I can’t …

trimline style phone on floor carpet, handset sitting next to phone base

I sat on the floor in the living room, staring at the phone. A traditional one, with a handset, coiled cord, pushbuttons for dialing and a long cord connecting it to the wall. The floor was strewn with papers. Résumés, job listings, lists of places to call or check in with. It was 1980-something and I was job searching.

I’d sent out a boatload of résumés with carefully typed cover letters. Now I needed to call one of the places, a TV station, to follow up. And I just sat there.

I’d reach for the phone, pick up the handset, start to dial. Then hang up again. Ponder. Wait. Repeat. Pick up. Wait. Hang up. You get the idea.

This went on forever. Okay, probably was about an hour. I think I eventually convinced myself that it was too late in the day to call and I’d make the call tomorrow.

Slowly I gathered up the papers and cleared off the floor.

What had just happened? I didn’t make that call I knew I should make, needed to make, because I was afraid. I was afraid the unseen person on the other end would reject me.

“Hi, I’m calling about the position as …”

“No phone calls.”
“And it’s been filled.”
“Plus you’re not qualified anyway.”

I had a limiting belief that if I called a prospective employer, they’d reject me for any number of more or less imaginary reasons. So to prevent rejection (which none of us want), it seemed safer not to call at all.

That was a long time ago. I didn’t know what to call what happened there at the time.

Much later I learned about limiting beliefs. We all have them. Some have many, some fewer. All have at least a few places where those limiting beliefs kick in.

A limiting belief is anything we believe or tell ourselves that keeps us from doing something we could or should do or from even trying.

Some limiting beliefs may have a rational basis from a past negative experience. Others have no real basis at all. Or the basis is long gone and the belief now is totally irrelevant, but still there in front of us.

It’s common among people in the creative fields to feel like an impostor or a fraud. “I’m not as good as Picasso. So I must not be an artist at all.” Or “my cartoons aren’t seen by as many people as Bloom County. Therefore I’m a fraud if I claim to be a cartoonist.”

A TV producer, who has delivered a string of solid, good programs, still worries when the next is to premiere, because “You’re only as good as your last show.”

On a more personal level, I repeatedly started (and then quit) exercising for years. I’d try to get out and walk every day. But I also told myself, “I can’t fit it into my schedule.” “I’m too busy today.” I limited myself.

It took several things coming together to challenge those limiting beliefs: I did a bunch of video shoots where I moved a lot each day. My new phone tracked how much I walked. I went on a 2 week trip to several cities, and walked a lot on that trip, frequently carrying my backpack.

I realized that I’d easily walked miles with my backpack and other days covered 5-6 miles without even feeling like I was exercising. Just walking around a city with a friend.

That made it so much easier to decide to start walking every day. First a mile. That was simple. Then I gradually increased and noticed that I felt better. And lost weight. But most importantly, all the things I’d told myself about regular exercise for years: I’d just proved them wrong. All of them. I wasn’t defined by those limiting beliefs!

I told you about sitting there staring down a telephone when I should have made phone calls to get a job. Just because I believed I’d get rejected. Limiting belief.

Many years later I was a missionary who raised financial support for over 10 years. That very much involved phone calls. Sometimes to set up face-to-face meetings where I’d ask the other person to support my work. Just as often to connect with people I’d never met in person, to ask them for support over the phone.

Did my limiting beliefs about making phone calls and dealing with the inevitable rejection just go away overnight? No. However, as I made more calls, I also saw that while there is some rejection involved, another way to look at it is that every “no” brings you closer to a “yes”.

It helped that I tracked how many times I dialed the phone, how many people I talked to, what their responses were and some celebration when there was new support coming in. I also discovered that while a few people told me “no” because they rejected me, that was the odd, rare case. Mostly the “no” was for reasons that had nothing to do with me. Anyone else asking the same question at the same time would also have gotten a “no.”

Sometimes life seems full of limiting beliefs. In so many areas. Work. Social connections. Family. Friends. Personal. But we don’t have to be stuck in them.

Since we can’t change what we don’t know, the first step to overcoming limiting beliefs is to verbalize them. Recognize them for what they are. Then we can also see that there is another side of the coin.

Try this: On a sheet of paper, make 2 columns. On the left, list limiting beliefs you have. Then in the right column, list the empowering truth (the other side of the coin). (Thanks for Michael Hyatt for this approach.)

Limiting belief worksheet filled in: Limiting belief: I’m stuck and can’t lose more weight. Empowering truth: I did lose 33lbs and have kept it off. Yay! I just need to 								tweak what I’m doing to keep going. - Limiting belief: I can’t be an author. Empowering truth: I have a solid book idea. I’m a blogger. I write web and technical copy regularly. I’m doing the work. Results will come in time.

Download the limited belief worksheet here.

The goal of course is to see whatever the issue is from a different perspective, one that better reflects reality. And then to take action based on the empowering truth, rather than the old limiting belief.

Other limiting beliefs will take more work to overcome or unravel. We may need the perspective of a friend or counselor who can help us reframe and find the path forward. This is especially true if it’s a limiting belief that we’ve held for a long time where it’s so engrained in who we are that we will need lots of help to change.

Some will take trial and error. When I thought I couldn’t walk regularly every day, it took getting to where I saw that it was possible for me to start doing it (and finding the time for it). From the “accidental start” I continued with something entirely doable for me: 1 mile per day. Because overcoming the limiting belief that I couldn’t do it at all was far more important than setting some amazing record. Small steps.

Only a month or so later, I asked myself what would happen if I tried for 2 miles a day. And a few months later, I upped it again. Now I will regularly walk to the bank or post office, rather than take the car (and log 5 miles in the process).

Limiting beliefs are limiting because we allow them to hold us back. Breaking out of that won’t come without resistance, but it’s possible. And totally worth it, because we can move forward, more aligned with who we truly are.

What’s a limiting belief (or two) that’s holding you back from something you could or should do? Maybe even really want to do! What’s the empowering truth you can replace it with?