A limiting belief is any idea that keeps you from seeing things as they really are.
From the Buddhist perspective, it is anything that stops you from acting as an enlightened being whose purpose is to be of benefit to all beings.
There are many limiting beliefs that stop you from acting as an enlightened being — too many to begin to list here — however at the root of all these beliefs is an inaccurate understanding and perception of what the self is.
To know what the self is—and isn’t—is to be free of limiting beliefs.
What are limiting beliefs?
We’re happiest when we truly know how to help people, and unfortunately, there are many beliefs that prevent us from seeing, knowing, and helping.
In my opinion, limiting beliefs that inhibit altruism are among the most deeply harmful.
Seeing things as they are, seeing the reality of a situation as best you can, or seeing truth as opposed to a biased interpretation is an important function of our mind. And limiting beliefs do not allow us to accomplish these activities.
Rather, they are false, dysfunctional, or inaccurate beliefs.
They can also be outright delusions.
Limiting beliefs will inhibit your spiritual, psychological, and cognitive development, arrest your personal growth, stagnate your human potential, and stop you from achieving your hopes or manifesting your dreams.
Such a predicament is scary. So, let’s start at the beginning.
What is belief?
Beliefs are a kind of “mental scaffolding” that we must have in order to quickly and easily interpret our experiences to understand and make meaning out of our environment.
They help us ‘chunk’ the vast amount of information that we face every day so that we can function with relative ease. Without being conscious of most of our belief systems, we act according to them.
For example, your belief in traffic laws makes you not run red lights, your fundamental belief in objective reality makes it possible for you to differentiate a cup of coffee from a cup of orange juice.
Maybe you believe “work is drudgery” and this belief makes it hard to get out of bed every morning.
Instead, maybe you may believe “work can improve you” and this thought provides the inspiration that regardless of what job lies ahead, you will be a better person at the end of the workday. And this belief makes getting out of bed every morning easy for you.
Because of the overarching influence of beliefs on our experience, inaccurate or dysfunctional beliefs are an important subject, especially for life coaches, spiritual counselors, religious teachers, philosophers, and psychologists.
What causes limiting beliefs?
Limiting beliefs are caused by the ideas that unconsciously affect us. In fact, they are created by ideas that secretly direct our habits and attitudes, without our knowing.
The more you are blind to your motivations and your underlying belief systems, the more you are limited by them. If you haven’t reflected on your beliefs in any meaningful way, then you haven’t identified them, let alone logically challenged them or considered alternative views.
Unexamined ideas and thoughtless opinions can grow into extremely limiting beliefs and become outright delusions.
In fact, studies show that the more ignorant you are of a subject the more confident you are.
Limiting beliefs are also caused by something being “proven” to you. Any belief is suppositional. This means that you hold ideas as a possibility until you can prove whether they are true.
And when the idea in question is proven to you — whether the proof is real or not — the idea becomes a belief, and that belief becomes your truth.
So again, it is important to examine what you believe and to make sure that what you believe is real.
If you form beliefs that are negative, threatening, diminishing or disempowering to you in some way, then they are limiting beliefs that will harm your life.
How do limiting beliefs harm us?
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedom — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” —Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Which beliefs are limiting will depend upon who defines them.
But, regardless of what your particular limiting belief is, the source of its power over you lies in your mind. And thankfully you can change your mind.
Distorted beliefs and misunderstandings can be overcome. Our minds can be mastered, and we can be free. We change our reality when we change our beliefs.
But if we don’t develop the ability to master our beliefs or discover the unsound principles that rule our thoughts and actions, we will inevitably be harmed by them or, worse, we will harm others.
Beliefs are choices.
We can choose to believe in what is beneficial to ourselves and to all beings. Or we can choose negative, destructive views that are harmful to us and all beings. Or we can try not to believe anything at all. However, because humans are hardwired with a negativity bias, the notion that negative things have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things, this complacency will most likely lead to a negative outcome.
The kind of life you live will depend on the sort of world you believe it to be.
If you believe the world to be dangerous — this worldview has an impact on your life and personality. Most significantly, such a negative worldview serves to increase depression and neuroticism and decrease optimism, gratitude, and life satisfaction.
Seeing the world as basically safe, on the other hand, has been shown to be a major reason for seeing the world as good.
Similarly, if you believe in Buddha Nature and practice your belief, then you will see goodness and seek goodness. And to take it one step further, even when you experience hardship, you will actually be able to see the inherent goodness of that experience.
You won’t need to convince yourself of the good, you will know it. You will think it, sense it and feel it.
But you don’t have to be a Buddhist to grasp this concept.
Victor Frankl famously employed and recounted in Man’s Search for Meaning, the attitude that gave him his ability to survive the horrors of the Holocaust. He identified a purpose to feel positive about and then immersed himself in imagining the outcome.
His purpose to feel positive about was his love for his wife, and he practiced his love for his wife by imagining outcomes of reuniting with her.
Love was his limitless belief, one that gave him life. He chose to believe in love, instead of a belief based on racism or the belief in mankind’s innate sadistic selfishness.
How do you stop limiting beliefs?
Understanding how distorted beliefs can be corrected is remarkably simple.
Unravel your distortions in thinking and learn alternative, more realistic ways to formulate your experiences.
You can be helped in this process, and there are also practices that you can do on your own.
The ABC method is an excellent approach that you can easily learn and that will help you quickly challenge irrational thoughts and cognitive distortions.
Through careful personal observation, you can discover your own limiting beliefs. Some common beliefs that hold people back are:
- I am unlovable
- I can’t stay organized
- I’ll never have a job I love
- I don’t do enough
- I’m not good enough
- I don’t’ have enough money to be successful or happy
- I don’t know any of the right people
- I’m too fat for anyone to love me
- I am too angry for anyone to love me
- The system is rigged
- Nothing I do ever works
- I don’t have enough time or money to do what I really want
- People don’t take me seriously
- I won’t be happy unless I move, leave, or get out of here
With diligent work, limiting beliefs can be worked on, spoken to, looked at, confronted in the mirror, loved out, cast out, and talked out, until, at last, they dissolve.
By learning tools for disarming our limiting beliefs, we arrest the harm that destructive beliefs have on our lives. We gain greater control and master our environment to cultivate good in our lives.
Ultimately, it is this practice that allows us to understand what the self truly is, and learn how to be of benefit to others.