Valjean Clark

Self-limiting beliefs

I’ve been thinking about the concept of a “self-limiting belief”. I take this to mean a story someone tells themself that explains why that person is not able to do something, e.g. “I’m not creative” or “I’m conflict-avoidant so I don’t think I can confront that person”. Googling the phrase results in articles discussing how self-limiting beliefs can be, well, self-limiting. They can “keep you in a negative state of mind” and “sabotage you”.

I think the general reaction to a self-limiting belief is to encourage the person to try to push past the belief or fear, which is excellent and well-meaning advice. As someone very oriented toward personal growth, I have sought to remove as many of my own self-limiting beliefs as possible. I once thought that life is about removing all of these limitations to become the best version of yourself.

Now I’m wonder if a self-limiting belief can actually be a good and useful thing. There are lots of differences between people, lots of different skills and interests. Even if I resolved one self-limiting belief every year for the rest of my life, there would still be many things I am not good at. Perhaps a self-limiting belief can actually be a part of coming to peace with something that you don’t know how to resolve, and don’t feel particularly capable enough to resolve.

To be clear, there are definitely self-limiting beliefs that are always unhealthy. Like telling yourself that you are not worth of happiness or that you are unlovable. I’m talking about less extreme ones, like “I’m not good at sports” or “I’m tone-deaf”.

I know that story-telling is a big part of being human. We tell stories to others of course, but it seems the more impactful stories are the ones we tell ourselves. Maybe you’ve never liked crowded parties. You could identify this as a self-limiting belief, but then you have to live with this self-evaluation constantly, like a task in the back of your head. Every party you’ll go to, you might try to change your state of mind or try some new way of interacting with others.

Maybe it’s nice to stick with a self-limiting belief now and again. It frees you up to focus on other things in life that you feel better-equipped to participate in.