Need to know
Have you ever decided not to go for that job promotion because you believe you’re not qualified enough? Or avoided asking a neighbour for help because you feel you’d be a nuisance? Or taken your failure to get what you wanted as confirmation that, yes, your hunch that it was never going to work out was obviously correct? Yep, me too. Pessimistic beliefs like these are common, and they hold you back more than you realise. Perhaps it’s never occurred to you that it’s possible to change these attitudes, let alone how you might go about it. Perhaps you wouldn’t even want to change them even if you could – after all, who wants to be that person who is arrogant enough to think they’re definitely in with a shot for that promotion despite being underqualified, or who doesn’t think twice about making demands on their neighbours, or who approaches their goals with an unwavering confidence in their likelihood of success?
Philosophy and coaching are a perfect – and underexplored – partnership. Doing philosophy involves identifying and challenging hidden assumptions, using analogies to reveal double standards, and exposing dodgy reasoning: all things that are helpful to coaching clients who are burdened with beliefs that get in the way of their success, who are compassionate to everyone but themselves, and who overlook their own errors in reasoning because they are too busy criticising themselves. Often, too, the thoughts of philosophers – including René Descartes and the other thinkers that I’m going to mention here – find fresh application in providing a helpful new perspective on the difficulties that many of us face every day.
First, find your limiting beliefs
In fact, you can and should change the beliefs that hold you back. Doing so will make your life go better. First, though, you’ve got to find these beliefs. That’s more difficult than it sounds. Often, the beliefs that hold us back are so much a part of who we are that we don’t realise we have them. We don’t realise how they’re shaping the way we perceive the world. We think we’re viewing things objectively when we’re not. What one person views as a job for which she’s underqualified and therefore should not apply, another views as an opportunity that it would be daft not to go for – because, who knows, it might all work out.
When it comes to finding and digging up problematic foundational beliefs, dusting them off, and holding them up to the light for a closer look, philosophers are old hands. It’s at the core of what we do. This process is vividly illustrated in the writing of Descartes, the 17th-century French philosopher. In his essay Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), it occurs to him that everything he knows might turn out to be false, since it’s based on information that initially came to him through his senses, and our senses can sometimes deceive us. He set about rejecting absolutely everything he thought he knew, with the aim of allowing back in only those beliefs that he could be absolutely certain are not mistaken. Eventually – and famously – he arrives at one undeniable truth: that he exists. ‘I think, therefore I am’ expresses Descartes’s observation that, as long as he has thoughts, he can be sure that he exists.
You don’t need to throw away everything you believe, Descartes-style. But you could benefit greatly from taking an audit of your most deeply held beliefs. It’s only fairly recently that I’ve realised just how important and potentially life-changing this can be. I’ve been a philosopher for (almost) my entire career, and a couple of years ago I started using my philosophical skills and training to coach people to overcome their difficulties. What sort of difficulties? There are many, of course, but something I encounter again and again in my coaching clients, who are invariably smart and switched-on people, is a bewilderment about how to get to where they want to be. They just can’t see a path to that job, that career, that family life they’d like, given their current commitments and situation.
Now, many of the obstacles in their paths are structural and result from factors beyond their control; factors like sexism, racism and other forms of inequality that make it harder for some people but not others to succeed. It’s harmful to overlook these external obstacles while offering advice for success, as Ephrat Livni argued in her Quartz article ‘All Career Advice for Women Is a Form of Gaslighting’ (2018). But some of the obstacles to our success are ones we’ve put there ourselves, often without even realising. Digging into my coaching clients’ most deeply held tenets has often unearthed beliefs that the clients themselves recognise as ridiculous, even while continuing to be influenced by them. Common examples of such beliefs include I’m not entitled to rest unless I’ve been productive and If I can’t do something without asking for help, I’m incompetent – as well as the one I hinted at in the opening paragraph: Taking a more positive view of myself would make me unbearably arrogant.
Perhaps, reading this, you’re reflecting on what your own limiting beliefs might be. How do you find out how to change them once you’ve found them, and what can you expect to happen if you do?
Think it through
Accept that you view the world through a filter
None of us perceives the world as it ‘really is’. The 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant distinguished between noumena (things-in-themselves) and phenomena (things as they appear to observers). We can never know noumena, according to Kant; we can know only phenomena. And what we perceive when we perceive phenomena is as much about us, and the spin we put on reality and our interaction with it, as it is about the world itself. To put it somewhat clumsily: the idea is that, when you look at the screen on which you’re reading this essay, what you’re seeing is more about you and your relationship to what you’re looking at than it is about the world as it ‘really is’. This distinction between the world we perceive and the world in itself underpins the entire sub-field of philosophy known as phenomenology. Kant had his own thoughts about what it is about us that determines the particular spin we put on reality – but we needn’t get into that. Our lesson here can be: we view the world through a filter. That filter comprises our deeply held beliefs, among other things. And once we recognise this – even before we’ve reached the stage of identifying these reality-shaping beliefs, let alone trying to change them – we open up the possibility of using a different filter to view the world, and the question of how different the world might look if we did.
Slow down and articulate it
My graduate supervisor, the late professor of philosophy Hugh Mellor, used to say to me: ‘You don’t understand something until you’ve written it down.’ This is as true in coaching as it is in philosophy. Our ideas – including those we find most compelling – often come to us only semi-formed, and this can disguise their flaws. Simply articulating these beliefs enables us to understand them better, and sometimes reveals that they are just bonkers. (You might have had the experience of articulating an idea to someone and then saying: ‘Now that I’ve said it out loud, I realise how ridiculous it is!’) This is true in spades of our limiting beliefs. The problem is that we often shy away from articulating these beliefs, perhaps because they make us feel uncomfortable. Being brave and looking directly at them is worth it, though.
One recent client of mine, who felt that it would be lazy and selfish of her to spend 20 minutes a day relaxing with a novel, found herself unable to come up with any satisfactory way of articulating this feeling when I pressed her. She tried out and rejected Resting for 20 minutes is selfish and I should be able to work all the time without a break, both of which statements – though clearly expressed – she found implausible. She realised that her discomfort with resting was ‘just a feeling’, unsupported by any convincing claim. Another client felt that she wasn’t getting enough done in the course of the day, but when asked to list all the things she thought she should be doing, she realised that there weren’t enough hours in the day for even half of them.
So next time you find that you’re reluctant to do something that would make your life easier, ask yourself why. How do you complete the sentence that begins: ‘Because …’? Journal your reluctance. Explain it to a friend. Imagine you’re making a case for your opposition to the activity in question. Does your explanation make sense? If not, perhaps it’s time to throw out that belief, Descartes-style.
Try a different filter
If you’ve dug deep into your reluctance and uncovered some of your limiting, filtering beliefs, take a pause and congratulate yourself. This process can be really uncomfortable; after all, you’re pushing against some of the fundamental ways that you relate to the world and the people in it, and that can be really unsettling. So unsettling, in fact, that when we encounter evidence against these beliefs, we often prefer to dispute or dismiss that evidence than to give up our more fundamental beliefs. I’ve seen this in coaching sessions: one client insisted that he was much less smart than his peers, and when I asked him about the feedback he receives from his supervisor, he admitted that the feedback is positive but waved it aside with: ‘But she’s not saying that because it’s true, she’s saying it to try to motivate me.’
This client, finding that his belief in his own shortcomings conflicted with his supervisor’s encouraging feedback, chose to believe his supervisor to be insincere in order to preserve his negative attitude towards himself. It’s surprisingly easy to do this. The 20th-century American philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine argued that our beliefs don’t stand or fall depending on some objective test of their veracity; they stand or fall depending on how well they cohere with our other beliefs – and, when our beliefs conflict, it’s not always clear which we should reject, and which (if any) we should keep. To express this in our ‘filtering reality’ terminology: let go of any expectation that there is a ‘correct’ way to filter reality. In Quinean terms, there is no one right way to do it. There are just more and less useful, internally coherent filters.
Since it’s so uncomfortable to reject even our negative fundamental beliefs, I’m not going to ask you to do that yet. Instead, try something gentler. Just for fun, ask yourself how the choices you make might be different if your fundamental beliefs were different. In the case of my client, I asked him to imagine what it might be like if, instead of believing that he’s not very smart, he believed that he was just as smart as his peers. How might his attitude to his work be different? What new things might he be emboldened to try? He came up with plenty of ideas – apply for this job, ask to collaborate with that colleague – that were previously off-limits. In doing so, he gained insight into some of the ways that his beliefs about himself were affecting his choices, and how different beliefs might open up new opportunities.
It’s easy to underestimate the significance of such a shift in perspective. Changing our fundamental beliefs can radically change the way in which we view the world – so radically, in fact, that the 20th-century American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn used the word ‘revolution’ to describe the replacement of one set of fundamental beliefs with another when it occurs in science. Such revolutions – for example, the replacement of Newtonian mechanics with Albert Einstein’s relativistic view in physics – can be very unsettling, as Kuhn explained in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962):
[D]uring revolutions, scientists see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before. It is rather as if the professional community had been suddenly transported to another planet where familiar objects are seen in a different light and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well.
Scientific revolutions, while unsettling, are important for scientific progress; similarly, overhauling your own fundamental beliefs, while unsettling, can be important for personal growth. Be brave and try it. I’m going to bet that, once you start, you’ll become aware of reasons to believe that there might be something to these alternative beliefs, after all. Don’t expect to change your long-established limiting beliefs in an instant, though. Merely recognising that you’re viewing the world through one of many possible filters is important progress at this stage.
Reject double standards
Often, we believe things about ourselves and our choices and opportunities that we would never dream of believing about other people. That makes thinking about the advice we’d give to friends, relatives, people we’re mentoring (and so on) a useful way to assess whether we’re believing sensible things about ourselves. Let’s return to your reluctance to ask a neighbour for help. If a friend of yours was considering asking a neighbour for help, would you advise them against doing so? I’m guessing not – at least, not unless there’s a history of hostility between them and their neighbours, or some other good reason for caution. The sorts of beliefs you use to justify your own reluctance to ask your neighbours for help – Because people don’t like to help their neighbours, and so on – would likely strike you as absurd if you thought of applying them to a friend.
Likewise, without good reason, you wouldn’t advise a friend not to go for that promotion; and you wouldn’t respond to their failure in some area by saying: ‘See? I told you it was never going to work out!’ If you were to treat your friends like that, you wouldn’t have friends for very much longer. These are unsupportive and even downright abusive things to say to people. But you’re a person too. If there’s something you wouldn’t say to a friend, then you shouldn’t be saying it to yourself either. Why not? Well, there are (ethical, social, etiquette and so on) norms that govern our behaviour towards people. Examples include: Do not steal; Say thank you when someone shows you consideration; Don’t question new acquaintances about their sex lives. These norms are not exceptionless – it’s OK to steal medical supplies to save a life if there’s no other way to obtain them, for example – but, exceptional circumstances aside, we take them to apply to everyone equally. So, Do not steal means ‘Do not steal from anyone’; not merely ‘Do not steal from people you like’ or ‘Do not steal unless you’re in a bad mood.’
Put this way, there is no justification for not applying the same norms to your interactions with yourself as you apply to your interactions with other people. If you think it’s important to avoid using hurtful language when speaking to other people, then avoid it when speaking to yourself; if you don’t think it’s appropriate to assume that people view your best friend as a nuisance, then don’t assume that people view you as a nuisance; and so on.
Accept that you’re not a rational robot
A word of caution, though. Don’t expect too much of yourself. In particular, recognise that none of us are powerhouses of rationality. It’s possible to recognise that we hold a belief that we know to be false, or even preposterous, yet still be influenced by it. In fact, this is extremely common. The 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that we have no good reason to hold many of our most fundamental beliefs – including, notoriously, our belief in causation – and yet we continue to find them persuasive anyway. In A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), he wrote: ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.’
Plenty of what we believe seems not to make sense. As you uncover your limiting beliefs, you might find yourself saying apparently nonsensical things like: My neighbour has offered to help me, but I still feel like I’d be a burden if I were to ask for help. This happens because the beliefs that we hold about ourselves are as much about feelings as they are about facts – and feelings don’t change overnight. The heart takes a while to catch up with the head, which can be frustrating, and can lead us to criticise ourselves even more harshly. Resist that temptation. To help you, I have a podcast episode that deals with this. In some cases, changing our fundamental beliefs requires us to change our character traits – for example, we might need to learn to be less self-reliant and more open to accepting help from others – and that takes time and practice. Aristotle wrote about the process of developing the right character traits, or virtues, and he recognised that this could take years of work, supported by immersing oneself in the right sort of community and following the right sort of role models. The key here is to be patient with yourself. Accept what you uncover about yourself. Feelings do change, with time.
Key points – How to change your self-limiting beliefs
- First, find your limiting beliefs. You almost certainly hold beliefs that stand in the way of your happiness and success, but don’t expect it to be obvious what they are. They’re often so much a part of us that we don’t see them. Open your mind to discovering and challenging beliefs that you don’t yet realise you hold.
- Accept that you view the world through a filter. We don’t see things ‘as they really are’. Our reality is shaped by what we believe. Getting comfortable with this idea helps open up the possibility of changing the filter that we place on reality.
- Slow down and articulate it. The beliefs that hold us back often aren’t fully formed, and that prevents us from understanding and challenging them. Practise articulating your reluctance to make choices that would help you move forward. If you feel guilty about taking a break, or if you’re convinced that you’re lazy or not very smart – why, exactly? Write it down clearly. Explain it to a friend. Does it still make sense?
- Try a different filter. If you can’t bring yourself to reject your limiting beliefs outright, perhaps you can practise imagining what it would be like if you had different, more positive beliefs. How would you live differently if you believed that you were smart, after all? Thinking this through helps show how your beliefs are standing in your way, and how things would be different without them.
- Reject double standards. Those negative things that you say to yourself: would you say them to another person? If not, there is no justification for saying them to yourself.
- Accept that you’re not a rational robot. Our emotions change more slowly than our beliefs. Expect to feel the influence of your limiting beliefs even after, rationally, you’ve accepted that they’re false. That will change eventually.
Why it matters
What can you expect to happen if you follow the advice I’ve offered here, and set about identifying and rejecting the beliefs that are holding you back? Let’s answer this by way of a thought experiment. Imagine that someone you know is in a toxic relationship. They live with a person who constantly says to them the sorts of things you say to yourself: You’ll fail at this and You’re not good enough for that. Can you imagine that friend of yours reaching their full potential in those circumstances? I doubt it. Those sorts of remarks wear us down and undermine our confidence and motivation. Any success in those circumstances would be hard-won.
But now imagine your friend cutting out that toxic person from their life and becoming involved with a more loving, respectful person who believes in them, encourages them, and reminds them constantly that things might just work out. What would you expect to happen to your friend as a result? I’m going to guess that you’d expect, over time, to see your friend regain their confidence and become bolder and more ambitious in making positive changes in their life. You’d expect to see your friend blossom. You can expect to see yourself blossom, too, if you work on replacing the beliefs that hold you back with ones that drive you forward. Beliefs that hold you back can be like people who hold you back. Once they’re gone from your life, new perspectives open up.
Links & books
I’ve explored some of the issues mentioned in this article in greater depth in my podcast The Academic Imperfectionist. For example, I’ve explained how Kant’s philosophy can help us change the ‘filter’ through which we see the world in episode No 14: ‘Become Your Own Biggest Advocate, with Immanuel Kant’ (2021); I’ve taken a deep dive into self-sabotage in episode No 18: ‘There Is No Such Thing as Self-sabotage’ (2021); and I’ve talked about how to keep rejection in perspective in episode No 30: ‘Rejection Stings Less When You Channel Your Inner Toddler’ (2022).
If the idea of treating yourself with the same sort of consideration and respect that you extend to others seems new and strange, I encourage you to check out the American psychologist Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion. Visit her website where you can watch her TEDx talk ‘The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion’ (2013), explore the research in this area, and access some resources to help you improve your self-compassion.
The beliefs that we hold about ourselves are part of what makes up the ‘mindsets’ with which we approach various areas of our lives. The extent to which our mindsets influence our health, success and happiness is – frankly – astonishing. The American psychologist Alia Crum has produced a lot of exciting research in this area. You can watch her TEDx talk ‘Change Your Mindset, Change the Game’ (2014), and for a lengthier discussion I really enjoyed her interview this year on the Huberman Lab Podcast.