What are Limiting Beliefs? How to Move Past them for Greater Happiness

Greater happiness can come from relationship wellness, self-love, and self-care.

When it comes to self-love, I find aspects of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) to help move beyond limiting beliefs (which sabotage self-love, self-care, relationship wellness and therefore happiness).

CBT is a collaborative (counselor-client) therapeutic approach that has been shown to be effective in treating anxiety, depression, insomnia, and a variety of mental health issues. If you are looking for a more structured approach to therapy that changes thoughts, behaviors, and emotions in order to arrive at a positive outcome, CBT might be for you.

CBT suggests that there is a dynamic and inextricable relationship between our thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. CBT is based on three fundamental propositions, that:

  1. cognitive activity has an effect on behavior,
  2. cognitive behavior is something that we can observe and change, and
  3. cognitive change can be a catalyst for creating desired and positive behavior change.

Through interventions such as cognitive restructuring, goal setting, behavioral progress monitoring, and improved coping skills, CBT transforms our outlook by transforming our thoughts, behaviors, and feelings.

CBT helps us understand the Downward Spiral that leads to anxiety, depression, and the “dark nights of the soul”

Have you ever experienced a situation where you just seem to get sucked into a “downward spiral” of negativity?  Given the reciprocal relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behavior, any disruption in one of those elements can cause an escalation of impairment (or downward spiral) according to CBT.

For example, you might think about something that is particularly bothersome (thought), which then causes a “down” mood that affects your relationship with his friends, family, and peers (feeling). Negative thinking and the responses to others who can sense the “down” mood become a pattern of behavior that becomes a downward spiral.  UGH! How do we get out of this spiral? Read on, I’ll get to that after I explain a little more about how complex the thoughts/behaviors/feelings relationship can be.

Where things get a little more complex
Not all our thoughts are “at the surface” where we can access them, and therefore transform them. The work of Aaron Beck, the founder of CBT, identified these layers as:

  1. automatic thoughts,
  2. intermediate beliefs or attitudes and,
  3. schema.

Automatic thoughts are at the surface. We’ll talk more about them below, as these thoughts are more accessible to deal with.

Intermediate attitudes or beliefs are often described as conditional or “if-then” statements (“If I succeed in school, I am a good girl”). Intermediate attitudes or beliefs are closer to the surface of consciousness than schema but are still not as accessible, and modifiable, as the next layer of cognition: automatic thoughts.

Schema layers have more to do with early childhood experiences and what they have taught us about the way that the world works and how we fit into this world. Schema form as a result of critical incidents that shape our view of the world. Schema are not readily accessible or changeable.

CBT must work with automatic thoughts because they are more accessible
Automatic thoughts arise spontaneously and exist at the forefront of our consciousness. They spring up in reaction to our events and are highly evident in times of stress. CBT starts working on automatic thoughts to gain access to intermediate attitudes or beliefs with the goal of ultimately shifting a person’s schema.

Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions mess up the way we interact with the world.  I think of them as “programming bugs” in our mind that are running in the background. They include:
all-or-nothing thinking,
2. catastrophizing,
3. emotional reasoning,
4. magnification and minimization
5. selective abstraction,
6. mind reading,
7. negative prediction,
8. overgeneralization,
9. labeling and mislabeling, and
10. personalization

All-or-nothing thinking can be described as extreme thinking, or even binary thinking (good/bad, success/failure, perfect/disaster).

Catastrophizing has to do with the idea that reality is far worse than what it actually is. Emotional reasoning occurs when a person believes that something is true, regardless of any evidence to show that this conclusion is, in fact, true.

In magnification and minimalization, one of two things is happening for the person: 1) a person over-exaggerates an experience or event or minimizes it.

Selective distraction occurs when a person pulls out a negative aspect while ignoring the positive in order to support a conclusion that is negative.

Mind reading has to do with the erroneous assumption that we know what other people are thinking, leading us to take things personally.

Negative prediction is when we assume a detrimental outcome to a situation. Overgeneralization occurs when an individual creates an assumed outcome based on only a few (negative) events.

Labeling and mislabeling is related to overgeneralization in that a person might make a statement and take on a false identify such as “I’m a failure” over a simple series of errors or mistakes.

Finally, personalization is an important cognitive distortion recently highlighted in popular self-help literature by the author Don Miguel Ruiz in his bookThe Four Agreements. Ruiz includes as one of the four agreements Don’t Take Anything Personally which is very much related to personalization in that this cognitive distortion involves the person interpreting all events around her as related to her (“This child is having a tantrum because kids don’t like me and always act out around me”).  

CBT ultimately hopes to work with Schema and how to re-organize them

Schema are created early in life through critical incidents, caregivers such as parents, guardians, siblings and other individuals playing a role in a child’s development.

Two of the more problematic schema that can arise due to critical incidents include incompetence and unlovability. A schema of incompetence can show up as inadequacy (“I am not enough”), powerlessness (“I am weak”), inferiority (“I am flawed”), ineffectiveness (“I can never do anything right”), or vulnerability (“I am not taken care of”). A schema of unlovability can appear as feeling unattractive (“I am ugly”), undesirable (“No one likes/loves me”), alone (“I have no one to turn to”), unwanted (“No one wants me around”), and uncared for (“I’m not worth being taken care of”). There are in fact many possible different maladaptive schemas, and we don’t have time to go into detail about this deep cognitive awareness in this article. Just know that there are “programs running underneath”, and know that you job as a human being is to get to know your automatic thoughts better, in order to become familiar with your immediate beliefs, to utimately know and potentially modify your schema.

How to Move Past Limiting Beliefs for Greater Happiness- Three Techniques

Technique #1: Get into the habit of questioning your thoughts. Automatic thoughts can be examined through CBT’s Socratic Dialogue, or Guided Discovery, which is a series of questions you can ask yourself to assist in changing maladaptive beliefs through a three-question technique. The three questions asked in CBT’s Socratic Dialogue are:

-What is the evidence for the belief?
-How else can you interpret the situation? and,
-If it is true, what are the implications?)

Has anyone read the work of Byron Katie? These questions are strikingly similar to the four questions asked by her in the self-help book A Mind at Home with Itself: How Asking Four Questions Can Free Your Mind, Open Your Heart, and Turn Your World Around. Her four questions are:

 -Is it true?
-Can you absolutely know it’s true?
-How do you react—what happens—when you believe that thought?
-Who would you be without the thought?)

Technique #2:  Write it Down- and notice the relationship between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Start with goal setting and tracking as early in the process as possible. Notice emotions, then label, track, and manage emotions. Specifically, build an emotional vocabulary through the process of taking notes in everyday experiences when emotions might arise (e.g, movies, television, family gatherings, etc.) to create a rich and broad set of words around emotions.  Track emotions using a “feelings or thought log” as part of his homework.

Technique #3: Get into the subconscious through EFT work, brainspotting or affirmations. Affirmations are something you can do to work on both cognitive distortions as well as beliefs at the intermediate or schema level. An example might be, if you are working on getting over being a workaholic (a behavior) something along the lines of:

“I am so happy to experience extreme joy in the nondoing. I am valuable because I exist, because I breathe. I don’t have to do anything to provide value to the world. I just need to be me.”

EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) can be done with a trained practitioner, or you can do some research on the technique yourself and work in tapping into your self-care routine. This interview I did with EFT expert Deb Finch is a great place for you to start.

Brainspotting is a brain/body technique that allows you to access the deeper levels of your brain (your emotional brain) in order to heal and release negative patterns.  You can learn more at www.brainspotting.com, which includes a helpful directory of practitioners. On my podcast, Mountain Mantras, I have extensive interviews about Brainspotting. 

The most important step in overcoming limiting beliefs in order to experience greater happiness is to become aware. The fact that you are reading this post is a great sign that awareness has begun. Reach out for help and/or keep doing research (this links to one of the most extensive articles I’ve found on limiting beliefs) in order to live the life of your dreams, unencumbered.


Share this Post!

Sign up to receive Kathryn's monthly newsletter
and get the latest news and exclusive resources.

Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.