limiting beliefs

There is a fable about elephants that is often told to help us move beyond limiting beliefs. It goes something like this:

Vihan was a good boy who loved animals. He was particularly fond of elephants.  He admired the huge animals for many reasons. However, he never had a chance to see real elephants, he only saw them on the television and computers. He lived in a small village, where there were no elephants and none were brought to his village. He dreamt of one day seeing them in person.

Fortunately, when he was a young man he got a chance to join a crew of wildlife lovers. He asked them about their plans whether they would take him to see the elephants. And they said yes. He was excited! Vihan enjoyed the many places and animals he saw on his journey, but the anticipation of seeing elephants was always

with him. At last the time came where he would see these magnificent creatures.

As the group passed through the forests, they walked past a beautiful village. The team chief told Vihan that the village had more than 100 elephants and he would allow Vihan to enjoy the entire day in that village. The rest of the crew moved on, leaving Vihan to enjoy this opportunity. At last he saw the elephants. He could barely control his excitement.

After spending a brief time just seeing the elephants, he was shocked to notice those elephants tied to a frail fence with only a thin rope. No chain and there was no steel cage nor any kind of shelter where the elephants lived. Instead, there were simple sheds without any doors.

Vihan was surprised as he knew the strength of elephants. He had seen them tied to strong chains on the television. He asked one of the villagers, “won’t they easily break the rope?” The villager replied that they wouldn’t. “How can that be?” inquired Vihan, “They are so big and strong.”

The villager answered, “The elephants have been trained here since they were born. When they were babies we would  tie them with a strong rope and the baby elephants weren’t able to break them. The rope we used to tie them when they were small was strong enough to hold them. If the elephants tried to break the rope, they could not set themselves free. So as they grew, they believed that the small and thin ropes were too strong for them to break.”

Vihan was amazed that the powerful elephant wasn’t strong enough mentally to break free from a thin rope.

Like the elephants we hold on to limiting beliefs.

limiting beliefs

Think of the things that keep you from achieving your goals. Isn’t it usually just your thoughts? Maybe you were teased as a teen about your athletic prowess and so now you don’t think you are coordinated enough to take an exercise class. Or maybe it was a class you took that wasn’t taught in a way that you could understand the subject matter, so you decided you were no good in that area. There are many reasons we develop limiting beliefs, and often they are moments that no one else even realized what was happening.

The good news is we can change those limitations! We have the ability to change boulders into stepping stones. As a child I lived in a house that had a driveway that went up a hill. As a child I thought the hill was so steep it was a miracle I could make it all the way up on my bike. As an adult I had the opportunity to visit that early home and what a surprise to see the tiny upward slope of the drive!

The first step is to recognize what your limiting beliefs are.

Ask yourself what are some limitations in your life that were set up for you either by yourself or by others in your life. Notice the moments you feel insecure or held back and sit with that feeling. You might want to write them down and then decide how strong each feeling is. Recall how those beliefs have affected your life. I once had a client who overcame 17 years of stuttering when he realized it began as a way to get his mother’s attention after she opened an in home child care. Ironically, she had done so in order to spend more time with him!

Next step, decide these are beliefs, not facts!

Remember, just because you think it, it doesn’t make it true. My clients will often spend a portion of our session defending their limitations rather than working on imagining life without those limits.  I like to interrupt and  ask them, “what if what you are telling me is false? What if it is just fiction that you have written in your head?” You can choose to stay the same or you can choose to change.

Third step, imagine yourself without the limits.

I often ask my clients to tell me how they would be different if they no longer had those limiting beliefs. What would change about their self-talk, posture, maybe even facial muscles? Then I will ask them to close their eyes and describe the person who has already achieved those goals in as much detail as they can.

Fourth step, figure out what actions you will take towards your new goal.

Behind your eyelids lies your imagination. So I ask clients once again to close their eyes and we will walk the timeline forward from where they are in my office to the point where they have evidence of the belief switch. I will have them squeeze their hand at each action, so that they will remember them when they open their eyes. When they open their eyes, I encourage the client to write down the actions they recall taking.

Fifth step, practice daily taking action.

It is important to practice daily the new actions and new beliefs. Remember to be kind to yourself, at first you may not do things perfectly. That is the beauty of this, we are all works in progress and every  moment can be a do-over! Notice the actions that you took that were successful and repeat those. Learn and laugh at your mistakes.


If the elephant fable affected you as it did me, here is a link to an organization that works to provide a safe haven for elephants who are retired from zoos and circuses. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee



We want to make change, yet we feel stuck in the way things are right now. We hold on to the belief that we don’t deserve the change or maybe that we aren’t up to making the change happen. Most of our beliefs are misinterpretations about our past, based on our painful and pleasurable experiences. We want to avoid pain, so if something causes us to feel bad, we tend to avoid it in the future. The biggest problem, as I see it, with these beliefs is that they keep us from living up to our real potential.

During the late Medieval period, around the 15th to 17th centuries, a weird psychiatric disorder swept through Europe. Many people believed that they were made of glass and were likely to shatter into pieces with even the slightest bit of contact. This was later named the “Glass delusion” and was recorded in the research journal History of Psychiatry. This caused people to avoid human contact so as not to get shattered. They wore extra layers of material to protect themselves and went to great lengths to avoid shattering. How difficult must life be if even a hug is considered perilous?

Maybe we have learned since then that we are not made of glass and that we won’t shatter, but I wonder what beliefs about relationships, intelligence, emotions or dreams are holding us back?

If you want to live fully and begin to make changes that matter then it is time to take a look at those thoughts and behaviors that are holding you back. It is only when we begin to honestly question our beliefs that we can experience a break through. We want to stop identifying with our limitations. We have to let go of what others think about us and decide who we really are. When held up to the light, is there any veracity to what we think about ourselves?

It is time to start testing those assumptions we have been living under. Time to push the limits and see just what we are capable of. Even if something is true for a friend, it may not be true for you.  If a friend tells me that a box is too heavy to lift, and that friend is half my size, maybe it is too heavy for them, but not me! These days, when someone tells me I can’t do something, I have to test the theory.

Steps For Changing Limiting Beliefs

  1. Describe what happiness would be like for you.

Write down in as much detail as you can what your happiness might look and feel like.

  1. List your beliefs by filling in the following statements:

  • I believe I am:
  • I believe money is:
  • I believe people in general are:
  • I believe success is:
  1. Find evidence to disprove any beliefs that are limiting.

    For example if you said I believe I am not as smart as my co-workers, list any and all awards, promotions and accolades you have been given.

  1. Let others off the hook.

    To hold onto anger towards another for the past is like drinking poison with hopes they will die. It just doesn’t work. So, make a list of those who have offended you and them imagine them moving out and away from you, becoming less important. Imagine yourself becoming stronger and more powerful as you cross each one off your list.

  2.  Schedule face to face time with happy people.

    List 3 people who you believe are happy, positive people. Now set up a time to reach out to them and arrange a meeting to enjoy sharing time.