thoughts in our mind that convince us that we’re “not good enough” to accomplish our goals. Why is it so tough to get rid of limiting beliefs?

Do you attack limiting beliefs through things like positive self-talk (“I know I can do it!”) and imaging (imagining ourselves being successful)?  I feel those often don’t work.  The problem is they only address the symptom (convincing yourself not to feel bad) rather than the cause of your limiting belief (why you feel bad in the first place). 

When you’re sick, would you rather just have your fever go away, or do you want the disease to be cured?  The same concept applies with removing limiting beliefs.

Understanding why you have limiting beliefs helps you attack the cause and get rid of them for good.

And the reason we have limiting beliefs is, in large part, because of our subconscious disposition to think in a certain way.  Our cognitive foundation causes us to think about our problems and other complex issues—and form conclusions about them—in a distinct and specific way, which in turn causes us to draw certain types of conclusions.

That concept is called reflective judgment.  It doesn’t apply exclusively to limiting beliefs, but I think it explains them pretty well.

The reflective judgment theory categorizes the way we think into three levels*.   As we grow, we go up in levels, although most people stay stuck in lower levels.

Reflective judgment theory shows that our limiting beliefs are actually a result of how “developed” or sophisticated the way we think about things is.  So it stands to reason, by becoming a more “developed” thinker, we can reduce limiting beliefs.  Understanding where you are now helps you make the transition (click on the links by the Levels for a more detailed description of each).

1st Level: Rigid thinking.  You believe what authority figures tell you. 

Type of limiting belief: other people tell you that you can’t do it, so that’s enough to convince you.

Example: “Society says only special people can be great actors, so I guess that means I can’t do it”.

2nd Level: Ambiguous thinking.  You believe things are “true” or “real” for different people.

Type of limiting belief: uncertainty and fear; you can’t really figure out “how” to be successful because there’s no certain way.  You think that those who are successful are “just different than me”; or thinking you can’t do something simply “because I just could never do that”.

Example: “Famous actors are just different than me.  They’re rich, pretty, and have special advantages that I don’t.  I could never be as good as they are.”  “This is too complicated to figure out.”

3rd Level: Evidence-based thinking.  Knowledge that there is a certain, right way to do something, and by acting in the right way, you too can be successful.

Type of limiting belief: There is no room for limiting beliefs, because defining success is the result of a logical and analytical inquisition rather than unfounded assumptions and emotional capriciousness.

Example: “My ability to be a successful actor depends upon how skillful I am—which can increase with practice—and my network of people—which I can develop over time.  So I can be a successful actor if I am able and willing to put in the time and effort, and I understand the difficulties in doing so.”

3rd Level thinking is empowering because it means trying to figure out how something can work, rather than using unfounded assumptions that say it can’t work.   

Becoming a 3rd Level Thinker

  1. Challenge the assumptions at the foundation of your life, especially those that you hold most dear, and make you most uncomfortable to think might be wrong.

Often our most dearly-held assumptions are chains that hold us back and cause us worry.  They’re the types that 1st and 2nd Level Thinking revel in.

Is it really true that “the best job is a secure job” or that you have to live in a $300,000 house to be happy?  If you think you “can’t” start a business:  did you actually try to look into it, or do you just think it won’t work?  If you’re not worried about old assumptions like these, you can consider changing yourself and your views to fit in with your goals.

  1. Don’t have an emotional attachment to a point of view.

We usually want to be right, or think what our parents and society tells us is right, but what really matters is what actually is right.  If it doesn’t bother you to find out your current views are wrong, you would gladly change them to something better.  Having a disinterested perspective means a willingness to learn and assess new viewpoints.  This increased understanding makes it harder to hold limiting beliefs.

  1. Believe and do what seems most reasonable.

What you ultimately do believe will be based on reason and evidence.  So instead of thinking “it’s impossible for a guy like me to start a business!”, you’ll think “if I want to start a business, I need to do these things in order to be successful”.  When you know what those things are, you’ll know if you’re willing to put the effort into it.  So the only thing that will “limit” you is your decision to pursue the goal or not, rather than your emotions.

So try to think at a 3rd Stage Thinker.  By appealing to reasoning over emotion, you leave no room for emotional limiting beliefs to hold you back.

For a more in-depth look into reflective judgment, I recommend these articles:{54c12dad2cc2b53ae830e39915b1a3e70288dbcbbeb8bbf8395437c5dc3c512c}20Judgment.htm

* Classical reflective judgment contains seven stages that belong to three levels.  The levels—rather than the stages—are discussed here for simplicity.

R.C. Thornton believes that understanding personal development through intellectual analysis is the best way to challenge bad habits and become better people.  He writes extensively on his blog,

Photo credit: ‘Achieve Your Goals‘ by Big Stock


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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