This Is How You Break Your Self-Limiting Beliefs

This Is How You Break Your Self-Limiting Beliefs

I want to talk to you for a moment about a client I had. He, like a lot of my coaching clients, wanted to know what it takes to be someone women want to date. This caught me off guard; this was a guy who had a lot going for him. He was tall, good looking and fun to talk to. And yet, he didn’t struggle with meeting women so much as failed to so much as look at them. Never mind striking out, the guy got the screaming abdabs just thinking about going up to the plate.

POV: You’re in a tortured metaphor for dating and your crush is about to send a 110 MPH fastball straight into your insecurities…

Once we identified just what he thought he was missing and who he wanted to date, I worked with him on a plan that would help get him closer to his goal. We talked about style and presentation, and about where he could go to meet the kind of women he was into. We came up with a plan of action to build out his social circle and start cultivating the lifestyle that would make it easier for him to effortlessly bring more women into his life. Once he was satisfied with his new strategy, we scheduled a follow-up session to discuss his progress and make adjustments as needed.

Well, the follow-up session came around and he had done… precisely none of the things we talked about. He tried. He planned to do it. But when it was time to quit talking and start walking, he choked. Couldn’t do it. Sometimes he got as far as walking up to someone and then either walked past, or just turned around and walked away without saying a word.

“Look… I’m just not one of the guys who can do that,” he told me. It was fine for him to imagine women liking him and wanting to date him. But as soon as he tried to actually talk to someone he liked, his anxiety would flair up and convince him that he wouldn’t be good enough. All of his good points didn’t matter; there would be too many other guys who had more. He failed before he even started — not because of anything he’d done, but because he couldn’t believe that he could ever be the kind of guy who could talk to women or who women liked. And so he “tried”, failed and took that as proof that he could ever succeed.

His story isn’t unique. Lots of men have convinced themselves that they’re doomed to failure, and that they could never be good enough. And while they may have different reasons why— wrong body, wrong height, too shy, too whatever — the real problem comes from within. To a man, they let their self-limiting beliefs run their lives. Rather than working on their social skills and building a great life, they convince themselves to not even bother trying.

Maybe that sounds like you. Maybe you’re frustrated at how little you believe that anyone could want you. How much better would your life be if you could shut up that voice that says “why bother, it’ll never work?” How much would your life change if you could let go of the negative beliefs that hold you back?

Hold onto that thought, because today, we’re going to talk about how to break those self-limiting beliefs and become the sexy bad-ass you were always meant to be.

If You Want to Change Your Beliefs, Change Your Story

We’ve talked about inner game and self-limiting beliefs before, but one thing we haven’t talked about is what self-limiting beliefs are: they’re stories. They’re stories that you tell yourself about yourself.

Think about it. Self-limiting beliefs don’t come screaming out of the clear blue sky with no warning. These are almost always responses to things that happened in our lives. Sometimes they’re born out of our experiences — things we experienced first-hand. If we ask out our middle-school crush only to get laughed at, we might develop the belief that our attraction to others is a laughable insult. Other times, those beliefs come to us second-hand. If our parents tell us we’re too weird or a failure, or we overhear our friends making fun of us, we may internalize those beliefs — taking them onboard and convincing ourselves that they must be true.

In each of these cases, we’re taking these events — getting shot down by a crush, getting belittled by people we trust — and craft a narrative around them. It’s part of how we make sense of the chaos of our lives and answer the question of “why?” This horrible thing happened to you, so what caused it? Why would people who supposedly love and care for you say such terrible things? We want to understand it and so, we create a story to explain it. And like every author, we choose what parts of the narrative to highlight and what to leave out… even when the highlighted parts hurt us.

In fact, especially when they hurt us.

Beautiful blonde woman wearing casual pink tshirt laughing, pointing finger to the camera with hand over mouth
You just invented a story in your head about why this stock photo model is pointing and laughing at you, didn’t you?

Other self-limiting beliefs are born out of fear — we’re afraid of the pain of rejection and so we create reasons to avoid situations where we might face the risk of getting rejected. These are stories too — they’re the story you tell yourself to explain why you can’t do the thing. Except it’s not really “can’t”; it’s won’t. You’ve convinced yourself that this story must be true and so you assume failure is inevitable.

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t… but you’ll never know. By assuming you had already failed, you ensured that it would happen — and so you say that you “can’t” do it.

But here’s the thing: stories are just that — stories. They aren’t objective reflections of reality; they’re your interpretations of what happened. They only have as much power and validity as you give them. If you believe the story, then of course it’s going to come true; you’ve primed your brain to make this happen.

And of course, if you’ve told one story, then you’re perfectly capable of telling a different one. But if you want to beat your self-limiting beliefs, you have to tell the right stories, ones that are structured to get the right effect. People have a hard time shifting those beliefs because they try to just deny their validity. And in fairness: that’s not bad logic. If you can convince yourself that these beliefs are true, then you should be able to convince yourself that they’re not true, right?

Well, not really. It’s not just a matter of saying “well actually, I’m a six-foot two sexual tyrannosaurus and every woman out there explodes into puffs of lust mist as walk past”. I mean, if that worked, I’d be out of a job.

Beautiful blonde woman wearing casual pink tshirt laughing at you, pointing finger to the camera with hand over mouth
Also, could you imagine the mess?

The problem is that just going “nuh-uh” isn’t really convincing — especially not when you’re arguing with your deep-seated anxieties. You’ve spent years telling yourself the story that lead to your believing that this aspect of yourself was true; you’re not going to change anyone’s mind by just saying “well, actually…” Those beliefs came about because of experiences you lived through; you’re not going to be able to convince yourself that things didn’t happen.

To overcome a self-limiting belief, you need to change what you believe. To do that, you have to tell a new story — one that makes it possible to believe something else.

You need your redemption story.

What Is Your Redemption Story?

This is going to seem like a digression for a moment, but stick with me: how many times have you seen a politician with a long established history of taking a particular stance — being against LGBTQ rights, for example — only to walk them back later on? Often, they’ll talk about how the issue affected them personally; their child came out as gay or trans and they realized how much pain they were causing to their own flesh and blood. Now that they see they were wrong, they’ve changed their position and are pro gay and trans rights.

The story of how they came to realize they were wrong is an important one. If they were to just suddenly shift positions — “sorry folks, my bad, I didn’t mean to restrict your civil rights” — people would question their sincerity. At the same time, the story seems oddly self-serving; couldn’t they have recognized how their beliefs where hurting folks if it didn’t affect them personally? Did they really need the personal connection to come around?

Well, to be blunt… yeah, they often do. One of the perverse parts of the human psyche is that we are very defensive of our identity. When we’re confronted by things that challenge our sense of identity — the realization that this belief or that is factually, objectively wrong, for example — we’ll often reject the challenge. Instead of changing our minds and points of view, we’ll often end up doubling down and believing that thing even harder. We don’t like the feeling of conflict between what we believe and being shown that our beliefs are wrong — it creates a feeling of dissonance, like the buzzing of a drill in our skulls. Becoming even more vehement in our initial belief helps dampen the dissonance, and so people will often refuse to change their beliefs.

senior man with fingers in his hears saying "I can't hear you"
Anyone who’s tried to change their shitty anti-vaxxer uncles over the holidays have seen the “NYA NYA I’m not listening!!” effect in action

But what if you had a reason why you could change your mind? Enter the power of stories. When people tell us the story of why they changed their minds, what they’re doing is building themselves a permission structure. By crafting this particular narrative, they’re making it acceptable to change their minds. They’ve given a reason why they could accept that their previous beliefs were wrong, and now they have permission to believe something different. Without that permission structure, their own psychic defenses would prevent them from changing their minds… even they want to.

The same process applies to breaking those self-limiting beliefs. When you’ve held on to a belief for so long, it becomes part of your identity. If you threaten your identity, your own brain rebels. So if you want to change the belief, you need to structure it in such a way that you can accept the change to your identity, instead of seeing it as a threat. And to do that, you want to tell your redemption story.

The redemption story is a powerful one, one that speaks to us on a deep and profound level. It’s the underpinning of narrative structure; the protagonist finds himself at his low point — whether through his own actions, through circumstance or both and has to struggle to pull himself out off it. Through a series of challenges, trials and growth, he’s able to learn and become stronger and comes out better than before at the other end. Their suffering ultimately served a purpose and helped them become a stronger, better person.

You’ve almost certainly seen this story over and over again. The world loves a redemption story. We love it when Luke Skywalker is able to overcome his failure, complete his training as a Jedi and defeat the Empire. We love seeing Goku or Midoriya or Neo come back from betrayal, defeat and seeming certain doom, only to become stronger and rise up to overcome the forces against them. Redemption stories have power in real life too; preachers will talk about their life as a sinner before they converted, and self-help gurus will talk about how they hit their lowest point before discovering the thing that brought them success that they want to share with you.

Portrait of skeptical Asian man thinking, hand resting on his chin
“Hang on Doc, why does this sound like the story YOU tell…?”

You can harness the power of a redemption story in your life too. Denying that you experienced the pain that lead to your self-limiting beliefs won’t change them. But you can create a permission structure that will let you change what you believe — not by denying the past but by changing your relationship to it. Instead of letting your past experiences define you in permanent, unchanging ways, they become the thing that you overcome, the flame that forges you, tempers your steel and leaves you stronger than before.

Forged in Fire contestant drawing their glowing-hot billet from the forge
Hang on, there’s a metaphor here but I can’t quite put my finger on it…

So instead of telling the story of how you can’t do something or you’re too whatever, you want to tell the story about how you were brought low. You had this horrible experience (or experiences) that hurt you, scarred you and left you in the pit. But rather than sit there and wallow, you realized that you were stronger than your pain or your fear and you’re fighting your way back out. It may be a struggle, but you know that you’re capable of overcoming this; no matter how challenging it may be, you know that those challenges will make you stronger in the end. Bad things may still happen, afterwards or along the way, but the good follows afterwards and you know that with time and effort you can overcome the challenges you face.

Think of it like your own personal training montage… 80’s soundtrack recommended, but not required.

animated gif of Deku from My Hero Academia training, carrying a tire as he runs
🎶 Push it to the limit
Walk along the razor’s edge
But don’t look down just keep your head, or you’ll be finished… 🎶

But what about those beliefs? How do you break past those while you’re busy crafting the new story to tell yourself? Doesn’t that make it pointless?

Well, I’m glad you asked, convenient rhetorical device.

Challenge Your Self-Limiting Beliefs

Here’s the tricky thing with self-limiting beliefs: they feel like they’re true. Because they’re born out of your pain and your trauma, you have every reason to accept that they’re real. They’re part of your story and, as we said before, you can’t just pretend that those experiences didn’t happen.

But while you can’t change the past, you can change the story. After all, every story is defined by what you highlight and what you leave out, what you focus on and what you ignore. When you formed those self-limiting beliefs, you were highlighting the parts of the story that felt true in the moment: the pain, the humiliation, the rejection. But feels aren’t reals, and just because you focused on those parts doesn’t mean that they’re accurate. They’re just how you saw things at the time.

Emphasis on “at the time”.

One of the most common and enduring tropes in storytelling is “everything you knew is wrong,” where we discover information that changes how we view what happened before. The hero finds some crucial clue and realizes that what he thought had happened was all a lie. Or they discover some vital piece of misinformation that fills in gaps that we had no idea were even there. Or we, the audience, see past events from a different perspective and realize that we misunderstood what happened before.

screen capture of Wolverine: Origins. Ryan Reynolds stands behind Hugh Jackman
And sometimes we just all quietly agree that something never happened and stuff it down the memory hole forever.

That reveal challenges our perceptions and forces us to confront our own beliefs and expectations alongside the characters. It makes us question what we thought we knew and — in the process — makes it possible to accept this new information and new context. That new information then makes it easier to accept new beliefs and change what we thought had come before.

And that’s precisely what makes it such a valuable part of your redemption story. When you incorporate “everything you thought you knew is wrong”, you make it easier to shift those beliefs from ones that limit you to ones that empower you… not by denying or ignoring the past but by changing how you see it. After all, we aren’t objective observers of reality. What we see, experience and even remember are affected by what we expect and what we believe. The stronger we believe something, the more it affects how we see the world and how we interpret what we see. Case in point: look at this video about the McGurk Effect:


The McGurk Effect is a prime example of how what we expect affects what we perceive. When the visual representation of a sound is paired with a sound other than the one we expect, we hear something completely different. Nothing has actually changed; the mouth movements are accurate, the audio is accurate, but our brains process them differently because we think we’re going to hear something else. Close your eyes and the sound changes back. Plug your ears and the mouth movements signify a different sound.

So it often is with our memories and experiences. We drew conclusions based on what we expected… but that doesn’t mean they’re accurate. So while you’re telling your new story, you want to make sure to examine those self-limiting beliefs and ask: “what if I’m wrong?”

Resist the urge to knee-jerk respond with “but I’m not,” and focus on the What If. Examine those beliefs and ask yourself what it would mean if you were wrong. What are other possible explanations for what happened that lead to that belief? What if you didn’t get rejected because you’re too short/ugly/overwheight/whatever but because of things that had nothing to do with you? Is it possible that your friends said shitty things about you because they were insecure and trying to prop themselves up at your expense instead? What if your parents treatment of you wasn’t because you were flawed or bad but because they’re dealing with their own misunderstandings? Or perhaps they’re bullies themselves…

screenshot from the movie Encanto; Mirable and Bruno look surprised at the camera
I’m just gonna let you earworm yourselves…

Now the tricky thing is that you want to stick to “what if”, not proving that you’re wrong. Asking “what if” and exploring different possible interpretations of events isn’t about saying “this was wrong”; that just invokes the part of your brain that’s going to resist any changes. Instead, you’re using those questions and alternate possibilities to help build and reinforce the permission structure of your redemption story. After all, if it’s possible that you were wrong about that belief, then you’re giving yourself permission to change that belief without threatening your identity. Acknowledging the possibility that you’re wrong helps prime your brain to get past the confirmation bias and accept evidence that challenges that previous belief. If you can accept that evidence without rejecting it out of hand, then you make it that much easier to let go of your previous beliefs.

This isn’t denying who you are, it’s creating the structure that allows you to define who you’re going to become. And that’s far more important than being “right”.

But while we’re on the topic:

Clean Out Your Emotional Closet

Part of changing your story and telling a new one means that you need to start clearing space to let the new story grow. Over the years, you spent a long time collecting metaphorical crap that supports those negative beliefs and patterns — whether you realized it or not. Part of moving past those patterns and beliefs and forming new ones is clearing the old ones away — along with the stuff that only serves to bolster those beliefs.

Think of it like cleaning out your closet. A lot of folks hold onto clothes that no longer fit, or never even fit in the first place. Sometimes they hold onto them as motivation — it’s that suit you want to wear again, or that really awesome shirt that’s just one size too small but you’re pretty sure you can lose enough weight to make  it fit. Other times, they’re clothes that pinch and squeeze and compress and make you feel like you’re having to take shallow breaths in order to not burst out of them, but you keep wearing them anyway.

The problem is that keeping these around doesn’t actually help. They aren’t serving their purpose; clothes are supposed to fit you and suit you. Forcing yourself to try to fit into clothes that are too small, too tight, too large and loose, too confining or otherwise just don’t work is a losing game. You’re trying to force yourself into a mold that doesn’t fit, trying to adapt yourself to someone else’s expectations.

A fat man in a small, tight white shirt
It doesn’t matter how nice the shirt is or how much you like the pants or how much you feel like you SHOULD be fitting into them, it only makes you uncomfortable and self-conscious AT BEST.

Your clothes are supposed to fit you, rather than you fitting your clothes. Holding onto them gets in the way of accepting yourself as you actually are. Keeping them, on the other hand, only serves to reinforce that you’re not THAT. This, in turn, pushes you towards negative self-talk and negative feelings… all of which just serve to make things even more uncomfortable and anxious. Clearing out the clothes that don’t fit, don’t serve you and don’t make you feel good about yourself is, in a very real way, an act of self-care.

So, for that matter, is taking a similar approach to your life. If we want to stretch this particular metaphor to the breaking point, challenging your self-limiting beliefs is the start of cleaning out your closet; you’re getting rid of the beliefs and patterns that are holding you back. But it’s not just those beliefs you need to clear out… you need to clear out the structures that you’ve used to validate and support those beliefs.

Self-deprecating humor is a classic example. For many, making fun of themselves is a self-defense mechanism. The assumption is that if you make the joke first, other folks won’t be able to use it against you. You’re staying humble! You’re showing that you’re self-aware and have a sense of humor about yourself!

Mature caucasian man wearing clown red nose isolated on gray background
And comedy is born from pain, right?

Or maybe — and hear me out — you’re just bullying yourself. While you’re busy making jokey-jokes about your face, hair, weight, height, body, general fuckability or any other attribute, all you’re doing is reinforcing those beliefs and making it that much harder to improve. Metaphorically kicking yourself in the balls isn’t proving that you’re self-aware, it’s just bad comedy (… Starscream) that only just makes things hurt worse in the long run.

The same goes for your friends who you let “roast” you all the time and who love to joke around about how awful you are. Or the forums and subreddits you go to that just keep insisting that you and folks like you would be better off serving as mushroom fodder, like the giant pile of shit you are.

In fact, there’re likely any number of things you have in your life — physical, mental and emotional — that only serve to reinforce how “awful” you are. It’s not that you keep these around because you like punching yourself in the balls; in all likelihood, you have them for other reasons. But their effect on you is to confirm and remind you of those self-limiting beliefs. Much like the shirt or jacket  you want to  wear again some day, you think it’s a form of motivation — if you see this every day, it’ll inspire you to try harder. But in practice, all it ends up doing is just reminding you that you aren’t there yet. And the longer you keep it around, the more “yet” turns into “ever”. Your source of motivation just becomes another bat to beat yourself with, a reminder of your supposed failure.

It does you no good. So it’s time to toss it out.j

Now, it’s important to remember: you didn’t come up with these self-limiting beliefs because FUCK YOU, THAT’S WHY. You developed these self-limiting beliefs as a means of protection. They’re responses to trauma, not some subtle form of emotional masochism. This is why you want to avoid being equally as self-judgemental in clearing out those beliefs and the habits and patterns you developed to support them. Instead of beating yourself up over them or castigating yourself for letting yourself buy into these, you want to examine them and ask “what purpose did this serve? Is this actually meeting my needs, or am I holding onto it for no reason?”

More often than not: no, it’s not meeting your needs and hasn’t for quite some time. It’s far past time to clear it out so you can make room for the changes you’re trying to cultivate.

Self-Compassion Breeds Self-Confidence

So let’s talk about the last thing you need to break your self-limiting beliefs: compassion. Specifically, compassion for yourself.

This is actually shockingly hard for folks to accept. Most of us come to self-improvement from the Drill Sergeant School: screaming at yourself under the assumption that it’ll make you stronger. It’s a compelling idea and one that people try to employ in a multitude of areas. The idea is that folks don’t change or improve unless they’re forced to, and so it’s necessary to make life hell for them until they do.

You can see this approach everywhere — in dieting and fitness, at work, school… everywhere. Are you fat? Well, clearly you’re A LAZY PIECE OF SHIT WHO NEEDS TO BE FORCED INTO ACTION. Are you trying to build muscle? NO PAIN  NO GAIN BRO, IF YOU’RE NOT PUKING, YOU’RE NOT LIFTING. Are you trying to build a career? WHO THE FUCK TOLD YOU THAT YOU COULD GO HOME AT 5? IF YOU’RE NOT AN HOUR EARLY TO WORK YOU’RE LATE, IF YOU’RE NOT GRINDING 80 HOURS A WEEK, YOU’RE AN ANCHOR DRAGGING US ALL DOWN. Comforts? Nice clothing? Eight hours of sleep and a decent social life? NO, MOTHERFUCKER, YOU EARN THAT SHIT AFTER YOU SWEAT BLOOD FOR MONTHS AND YEARS.

So it is with your inner critic — your own personal Sergeant Slaughter, screaming in your brain about how fucking worthless you are that you can’t peel your ass from a wall and talk to a woman.

caucasian drill sergeant in blue camo fatigues blowing a whistle over a dark backdrop

Shockingly… this doesn’t actually work. I realize this may come as a surprise, but it turns out that yelling, browbeating and deprivation are shockingly demotivating. After all, it’s not as though you were feeling great before and that was what was keeping you from your goals. Fat people aren’t surprised to find out that they’re fat. Folks who struggle with dating aren’t unaware of how they’re struggling. Screaming at you about it — whether it’s coming from the outside or inside — is counterproductive. At best, all you get is increased anxiety; at worst, you end up training yourself into helplessness.

Don’t forget: most self-limiting beliefs aren’t about enjoying the current status-quo. If they were, they wouldn’t be limiting beliefs. They’re about reactions to pain and trauma, and most folks are already busy punishing themselves over those supposed failures.


African American Marine Corps drill instructor yelling at recruit
Also, the point of drill instructors in boot camp isn’t to make you better, it’s to break down your sense of individuality and remold you into a cog in the machine that is the military.

So what do you do instead? You practice self-compassion — the same sort of compassion and caring you would give to your best friend. If your friend was crying about being unable to overcome their own shyness or anxiety, would you scream at them until they get up and start moving just to get you to stop? Or would you reach out to comfort them, reassure them of their good points and acknowledge that hey, shit’s hard sometimes and that’s ok? If you’re being a good friend, then you’re much more likely to provide comfort and care, help them up, brush them off and let them get their strength back.

Two boys sibling brothers together in park, helps boy with roller skates to stand up after fall
I hate to go all “Everything I Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten”, but…

So why wouldn’t you do the same for yourself? Why do you deserve less than what you would do for your best friend?

Here’s the thing: a lot of this mindset comes from toxic and restrictive ideas of strength and masculinity. People treat compassion and emotion as weakness and a willingness to endure pointless abuse as “strength”. It doesn’t matter that the constant demands and recrimination have been shown, over and over again, to grind people down. Pain isn’t “weakness leaving the body”, pain is nature’s way of telling you that shit is goddamn wrong. Pushing through the pain isn’t strength, it’s breaking yourself even further for short term gains (maybe) and guaranteed long-term losses.

Worse, focusing on enduring pain and hardship causes us to forget that the pain and hardship are signs of failure, not toughness. We celebrate first-responders as “heroes” when they sacrifice their lives for others, but we forget that we shouldn’t be expecting them to die for us. Similarly, we celebrate front-line medical workers for the insane, herculean work of keeping  people alive during a once-a-century pandemic, but isn’t it better to not need to grind them into powder in the first place? 

So it is with how we treat ourselves. Shame doesn’t motivate us; it just makes us feel worse about ourselves and leaves us feeling helpless. Pain doesn’t push us faster, it just makes us do exactly as much as we need to do to make the pain stop. Anger and yelling just reduces trust and reinforces our perception of our own failures. We already feel like shit; adding more recrimination isn’t an alchemical process that suddenly transforms that pain into action.

Compassion, on the other hand, helps build strength. Compassion says “yeah, that didn’t work and that sucks, but you can do better.” It acknowledges what happened before, but also that the past is just that: the past. It’s not definitional; it’s just a point in time and one that you can move away from. As I’ve said before: breaking your self-limiting beliefs isn’t about pretending that whatever happened before didn’t happen; it’s about recognizing that what happened before doesn’t limit who you are or who you can become. Without that path forward to actual improvement, a self-limiting belief just becomes a limit.

However being able to say “This happened, that sucked, we can do better” establishes that change and improvement is possible. It changes the narrative from one of limitations to one of progress and possibility. The point of your redemption story isn’t about how much pain you can take or how much shit you can eat, it’s about recognizing that we fall so we learn to get back up again. Even if your self-limiting beliefs stem from your own actions, the compassionate response isn’t “you fucked up you loser, now fix it”, it’s “you made the best decision you could at the time, now you can make better ones”

And here’s the other thing: that self-compassion is part of what builds confidence. Confidence isn’t about knowing that success is guaranteed; confidence is about knowing that you’re up for the challenge and that failure won’t break you. Teaching yourself that failure is survivable, that you can climb out of that hole or just build a better world and life for yourself is how you teach yourself to be truly confident.

So it’s time to let go of your self-blame, to quit defining yourself by past limits and past mistakes. It’s time to embrace your redemption story and let your self-limiting beliefs become the fuel that help you overcome those limits.

It’s time to become the hero to the person who needs one most: yourself.