Beliefs that hold you back

Aug 29 2006 by Patricia Soldati Print This Article

Have you noticed that people who believe that they can do something tend to succeed, and those who believe they can't, tend to fail?

Throughout history, wise people the world over have recognized that our beliefs are so powerful they create our reality. The Upanishads, Shakespeare, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Ford and Napolean Hill are just a few of the well-known proponents of "what you think is what you get".

And when you are trying to buck the tide and change your career, this is critically important stuff.

Whether you realize it consciously or not, you hold many beliefs about your working life. Some of them have served you well – they've allowed you to learn new skills, assume greater responsibility or take on new career challenges; other beliefs have held you back.

To illustrate this, meet two former clients, Doreen and Jack (not their real names). Doreen, a senior level HR director, told me she had no doubt she would eventually be successful changing careers. "It might take a little while, but I'll do it," she said. When I asked how she knew that, she responded "because I'm a change agent in my bones. I make things happen."

This belief gave Doreen a sense of certainty that she would succeed – and within 14 months, she did just that.

Jack, on the other hand, had struggled for almost two years with re-inventing his career. He had a strong sense of community, had terrific relationship skills and solid business know-how. His dream of owning a small café seemed quite doable, but it wasn't happening. One day, Jack joked "I'm one of the unlucky ones – just meant for hard work".

A joke? Hardly. It revealed that, for Jack, work was supposed to be hard, almost punitive – not something that was fun, or which fulfilled one's dreams.

But once this belief was out in the open, Jack was able to re-frame it and realize that "hard work" and "fulfilling work" were not mutually exclusive realities. This understanding freed him from the nasty bit of self-sabotage, and thereafter, he was able to make quick progress toward his goal.

So what Is A belief? Think of it as a thought reinforced by emotion. An event occurred. We drew a conclusion about it and we absorbed this emotionally. Each of us has our own rich personal histories of events – from parents, educators, our culture, gender, etc. – and, as a result, we've developed our own unique perspectives on ourselves and the world. It doesn't take long before we're on auto pilot, with these now-subconscious beliefs guiding our actions and outcomes in life.

When it comes to our careers, here are the most common limiting beliefs.

  1. I am not skilled enough.
  2. Hard work is noble.
  3. Fulfilling work is for others, not me.
  4. Fulfillment comes from my personal life, not my work life.
  5. I'm too old to make a major life change.
  6. My family and friends will think I'm crazy.
  7. I'm a fraud – my success is a result of the corporate structure, or my tenure.
  8. The unknown isn't safe.
  9. I'm not sure that I can trust my decisions or choices.
  10. I'm afraid of failing in a new role.

Beliefs stay with us for three primary reasons:

First, we label them. ("I'm no good at math. My Mom (or Dad) wasn't either.") Labeling beliefs and focusing on where they come from helps us rationalize and make them okay.

Then we engage in selective data gathering. We seek out evidence to support our beliefs and ignore evidence that would support the opposite belief.

Finally, we disguise them – sugar-coat them – to make them more palatable. They become an ego advantage. For example, "I'm not as smart as…" can become "I work harder" – an empowering belief which could aid your career. (Just think of what could happen when you let go of the limiting belief – it makes positive even stronger: you are smart AND you work hard!).

But beliefs can be changed. While a belief feels very real to the believer, they are not absolute – they are a learned frame of reference. When you have a genuine willingness to replace a belief with something new and empowering, it is entirely possible to do so.

Some beliefs can change simply as a result of identifying it and then taking in new information about it - as Jack did in our earlier example. Other beliefs are more deeply networked into our psyches and have more "staying power".

So here are 5 steps that can help you re-frame your limiting beliefs. 1. Clearly identify your limiting belief and confirm that you have a genuine desire to change it.

2. Create a new, empowering belief that supports the results you want. And make sure it adheres to these five "power checks":

  • Is stated in the present tense (I am, I know, I express, I respect…)
  • Is spoken as certainty (No cans, maybes, possibilities, iffi-ness, comparisons)
  • Is loving and respectful (Does it honor your inner greatness?)
  • Includes the notion of abundance (No limits, caps)
  • Strikes an emotional chord with you

For example, let's take "I'm not skilled enough". Here are two possible empowering statements:

"I have an exceptional skill set -- and this is just one expression of my inner greatness."


"My resourcefulness is a gift I use to build strong community around me."

3. Repeat your affirmation daily for at least 40 days. Vividly imagine this new belief in action in your life; engage your emotions around it. Recall an experience from your past that is evidence of your new belief.

4. Acknowledge old emotions and behaviors when they come up. Without reprimand, simply choose to shift your energy and focus on the new belief.

5. Add a daily action step to re-enforce your new belief. During this brief action step, completely be the person who holds your new belief.

Be gentle with yourself as you adopt this new belief. Eventually, it will become automatic - and your new reality.

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About The Author

Patricia Soldati
Patricia Soldati

Patricia Soldati is a former President & COO of a national finance organization who re-invented her working life in 1998. As a career fulfillment specialist, she helps corporate professionals enhance their working lives – both within the organization – and by leaving it behind.

Older Comments

This is so true in life. Money attracts money. Beatiful people hang out with beautiful people. However, does a successful company only attract people who are highly motivated to succeed. The workplace, by its very nature is is diverse and full of people who deliver to different levels of their capability. If companies only focused on attracting the best and brighest there would be a massive shortfall in skills.

Anyone can put in place sexy policies to better motivate people who are already performing in line with their potential. But it takes a lot more than a new flexible working policy to help an underperformer fulfill his or her potential. Are most employee engagement policies missing a trick when it comes to tapping the potenial of staff with very different needs - the star performers and those who look at the stars and believe that it is all a dream.

Claire Walker United Kingdom

Great post! I wrote about it on my blog; I find that most of those limiting beliefs are similar to what people say to themselves to avoid public speaking.

Lisa Braithwaite

Thank you very much for your post. I linked to it in my blog where I collect all information on limiting beliefs that I can get my hands on.

Joerg Hillebrand

I don't quite agree. Obviously it's vital to have a healthy, optimistic attitude during periods of change in particular, but this article seems to encourage an attitude bordering on delusion. I don't make excuses for failure but nor do I think I'm infallible; surely the truly evolved person has the insight and resilience to be ruthlessly objective about themselves and their situation. Why is it 'limiting' to acknowledge something might genuinely be beyond you? Brazen self-confidence regardless of the facts may fly in a less zero-sum industry than the one I'm now in, but better to acknowledge and work around your basic limitations than to blag yourself into a position you are unsuited for - then to fall short at a critical moment, or collapse under the weight of a task you were not physically or mentally built to do.

Depravo Tyneside

Thank you for this post. It is absolutely true that you can change if you want to. If you don't feel you need to change then you won't. My trouble seems to be embracing my new self because that person is drastically different from the person that people see now. I think I'm more concerned with people's reactions than I am about my own happiness. That's a belief that is very common. Nobody wants to be an outcast. But nobody wants to be miserable either. It's a delicate balance. But if you feel you can do it, go for it. If you don't, you only have yourself to blame.

Allen NYC

Believing in yourself is certainly one of the fundamental traits for business success - particularly in developing leadership traits. So many 'old school' executives believe that 'hard work' is the only value of an employee and don't bother to look at the potential or inner motivations of the individual, which only leads to the inability to have untapped potential contribute to the company. Society has built this mindset of 'work for the sake of work' over the years - and the workaholic 90's were the white collar version of the blue collar overworked factory workers. Following a dream is often seen as walking out of the workforce - even if you are still working. Why? Because it appears as enjoyment? Enjoying your job is the greatest gift you can give yourself, your career, and your company (if you choose to work for one). Productivity skyrockets when someone enjoys what they are doing. You are so right that so many people think that they are 'stuck with hard work' or things 'weren't meant to be.' You have to go out and make something happen. Granted, there's limitations to everything - but many things may appear to have limitations - but if you think hard enough the limitations can be conquered. Society needs to get over the 'work for the sake of work' mindset and realize that developing individual potential is what's best for everyone. Can you imagine a society where people are encouraged to reach their potential based on their individual talents - and not just for the sake of making money or getting a job? We claim we do this - but the truth is we haven't even tapped the potential of promoting individual development. (Just look at the conformity in elementary schools - and this is often where the 'hard work for the sake of work' attitude starts.) Dreams and Hopes are imperative for our society to flourish. An executive, a leader, a manager, a student, a factory worker or anyone should never be held back by their self-defeating beliefs. They should think creatively how to get past stumbling block and have the courage - even if only developed step by step - to reach their dreams. If you can't sing and always wanted to be a singer - take singing lessons. One step at a time. A very nice inspiring article. I believe in dreams and individual potential. I'm glad you do too. Executive Coaching


This is a great article. It's nice to see some positive thoughts lately. Thank you for writing it.

Two great books along these lines written by Jack Canfield are 'The Key to Living the the Law of Attraction', and 'The Success Principles'. The Success Principles teaches how to get rid of old beliefs and replace them with new ones. I went through the 6 month course Jack offered using the Success Principles and I was able to change my way of thinking about myself and my work and am now finishing up my first book entitled, 'Alligators in the Water Cooler, A Guide to Indentifying Bullies and Their Buddies in the Workplace'.

I encourage everyone to give themselves the gift of positive thinking and changing their lives.


Judith Munson CA

your post is really inspiring and useful. great tips on turning things around and staying positive. i will remember to use them everyday!


Very useful and well-supported review of what's needed to lead successfully. As with other MI articles, this material should be a part of any HR department's leadership development program.

Bill Honolulu