Unconscious self-limiting beliefs and attitudes
Psychologists have long been fascinated with the fact that people don’t just form attitudes about themselves that they can tell you about when asked (‘I am particularly good at problem solving’; ’I’m a great communicator’), but also have unconscious positive or negative beliefs about themselves (‘I will never be good at...’ ‘I cannot succeed because I am.../have...’). What is especially interesting is that it is possible to present a positive self-concept (how we perceive and evaluate ourselves), whilst ignoring or not recognising the influence of negative unconscious beliefs and attitudes on our thoughts and behaviours (Conner and Barrett, 2005).
What if these unconscious attitudes are holding us back – have become self-limiting beliefs, lowering our self-regard? Where do they come from and what can we do about them? Rudman (2004) suggests that these unconscious attitudes come from the (often forgotten) past, while verbalised self-concept comes from more recent learning and experiences. Other research, such as Olson and Fazio (2002), found that these often reflect childhood learning and experiences, including the culture we were brought up in. Learning and judgement from, and experiences with, family, friends, school, society, media, all contribute to self-limiting beliefs.
Conner and Barrett (2005) suggest that we continuously assess situations in relation to whether they will help or hinder us, and unconscious beliefs play a part in this assessment. When a situation occurs, it is more likely to be seen as harmful if we have negative self-beliefs, leading to destructive emotional experiences and perhaps behaviour. If one of our self-limiting beliefs is that we will never be good at maths, we may experience strong negative emotions in any situation where maths is required and so employ avoidance tactics, perhaps to the detriment of our career.
Learning to recognise self-limiting beliefs and how these impact on our emotions and behaviour is key towards having both higher self-regard and becoming more emotionally intelligent, which you can find out more about here – link to The value of Emotional Intelligence in a Challenging Workplace article
Recognising self-limiting beliefs
How might we recognise our own self-limiting beliefs? These often take the form of inner mind chatter that is negative and self-sabotaging, such as ‘I’ll never be able to do that’ or ‘I’m not ready’ or ‘I’m not good enough’. These become mental habits repeating in an endless loop, leading us to doubt our capabilities, and that our goals and dreams are impossible to achieve. This can deceive us into thinking we are less than we are. This video from the Legacy Mastery Academy explains more.
Whilst these beliefs can have a strong effect on thoughts and behaviour, they are often not an accurate reflection of what is going on around us. Fortunately, any beliefs and attitudes are not permanent, we can choose to change the messages played out in our heads, using tried and tested techniques for challenging and reframing them (replacing them with helpful ones), learning to feel more motivated and confident.
Let’s think more about how we might identify the beliefs that hold us back, then challenge and reframe them.
Observing negative thoughts
As we are often not aware of, and so cannot recognise, our self-limiting negative thoughts, implementing the techniques below may result in some surprises! Negative thoughts often follow the same few patterns, and are embedded into our unconscious, making them difficult to spot. It’s time to change these destructive habits.
- Keep a thought journal. You will be amazed at what you may find out from doing this. Keep a small notepad in a pocket or bag so it is always available. Whenever you have a negative thought, write it down in this journal. Noticing this often also stops it! Reflecting on what is in the journal may help you recognise the most common self-limiting beliefs to work on.
- The Rubber Band Technique. This method can feel a bit self-conscious at first but is one of the quickest ways to change thinking. Wear a rubber band around your wrist: tight enough to stay on and make a soft snap when pulled, but loose enough to be comfortable and not break. When you notice a negative thought, give the rubber band a ping. This works in the same way as writing it down: halting the negative thought, and conditions you to have fewer negative thoughts in the future.
As you complete these tasks, take time to think if there are specific self-limiting beliefs that may be affecting you in the workplace. What could be holding you back from doing something new, different or challenging, such as going for a promotion, or a new project, starting your own business or mentoring others? What self-talk do you have when you don’t get something at work that you have applied/worked hard for?
If there is nothing that comes to mind in the workplace, is there anything you would like to do in your personal life, but something is holding you back? For example, learning to play an instrument, learning a language or running a marathon? Examples like these can really bring some of the issues with negative self-talk into your conscious.
Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones
It is important to remember that this inner negative voice only wants to help or protect you in some way: it is a normal, human thing. This doesn’t make the thought right or acceptable, but don’t try to resist or ignore it (this aften doesn’t work!). Instead, try to figure out what the reason behind your thought is: is this self-limiting belief based on assumptions you have made that may not be true? Find reasons why they aren’t true, and you will be chipping away at the beliefs that cause the negative thoughts. This is a powerful long-term reframing technique, and it is even more effective if you keep a thought journal.
Here are some suggestions for the type of challenging questions to ask yourself:
- Reality testing
What is my evidence for and against my thinking?
Are my thoughts factual, or just my interpretation?
Am I jumping to negative conclusions?
How can I find out if these thoughts are true?
- Look for alternative explanations
Are there other ways that I could look at this?
What else could this mean?
If I was thinking more positively, how would I perceive this?
- Putting it in perspective
Is this as bad as I am making it out to be?
What is the worst thing that could happen? How likely is it?
What is the best thing that could happen?
What is most likely to happen?
- Using goal-directed thinking
Does thinking like this help me to feel good or to achieve my goals?
What can I do that would help solve the problem?
What could I instead learn from this, to help me do things/feel better next time?
It may also be helpful to ask a trusted colleague or friend to discuss this with, perhaps they could ask you these questions? And remember, like all change, it will take practice, but over time you can improve your confidence in achieving goals, plus positively affecting your wellbeing and relationships.
There are also further resources you may find useful in the Applying Psychology at Work Hub:
Conner, T. and Barrett, L. F. (2005) ‘Implicit self-attitudes predict spontaneous affect in daily life’, Emotion, 5(4), pp. 476–88, doi: 10.1037/1528-35184.108.40.2066.
Olson, M. A. and Fazio, R. H. (2002) ‘Implicit acquisition and manifestation of classically conditioned attitudes’, Social Cognition, 20, pp. 89–104, doi: 10.1521/soco.220.127.116.1192.
Rudman, L. A. (2004) ‘Sources of implicit attitudes’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, pp. 79–82, doi: 10.1111/j.0963-7214.2004.00279.x.