When I was in first grade, I did a finger painting project to create a picture of an apple tree. My classmates and I would dip our thumbs in red paint to place an “apple” on a pre-drawn tree on a sheet of paper. At the end, the pictures would all hang up in the classroom, like some kind of cartoon orchard.
For whatever reason, I wanted my apples to be in perfectly neat rows. (My early attempt at modern art, perhaps.) As I was finishing my painting, my teacher came over, looked at what I was doing, and shook her head. “Apples don’t grow in straight lines,” she said. Then she took my paper and gave me a new one so that I could make my apples more random — you know, just like what everyone else was doing.
I remember being rightfully annoyed with my teacher. After all, it was a finger painting, not a still life! Unfortunately, this isn’t a unique situation in early childhood education, and this kind of “correction” can be devastating for a young artist.
In their book Creative Confidence, David and Tom Kelley explain the story of a childhood friend of theirs who was making a clay sculpture of a horse one day in grade school. Then a classmate of his looked at the sculpture and said it looked nothing like a horse. Dejected, the boy put away the clay and avoided making anything after that.
The authors write:
“When a child loses confidence in his or her creativity, the impact can be profound. People start to separate the world into those who are creative and those who are not. They come to see these categories as fixed, forgetting that they too once loved to draw and tell imaginative stories. Too often they opt out of being creative.”David and Tom Kelley, Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All
Even though my finger painting scenario was pretty ridiculous, the moment stuck with me for years. I later wondered: Was there a “right” way to make art? Can you fail at being creative? And is it safer to just go along with the crowd than do your own thing? (Answers: no, no, and no!)
Maybe you’ve experienced this kind of creative rejection, too. So often, we let these things — comments others have made, worries about whether what we’re doing is “right” — get in the way of our creativity. This manifests itself as an inner critic that likes to tell us that we simply can’t do what we want to do or make what we want to make.
This week, we’re going to examine these old beliefs holding us back — our limiting beliefs.
What are limiting beliefs?
A limiting belief is any story you tell yourself that holds you back (or limits you). These tend to be the negative thoughts we have on a regular basis. Your limiting beliefs might be that you’re either too much (e.g., too shy, too weird, too rebellious) or not enough (e.g., not good enough, not smart enough, not talented enough).
Sometimes these thoughts can stick around for years, or even decades. Take my story above, for instance. No, I’m not suggesting that I’m holding onto limiting beliefs based on grade school finger painting. Thankfully, I continued to make art and see myself as creative. Yet I couldn’t get over the idea of doing creativity “wrong” for a long time.
Later, I began to fixate on the topic of originality. I’d ask myself: Is what I’m doing different enough? Or will I inadvertently create something derivative? In this case, my limiting beliefs about writing would include things like: “My ideas aren’t original enough” or “Someone has already done what I want to do.”
Those thoughts would hold me back from creating anything at all because, I’d think, what’s the point in creating something if it’s been done before? I’ve since discovered that this is a useless thought. All stories that exist tend to have common threads (see also: the monomyth). And if you pay attention to the countless sequels and reboots that Hollywood churns out each year, you know that originality is hardly a barrier in making your voice heard.
How to let go of limiting beliefs
This is deep yet important work. But it’s also good to keep a sense of humor. Hence why I’ve added some hastily made It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia memes. Hey, if you’re going to dig into your worst thoughts about yourself, you might as well find something to laugh at, too.
On limiting beliefs: It’s perfectly normal for these thoughts to come up, so if you have them, you’re not alone. And if you’re just becoming aware of how pervasive they are, you’re not alone either. The first step in getting rid of limiting beliefs is to notice you’re even having them in the first place.
The following is a “ritual” of sorts for confronting limiting beliefs and releasing them to make way for something better. This process might be a bit too woo-woo for you, if you’re not used to this kind of work. But if you’re really looking to let go of the thoughts that have held you back, I recommend keeping an open mind and trying these five steps. Sit someplace quiet and give yourself plenty of time to move through the ritual.
Step 1: Think of your five to ten most persistent limiting beliefs and write them down on a single sheet of paper.
To come up with these, you might answer questions such as:
- What’s holding you back?
- What unpleasant thoughts about yourself do you keep repeating?
- What past criticism did others give you that you now tell yourself?
Those are pretty deep questions, but don’t feel like you have to dig through horrible pain. These limiting beliefs and supposed weaknesses may actually be nagging little thoughts that annoy you more than break your heart. Don’t pull your hair out trying to dissect them.
Step 2: Read these thoughts back to yourself and analyze them.
Take a step back and read what you’ve written. Do these thoughts feel good to think? Are they helpful in any way? Do you want to keep repeating these thoughts every time you make something? Most likely, the answers there are no, no, and no!
It’s easy to get thoughts like this stuck in a loop. And if you’re used to letting them run rampant every time they crop up, they’ll continue to stick around. If you’re really having trouble letting go of these negative thought patterns, try examining them using Byron Katie’s four questions from The Work:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react — what happens — when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
You probably know the answers to these already. It’s time to throw these limiting beliefs away.
Step 3: On a second sheet of paper, “flip” each limiting belief and write something positive in its place.
Next, flip each belief. For instance, for a thought like “My ideas aren’t original enough,” I can turn that around into something like “My ideas are original because they belong to me” or “I always find unique ways to express my ideas.”
If you find a thought that you can’t turn positive, then come up with a new and empowering statement instead. In other words, it doesn’t have to be an exact opposite. Consider what would feel good to tell yourself instead.
Having trouble deciding what to tell yourself instead? Try the character strengths assessment from the VIA Institute on Character. Your strengths may clue you in to the flip side of your negative self-talk.
Step 4: Read your lists aloud.
Start with your list of limiting beliefs. When you’re done reading these items aloud, tear that list right in half! Shred it into tiny pieces. If it feels good, light it on fire (outside or in a fire-safe dish — safety first!).
Then pick up your list of positive thoughts and strengths. Stand or sit in front of a mirror. Now read that second list out loud, starting each item with “I honor that ___” (e.g., “I honor that I always find unique ways to express my ideas.”).
Look yourself in the eyes as you say each one. Take all the time you need. Repeat it as necessary. Say them until you believe them, even if that takes a few sessions.
Step 5: Keep your list of new, positive beliefs and place it somewhere you will see it each day.
- Take a photo and set it as the background on your phone
- Hang the list on your fridge
- Place it on your desk or workspace
- Tape it into your day planner
Read them out loud or recite them in your head when you’re feeling anything less than the divine being you are.
Keep doing the “work”
Joking and memes aside: This is an ongoing process, especially for creatives! I wish I could say that doing this simple ritual once will cure you of your limiting beliefs. (And never say never: it could!) But most likely, you’ll need to come back to this type of exercise again and again to really clear it out. Use self-inquiry methods like The Work to examine any negative thoughts that come up and find places to flip them instead.
This is something I’ve worked on for years now. A few years ago, I was shy to the point where I never wanted to contribute to any kind of group discussion. I worried about sounding too ridiculous or stumbling over my words if I opened my mouth to speak. I’d convinced myself I was nothing more than an imposter in these situations, and I was better off keeping quiet than getting found out.
Eventually, I realized this was holding me back from stepping into my full potential. I knew that to see the changes in my career, my creativity, and my social life that I wanted, I had to stop telling myself I was too shy or not good enough. And so I began the long process of investigating and dismantling the limiting beliefs that had held me back for so long.
I know that if this transformation is possible for me, it’s possible for anyone! I love being able to help others step into their power. If you’re interested in delving into this process further, I have one-on-one consulting spots available for creatives of all kinds.
Get more articles like this in The Muse Manifesto, my digital magazine for anyone daring to live a creative life. Have your boldest and most creative year — get the issue for free here.