Of course a full-grown circus elephant can pull that stake out of the ground and free herself with hardly any effort. But not if she’s been conditioned since birth to believe that same rope and stake are strong enough to hold her in place.

The same thing is true for our careers when it comes to allowing limiting beliefs to hold us back from achieving our bigger aspirations.

But where we differ from the elephant is this: instead of remaining fixed in place by perceived limits, you have the power to move beyond your limiting beliefs to have the greater success you want and deserve.

Here are three steps I’ve found helpful for changing limiting beliefs so they no longer hold you back:

  1. Identify
  2. Acknowledge
  3. Replace

Let’s start with step 1, which is to identify your limiting beliefs.

Some beliefs are so ingrained we don’t even realize we have them

When we’ve accepted them as norms, they have tremendous power to hold us back. Like “big boys don’t cry”, which can limit a man’s ability to express himself fully or acknowledge weakness later in his career.

To identify these hidden limiting beliefs, look at areas where you feel you’re struggling, like being unable to express your emotions, or never being satisfied with yourself.

Another way is to examine your thoughts and self-talk. These could be situations where you think, “I could never do that” where “that” might be give a speech or become a board member. Or sayings you repeat to yourself and live by, like “how you do anything is how you do everything” which can feed into perfectionist tendencies.

Your limiting beliefs could also be things others say to you regularly

For example, one of my clients is an accomplished executive, yet she still struggles to believe in herself. At the root of it is an IQ test at the age of 7 that showed she was solidly in “average” territory. With every accomplishment since then, her parents have said, “you’ve done well for someone with average IQ”. While they meant to compliment her, this regular reminder of her averageness has become a limiting belief.

Once you’ve identified your limiting beliefs, pick just one to work on. Don’t tackle them all at once.

Then you’re ready for the second step.

Acknowledging your limiting beliefs is a key part of neutralizing their impact

Your limiting thoughts and beliefs have been with you for a while and they’re unlikely to just go away on their own. If they were people, they might even think of themselves as friends or companions. In fact, they often come from a place of good intentions – like your prehistoric brain trying to protect you from risk and harm. Or friends and family who are trying to help.

So go ahead and give your limiting beliefs their proper attention. Greet them like the old friends that they’ve become, thank them for their appearance and reassure them that you’ve got the situation under control. Like a child who keeps saying your name until they get your attention, you need to acknowledge your limiting beliefs so they can go away satisfied that they’ve done their job.

To help you acknowledge your limiting beliefs, think about the role they’ve played in your life. How do they try to “help” you and keep you “safe”? How are they actually holding you back from your full potential? What language will you use the next time you notice your limiting beliefs getting in the way?

And this brings us to the third step.

What new thoughts and beliefs will replace the old limiting beliefs?

As the saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum. So having acknowledged your limiting beliefs and sent them on their way, you need to re-fill the space. Preferably with something affirmative, energizing and encouraging. These replacement thoughts and beliefs also need to be more accurate about who you truly are and the full array of opportunities ahead of you.

In my case, I needed help to formulate my new set of beliefs

Having spent decades telling myself everyone else was better than me no matter how much I accomplished, I was no longer sure what “accurate” sounded like. It was my husband who helped me come up with a “mantra” to say to myself every time that self-silencing limiting belief popped up. It was just four short sentences geared around, “I’m as good as any of them and better than most”.

So whether you do it on your own or enlist others to help, make sure you create powerful new beliefs to replace the ones that have been limiting you. Focus on the thoughts and beliefs that will open up possibilities for you rather than hold you back. Collect these ideas, write them down, practice them out loud and choose the ones that work best for you. Then, put the written version somewhere you can see every day.

But what if you’ve tried everything and nothing works?

If you’re still stuck with those same limiting beliefs and not making progress, one of three things could be at play. First, there could be a different underlying belief that you haven’t yet identified but is the root cause. And until you address that underlying belief, you won’t make progress.

For example, I thought my problems about speaking up were due to my limiting belief that others were more articulate than me. Yet the problem persisted even after I had presentation skills training. It was only when I dug deeper that I discovered my underlying belief that “I’m not as good as everyone else” was the real cause I had to address.

Second, you could be getting more of a payoff from your limiting belief than you realize, which keeps that belief firmly in place. For example, getting a lot more sympathy and attention when things aren’t going well for you than when you’re going strong.

Third, you might not have given it enough time. In which case, cut yourself some slack and stay with your efforts a little longer. In my case, I had to repeat my mantra out loud 50-100 times a day for the first three months to drum the old belief out of my head. And after that, it still took a couple of years before I didn’t need to reach for my mantra every day.

Which brings us to the mistake most people make.

And that’s the mistake of trying to go it alone

Change is hard, and it’s especially hard when it comes to deeply embedded limiting beliefs. The longer you’ve operated under your limiting beliefs, the more important it is to enlist help from others you trust. And the help can simply be someone who bears witness to your progress.

For example, a close friend was having doubts about his decision to go back to graduate school. It was his limiting belief that he wasn’t worth the investment causing the doubt. I was able to give him the independent reminder he needed of how excited he was when he got his acceptance letter. He may have to call again for reassurance before the semester starts, but he knows he won’t be going it alone.

So reach out to friends, family or even professionals. And don’t feel you have to take on those limiting beliefs on your own.

Your greatest opportunities lie just beyond your limiting beliefs

We all have limiting beliefs. The key is to move beyond them so they don’t stop you from fulfilling your potential. You can do that by identifying, acknowledging and replacing your limiting beliefs.

And when you look back, the limiting belief you’ve freed yourself from will seem just as small and powerless as the stake and rope that held the full-grown elephant.

So which step will you take to address the limiting beliefs that hold you back from your greater success?

Leave a comment and let me know.