How to identify limiting beliefs in 5 steps

July 22, 2021

How To Identify Limiting Beliefs

Limiting beliefs are any belief that works against wisdom.

The opposite of enlightenment is ignorance.

A limiting belief is one that keeps us from realizing our original nature as enlightened beings.

The three main limitations to realizing this are anger, greed, and ignorance. The worst of these is ignorance because ignorance causes us to misunderstand the nature of life, death, and what we are.

The opposite of ignorance is to know (1) that one will die and (2) that while alive one can find within oneself what will not die. And to live with such knowledge is called wisdom.

The worst part of limiting beliefs is that their ill effects go far beyond the damage they do to the person who has them.

Limiting beliefs are far more damaging to the environment—to the people, society, and ecology—in which we live, than they appear, at first glance.

Drinking and smoking, for example, harm both the smoker as well as the people around that person.

A private detective friend of mine told me that most homicides are the result of drinking and drugs. Innocent bystanders beware!

In short, limiting beliefs are any beliefs that stem from ignorance, greed, and anger.

What are the most common limiting beliefs?

Three of the most common examples of limiting beliefs are:

  1. I am not good enough / I am inferior and incompetent.
  2. I am unlovable / I am not likeable / I am incapable of intimacy.
  3. I don’t do enough / I am insignificant/ I am a burden to others.

The most common limiting beliefs are found in the three classifications of negative beliefs about the self: worthlessness, unlovability, and helplessness (Judith Beck 2005, 2011).

Exactly how the negative beliefs are expressed may vary. Many people — whether highly successful, not successful, creative, analytical, etc. — struggle with some version of these three limiting beliefs.

Regardless of how the belief is expressing itself, limiting beliefs raise concern because of the harm they cause ourselves and society at large. And this is why all of the world’s religions have systems for preventing limiting beliefs.

Christianity’s seven deadly sins, for example, are regarded as a list of warnings against what the western world sees as the qualities that make for the most maleficent—and therefore truly limiting insofar as they limit life, creativity, and goodness–beliefs. These are (1) Lust (2) Gluttony (3) Greed (4) Sloth (5) Wrath (6) Envy (7) Pride.

Other religions have notions about sin that are similar to Christianity.

In a quick summary, Muslims believe that sin is anything that goes against the command of God. Jewish faith sees sin as a violation of the Torah. Hinduism views sin as any misdeed against Dharma.

Sikhism has a slightly different view that sin is any indulgence in duality or acting according to false ego such that you cut yourself off from God.

And in Buddhism, there isn’t a concept of sin, but there is Karma which is closer to Aristotle’s notion of cause and effect.

Because beliefs can be judged in terms of their effects on the environment, if you are negatively affecting your environment based on your belief, you could be said to be making a mistake.

To hurt a thing is to go against your nature, which is a mistake.

This is the meaning of sin, which actually means, “mistake,” and appears as early as Aristotle in his Poetics as the notion of hamartia. Hamartia—the fatal act of a hero that brings about tragic consequences.

In this sense, sin is understood as a mistake, almost athletic in nature, as if life were a game that one can play excellently, or not. In this sense, sin is understood as missing the mark, like an arrow misses its target.

Sin is a mistake. Especially a mistake that upsets eudaimonia, or, The Good Life, the life of flourishing and virtue.

Thus, originally, sin is more like a scientific term pertaining to causation—the effects of certain actions and states of mind on one’s self and society—as opposed to being a term of judgment that serves power: such as “I am the one who has the power to determine whether or not you are good or evil, and, therefore, whether or not you should be punished.”

In this sense, beliefs are regarded as devices insofar as every belief has an effect. Beliefs can be seen as tools. For just as a hammer has an effect on a nail, a belief has an effect on a person and a person affects the world in which he lives and functions.

In other words, it’s best to ask when inquiring into the nature of beliefs: what is the effect of this belief on myself and those around me? And any effect that brings more ignorance, anger, and greed one can call “limiting.”

How to identify limiting beliefs in 5 steps

One of the chief safeguards against limiting beliefs is to be able to see things as they are so that you can respond accurately and effectively to maintain a growth mindset.

A growth mindset, defined by Carol Dweck in her book Mindset is the belief that you can succeed through time and effort, and it is the opposite of a fixed mindset, which is a belief that one has fixed traits that they cannot change.

And there are a lot of practical tools for this: to read, study, and reflect widely and deeply, work with a wise teacher in the western tradition of eudaimonia—or Virtue—ethics, or use assessment tools like personality tests.

The ABC method

One practice that is especially effective for identifying limiting beliefs is the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy tool, the ABC method.

With the ABC method, you can clearly see how we ascribe beliefs to experiences.

This exercise is helpful because you locate your beliefs in a specific situation.

Some people can do this exercise on their own, others find it easier to do with some help, and it is especially effective to work with your coach on the ABC method.

Grab pen and paper and get ready to use these 5 steps to identify and overcome your limiting beliefs.

Step 1 – Activating event

Something happens to you or in the environment around you. 

Write down: 

  • What happened? Choose a very recent triggering event. A fight with your spouse, making a big decision etc. 

Step 2 – Beliefs

You believe a certain interpretation of the activating event.

Write down:

  • What is your self-talk, or un-resourceful thoughts about this?
  • What do you believe about the activating event?
  • Which of your beliefs are helpful? Which are self-defeating beliefs?

Step 3 – Consequences

Your belief has consequences that include feelings and behaviors.

Write down: 

  • How did you feel? 
  • What emotions were present? (anger, self-pity, shame, anxiety etc.)
  • What was I experiencing physically? (stomach feels tense, face is hot, heart beats faster etc.)
  • What behaviors ensued as a result (drinking, attacking, iscolating, etc.)

Step 4 – Dispute

Challenge your beliefs to create new consequences. 

Write down:

  • What is the evidence that your belief is true? 
  • In what way is your belief helpful? Unhelpful?

Step 5 – Effective new belief. 

Write down your new belief.

  • Adopt your new belief!

Next steps

Any belief has the potential to be a limiting belief because the effects of beliefs depend on the environment and function in which they operate.

You should seek to understand and judge the effects of your beliefs on your behavior, and the effects of your behavior on your relationship with others.

If a belief encourages others in a positive direction, it’s not a limiting belief.

One helpful model for judging this is the SCARF model that encourages the growth mindset.

S          Secure

C          Certain

A          Autonomy

R          Relationship

F          Fairness

For someone to have a growth mindset they must feel that they are Secure, that they are Certain about where they are and what’s going on, that they have a sense of Autonomy, that they know the nature of the Relationship in which they are engaged (as in is this person a friend or foe—with or against me), and there must be a sense of Fairness.

One could say that any belief that hampers these conditions and thwarts one’s growth is a limiting belief.

For example, if I am CEO who makes much more money than the people below me and I don’t fairly distribute the profits I risk violating a sense of fairness in the company, which will reduce morale because employees will lose their natural ability to want to innovate, create, and thrive because one of the terms necessary for the growth mindset —in this case, Fairness— is absent.

A remarkable revolution would occur if society were organized in such a way that all of the conditions for growth, thriving, flourishing, and agency were taken seriously as guiding principles for social policy and practice.

In conclusion, we all have limiting beliefs, because we all have beliefs whose effects on our environment we don’t understand.

Therefore, in Zen one is encouraged to take responsibility for everything that happens in the universe. This is a heroic stance that encourages us to reflect deeply on the nature and power of the mind—especially Buddha’s mind—to reach the hearts of all existing beings and walk with them to happiness.