In the words of William James, “human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.” Sometimes in a coaching session, we discover the negative and limiting beliefs that are holding a client back from achieving their goals and must work with the client to challenge these beliefs. According to Barry Johnson and Mandy Geal, limiting beliefs are beliefs that “influence behavior and may impede or damage the believer’s ability to achieve what they want to achieve” (2005). Below we examine some examples of limiting beliefs, the negative consequences of these beliefs, and an exercise called the “and” exercise that can be deployed to overcome these limiting beliefs.
“I’m not interested in your limiting beliefs; I’m interested in what makes you limitless.” - Brendon Burchard
What are limiting beliefs?
In “Coach the Coach,” Barry Johnson and Mandy Geal define limiting beliefs as beliefs that “influence behavior and may impede or damage the believer’s ability to achieve what they want to achieve” (2005). Other definitions of limiting beliefs include, “a limiting belief is a judgment about yourself that you think to be true that restricts you in some way” (asana, 2021) and from Tony Robbins, “limiting beliefs are the stories we tell ourselves about who we are that hold us back from becoming who we are meant to be” (n.d.). Johnson and Geal explain that “we all have beliefs: some we recognize and some we don’t.” Sometimes our beliefs can be limiting and we can fail to recognize them as a held belief and as a belief that holds us back (Johnson &Geal, 2005). They include some examples of limiting beliefs such as:
“I can’t achieve what I want because….”
“I will always have problems with him because…”
“I’ll always have trouble with this because…”
“I don’t deserve to get what I want because…” (Johnson and Geal, 2005)
Other examples of limiting beliefs include…
“I don’t have what it takes”
“I’m not strong enough” (Tony Robbins, n.d.)
“I can’t because I am not….”
“I am not good enough…”
“I will be judged…”
“I am not as good as them…”
“I can never do this…” (Johnstone, n.d.)
However, not all limiting beliefs are self-focused. Sometimes they are general beliefs about relationships, culture, management, leadership, and others that are not helping individuals accomplish their goals. For example, Johnson and Geal share a story of an individual who had stalled in their career development. The belief that held him back from promotions and excelling in his career was that he believed it was rude to speak unless invited to speak. They explain that this led to him “never” speaking in “group meetings unless he was invited to,” ultimately holding him back from contributing to group discussions and being passed over for promotions (Johnson & Geal, 2005).
“The idea that something is holding you back is, in itself, a limiting belief in your abilities and greatness.” - Jonathan Heston
The consequences of limiting beliefs
There are a variety of consequences that limiting beliefs can have on an individual.
Limiting beliefs can hold us back from achieving new goals
According to Anthony Landale, “like an elastic band we may start by stretching ourselves” towards new goals, but “unless we shift our limiting beliefs, we will inevitably snap back to our original behavior and shape” (2008).
Limiting beliefs can negatively impact communication
Researchers Hirsch, Meynen, and Clark found that when participants held “negative self-imagery” beliefs (a common type of limiting belief) about themselves, those they held conversations with rated their discussion quality as “poorer” than those not in the “negative image condition.”
Limiting beliefs can limit the development of soft skills such as leadership
Researchers Susaeta, Babinger, and Munoz found that various limiting beliefs have a “significant negative” correlation with a variety of soft skills such as leadership and communication (2020).
Limiting beliefs about the self are associated with anxiety
Researchers Lang, Mueller, and Nelson discovered that students with anxiety were more likely to say that “negative” statements were “self-descriptive,” or true about themselves (1983).
Limiting beliefs about the self are associated with depression
Researchers Evans, Heron, Lewis, Araya, and Wolke state that “holding a negative self-schema,” or a negative belief about the self, “is an independent risk factor for the onset of depression in women.” They also state that “negative beliefs about the self, the world, and the future are common during an episode of depression” (Evans et al., 2005).
“A self-limiting belief is no stronger than the flimsy rope that tethers an elephant by its foot.” - Stephen Richards
Moving beyond limiting beliefs
How do we encourage coaching clients to move beyond their limiting beliefs? Johnson and Geal outline what they call the “belief change cycle”:
The client acts as though their belief is true.
The clients become open to the doubt of their limiting beliefs. “The seed of change is planted.” This can be done through questioning and/or discussion.
Building trust. “The seed” of a new supportive belief “needs to be nurtured with support, expectation, and motivations so that the person moves into wanting to believe.”
The client becomes more “open to accepting the belief” and begins to weigh the evidence of the belief.
The client begins to act as if their limiting belief and their new understanding is true. (Johnson & Geal, 2005)
Johnson & Geal encourage coaches to “respect and pace the natural process of belief change” while also “sowing seeds of belief change” by “generating counterexamples,” discussing other “overriding beliefs,” “testing the [limiting] belief” through questioning and reminding clients of their “experience” that disproves a limiting belief (2005).
Consider the three coaching strategies and associated questions below that aim to overcome the limiting belief of “I’m too young to run a successful business.”
What young business leaders do you know about currently? Is it possible there are some you’re not aware of?
Can you share with me a time when you experienced great success or accomplished a goal despite your age?
If all young entrepreneurs can’t lead successful businesses, does that mean that all older entrepreneurs are guaranteed success?
What might make a young person equipped to lead a successful business?
Testing the belief:
Are there no young leaders leading businesses?
Is it possible that you could lead a successful business with the right tools?
The “and” exercise
Roots in improv
Another way we can help dismantle limiting beliefs is the “and” exercise. This exercise takes coaching clients out of a limiting belief system that says “this goal is impossible because…” by allowing clients to think outside the box freely and discuss ideas in a non judgemental environment. This exercise is closely related to the “yes, AND” exercise found in acting and improv. According to the Drama-Based Instruction Network from the University of Texas at Austin, this exercise is “a brainstorming technique, and illustrates the difference between constructive and critical group decision-making” (Spolin, n.d.). According to Bridget Elam from the University of Pennsylvania, the “yes, and” exercise, “…is the mantra that encapsulates almost every element of being an excellent individual improv performer, an excellent improv teammate, and an excellent human. “Yes” is awareness, acceptance, and appreciation. “Yes” is “I am listening.” “Yes” is “Great idea, I can’t wait to play with you.” “And” is agency, autonomy, and action. “And” is building a story together. “And” is adding your own brick to the cathedral.” - Elam, 2020.
She additionally explains that this exercise helps improv participants “fully investigate the reality of their imaginary circumstances… The goal in both improvisational scene work and positive psychology interventions is the same: positive transformation” (Elam, 2020). We also note that current research involving improv games such as the “yes, and” exercise, are correlated with an “improved capacity to make meaningful connections with others” (DeMichele & Kuenneke, 2021). It has also been associated with more “integrative and effective” brain functioning, and reduced rates of “overthinking” or “phase lag” in the brain. According to DeMichele, “Improv’s rule of Yes, and is the access point to the brain as it creates the safety, attunement, and flexibility needed to achieve these neurobiological changes… Yes, and drives the nervous system to self-organize towards integration and balance, thus shifting the individual from the mental state they are in to one better able to function cognitively, physically, behaviorally, and psychologically” (Drinko, 2021 & DeMichele & Kuenneke, 2021).
How we perceive the word “and”
When we look at the language behind the word, “and,” we see that the word “and” is expansive. The word “and,” “expands and includes what precedes it” (Hill, 2011). The question “and?” is an expansive question, encouraging exploration and imagination; ultimately challenging limited beliefs. On the other hand, phrases beginning with the word “but” are “dismissive” and exclusionary supporting limited beliefs. In summary, according to an article from Dr. Kellermann, the phrase “‘and’ accepts and affirms. ‘But’ rejects and challenges. A conscious choice of ‘but’ and ‘and’ influences what is denied, what is affirmed, what is understood, and what is preferred.”
An “and” exercise: example illustrating an approach to inspire unfettered creativity
Sometimes individuals and groups have a difficult time ideating when they are operating from a condition of constraint, such as budgets, limited goods, resources, or materials, etc. A fun educational practice to help people ponder ‘what if’ inspires creativity that can lead to new or deeper insights using this “and” exercise. Thinking creatively, if we are building a new product or service, we might ideate with an “and” exercise starting from one sentence stem or thread, adding the word ‘and’ following each statement. Consider the example below:
We are going to visualize a better travel experience for business customers in the aviation industry. Without considering costs (or other defined constraints), what experience would increase customer delight for the business traveler? So first, let’s consider what a business traveler might need or want:
Stage 1: Business travelers need or desire the following things: speed, efficiency, comfort, ease of travel, experience, food, etc.
Stage 2: Using one of the attributes from Stage 1 (example, ‘ease of travel’) let’s do an ‘And’ exercise on ways to ease travel for the business traveler. Then, start with the opening statement, “we can create a better business traveler experience by increasing their ‘ease of travel’ in the following ways: [state one solution], and then add the word And, and [state a second solution].”
Coach: “by increasing their ‘ease of travel’ in the following ways: offering a private chauffeur service that picks up business travelers from their location and brings them directly to the airport… and?
Group Member/Client: “We can offer lite refreshments in the vehicles… and?”
Coach: “business travelers could be dropped off at a separate entrance… and?”
Group Member/Client: “they could have access to an expedited bag check in… and?”
Coach: “Business travelers could have access to an expedited security process… and?”
Group Member/Client: “They could have access to a concierge service… and?”
Coach: “They could be let off the plane first and be escorted to a private vehicle that takes them to their next destination… and?”
Group Member/Client: “We could offer free charging stations for phones and laptops… and?”
Coach: “Complimentary massage stations in the luxury lounge for business travelers… and?”
This exercise can continue for a specified period of time or until a sufficient amount of creative ideas have been shared.
An “and” exercise: example illustrating an approach to cultivate conversation that seeks to solve a problem
By acknowledging the improv roots of this exercise, as well as our perception and response to the word “and,” we can see that this exercise is a strategic, creative, expansive, and collaborative way for executive coaches and their clients to create and discuss possible solutions to challenges and overcome limiting beliefs. Consider the example below:
Group Member/Client: “I don’t think there is anything I can do to improve the culture of this workplace. It’s too far gone.”
Coach: “Let’s examine that belief for a moment. I’ll start by asking a question. Give your response ending with the question ‘and?’ and we will go back and forth sharing any and all relevant ideas.
Coach: “What would need to change in order to improve the culture of your workplace?”
Group Member/Client: “Managers would need to be trained in conflict management… and?”
Coach: “Employees could also receive training in conflict management… and?”
Group Member/Client: “Employees could be rewarded for attending training… and?”
Coach: “Employees could be praised or rewarded for applying what was learned in training… and?”
Group Member/Client: “Managers could reward employees who go the extra mile… and?”
Coach: “Employees could nominate managers for excellent leadership skills… and?”
Group Member/Client: “Employees could anonymously share their concerns with managers… and?”
*exercise continues until the coach feels that sufficient evidence disproving the client’s limiting belief has been discussed*
Coach: “How do you feel after discussing ideas that can make your workplace culture better? Do you still feel like there is nothing you can do to improve the culture?”
In the example above, using the “and” exercise allowed the client to move from “there is nothing I can do” to having a variety of ideas that they can use to improve their workplace culture. The coach and client can then begin to discuss the source of this belief, ways in which their limiting belief was holding them back, and ways that they can overcome/disprove this belief.
A note on remaining in a state of non judgment
In doing this exercise, it is important for coaches and clients to stay in a state of non-judgment. According to the Australian Institute of Business, “people are far more likely to share their ideas and visions in a comfortable and supportive space” (2022). Additionally, a core competency of coaching according to the International Coaching Federation’s Core Competencies Model is the ability of a coach to partner with their client “to create a safe, supportive environment that allows the client to share freely” by creating a “relationship of mutual respect and trust.” By staying in a state of non-judgment and encouraging the client to think outside of the box, coaches can encourage them to think outside of their limiting beliefs.
The main takeaway
Limiting beliefs are those beliefs, held consciously or subconsciously, that hold us back from achieving our goals. Individuals with limiting beliefs can experience a variety of negative consequences including difficulty achieving goals, reduced communication skills, reduced soft skills such as leadership, and increased rates of anxiety and depression. To help clients achieve their highest potential, overcome limiting beliefs, and adopt a more expansive mindset, coaches can use the “and” exercise during coaching sessions. This exercise promotes more expansive and creative thinking, is correlated with increased cognitive function (DeMichele & Kuennek, 2021), and can help clients overcome their limiting beliefs through creative brainstorming and discussion.
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t. You’re right.” - Henry Ford
Asana. (n.d.). 10 Limiting Beliefs and How to Overcome Them •. https://asana.com/resources/limiting-beliefs
Australian Institute of Business. (2022, October 7). Why Brainstorming Is a Crucial Element in Business. https://www.aib.edu.au/blog/innovate/why-brainstorming-is-a-crucial-element-in-business/.
DeMichele, M., & Kuenneke, S. (2021). Short-Form, Comedy Improv Affects the Functional Connectivity in the Brain of Adolescents with Complex Developmental Trauma as Measured by qEEG: A Single Group Pilot Study. NeuroRegulation, 8(1), 2–13. https://doi.org/10.15540/nr.8.1.2.
Drinko, C. (2021). New Research Highlights the Brain-Boosting Benefits of Improv. PsychologyToday. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/play-your-way-sane/202103/new-research-highlights-the-brain-boosting-benefits-improv.
Elam, Bridget Erica, ""Yes And": Exploring and Heightening the Positive Psychology in Improvisation" (2020). Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) Capstone Projects. 188. https://repository.upenn.edu/mapp_capstone/188.
Evans, J., Heron, J., Lewis, G., Araya, R., & Wolke, D. (2005). Negative self-schemas and the onset of depression in women: longitudinal study. British Journal of Psychiatry, 186(4), 302–307. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.186.4.302.
Hill, C. (2011, April 11). But vs. And. Mediate.com. https://mediate.com/but-vs-and/.
Hirsch, C., Meynen, T., & Clark, D. (2010). Negative self‐imagery in social anxiety contaminates social interactions. Memory, 12(4), 496–506. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658210444000106.
ICF. (n.d.). ICF Core Competencies. https://coachingfederation.org/credentials-and-standards/core-competencies
Johnson, B., & Geal, M. (2004). Limiting Beliefs. https://learningpartners.co.uk/sites/default/files/resources/Limiting%20Beliefs.pdf.
Johnstone, D. (n.d.). 9 Self Limiting Beliefs That Are Holding You Back from Success. Lifehack. https://www.lifehack.org/839222/self-limiting.
Kellermann, K. (2007). Persuasive Question Asking: How Question Wording Influences Answers. Research Gate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228297574_Persuasive_Question_Asking_How_Question_Wording_Influences_Answers.
Landale, A. (2006). Power up your belief. Anthony Landale’s Coaching Corner, 20. https://www.proquest.com/openview/5b5354144ed8fcf09f9998bb3fdeae66/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=30377.
Lang, K. A., Mueller, J. H., & Nelson, R. E. (1983). Test anxiety and self-schemas. Motivation and Emotion, 7(2), 169–178. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf00992900.
ROBBINS RESEARCH INTERNATIONAL, INC. (2021, December 15). The ultimate guide to limiting beliefs from Tony Robbins. tonyrobbins.com. https://www.tonyrobbins.com/limiting-beliefs-guide/.
Spolin, V. (n.d.). Yes, AND. . . | Drama-Based Instruction. https://dbp.theatredance.utexas.edu/teaching-strategies/yes-and.
Susaeta, L., Babinger, F., & Muñoz, N. (2016). Influence of limiting beliefs in soft employability skills: An analysis for the hospitality sector. Tourism: An International Interdisciplinary Jounral, 68(2), 207–220. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/342022661_Influence_of_limiting_beliefs_in_soft_employability_skills_An_analysis_for_the_hospitality_sector.
Copyright © 2023 by Arete Coach LLC. All rights reserved.