Breaking news. Self-limiting thinking is very common and it can be changed!
What is self-limiting thinking?
First let’s clarify what I mean by self-limiting thinking. I’m referring to views or thoughts that don’t serve us well. It’s about thinking in a way that make it likely we’ll act or feel in way that is unproductive, sub-optimal or generally not great for us. A simple illustration of how this works in practice: If someone believes their ideas and suggestions are not as good as other people’s then they may hold back in group meetings and let others take the lead. There may be some truth in their thought that they’re no good at coming up with good ideas, in which case they may want to get better at doing this. But what about if they actually do have some useful and valuable points to contribute? This is where self-limiting thinking comes into play and can hold people back unnecessarily.
How common is it?
My experience of working with lots of talented and capable individuals suggests that the answer to this question is that self-limiting thinking is very common. The research findings I have come across in this area indicate that between 60 and 80% of the naturally occurring thoughts of a typical person are negative. So as humans it’s actually perfectly normal and usual for us to have negative or self-limiting thoughts. You may have heard the term negativity bias which is used to refer to this. And the reason why I’m sharing this information is because I’ve often found that this is news and that people assume that their negative mental chatter is unique to them. So let’s bust that myth right now: It’s perfectly common and usual for us humans to have spontaneously occurring negative, self-limiting thoughts. Even if we’re highly competent, capable and lovely people, we’re not immune. And the reason why I’m spelling this out is because I’ve often found that individuals don’t know this and think there’s something wrong with them if they have negative self-talk.
Spotting self-limiting thinking
So if you’re open to the idea that self-limiting is indeed widespread how can you spot it? Sometimes it’s obvious and easy to see but sometimes it’s more subtle. Here are some tell-tale signs I’ve noticed that tend to indicate the presence of self-limiting thinking. See if any of them look familiar.
being self-critical or having inner doubts about our abilities or our value or worth despite feedback or evidence to the contrary. This makes it more likely that we’re overlooked or hesitant in the face of opportunities
over-reacting to disappointments, challenges or criticism and finding it difficult to keep things in perspective. This often means our feelings or responses to people or situations are unnecessarily strong, which can be a problem for us or for others around us
being uncomfortable confronting issues directly with people for fear of how they’ll react. This is often linked to us putting off or avoiding difficult conversations or our communication being so gentle and indirect that an intended message isn’t heard
letting things get on top of us and feeling overwhelmed by the size or difficulty of a task or activity. Typically when we do this we over-estimate the level of challenge and then scare ourselves into avoiding getting started with something or giving up at the first sign of a set-back or difficulty
finding certain work activities difficult or stressful to a point where we actively avoid them. Common examples here include public speaking and networking or engaging with new people
If you’ve identified with any of the signs of self-limiting thinking listed above I have two messages for you. First, don’t panic, you’re in good company. As I said earlier it’s extremely common for our thinking to trip us up and hold us back. Second, the good news is that it is possible to change how we think and react to things. As a coaching psychologist I consider myself lucky to have the knowledge that our thinking shapes how we deal with things and that it is possible to re-programme negative thinking. But I’ve found that many individual professionals and managers assume that they are what we are and that they can’t change their mindset. Fortunately this simply isn’t true but if this has been your view until now then you have probably been missing out on a range of helpful things you could do to enhance your performance, wellbeing and prospects. Now you know the role that thinking plays in influencing feelings and reactions you have already taken one positive step towards getting your thinking under control. The topic of what’s involved in changing our thinking deserves more space than we have available here so it’s one I’ll return to in the future.
Here are a few suggested take-aways from this article
It’s normal and typical to have negative, self-limiting thoughts. But we’re often not aware that this is going on in the background of our minds. Even when we are aware that it’s happening we can be sceptical about the possibility of changing this or unsure about what to do. This scepticism or uncertainty stops us from our changing unwanted, unhelpful patterns of thinking and reacting
Practice noticing when you’re having silent conversations with yourself. Does your mental chatter tend to be positive and helpful or negative and unhelpful for you?
If you spot self-limiting thinking at work see if you can challenge it and balance the negative out with some positives. You can try doing this for yourself. You may also be able to help others by educating them about self-limiting thinking and working with them to get things into perspective
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