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Perhaps the biggest revelation from our work in this series on deepening self-awareness and gaining mastery over the workings of our mind has been that our clients are not held back by anything we might have imagined them to be. Their level of educational pedigree, their job title, the type of company they’re in and even their competence all pale into insignificance when compared with the impact that their own self-limiting beliefs have on the way they function and perform, both professionally and in their personal lives. They – we – get in the way of ourselves.

So what exactly are ‘self-limiting beliefs’?

Self-limiting beliefs are thoughts and opinions that we believe to be true, but which invariably are not. They tend to exist on three levels:

  • Beliefs about ourselves: ‘I am an idiot.’ or ‘If I speak, they’ll hate what I say.’

  • Beliefs about others: ‘The people I work with can’t be trusted.’ or ‘Everybody else is smarter than me.’

  • Beliefs about the world: ‘To be successful you’ve got to be ruthless.’ or ‘The world is not fair, so there is no point in trying.’

Self-limiting beliefs do not exist in isolation – they are part of the internal dialogue we all have inside ourselves between the positive and the negative, the Jekyll and the Hyde, the negative, critical voice (the Inner Nagger) and the positive, helpful voice (the Inner Coach).

The (usually false) Inner Nagger nags and niggles and eats away at us with persistent negative messages, whereas the Inner Coach voice gives us a more balanced perspective – it has beliefs that are helpful and constructive. Most of us have an ongoing dialogue between our Inner Nagger and our Inner Coach. Whichever voice is louder and most persistent will dictate our mind-set, experience and behaviours. What we as individuals, and as coaches helping individuals, need to do is find strategies that work best for us to encourage the Inner Coach to speak louder. So let’s explore where these Nagger and Coach voices come from. As with most things, we need to look into our childhood and to the messages we have internalised from when we were young. We all know that children listen closely to the adults around them. The comments these adults make, directly or indirectly, tend to be taken personally and embedded in a child’s mind. A negative remark made to or about a child will invariably stick and become one of the critical Inner Naggers that child will hold on to as they move into adulthood. This is also true of the Inner Coach, where kind comments and encouragement will also embed and help to bolster self-worth, and thereby compete with the Inner Nagger. Although we all have a mix of Nagger and Coach inner voices from our histories, our minds have a natural tendency to amplify the Nagger messages because our brains have what neurologists call a ‘negativity bias’. This has been hardwired in us since the time that our ancestors were hunter-gathering and living in caves – we had to be hyper-vigilant to danger and threat. The negativity bias is there to warn and protect us. Of course nowadays, for the most part, we are not physically threatened but the threats that preoccupy us, and that our nervous system is alert to, are emotional, relational and social.

These are threats like disapproval from others, failure and rejection, being ‘kicked out of the group’. The Inner Nagger and protective negative beliefs are very ‘sticky’ and this early patterning becomes our modus operandi for how we, as adults, see ourselves, others and the world. Hence, this negativity bias explains why we remember the ‘developmental’ feedback from our 360, and ignore the five positives; those development points feel like a real threat to our nervous system and they trigger the Nagger voice in us.

Take one of our clients, John (a banker). His family described people outside the family as ‘idiots’. So John had internalised this message and his Inner Nagger voice was now describing himself as ‘an idiot’. John’s resulting perfectionist attention to detail was undermining his team’s performance – everything had to be 110 per cent, all of the time –and he felt unsafe trusting others: ‘no one can do it quite as well as me’. This was not only getting in the way of delegation and developing team members, it was blocking his own progress too.

And take another client, Tami, from Hong Kong, who was ‘best in class’ as a strategist, highly valued by her clients and whose meteoric rise through the ranks at a global consulting firm was legend. She had been promoted quickly in the Hong Kong office but had hit a ceiling in her career. Her work was exceptional and appreciated but because she didn’t ‘speak up in meetings’ or ‘offer her point of view to seniors’ people were left wondering about her ability to lead a global practice. What emerged with Tami was not a lack of confidence as you might suppose, but a deferential belief that ‘you should never challenge those in authority’.

However, not everyone has a dominant Inner Nagger voice – we also see people who have a very strong Inner Coach voice. They tend to be people who have been instilled with positive childhood messages without shame or guilt: ‘we believe in you’ or ‘you can do that’. The singer had a mother who told him every day ‘you can be whatever you want to be’ and he grew up totally believing that he could achieve his dreams if he worked hard enough for them.

Self-limiting beliefs generally fall into three categories:

The Doomsday belief jumps to the negative without evidence. It mind-reads and assumes malign thoughts or intentions in others. It can be a gloomy fortune-teller, predicting catastrophes and jumping to dire conclusions: ‘I am a failure’ instead of ‘I made a mistake’.

The Critic belief dwells on the negatives and ignores the positives. It overgeneralises a bad experience, viewing a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat: ‘I always have the worst luck.’ Or ‘People will always disappoint you.’ It actively minimises or discounts the positives of yourself or others: ‘I’m not creative I just work really hard.’

The Extremist (‘Rock Brain’) belief is the most rigid of the three categories and views things in absolutes, in black and white. The telling words here are ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘must’, ‘have to’ and ‘should’. It is very hard to dislodge these beliefs partly because they feel reassuringly ‘right’ to us: ‘I always have to devote myself to achieving the highest standard, even if I have to work 24/7.’ Or ‘Others shouldn’t be sensitive to criticism, I am only trying to help them improve.’ Most of us have one or two of these types of belief that we typically fall back on when we are under stress, anxiety, or pressure, beliefs that we don’t even question as they are such deeply embedded habits. They may have been helpful at one time in our lives to protect us (remember the threat and negativity bias) but they are now obstacles to us being our best selves.

The good news is that we can shift our self-limiting beliefs. We say ‘shift’ here (moving along on the graph from, say, 8,4 to 4,8) rather than ‘eliminate’, mainly because it is almost impossible (and also undesirable) to mute the Nagger voice completely. The Nagger in us provides us with the anxiety we need to keep us on our toes and to keep us grounded; too little of the Nagger voice can result in delusion and grandiosity! In our research, we have alighted upon three strategies that are key to help this shift.

Strategy 1. Examine with compassion to understand beliefs more closely

This first strategy comes from the work of Dan Siegel, an eminent professor of psychiatry at UCLA:

1. Become aware of your inner critic. Sometimes people don’t realise they have a voice that is speaking to them in a critical way, and how much impact that critical voice is having on their lives.

2. Be curious and give the critical voice space to express itself so that you can see what it is trying to do. Just like the priest, who advises the family who believe they have a ghost living in their house to set another seat at the table. Let it in and get to know it. 3. Engage with the belief, ask why it is there. Our self-limiting beliefs are often trying to look after us. The tone of the Nagger becomes very different when we see the good intentions behind it and the protective role it has been trying to perform for us. For John, his perfectionism was protecting him from making mistakes and being cast out as an ‘idiot’, and he was able to see this when we asked what purpose the perfectionism was serving for him.

4. Negotiate with the belief. This is the most practical step in Siegel’s strategy. Take the steps you need to change the belief. In the case of our client, John, this was a huge task, but by understanding his defensive journey into perfectionism, John began to question his limiting belief that he ‘had to be perfect’ and ‘couldn’t trust the idiots around him’. He started to build bridges, to trust team members and to let go of the micromanaging. And he was surprised and happy at the creative solutions his team were capable of.

Strategy 2. Challenge and interrogate the belief The next step is to challenge the belief – it’s only in doing this that we open our minds to a healthier and truer story and a better chance at living our best selves.

1. Recognise the belief/thought. How do I react when I believe this thought? Define the thought using the three categories – is it a Doomsday, a Critic or an Extremist thought? Write it down! This has a great way of taking the power and punch out of the thought. Take Tami who, in spite of her applauded strategy expertise, wouldn’t speak up or seek to influence senior colleagues. She felt ‘right’ in how she was acting and had come very far in her career following these core beliefs, but was also aware that now these beliefs were seriously limiting her career prospects.

2. Challenge your self-limiting belief - is this thought really true? Can I absolutely know that what I believe is true? What evidence do I have, and what is the counter-evidence? Remember, it may feel true but is likely not to be if it sounds like the Critic, the Doomsday or the Extremist. With Tami we dug deeper and found more core beliefs – ‘shoulds’ rooted in her schooling that valued total compliance to authority and a belief that seniors always know best, where she feared giving her opinion and where humility was a key value. All of this was in direct contrast to her talkative New York colleagues who placed a premium on giving their opinions and seeking to influence others. So Tami could safely say with evidence that her belief was not true for this situation.

3. Take action. What if I dropped the Nagger voice and just observed what is happening at face value? What would I do differently? So in Tami’s case she observed that she was getting feedback that her colleagues wanted to hear more of her opinions, so she decided to speak up more in meetings. She was braced for discomfort, she kept her reason for change in her mind and she broke free of her old beliefs about how she should be.

Strategy 3. Strengthen your Inner Coach – exercise and tone the ‘positivity bias’ muscle and ‘install the good’.

Our third strategy focuses on strengthening the ‘positivity bias’ rather than quietening the self-limiting belief. Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness, offers us some great techniques for this. He argues that if we shift and grow the power of the friendly inner guide rather than fight the critical one we can train our minds to concentrate on the positive; we can ‘install the good’. There is neural science behind this. We know that ‘neurons that fire together wire together’ – and so we can build the positive with multiple little positive moments and in doing so we can reframe our patterns of thinking. Dr. Rick uses the ‘HEAL’ model: Have a good experience; Enrich it (feel it and give yourself over to it); Absorb it (let it in) and Link the positive to the negative (the positive can go into the negative and calm it).

So we need to repeatedly focus on encouragement and validation. We can practice being grateful and take moments to savour the good every day – note the small positives in your life at the beginning and at the end of each day, pause when you have accomplished something, however seemingly insignificant, scan for the good in yourself and in others.

‘If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.’

This process of ‘installing the good’ can feel very strange and unnatural. We are not programmed to do it (remember the ‘negativity bias’). But living with self-limiting beliefs means that you are not living your most full or rewarding life. Become aware of what your limiting beliefs are, view them compassionately, explore them and get to understand them, and cultivate alternative beliefs that will serve you better. Practice positivity and make it a regular focus in your life. As the Buddhist saying goes, ‘Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think’. With that in mind, the possibilities are endless. Nell Montgomery, Founding Partner. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist (UKCP), Executive

Dr Susan Mistler, Managing Partner Americas. Clinical Psychologist, Executive Coach.

Managing our Self-Limiting Beliefs
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