How many times have you written yourself off or passed up opportunities due to beliefs like these:
“I’m too old to do that.”
“There’s no way I’m qualified to apply for this job.”
“I can’t go talk to him — he’s out of my league!”
Whether you’re questioning your credentials when applying for a job or balking at the chance to strike up a conversation with someone good-looking, your apprehensions may be highlighting something about your self-beliefs.
False and self-limiting beliefs can stifle progress toward achieving goals or prevent us from living our ideal lives. Thankfully, a core component of many psychological treatments involves helping us to undo these unhelpful beliefs, so that we can start living life to the fullest.
This article will explore the different origins of false and self-limiting beliefs and three therapeutic treatment options to help overcome them.
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What are False and Self-Limiting Beliefs?
While there is no universally agreed-upon definition of false and self-limiting beliefs, there are plenty of examples in the popular press to inform our thinking.
In an exploration of barriers to the world of business, Blackman (2018) writes that self-limiting beliefs are:
“… assumptions or perceptions that you’ve got about yourself and about the way the world works. These assumptions are ‘self-limiting’ because in some way they’re holding you back from achieving what you are capable of.”
Looking at research, we may also consider the closely related notion of maladaptive beliefs, which are central foci for treatment in many forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Boden and colleagues (2012) note that these beliefs have the potential to be:
“central to one’s identity… negatively biased, inaccurate, and rigid.”
Boden (2012, p. 287)
Taken together, we can consider false or self-limiting beliefs to be negative, potentially difficult to change, and somehow preventing us from achieving our goals or being as happy as we could be.
How False and Self-Limiting Beliefs Develop
A good first step to understanding where and how false beliefs develop, is by considering them according to a systematic framework.
One such framework, commonly employed throughout psychology and sociology research, is Rokeach’s (1968) hierarchical system of beliefs.
According to this framework, an individual’s inventory of beliefs can be structured according to five levels, depending on their level of importance.
The most central forms of belief, referred to as Type A Beliefs, are those that we consider unchallengeable commonsense. For instance, the average person knows and will not question who their family members are or where they live (Powers, 2008).
In contrast, Type E Beliefs (the most peripheral beliefs) are largely matters of taste that are not strongly tied to the rest of your belief system. They are also more likely to be subject to change. Examples of such beliefs include your preferred brand of toilet paper or whether or not you enjoy broccoli.
Relevant to a consideration of false and self-limiting beliefs are what Rokeach would classify as Type B and Type C beliefs.
Primitive (Type B) Beliefs
Type B beliefs, sometimes known as primitive beliefs (or core beliefs), are typically core beliefs about ourselves that others’ opinions can neither confirm nor deny (Rokeach, 1968).
These beliefs often characterize our self-image and self-esteem. They may also lie below the level of our awareness and unconsciously dictate our decision-making.
Examples of such beliefs are:
- I am a funny person;
- Nobody likes me;
- I am capable of overcoming challenges; and
- I deserve the bad things that happen to me.
Beliefs such as these are particularly vulnerable to being shaped during our early development, such as via the messages we receive from our parents and caregivers about our self-worth, potential, and deservingness of unconditional love (McAdams et al., 2017).
Importantly, researchers believe that because Type B beliefs tend to constitute global judgments about who we are and what we’re capable of achieving, they can trickle down to affect our beliefs relevant to specific situations we may be facing (Borders & Archadel, 1987).
For example, imagine a single woman named Haylee, who is considering approaching an attractive man in a bar. Haylee often expresses how badly she wishes to meet a romantic partner, so her friends by her side are eagerly encouraging her to walk over and introduce herself.
Haylee, however, is hesitant. She expresses concerns that her appearance doesn’t compare to the other women in the bar. Her friends, incredulous, assure her she looks beautiful, but still, Haylee cannot shake the feeling that she will be rejected based on her looks.
Unbeknownst to Haylee, there is a primitive (Type B) belief underlying her present belief that her looks are not up to par. Growing up, her parents would often make comparisons between her and her sister.
In their comparisons, often made in the presence of friends and family, Haylee was the brains, and her sister was the beauty. While these comparisons were never intended to be malicious, they shaped young Haylee’s beliefs about her self-image, leading her to her current predicament and self-limiting belief that she is not attractive enough to approach the man at the bar.
This is a somewhat innocuous example of how the messages reinforced to us as children may shape our beliefs. However, it is not hard to imagine how insecure attachments or the experience of neglect or abuse during childhood may have devastating effects on our primitive beliefs (Van der Kolk, 2014). These effects may subsequently drive a host of false and self-limiting beliefs in specific situations.
Additionally, because these primitive Type B beliefs are so central to our belief system, second only to beliefs about our name and where we live (Type A beliefs), they can be incredibly challenging to surface and shake without professional psychological support.
Authority (Type C) Beliefs
According to Rokeach’s (1986) framework, Type C beliefs, which are somewhat more peripheral than Type B beliefs, can also trickle down to produce false and self-limiting beliefs.
Type C beliefs are referred to as authority beliefs. These are the beliefs we accept based on their having come from a trusted authority. Examples of such authorities include scholars, business leaders, religious figures in the community, or even publications such as newspapers (Powers, 2008).
One would hope that the authority figures we choose can be trusted to provide us with accurate information that will serve us well in life. However, we need only turn to those around us to know that’s not the case.
Can you think of a friend or family member who has invested in a get-rich-quick scheme, all because it was touted by a charismatic guru? Or perhaps they cling to what you believe to be an outdated belief they learned at school or church.
These are examples of authority beliefs, and again, while more malleable than primitive beliefs, they may trickle down to affect our beliefs in more day-to-day situations.
For instance, imagine if Haylee from the previous example were to resist approaching the man at the bar on the basis of her belief that it was the responsibility of the men to approach women they find attractive.
This could be indicative of a Type B belief surrounding Haylee’s gender-related identity as a woman, stemming from what she observed from female role models growing up.
Alternatively, this hesitation could stem from her belief in the questionable teachings of a weekly newspaper columnist, who advises on love and dating. If so, this might be a Type C self-limiting belief that unnecessarily prevents Haylee from meeting what could be the love of her life.
Again, this is a fairly innocuous example. However, to understand the extent to which authority figures can negatively influence beliefs, one need only look to the harrowing experiences of cult survivors (often documented in memoir) and their journeys of struggling to detach from harmful belief systems that have dictated to them for many years of their lives.
Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy for False or Self-Limiting Beliefs
Now that we have a better understanding of false and self-limiting beliefs, let’s look at some of the different therapeutic options for combating them, starting with Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).
REBT has existed since the 1950s and is targeted at helping patients identify negative or irrational thought patterns that affect their behaviors (Albert Ellis Institute, 2014). Given this focus, it is a particularly well-suited treatment option for those struggling with false or self-limiting beliefs.
At the foundation of REBT is what is known as the ABC model. Using this model, REBT can help clients surface, trace, and challenge a range of self-limiting beliefs.
To illustrate, let’s consider another example.
Tom recently submitted a report for his boss to review. The following day, he receives the report back via email, and notices his boss has written many comments and made many changes.
Before looking at the feedback closely, Tom feels sad and worthless and experience negative thoughts about his capabilities relative to his colleagues.
In reality, the feedback and adjustments made to Tom’s report may include a combination of useful and constructive suggestions for improving his work, as well as compliments on what he did well. Despite this, Tom has prematurely succumbed to false beliefs about his abilities.
We can track Tom’s experience of receiving his report using REBT’s ABC model as follows (Dryden, 2012):
- A is the (a)ctivating event that triggers negative thoughts. In this example, the activating event was Tom receiving the feedback from his boss.
- B is the false or irrational (b)elief that is formed following the activating event. In this example, Tom’s potentially false belief is that he is ineffective at his job.
- C is the (c)onsequence that flows from the irrational thoughts. In this example, the consequence is Tom’s experience of sadness, worthlessness, and ineffectiveness.
It is not hard to see how we can become the authors of our own misery when activating events trigger false or self-limiting beliefs unnecessarily.
Thankfully, REBT practitioners draw on a range of techniques to help interrupt the false and self-limiting beliefs that may flow from any of these three stages.
For instance, therapists can teach their clients strategies to address activating events (a), such as problem-solving skills or mindfulness exercises, to interrupt or bring attention to initial negative thoughts.
To address the irrational beliefs (b), therapists will often teach cognitive restructuring techniques (discussed next in relation to cognitive-behavioral therapy). And to address the consequences (c), such as negative emotions, they may teach relaxation or techniques to self-soothe.
For example, an REBT therapist might work with Tom to recognize when he is prematurely getting swept up in negative thoughts by teaching him to practice mindful awareness. That is, the therapist can teach Tom to ‘catch himself’ having premature reactions to thoughts before a strong emotional response (c) sets in.
Doing so would serve to rectify the activating event (a) and hopefully spare Tom much unnecessary misery.
Cognitive Restructuring for False or Self-Limiting Beliefs
False and self-limiting beliefs often fall under the umbrella of cognitive distortions tackled via cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
Among these distortions are the acts of disqualifying positive events, overgeneralizing, and mind reading.
To tackle these, CBT therapists will draw on a range of techniques that facilitate cognitive restructuring (or cognitive reframing). These approaches form a core part of many CBT approaches that consider and amend how we attend, interpret, reason, reflect, and make sense of events (Mansell, 2008).
There are many different cognitive restructuring techniques, which you can read more about in our dedicated article. Here, we will consider one technique particularly relevant to addressing false and self-limiting beliefs—namely, Socratic questioning.
Socratic questioning of beliefs
Socratic questioning involves asking ourselves a series of focused, open-ended questions that encourage us to reflect on our thoughts (Clark & Egan, 2015). By doing this, we challenge black-and-white thinking and ensure that our thoughts are based on sound logic before allowing them to dictate our emotions and behaviors.
Examples of effective Socratic questions include:
- What is the evidence for this thought?
- Could I be making any assumptions here?
- Is this thought based on an emotional reaction or the evidence in front of me?
To illustrate the effectiveness of Socratic questioning, let’s return to the example of Haylee in the bar.
In this situation, Haylee might catch herself having doubts about her appearance and begin reflecting on them critically. For instance, she might pause to ask herself whether her judgments about her appearance are really accurate. In doing so, she might consider the evidence for and against and recall her friends telling her how nice she looks.
She might also stop to consider whether she is making preconceived assumptions about the man’s preferences, what his impression of her will be, or whether his opinion of her is even that important.
Turning to Tom and his report, he might pause to ask whether there is really any evidence that he is underperforming at this job and produced poor work or whether this is an assumption based on an emotional reaction.
Most CBT therapists will be skilled at Socratic questioning and can teach this technique to their clients struggling with false or self-limiting beliefs.
Schema Therapy for False or Self-Limiting Beliefs
When false or self-limiting beliefs are deep and difficult to change, clients may benefit from undergoing schema therapy.
Schema therapy works to address early maladaptive schemas, which are defined as stable and enduring themes that develop during childhood and/or adolescence and are elaborated throughout one’s lifetime (Schema Therapy Institute Australia, 2016).
These schemas are considered even more ingrained than the cognitive distortions treated with CBT, as they are deep, unconditional beliefs about oneself and relationship to others and the environment. Given how enduring schemas are, this form of therapy tends to be medium- to long-term in duration (Schema Therapy Institute Australia, 2016).
As noted in our discussion of Type B beliefs, deeply ingrained ideas about our self-esteem and self-image may be responsible for false or self-limiting beliefs in specific situations. Therefore, schema therapy helps clients to access and revise these deeply held schemas.
Examples of such schemas include (Young & Brown, 2005):
Subjugation — the belief that you must submit to others’ control or else risk punishment.
Punitiveness — the belief that you and others should be punished harshly for their mistakes.
Failure — the deeply held expectation that you will fail or never perform well enough.
If we return to the examples of Tom and Haylee, Tom’s immediate assumption that his report was not up to scratch may have derived from a long-standing schema of failure. This schema may have been established based on the harsh feedback he received from a cruel teacher growing up.
Regarding Haylee, her unwillingness to approach the man at the bar may stem from the schema of defectiveness, which is the belief that you are flawed, damaged, or unlovable and will thereby be rejected. Again, this schema may have been established due to the comparisons made between her and her sister by her parents.
Schema therapists will apply a range of techniques to help clients overcome maladaptive schemas, which can help reduce the root cause of self-limiting beliefs. These Schema Therapy techniques can include empathic confrontation and limited re-parenting, just to name a few.
Top 3 TED Talk Videos
Here are three of our favorite videos that explore the science and psychology of false and self-limiting beliefs.
How to change your limiting beliefs for more success
In this talk, Dr. Irum Tahir explores how potentially unhelpful beliefs developed during childhood may linger in our subconscious mind and affect our emotions and behaviors.
Importantly, Tahir explains how to access these subconscious thoughts, change them, and create a better, more fulfilling life.
Eliminating limiting beliefs
In this brief TED Talk, student Taj Pabari explores how he “rewrote the rules” established by his internal scripts to reach his goals and embark on an entrepreneurial journey at age fifteen.
Healing your negative core beliefs
In this video, author and depression counselor Douglas Bloch explains how the beliefs we’ve taken on during childhood and continue to reinforce in our thinking can lead to ill mental health later in life.
By the end of this video, you’ll understand how to replace negative beliefs with a set of more empowering beliefs about yourself, others, and the world.
A Take-Home Message
Whether we realize it or not, we all take on unconscious beliefs about what we can and cannot achieve in our lives. These beliefs risk preventing us from overcoming obstacles or limiting the amount of happiness we can expect from life.
As you’ve now discovered, there is thankfully a range of well-established psychological approaches to combating self-limiting beliefs. These can help us whether our beliefs lie at the surface or are deeply ingrained in our sense of self.
Most importantly, remember that it is never too late to rewrite our beliefs to be more empowering, thereby clearing a path toward the achievement of our greatest goals.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
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- McAdams, T. A., Rijsdijk, F. V., Narusyte, J., Ganiban, J. M., Reiss, D., Spotts, E., … & Eley, T. C. (2017). Associations between the parent–child relationship and adolescent self-worth: a genetically informed study of twin parents and their adolescent children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 58(1), 46-54.
- Powers, J. H. (2008). Adapting rational arguments to the psychology of audiences. In J. H. Powers (Ed.), Public speaking: The lively art (pp. 1-13). New York, NY: HarperCollins College Publishers
- Rokeach, M. (1968). Beliefs, attitudes, and values. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Schema Therapy Institute Australia. (2016). Schema therapy. Retrieved from https://www.schematherapyaustralia.com.au/schema-therapy/
- Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Viking Press.
- Young, J. E., & Brown, G. (2005). Young Schema Questionnaire-Short Form; Version 3 (YSQ-S3, YSQ) [Database record]. APA PsycTests.