Do you ever feel frustrated about reaching your potential?
Like there’s an invisible wall holding you back?
If so, you may be suffering from a limiting belief.
Here’s the good news: You don’t have to live with your limiting beliefs forever.
New brain research has shown us how to delete and re-write the old, negative beliefs that keep us stuck.
In this post, we’re going to explain what limiting beliefs are and where they come from.
You’ll also learn six “brain rules” that shine a light on these hidden “sabotage bombs.”
Understanding these brain rules will help you overcome your limiting beliefs for good.
Before we start, first we need to tell you a quick story...
The Curious Case of Night-Time Insomnia
It was 2 am and Josh couldn’t fall sleep…
Earlier that day, a new coaching client had signed up to work with us.
As soon as they had signed on the dotted line, Josh felt the predictable freak out feeling inside.
He felt unsettled and anxious. It was hard to focus on work the rest of the afternoon.
His mind kept jumping back to the new client. He thought of all the things that needed to get done before the coaching program started.
By the time he got to bed, the anxiety had grown to a full-blown explosion inside.
He lay awake for hours, just like other nights when they started working with a new client. Try as he might, he couldn’t shut his mind off and get the rest he so desperately needed.
Josh was really angry at himself for allowing his mind to get the best of him again.
What the heck was wrong with him?
What he didn’t know at the time was that he was about to make a discovery that would change his life forever…
So, what is a limiting belief anyways?
You’ve got to know what you’re dealing with if you want to change a limiting belief.
In a second, we’ll explain what’s happening inside your brain when you have a limiting belief.
But for now, here’s our broad definition:
A limiting belief is any thought or feeling that keeps you from getting what you want. Limiting beliefs hold you back or trip you up in some way.
As you’ll see in a second, it’s not really the belief itself that holds you back.
It’s the fear response in your brain and body that makes these suckers so hard to deal with.
Limiting beliefs ALWAYS go hand in hand with feelings. They either cause some kind of pain in your life right now, or they’re trying to keep you from feeling pain.
How do you know you have a limiting belief?
The tricky part of changing limiting beliefs is that most of them are subconscious. You usually don’t know what they are about.
They are the “invisible wall” or “invisible land mines” that we keep running into.
In Josh’s example, he didn’t know why he was freaking out so much every time a new client signed up to work with him.
He couldn’t put his finger on the actual belief that was causing his anxiety.
This is a common issue with limiting beliefs – we often don’t know where they come from or why we’ve got them.
Luckily, there are three ways to know if you have one:
Let’s look at each one a little more…
Clue #1: You have behavior/results you don’t like
Are there areas in your life where you’re not producing the results you want?
Do you know you need to do something to be successful, but you avoid doing it?
Do you procrastinate, or sabotage yourself over and over again?
Here are some examples of observing your behavior or results:
For example, we’ve coached plenty of people who KNOW that they need to reach out to new prospects to grow their business.
But day after day, they find themselves avoiding picking up the phone.
In their brain, they’ve linked some kind of pain to calling on new prospects.
So it makes perfect sense that they hesitate to call.
Self-Sabotage is a sign that you have a limiting belief
Do you sabotage yourself in some way, like our friend Sam?
Sam sabotages himself on an almost daily basis.
He often has a huge pile of work and a tight deadline to meet.
But he finds it impossible to tell his friends “No” when they invite him to lunch.
So the work keeps piling up, and his stress level does too. But it doesn’t stop him from saying “Yes” to his friends again and again.
The number of ways we can sabotage ourselves as human beings is truly limitless.
But a limiting belief is always the reason behind it.
Let’s look at the second way to know if you have a limiting belief:
Clue #2: You have a repeated pattern of negative feelings
Here’s the second way to know you have a limiting belief: You have a repeated pattern of negative feelings.
Unlike the first category, this is about noticing how you feel.
If any of these statements apply to you, you’ve probably got a limiting belief hidden in the shadows:
For example, let’s talk about public speaking, a common fear that provokes extreme anxiety.
Did you know that some of us are more afraid of public speaking than of dying?
The thought of speaking in front of a group of people can make your knees weak and sweat pour off your face.
This fear can be so strong that some people turn down better jobs just so they don’t have to give presentations.
That shows the power of limiting beliefs to stop you in your tracks.
Clue #3: You notice that your self-talk is negative
The third way to know if you have a limiting belief is to listen to the voice in your head.
We all have an internal voice that is providing constant commentary on our day.
Do you notice when that voice in your head is harsh, judgmental, or negative? That’s a good sign that a limiting belief is lurking!
Here are some signs you have limiting beliefs wreaking havoc inside your head:
But there’s good news: there’s a way out of the struggle!
You can overcome any limiting beliefs if you know how your “Emotional Brain” works.
This next section explains it all…
Introducing Your Two Brain Systems (Rational and Emotional)
Most approaches to changing limiting beliefs don’t work. Or they take a long time to help you feel better.
That’s because these approaches have a big flaw… they’re trying to change the wrong part of your brain!
Let us explain…
Some people call these different parts the Conscious and the Subconscious.
Another way to describe them is the Thinking and Feeling Mind.
For the rest of this post, we’re going to use the terms “Rational/Emotional Brain.”
This video explains these two parts of your mind in more depth: (Click the gear icon and select “High Definition” for the best quality)
As you can see from this video, it’s the Emotional Brain that creates and stores our limiting beliefs.
So if you want to free yourself from a limiting belief forever… you have to change the programming in your Emotional Brain!
These six brain rules will help you understand how this part of your mind “thinks” and how it sees the world.
Brain rule #1: The Emotional Brain’s #1 job is to help you survive, not thrive
Every other brain rule comes out of this first rule, so it’s super important to understand.
The Emotional Brain is not wired to help us reach our huge potential as human beings. It’s wired to keep us safe and to help us stay alive.
And it’s really good at that task.
People who study the brain explain that our brains have a built-in “negativity bias.”
Here’s what the negativity bias means in simple terms:
Your brain focuses on and remembers negative experiences much more than positive ones.
Why? The brain sees negative experiences as threats that need to be dealt with.
Positive experiences, while pleasant, just aren’t that urgent. When something good happens, it’s obviously not a threat to you.
The Emotional Brain’s number one tool for keeping you alive is the “Threat Response.” It’s also known as the “Fight, Flight, Freeze” response.
Here’s the gist of how it works:
Remember Josh’s story about how he couldn’t fall asleep?
He would lie in bed at night, desperately trying to go to sleep. But his mind spun frantically. He was trying to plan stuff that was way out in the future, most of which he couldn’t control.
And his body was wound up with tension…neck and shoulders tight like an iron rod. A swirling hurricane of anxiety raged through his chest.
These were all signs of the threat response rampaging through his mind and body.
He felt in danger. Something about bringing on a new client threatened him. His mind and body were screaming at him, “Stop!! You can’t go to sleep! Deal with this!”
Even though he didn’t know what the “this” was.
Josh’s Rational Brain knew how wrecked he would be if he didn’t sleep. He knew his performance would be crap the next day.
Knowing this still wasn’t enough to stop the storm. There was no way he could stop his Emotional Brain’s intense reaction.
The Threat Response is a miracle of evolution. It’s amazing at keeping us alive and safe from physical threats so we can live a long life.
But there’s one big problem with it…
Brain rule #2: Your Emotional Brain reacts to social and relationship threats just like they’re physical threats
The world is hugely different now than it was during the time humans evolved.
It’s not like we’re still walking around with a loincloth and a spear on the plains of Africa… hoping a lion doesn’t jump out at us.
The average person experiences very few REAL threats to their life. Most people don’t get shot at, held up at the bank, or run over by a stampeding herd of elephants.
So the majority of limiting beliefs don’t come from times when your life is on the line.
Usually limiting beliefs have to do with… other people. They almost always come from a breakdown in our relationships with others.
In Josh’s example, his limiting belief was a deep fear that people wouldn’t like him.
He wasn’t sure exactly where that fear came from, but it came up every time someone signed up to work with him.
Obviously, if a person feels disappointed in you or doesn’t like you, it doesn’t mean you’re about to die!
So what gives? Why do the brain and body react the same way as if a tiger is chasing you?
People who study the brain think it’s because we need other people to survive.
If you’re a loin-clothed caveman living with a bunch of big animals around you, there’s safety in numbers. You have to rely on the community to survive.
Back in the day, if you were cast out of your tribe it would mean certain death.
That’s one of the reasons our brains are hardwired to care about what other people think of us.
It’s also why we have a hard time letting go of criticism and people’s negative judgments of us.
The Emotional brain sees judgment and criticism as a threat we have to deal with right now.
And the only way it knows how to deal with a threat is to mobilize your brain and body to fight, run away, or freeze.
So when you were out in the playground and that big bully made fun of you… or when you weren’t invited to your friend’s birthday party, your brain said, “Ouch! Pain!! Threat!! Deal with it! Red alert! Do something!”
Anytime you feel threatened, the threat response in your body gets triggered. It doesn’t matter if the threat is emotional, physical, or social.
The threat response is usually not the best way to deal with “people problems.” Having tense shoulders and a queasy stomach doesn’t help you get along with people any better…
But it’s just the way your brain and body has been wired to deal with danger.
Here’s a really important point to remember:
It’s your Emotional Brain’s INTERPRETATION of something as a threat that makes it a threat.
In other words, it’s the story your brain tells about the event that makes you anxious and afraid.
What if you could change your story?
Then, of course, you would be free.
Brain rule #3: Limiting beliefs are “lessons”, ”decisions”, or ”rules” that the Emotional Brain learned from the past
Remember your Emotional Brain’s #1 job? To keep you safe and alive!
To do that, it tends to judge things quickly and put them into broad categories:
“This is good and that’s bad.”
“This is safe and that’s dangerous.”
“She is being nice and he is being mean.”
Remember, it’s the Rational Brain that likes complexity. It can look at a situation and analyze it to see all the shades of gray. That’s one of the things it’s really good at.
The Emotional Brain likes simplicity. Its job is to simplify the world into basic stories.
It is a meaning-making machine. It’s constantly evaluating the people and the environment around you, trying to make sense of your world.
If something bad happens to you it tries to explain why it happened.
So how does a limiting belief get created?
1. First, you live through some kind of experience that the Emotional Brain sees as a threat.
2. The amygdala sounds the alarm inside of your brain and mobilizes your body to deal with the threat.
3. After the “threat” is over, your brain stores the “rule”, “lesson”, or “decision” in case you need it again. It also stores how your body felt when you experienced the threat.
Daniel’s fear of unknown calls
Let’s walk through how this works with a quick story:
Daniel was a real estate developer in the early 2000’s. Business was going great and his empire was quickly expanding. He loved the lavish, comfortable lifestyle that his real estate deals gave him.
Then 2008 came and the whole real estate market crashed.
Almost overnight, he went from earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to owing millions to the bank.
He was cash-strapped and desperate, but it didn’t stop the creditors from calling him. He received almost daily phone calls demanding that he pay back his loans.
The phone calls started pouring in from unknown numbers. They got nastier and nastier by the day as the banks tried to squeeze every last penny of what he owed them.
It was a stressful time for Daniel and his family. He felt like he was walking around with knots in his stomach and his anxiety was through the roof.
Of course, the threat response was also activated in his brain during that stressful time. It was trying to help him do something and find a way out.
He discovered a neat trick:
He could avoid all the pain and uncomfortable conversations if he didn’t answer the phone.
So he ignored every call that came from a number he didn’t recognize.
You could say that his Emotional Brain created a “rule” about these unknown calls:
Picking up the phone means danger and discomfort!
Fast forward five years later. Daniel had settled all his loans with the banks and found himself back on his feet.
He was still working in the real estate industry, but now as a mortgage lender. The money wasn’t as big, but his business was stable and successful.
But Daniel had a problem…
He still had a hard time picking up the phone when an unknown number called him!
Unlike 5 years before, Daniel knew that these calls were most likely all innocent. He didn’t owe anybody money and there was no reason for anybody to call him and threaten him.
In other words, he knew rationally that it was perfectly safe to pick up the phone.
In fact, he knew that a lot of the unknown callers were potential new clients reaching out to him!
He also knew that when he didn’t pick up the phone they probably wouldn’t leave a message. Instead, they would call one of his competitors who WOULD pick up when they called.
His fear of picking up the phone was costing him money, potentially thousands of dollars a year!
He knew all this and yet he still got the same queasy feeling in his stomach when an unknown call came in.
The stress from five years before had caused his Emotional brain to see the world differently.
It had created a powerful rule about picking up the phone:
“All calls from unknown numbers are dangerous. Don’t pick up the phone!”
Just like Daniel, Josh’s anxiety at night came from something in his past.
Let’s look at how Josh’s fear of displeasing his clients was first created:
As you can see from both these stories, every limiting belief comes from the past.
Sometimes, they get created because of an event that happens one time but leaves a scar. For example, when somebody judges us and says something harsh.
Other times, these beliefs are created from bad things that happen to us more than once. Daniel’s story above is an example of this.
Sometimes, we form limiting beliefs by observing our parents or the people around us.
For example, Nita used to watch her mother work so hard around the house and never take a break.
She would see her father come back home after working so hard that he passed out.
Seeing this pattern over-and-over again shaped how Nita saw the world. Her Emotional Brain created a strong rule:
“I have to work really hard and work all the time. I can’t take time to stop and relax.”
By the way, this is the rule that plagues “workaholics.”
Anytime she would think about resting or taking it easy, this rule would get activated. It would tell her, “Danger! You can’t rest or relax! It’s not safe!”
Not all limiting beliefs come from your family. We are also powerfully influenced by messages from society all the time.
These messages can sneak into our Emotional Brain and shape our perceptions about our worth and abilities – without us even realizing it.
Here are some examples of limiting beliefs people learn from society:
“Girls are smarter than boys.” (Or vice versa)
“People who are taller/more attractive are more successful.”
“Boys have to be good at sports.”
“Money is the root of all evil.”
Brain rule #4: The Emotional Brain never forgets – it uses your past experience as a guide to keep you safe & alive now
The Emotional Brain is truly incredible in its ability to remember things. This is both a blessing and a curse.
It remembers many wonderful moments in your life… times when you felt a sense of pride or accomplishment. When you felt a strong loving connection with somebody around you.
But it also remembers any experience when you feel angry, fearful, or ashamed. All those times when you felt unsafe, criticized, or attacked in any way.
In fact, it has an AMAZING ability to remember things that hurt you in the past.
It kind of sucks… negative memories get cemented into the brain. And good stuff that happens just bounces off.
When your Emotional Brain gets reminded of a negative memory, the lesson you learned gets triggered. It says, “Danger! Danger! This bad thing is about to happen again.”
From now on, we’ll call this reminder of the past event the “cue” that triggers the Emotional Brain to react.
The cue can be either an internal cue or external cue.
Internal cues are internal thoughts & images that remind you of past events.
Have you ever gotten lost in your thoughts and all of a sudden you felt like crap?
Something in your train of thought was the cue for you to feel bad.
External cues are about your environment. They are the things you see, hear, observe, taste, smell, etc.
Your Emotional Brain doesn’t analyze all the complexity of the situation to see if it’s the same. That’s what the Rational Brain does.
It doesn’t need for the present situation to be identical to the past.
All it takes is one tiny similarity. A very small connection to the present can bring back the feeling of pain or danger.
The minute your Emotional Brain sees a similarity it says, “This bad thing is going to happen again! Watch out! Danger!”
With Daniel’s fear of picking up the phone, the connection was pretty obvious to him:
Anytime he got a call from an unknown number, his Emotional Brain freaked out: “Danger! Danger!! It’s probably an angry banker on the line!”
Other cues are not as simple.
In Josh’s case, why was his wrestling experience, which had ended 10 years before, causing him problems now? Why was it keeping him from sleeping at night?
Let’s take a closer look…
There are two different kinds of limiting beliefs:
Situational Beliefs and Core Beliefs
Limiting beliefs that are “situational” don’t intrude into your daily life. They only show up in specific types of situations.
In Josh’s example, his limiting belief was more of what we call a “situational” belief. It only got triggered in a specific situation when the right cue was present (“Oh no! An opportunity to let them down!”).
In fact, Josh’s sleep challenges didn’t start until years later when he started his own business.
Situational beliefs usually don’t wreak as much havoc on your life as core beliefs.
They are also usually easier to discover because you can start by analyzing the cues:
“Okay, what set me off in this situation? What is it about this situation that makes me afraid or causes me pain?”
Here are some examples of problems caused by situational limiting beliefs:
Core Beliefs are more global and affect many areas of your life. They are the way that you view yourself and the world.
Core beliefs are usually deeply rooted in your unconscious mind. That makes them tricky to identify and change.
In Nita’s case, her workaholism was because of a powerful core belief:
“I have to work really hard and work all the time. Something bad will happen if I don’t get everything done TODAY."
This belief affected almost every aspect of her life. When she started cleaning the house she couldn’t stop until everything was clean.
In her business, she couldn’t relax if there was work still to be done (and there was always work to be done).
Many nights she worked too late. And worse, she took her anxiety to bed. Of course, she slept like crap those nights.
Nita’s rule about work is the perfect example of a Core Belief.
Core Beliefs are so big and global that they get triggered often and tend to bleed over into many areas of your life.
Here are some other examples of problems caused by core beliefs:
Limiting beliefs can be so mysterious and frustrating. That’s because we’re not always aware of what triggers our reactions.
Sometimes, we can find ourselves in the grip of anxiety and fear without realizing how we got there.
The next brain rule explains why…
Brain rule #5: Just like Las Vegas, whatever happens in the Emotional Brain stays in the Emotional Brain (usually).
Unfortunately, most limiting beliefs are subconscious. They are outside your conscious awareness and control.
And that’s what makes them hard to deal with.
Just like with Josh’s sleep problems, we usually don’t even know what the belief is about or why it’s tripping us up.
Imagine a big iceberg in the water.
The ice that you can see above the water are the beliefs that you know about. They’re your conscious beliefs.
For example, you might have a conscious belief like this: “To be successful, I have to work really hard.”
However, most of the feelings and beliefs you have are below the surface of the water. They are in the deep part of the ocean, your subconscious Emotional Brain.
Psychologists call these subconscious beliefs “implicit beliefs.”
They form the iceberg below the surface of the water. They are your thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control.
Implicit beliefs are stored in a part of the brain where there is no language. That makes figuring them out kind of tricky.
As you saw in Rule #3, most limiting beliefs get formed from how you interpret things going on around you.
Usually, we’re not even aware when a negative story gets created. But these subconscious stories can control our life.
For example, Nita learned to be a workaholic from watching both of her parents.
Neither one of them told her, “You have to work all the time! Don’t ever stop to take care of yourself.” She just saw them do exactly that day after day.
So her young, impressionable Emotional Brain came to the conclusion, “Oh, that’s how I have to be.”
She never had a chance to decide for herself.
Also, our Rational Brain helps us analyze an idea and decide if we want to believe it or not.
But it doesn’t come fully online until we’re 25. By that age our programming is pretty much set.
That’s another reason why Nita ‘s belief was unconscious. It slipped into her Emotional Brain before she had a chance to reject it.
This is the biggest problem with limiting beliefs:
To change a limiting belief, you have to “shine a light” on it and see it for what it really is.
But most limiting beliefs are subconscious, so how do we figure them out?
Fortunately, there lots of tools for discovering your limiting beliefs.
Brain Rule #6: To overcome your limiting beliefs, you have to update your IOS (Incomplete, Outdated Stories)
Remember how Daniel first started avoiding calls from unknown numbers?
Ignoring unknown calls was a great strategy when he first started doing it. It helped him avoid uncomfortable, awkward conversations. It kept him away from pain.
In other words, it was the right thing to do at the time.
The problem was that his situation was very different five years later. He was out of debt and in a completely new occupation.
The people calling him weren’t angry creditors looking for their money. They were clients looking to give him some of their money!
But his Emotional Brain still convinced him it was safer to avoid those calls.
That’s what often happens with limiting beliefs. They’re usually formed as an attempt to protect us in some way.
Then we move through life and “outgrow” those bad experiences… we escape our negative families, we move away from the bully, our situation changes for the better, etc.
But the story doesn’t change to match our new life experience!
In other words, the negative story can easily get “stuck” or “trapped” deep in your mind.
Remember: Your Emotional Brain’s number one job is to help you survive.
End of story.
That’s why your mind has a hard time letting go of these old stories-they feel important to your survival.
Many limiting beliefs start out as a rule that was “adaptive”- they truly did help you get through that tough time.
But most of them aren’t true or helpful anymore. They’re outdated stories.
Daniel’s story that unknown calls were angry creditors was no longer true. In fact, it was costing him a lot of money!
Also, many limiting beliefs are based on incomplete, inaccurate information.
In Josh’s case, nobody ever told him, “I hate you and you let me down!”
Not even close!
And yet, that’s still what Josh believed about his coaches.
Now, he didn’t come to that conclusion randomly. His Emotional Brain followed a certain logic to create that belief:
1. His coaches had great expectations of him before the season. (They told him that.)
2. He got hurt and he wasn’t able to fulfill those expectations.
3. So they must hate him and feel like he let them down.
This story felt deeply true to Josh. He felt certain that his coaches really did hate him and felt disappointed in him.
But this belief was formed using “incomplete information.” It didn’t take into account how his coaches’ actually acted around him.
Recapping the Brain Rules:
Alright, we’ve covered a lot of ground here, so let’s recap what we know so far about limiting beliefs.
Limiting beliefs usually are a reminder of some pain in the past. Or they’re an attempt to protect you from past pain.
When a limiting belief comes up, it triggers the threat response in your brain and body. That’s why you feel uncomfortable in your body.
These beliefs get triggered when your Emotional Brain sees a connection to a past painful experience.
Sometimes the connection is so small that it doesn’t make much sense.
Most limiting beliefs are subconscious. They fly under our radar. They’re like invisible anchors holding us down.
And finally, to overcome a limiting belief, you have to update the story that keeps you stuck.
Dr. Nita Matthews-Morgan & Josh Matthews-Morgan are the co-founders of Learn Your Brain.
They are a unique mother-son team who specialize in helping entrepreneurs and business owners master their mindset.
They’re the authors of Deliver: How to Perform Your Best When it Counts the Most.