Doubtbusters: Erase Self-Limiting Beliefs

UPDATED: June 24, 2014
PUBLISHED: June 24, 2014

Let’s say your child comes to you and explains that he or she wants to run for class president. Would you look your little pride and joy in the eyes and say, “Don’t bother. You’re not that popular, and there are some really cool kids going for that job. There’s no chance you’ll win”?

Of course you wouldn’t say that. You’d muster endless enthusiasm and prepare for a heated campaign—maybe head to the bookstore and buy Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. “Let’s make it happen,” you’d say. “We’ll create the best campaign slogan, design the coolest posters and start shaking hands.”

Here’s the problem: Somehow between childhood and adulthood, many of us quash our natural inclinations to dream and do big. Tiger kids become scaredy-cat adults, hampered by self-limiting beliefs that flatten our self-esteem, hurt productivity and dampen success.

“When you think about all the struggles we go through in life, most of it comes from our self-limiting beliefs,” says Arizona-based entrepreneur mentor Ali Brown. “When we’re stuck, it’s not because we are held back by someone else.” Brown suffered from that mentality for years, thinking she wasn’t good enough to work for herself. Then in the late 1990s she met a freelancer for the company where she worked full  time.

“He was nice, but not too smart, and made a great living working for himself,” Brown recalls. “I thought, Wow, I think I can do this.” She went out on her own a few months later. Today she surrounds herself with “positive people who do great things. They make me realize what I am capable of.”

When you replace negative limits in your beliefs about yourself with positive images that focus on your potential, “your success increases exponentially,” Brown  says.

For a moment, suspend any glass-half-full tendencies and be honest with yourself, even if memories like Brown’s make you cringe because they’re all too familiar.

Related: 5 Mindset Traps That Will Derail Your Success

Answer yes or no to these scenarios. Have you ever:

Sat silently in a meeting, afraid of sounding dumb if you shared an idea?

• Allowed others to decide for you because you doubted yourself?

• Shied away from an opportunity because you questioned your ability?

• Been cynical, jealous or angry about other people’s successes?

• Wondered privately whether you’ll ever amount to anything significant?

If you answered “yes” to at least three of those five common situations, you’re a self-doubter.

You have plenty of company.

“Self-limiting beliefs are everywhere and a part of all of us, to greater or lesser degree,” says Bruce Frankel, author of What Should I Do With the Rest of My Life? “The keys to overcoming many of these are recognizing them, understanding how we got them, and then banishing them through sustained activity.”

Put another way: Eliminating self-limiting beliefs is entirely doable.

A first step in moving forward is to recognize that you need to get out of your own way to get ahead. Warning signs of self-doubt include a tendency to answer “yes, but…” when questioned about goals or progress, says Frankel.

“How come your business isn’t up and running by now?”

“Well, it would have been, but…”

The second step is to know that many self-doubters aren’t even aware that they are their own enemies—they constantly seek permission or approval before moving forward. If you’re perpetually working toward another “qualification, certification, designation or degree,” odds are you’re stalling and need to have a frank talk with yourself, according to Brown.

In order to conquer self-limiting beliefs, taking action is key. “Motion beats meditation,” Brown says. Positive quotes and inspiring refrigerator magnets will only go so far. You won’t move forward until you move to get out of your own way.

Let’s look at four common self-limiting beliefs and the action steps you can use to bust through them, starting today.

No. 1: I’m not good enough to charge a decent fee for my services.

Jackie Awve of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was confident about leaving her cushy corporate job to open her own marketing firm: She had the right contacts, a perfect skill set and an exceptional local reputation. But what she found daunting was the specter of asking fees that would give her a standard of living commensurate with her old corporate  salary.

“I was worried that going out on my own wouldn’t be stable enough, that I wouldn’t be able to do it,” the 44-year-old mom says. “There was no safety net, and I was afraid of the freefall. It was like standing on a cliff about to jump into water or jumping from a plane—I thought, I don’t know if I can do it. I panicked.”

Doubtbuster: Jenn Lee, an Orlando, Fla.-based business coach, advised Awve to nail down specifics, like how many clients and projects it’d take to replace or exceed her old salary. Next was determining how to price her service “so that it fit what the market will bear and feed her,” Lee explains. “Once you know your numbers, the rest is in building and delivering the brand to meet what you’ve promised.”

In the first year of business, Awve beat her old salary. Having an overall goal of success helped, she says, but taking specific steps to make money paid off. “If you focus on the actions, it’s not as overwhelming,” Awve says. “You realize you are in fact good enough, and other people will recognize it,  too.”

No. 2: I’m not worthy of being in this space.

For years Cathi Nelson of West Hartford, Conn., was too intimidated to leave a sales job and start her own company. She sensed that business owners belonged to an exclusive club that they were born into—a club that she had not been asked to join.

“I was intimidated,” she says. “I kept asking myself, Do I deserve to be really successful?

Doubtbuster: Nelson says she overcame her fear by just “showing up” to local chamber of commerce meetings, networking group get-togethers and a three-month small-business class. She set one goal per day and concentrated on doing that one thing well, which “helped when I felt overwhelmed by all I didn’t know.” She picked up the phone and reached out to people she admired to ask for help.

In time she founded a photo archiving company, PhotoSimplified, and the Association of Personal Photo Organizers. An early victory was being accepted to speak at a photography conference in Las Vegas. “I  spent most of my time in my hotel room, insecure and wondering if I belonged,” she says, after a disappointing five people came to hear her talk.

But to her surprise, when she reapplied to speak at the same conference the next year, she was booked and more than 75 people attended her session. One year made all the difference. “I now believe I belong in the room,” Nelson, 54, says. “What matters are mutual respect and a willingness to share and learn.”

No. 3: I’m not as good as they are.

Many of us are taught to measure ourselves against celebrated individuals and the accomplishments of others—“not on what we are discovering and doing,” Frankel says. “As a result we lose out on the reward of experience by worrying about measuring up to someone else.”

Doubtbuster: Jealousy and anger about what others do or accomplish are good indicators of someone stunted by self-limiting beliefs, Frankel says.

To fight the “I’m-not-as-good-as” syndrome, Frankel suggests mapping out a plan and celebrating baby steps and milestones: “Create the habit of doing, of advancing.”

Frankel says it also helps to live in the moment, putting aside your ultimate goal to simply focus on the nuts and bolts of your progress. Finally, enjoy the ride by finding people with similar interests. “See yourself doing the thing you want,” he says (check out the quote below for the best advice for visualizing your success).

No. 4: I’m afraid of success.

This is a fear that I often hear when speaking to large sales teams. A salesman will stand up and say he’s “terrified of success” because he has watched peers get to top levels only to subsequently lose their titles and ranks. Now, he’s afraid the same thing will happen to him, so he sadly settles for middle-of-the-pack results and stops trying to advance.

Doubtbuster: Don’t model your path on someone else’s failure. Learn from others’ challenges, but create your success based on your real ambitions. Your focus should not be hampered by negative “what ifs” or obstacles that may or may not be down the road. Instead, do something every day to make every day better than the one  before.

Beliefs of all stripes affect how we think and act and are much more important than we often realize, Brown says. “People go to war and die for their beliefs—that is how strong they are. So beliefs affect our day-to-day decisions and our ultimate potential.”

In her quest to vanquish self-doubt and start her business, Nelson learned that most entrepreneurs are willing to offer encouragement and support.

“They’ve been there, done that,” she says. “And if someone says no, I move on. I stopped thinking small and started thinking big. I stopped making assumptions of what people thought, took a deep breath and forced myself to make the call. In the small-business world, people can’t thrive if they are too fearful.”

Despite what popular culture often leads us to believe, success takes time. “We live in a world filled with manufactured illusions, in which achievements appear to happen extremely fast and in which we’re fed false, inflated images,” Frankel says. A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, as the ancient Chinese proverb says. So put one foot in front of the other and just get started on the quest to achieve your greatest aspiration.

On TV, Shark Tank’s Barbara Corcoran is clearly a successful, no-nonsense, savvy businesswoman. So much so that it’s hard to imagine her as anything but brimming with self-confidence.

Yet the real estate empire builder says that when she was in her 20s, she was filled with self-doubt, afraid to reach for the brass ring. She had what she calls “a self-limiting tape” running in her head.

Dumping her first husband, who told her she would never make it in real estate, was the first step to making it big. “I learned to replace my fear with a tape that kicks in my brain that says, You have the right to get out of life exactly what you want and be as successful as you want to be,” Corcoran says. “You have just as much right as the next guy, the God-given right to get there just like anyone else. It’s not a private club.

That tape in Corcoran’s head has served her well.

“It has gotten me through every door I’ve been afraid of,” she says. “And I’ve always gotten what I  wanted on the other side.”

Tory Johnson is CEO and founder of Spark & Hustle, a weekly contributor on ABC's Good Morning America and a contributing editor of SUCCESS magazine.