Excerpt from How Kind People Get Tough
Chapter 5: Limiting Beliefs
Most people have some beliefs that are unhelpful, impacting their confidence negatively. These beliefs are often called limiting beliefs. Here are some that come up in the therapy room, particularly around the subject of being more assertive. Perhaps they’ll be familiar to you.
- If I say no, it makes me look mean.
- I’m not good enough unless other people say so.
- I mustn’t put myself first, because that’s selfish.
- I must be liked by everyone.
- I can avoid upsets by keeping people happy.
- If I please people, they’ll never let me down.
I’ve met many clients who’ve easily recognised the limiting beliefs that have been affecting their confidence. However, they’re extremely frustrated, because even though they see these so clearly, they still can’t seem to change. They say things like ‘I have a terrible habit of people-pleasing. I don’t know why I can’t seem to stop it!’ or ‘I do understand that it’s OK to say no in theory, but when I open my mouth, yes comes out!’
So, what exactly are limiting beliefs? Where do they come from, and why do they have such a firm hold over us?
If You Feel It, It Must Matter
Here’s how a belief is formed. You have an experience which causes you to feel a strong emotion. Therefore, that experience matters to you. And because the experience has caused strong emotion, and thus matters, you then draw some conclusion about it. It is this conclusion that is the basis of your belief.
Experience + Emotional Response + Conclusion = BELIEF
This is true for us at all stages of life, and it’s especially striking in childhood. Have you noticed how small children can experience emotions so intensely? They can be in floods of tears one minute, and fits of giggles the next!
Because of this emotional intensity, some experiences, such as being ignored or teased can have long-lasting effects, because a child will draw a conclusion about what that must mean about themselves. Their conclusion is the start of a limiting belief. It could be something like ‘I’m not good enough,’ or ‘I’m not worthy of being loved’.
Another reason beliefs take such a firm hold is explained by neuroscience, and again it’s much to do with childhood. Between the ages of around two and seven years old, children need to be able to take in a vast amount of information in order to help them grow and develop—there’s a lot happening between toddlerhood and primary school. Their brainwaves, vibrating at a specific frequency called theta, help them absorb this information. And while this helps them grow, it also means they tend to just accept that everything is true.
Your Modus Operandi
Children continually refine and tweak their beliefs according to the reactions they get from others. Without even being aware of it, they decide ‘If I do this, then that happens, so I need to do this to make people like me, and that way I’ll be safe, sheltered, and loved.’
As children, then, we all form a personal system of beliefs, and it becomes a kind of modus operandi for life; a program which runs automatically in the subconscious, like information on a hard drive, and dictates how we think, feel, and behave.
Given that scientific research now tells us that the subconscious mind dictates around 95% of our thoughts and decisions, we can see that this doesn’t leave much room for the conscious mind to make new choices and maintain them.
This is why people can often see the changes they need to make, but then struggle to make those changes. The conscious part of their mind is saying something like ‘Hey, I’m going to be more assertive. I’m going to say no next time.’ But the subconscious mind jumps in, saying, ‘Hang on, I’ve got a belief about that—it’s dangerous. Be careful! You don’t want to be seen as unkind, and you especially don’t want to risk being rejected!’
What’s important, though, is that you remember that your own unhelpful beliefs are not bad beliefs—they are limiting beliefs. And why the word ‘limiting’? Because they are not suitable for your stage of life now.
When you were a child, those beliefs made perfect sense, because they kept you happy and secure. Children’s relationships are straightforward. If, as a child, saying yes and being good meant you got love and attention in return, well of course it would make sense to say yes. If you said no, and got reprimanded for being naughty and argumentative, well of course it was a bad idea to say no. So, believing that Yes was better than No was a good belief—back then.
The problem is that because the subconscious is so powerful, we tend to continue operating from these outmoded belief systems. If we are to form more adult relationships, based on mutual respect and regard, we need to let these beliefs go. We need to find new healthier beliefs. This is perfectly possible to achieve with some awareness, and the correct tools and techniques.
Alex, 7 and 27
When Alex was seven years old, life was difficult at home. His parents were splitting up. There was often a lot of conflict; his parents would shout at each other, and quite often they’d tell him off for being naughty, when he didn’t think he had been.
Alex had always been good at maths, and now he discovered that absorbing himself in maths problems took his mind off his worries. Alex’s teacher was so impressed by his hard work. He constantly praised Alex for all the extra work he put into his maths and gave him lots of attention and validation. Alex beamed with pleasure and happiness at every compliment from his teacher.
All this helped young Alex get through one of the most difficult times in his life. He formed the belief that working extra hard meant validation, getting attention, and security.
Twenty years later, Alex was working in a busy surveyor’s office. He had a fair bit of responsibility and took the job seriously. He didn’t think twice about taking extra work home, and he was always eager to please his boss. However, the more work Alex took on, the more his boss expected of him. Plus, his colleagues took advantage of him. They would often wriggle their way out of jobs, leaving him to take the load. Added to that, he’d just been passed up for a promotion by someone who only seemed to do half as much work as he did!
The problem was that the very belief that had once helped Alex (‘If I work extra hard, I’ll get attention and approval.’) had turned out to work against him in his adult life.
Adult relationships are so much more complex than those of childhood. Adults communicate in subtle ways—we give each other messages about how we expect to be treated. We do this by how we behave and how we treat ourselves. Working very hard was a form of people-pleasing that had been a fantastic idea when Alex was seven years old. It got him the validation he craved. Now, however, it was resulting in people simply taking him for granted.
The Subconscious Doesn’t Differentiate Time
Whether or not we have clear memories of distressing experiences from childhood, they are always there in the subconscious. Then, in adult life, when we have another similar experience, we replay those same intense emotions. We feel the same fears, because the subconscious doesn’t differentiate time—it doesn’t know that many years have passed since the experience happened. In an instant, we emotionally time-travel back to the small vulnerable child we once were, and so we often react just as we did then.
During our sessions, Alex was able to see more clearly that his need to please had originated from his childhood experiences. It gave him permission to consider life from a different, more adult perspective.
Much as this was significant progress, Alex was still beating himself up for his previous lack of assertiveness. I pointed out that there was nothing to be gained by judging himself.
It’s never helpful to look back with regret, wishing we’d been different in the past—it’s a waste of time and energy. If you can identify that you’ve been operating your life from unhelpful beliefs, don’t sabotage your progress now by dwelling on that—doing so will only create resistance and keep you stuck.
Remember that a confident life is a work in progress, and self-acceptance is a big part of that journey. I have found, though, that people often get confused about that. They think that accepting themselves as they are means letting themselves off the hook. They’re so hard on themselves.
The secret is that once you accept that you have a limiting belief and that it’s OK—you are human—you’ll let go of the resistance to it. This means you give yourself calm and space to put techniques to work that can help you let that limiting belief go. Then you can replace it with a more helpful belief, such as ‘I’m good enough just as I am’.
So far, we’ve seen that an innate fear of rejection from the tribe and our learnt limiting beliefs make it difficult for many of us to be assertive. Now, let’s explore the next reason we struggle: Misplaced Empathy
Next: Chapter Six - Misplaced Empathy.