Mental health

Limiting Beliefs: How They Hold You Back and How to Break Free

Limiting beliefs are negative thoughts about yourself, others, or the world in general. In this guide, we'll explore how to break free.

Harboring limiting beliefs can stop you from achieving your dreams, developing healthy relationships, or creating change in any area of life. Renowned self-help author and motivational speaker Wayne Dyer once said, “There is one grand lie, that we are limited. The only limits we have are the limits we believe.” 

People hold on to counterproductive ways of thinking for many reasons. Sometimes, a person may not even realize how thought patterns influence other aspects of life. Fortunately, you can change your thought patterns. Therapy is an effective tool for learning more about your beliefs and how they affect you, but you can do additional work in this area on your own. Journaling can also help you recognize the limiting beliefs and actions that prevent you from living  a healthier, happier life. 

In this guide, we’ll explore how to identify, challenge, and break free from limiting beliefs.

What are Limiting Beliefs?

Limiting beliefs are those ideas about yourself, others, or the world that block your personal growth. For example, thoughts like “People like me never catch a break” or “I can’t trust anyone” are examples of limiting beliefs. 

Limiting beliefs are usually negative or rigid convictions you accept as absolute truth unless you take the time to question them. In other words, people hold tight to their limiting beliefs without questioning their source or considering whether their personal experience actually supports the belief. You may have adopted these belief systems in childhood or gathered them along the way. 

Sources of limiting beliefs that can inhibit your personal growth include:

  • Family beliefs and values
  • Education and influence from teachers, mentors, friends, and colleagues
  • Inherent and learned bias
  • Personal experiences, especially those that ended negatively
  • The inability or unwillingness to consider other perspectives

Though they hold you back in some way, limiting beliefs also keep you in your personal comfort zone, which can be difficult to leave. Emotional comfort zones are those places that are familiar, even if they aren’t healthy. Despite any dysfunction associated with a comfort zone, you know how to survive within that space, and you don’t have to do the work of personal growth. 

Limiting beliefs may feel safe and familiar, but they also create a mental obstacle that can be difficult to overcome. 

A person stands on a ridge as a metaphor for limiting beliefs

The Impact of Limited Beliefs

The human brain thinks about 6,000 thoughts a day. People repeat a high percentage of those thoughts. Imagine the impact of telling yourself some version of “I’m not capable” or “I’m not worthy” dozens of times a day, day after day.

Whether negative or positive, the lens through which you see the world (your beliefs) impacts almost every aspect of life, including:

  • The actions you’re willing to take
  • Your relationships
  • Whether you follow your passions
  • Your perspective about yourself, others, and life in general
  • Your definitions of good, bad, true, and false
  • The steps you take to maintain good health
  • Your character
  • Your happiness levels
  • Your self-esteem and confidence levels

A limiting belief can also decrease your motivation to change. For example, if you already believe you will fail, why would you put much energy into making a change? In this way, these beliefs are like self-fulfilling prophecies. Your thoughts sabotage your chances of success before you even take the first step. 

10 Examples of Limiting Beliefs

Limiting beliefs are like thieves that steal your opportunities, but recognizing your own limiting beliefs isn’t always easy. Most people accept their beliefs as true without questioning them too closely. Seeing examples of how harmful beliefs have affected opportunities for others may shed light on your unhelpful thinking habits. 

1. “I Don’t Deserve …”

Jim wants to buy his first home. He grew up in a rented apartment, and his two older siblings also rent their homes. Jim’s experience tells him home ownership is out of reach for blue-collar workers like him. Without even speaking to a loan agent or real estate broker, Jim has decided he won’t ever be able to afford a mortgage. 

Jim’s belief that he doesn’t deserve his own home due to his modest income or family history stops him from even taking the first step to making his dream come true. 

2. “I’m Not Good Enough …”

Alicia loves singing. She has been singing in her church choir since childhood, and many people have encouraged her to sing professionally. Now that her children are grown, Alicia dreams about auditioning at the local community theater that frequently performs musicals. 

Alicia fears her talent won’t meet the expectations of trained singers and actors. She also doubts someone her age with no theater experience could succeed, so she misses the window for open auditions and never brings up her idea again.  

3. “Everyone Else Is …”

Emily longs to find Mr. Right and start a family. But, her limiting belief is that men always leave. Emily’s father abandoned his family when Emily was just 2 years old. The few romantic relationships Emily has been in have ended in painful breakups. 

The combination of her childhood and adult experiences has convinced Emily that “all men” are unreliable. Instead of working on her own personal growth issues so she can be a healthy partner in a happy relationship, Emily continues dating emotionally unavailable men. 

4. “It’s Not Realistic …”

Jeanie recently completed her MBA. She has a great idea for a software program that could improve the customer experience for online shoppers. She knows she has the knowledge to run a successful software company, but she also has the belief that launching her own business isn’t realistic. 

She lands a good job working for a major online retailer where she has steady work and a reliable paycheck. During a lunch hour conversation, Jeanie shares her software idea with a co-coworker. That co-worker pitches the idea to their supervisor and gets the lead position on the new project. 

5. “I Never Finish Things …”

Noah has always dreamed of writing a novel. He’s even sketched out a rough draft of his book idea. Unfortunately, Noah has the limiting belief that he never follows through. 

As a child, Noah was creative and enjoyed trying many different things, but his parents became discouraged because he never stuck with one hobby long enough to become highly skilled. Eventually, they stopped paying for music lessons and art supplies because he “didn’t take anything seriously.”

Convinced that he doesn’t have the determination to finish, Noah gives up on becoming a novelist without ever finishing Chapter 1. 

6. “I Don’t Have Enough Time …”

Sarah has always wanted to learn a second language. She even purchased online lessons to learn French. But between work, family commitments, and her social life, Sarah keeps telling herself that she doesn’t have enough time to dedicate to learning a new language. Years go by, and the online lessons remain untouched.

Sarah’s belief that she doesn’t have enough time becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, preventing her from fulfilling her dream of becoming bilingual.

7. “I Must Not Make Mistakes …”

Peter is a talented artist who’s been invited to showcase his work at a local gallery. Excited but terrified, Peter begins to create a new piece for the exhibition. As he works, his fear of making a mistake paralyzes him. He erases and reworks the same section over and over, never satisfied with his progress.

As the deadline approaches, Peter’s obsession with perfection prevents him from completing his work. The gallery spot remains empty, and Peter’s limiting belief stops him from taking a significant step in his artistic career.

8. “People Will Judge Me …”

Samantha loves dancing and wants to join a local dance group. However, she’s afraid of what her friends and family will think. Despite her passion and talent, Samantha fears that people will judge her or think that her hobby is silly or a waste of time.

Her fear of judgment holds her back, and she never auditions for the dance group. Samantha’s limiting belief prevents her from pursuing what could have been a joyful and fulfilling experience.

9. “I’m Too Old to Start Something New …”

Frank is recently retired. He’s always been interested in photography but never pursued it seriously. Now that he has the time, he contemplates enrolling in a photography course. However, he keeps telling himself that he’s too old to start something new, that it’s a young person’s game.

Frank’s belief that age is a barrier prevents him from exploring his passion for photography, leaving his camera to gather dust.

10. “I Can’t Change …”

Jessica has struggled with her temper all her life. It has affected her relationships and even her career. After a particularly heated argument with a coworker, Jessica decides to seek help. However, she quickly becomes discouraged, believing that her anger is just part of who she is and that she can’t change.

Despite the availability of therapy and self-help resources, Jessica’s limiting belief that she can’t change leads her to abandon her efforts to improve, keeping her stuck in a pattern of behavior that continues to harm her life.

The Power of Journaling Limiting Beliefs

Journaling is one of the simplest, best wellness tools available. The practice of journaling costs nearly nothing to start, and anyone can do it anywhere. Keeping a journal for personal growth provides many physical and mental health benefits. 

A person uses journaling to explore limiting beliefs

One study involving the “Three-Minute Mental Makeover” concluded that completing even a single journaling exercise helped reduce stress in healthcare practitioners, patients, and families at a children’s hospital. Further research on the emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing found it can:

  • Reduce stress-related doctor visits
  • Improve mood
  • Increase feelings of well-being
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Alleviate depression and anxiety
  • Increase resilience

In addition to these other journaling benefits, writing can also help you overcome a limiting belief by providing a safe, private space for expressing your thoughts and feelings. Once expressed, you can examine those thoughts and discover patterns that might be limiting your growth. You also can evaluate whether there’s any truth to these beliefs and, if so, how to address it. 

Using journaling prompts is an effective way to get past intrusive thoughts or criticisms and write entries that support your desire for personal growth. Journal prompts help inspire your writing when you aren’t sure where to start or what to explore.

Journal Prompts for Identifying and Challenging Limiting Beliefs

Do you know what your limiting beliefs are or where they come from? You can’t challenge a belief if you can’t identify it. By working through these journal prompts for limiting beliefs, you can uncover the hidden beliefs that might be holding you back, understand their origins, and create a strategy to challenge and overcome them. It may also be beneficial to work through these prompts with a mental health professional or a supportive friend who can provide additional insight and encouragement.

  1. What belief do I hold that might be limiting my progress or happiness?
  2. Where did this belief come from? Was it something someone said to me, or did it grow from a specific experience?
  3. What evidence can I find that contradicts this limiting belief? What examples from my life or others’ lives show this belief might not be true?
  4. In what ways has this belief held me back? What opportunities might I have missed because of it?
  5. What is a positive belief that I can replace the limiting belief with? How does it feel to hold this new belief?
  6. What would my life look like without this limiting belief? How would I feel, act, and think?
  7. What small steps can I take to act in alignment with this new positive belief?
  8. How can I create daily affirmations to reinforce my new belief? Write them down.
  9. What obstacles might I face in changing this belief, and how can I overcome them?
  10. How do I feel when I think about this belief? What emotions come up, and why might that be?
  11. How am I holding myself to a standard or belief that I wouldn’t hold others to? Why might that be?
  12. How does this belief show up in my daily life? Am I mindful of when it is influencing my thoughts or actions?
  13. Write a letter to yourself, explaining why this belief is no longer serving you and how you plan to move past it.

Journal Prompts for Reframing Negative Thoughts

Reframing negative beliefs is about shifting your perspective and transforming them into something more constructive and empowering.

These journal prompts are designed to guide you in recognizing, challenging, and transforming negative beliefs. The process might require time, patience, and possibly the support of a mental health professional or a trusted friend. Regularly engaging with these prompts can contribute to a shift in perspective and an embrace of more positive, empowering beliefs.

  1. What specific negative belief do I want to reframe?
  2. What positive intention might this belief have? Is it trying to protect or motivate me in some way?
  3. How can I restate this belief in a more positive and empowering way?
  4. How would my life be different if I didn’t have this belief?
  5. What actions would I take if I truly believed this new positive statement?
  6. Who are some people who embody this positive belief? What can I learn from them?
  7. How can I remind myself of this new belief in my daily life? Can I create triggers or reminders?
  8. How can I learn from mistakes or setbacks instead of letting them reinforce negative beliefs?
  9. What new insight have I gained from reframing this belief?
  10. Write a farewell letter to the negative belief, thanking it for its intent, explaining why it’s no longer needed, and embracing the new belief.

If you have difficulty writing positive things about yourself, try using the stream-of-consciousness writing. With stream-of-consciousness journaling, you write everything you think for a predetermined amount of time without stopping or making corrections. This technique can help lead you to thoughts you didn’t realize you had. 

Journal Prompts for Self-Reflection and Introspection

The ability to be introspective and reflect on your thoughts and actions subjectively is necessary for growth. How can you work to change if you don’t know what you think or believe? 

These journaling prompts will help you become more self-reflective:

  • When do I feel happiest?
  • List five attributes I am most proud of
  • What is one thing I can do today to remind myself I am enough?
  • In what ways do I limit myself?
  • What are my core beliefs, and where do they come from? 

When using journaling prompts, allow yourself to write without censoring your words or worrying about spelling or grammar. Giving yourself the freedom to write whatever comes to mind without corrections may help deepen the experience of self-reflection. 

Affirmations and Journal Prompts for Increasing Gratitude

The human brain continues to change and adapt even in adulthood. Affirmations are positive statements you say to yourself. Research shows that repeating affirmations can naturally increase positive thoughts. Repetition also makes recalling affirmations in times of stress easier. 

To make affirmations more effective, remember to keep them positive. For example, instead of saying, “I no longer believe I’m unworthy of love,” say, “I am worthy of love.” Repeating affirmations out loud and using the present tense may also increase their impact. 

Try these affirmations for reframing limiting beliefs:

  • I am capable of taking on challenges.
  • I have the strength to grow and change.
  • My dreams and goals are important.
  • I embrace the opportunity to learn and evolve.
  • Questioning my beliefs is healthy. 
  • My thoughts can influence my actions.

Gratitude is another useful tool for increasing positive thoughts and actions. Expressing gratitude can improve both physical and mental health. In addition to showing gratitude directly to the people in your life, you can use gratitude journaling prompts to help you overcome limiting thinking. 

Consider these prompts to increase your feelings of gratitude:

  • List 5 things that made me happy today.
  • What simple pleasures bring me the most joy?
  • Write about a happy memory from my childhood.
  • Write a thank you letter to me, focusing on the courageous steps I’ve taken to improve my life.
  • Think of three ways I can express gratitude to someone tomorrow.

Using affirmations and prompts together can generate even more positive momentum for your personal growth. For example, after journaling about the 5 things that make you happy, you might create an affirmation, such as, “I focus on these things that are working in my life.”

Don’t Let a Limiting Belief Limit Your Happiness

Limiting beliefs are negative thoughts you think about yourself, others, or the world in general. People form these beliefs based on what they learn as children and their life experiences. But, beliefs aren’t necessarily true. They are what you come to believe as the truth. 

Holding onto limiting beliefs can negatively impact your career, relationships, and overall well-being. Fortunately, you have the power to overcome self-imposed limits and reframe your ways of thinking. Journaling can be an important tool that supports self-growth as you challenge outdated and dysfunctional beliefs.

About the Author

Hannah Van Horn, MCMHC, LPC-C, is a mental health professional who specializes in helping trauma survivors navigate their healing journey. She is an advocate for making mental health accessible for all through written and digital content as well as face-to-face counseling services.

A photo of author Hannah Van Horn, MCMHC, LPC-C

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