Understanding & Overcoming Limiting Beliefs through Coaching

28th April 2018 | Dave Leverton | Coaching & Mentoring

Understanding & Overcoming Limiting Beliefs through Coaching

Understanding Beliefs

The Oxford Dictionary defines the word belief ‘as an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof.’ It is interesting therefore, given this almost mythical definition that our own personal beliefs are effectively the rules by which we choose to live our lives, especially as we often have no basis of fact to support many of these rules.

Many of our beliefs are formed during our younger years and influenced by the people around us in whom we placed the most trust. Typically these may include parents, grandparents, teachers and well-meaning relatives and family friends, all of whom had good intentions but who may have inadvertently helped create negative or self-limiting beliefs.

 At some time we have all witnessed a parent smacking their child for misbehaving or seen them lose their temper and chastise the child loudly or aggressively. As a result of the adults behavior the child naturally draws conclusions on what he believes to be right or wrong and forms his own belief. In this scenario the child may assume that it is ok to use or display violence to get one’s own way. Conversely he may decide that it is wrong to use or display violence as this made him scared and upset. There is no definitive outcome here because our beliefs are inherently interlinked and formed over a period of time through a combination of our influences and experiences.

During the course of our lives our beliefs change. Often this will occur organically without thought or effort. As we grow older and experience new people, cultures and opinions we naturally adapt and change our thinking. Some of our beliefs though are much more deep rooted and we carry these around forever without challenging them. Whilst these beliefs can of course be empowering they are very often self-limiting and prevent us from fulfilling our true potential.

Self Limiting Beliefs

“Nothing restricts your success more than your limiting self-beliefs and fears.” Maddy Malhorta

The above statement is incredibly powerful simply because it is almost impossible to argue against. In almost any scenario if you believe you are going to fail then there is a virtual certainty that you will. Where someone attends a job interview believing themselves to be lacking the relevant experience or qualifications for the role, they have given themselves an excuse for not getting the job. In reality their lack of self-belief and confidence will have influenced the interviewer’s final decision far more than the candidate’s credentials.

This is also especially true in sport. Harvard educationalist and tennis coach Timothy Gallwey’s quote demonstrates this perfectly, “The opponent in one’s head is more formidable than the one of the other side of the net”. For a tennis player to take to the court believing that his opponent is faster, fitter, more skilful and a better player is akin to a boxer throwing in the towel before the fight begins.

Our limiting beliefs are often the ones that we have held the longest, formed in childhood and never consciously evaluated since, yet these are the ones that prevent personal progression the most. Effectively we become locked inside a prison of our own making, restrained by beliefs that have little substance and may well be completely untrue.

Self-limiting beliefs should be viewed by coaches as the antipathy of successful goal achievement. There is little point in a client undertaking a task or setting out to achieve their objective if they do not believe they are capable or worthy of achieving it.

The good news is that as our beliefs are exclusive to each of us as individuals and are not hard wired in the way that our values tend to be. Therefore we are capable of confronting, challenging and changing our limiting beliefs as and when we choose. The role of a coach is to guide and support the client along this journey.

It is interesting that when people talk about beliefs that they often refer to them in the same way that they would describe possessions. We speak of holding, gaining, losing or having belief. Quotes such as “I have absolute belief in his ability,” or “I’m losing belief that he is ever going to achieve anything,” provide an illustration of this. Because we often view beliefs in this way there can be an emotional investment in them that also needs to be overcome as part of the coaching journey. Our beliefs make us feel safe and make sense to us so when things go wrong it is easy to revert to a position of almost celebrating this even though we didn’t want anything to go wrong. Sentences such as “I knew this was going to happen,” or “I told you I couldn’t do it" provide comfort because they confirmed that we were right all along.

Encouraging clients to view beliefs as possessions that we amass through our lives helps them to consider them as being more consumable and easier to let go off. If necessary old beliefs can be metaphorically placed into storage for future use if the client does not want to let go of a belief entirely.

We have all heard the term ‘stepping outside of our comfort zone’ which effectively paraphrases the process of changing limiting beliefs. Albert Einstein famously said that “If you always do what you've always done, you will always get what you've always got.” The fact that a client has approached a coach for professional help in achieving their objectives demonstrates that they wish to change something in their lives. In order to do so they need to challenge themselves and overcome potential barriers to success of which their limiting belief may be critical.

Before embarking upon overcoming a negative belief it is wise to ensure that both the new belief and the end goal are aligned with the client’s values. It is important that they feel comfortable with the new belief and that they don’t consider it may harm their relationships with others or compromise their personal integrity.


John wishes to gain promotion at work and has been asked by his manager if he would be prepared to take a secondment overseas for six months to oversee a major project. Doing so would improve his chances of promotion considerably although it would mean him living apart from his wife and baby son during this period. Family and security both rank highly within John’s values and he believes that his place is at home supporting his wife and seeing their child grow up together.

It would be easy to make an assumption that by taking the position abroad, John would be making a reasonable sacrifice in the short term in order to secure a better future for his family and that the goal is therefore in line with his values. However, his belief is that he and his wife should be sharing parenthood together. Therefore when establishing John’s aims and options during the goal setting process he needs to take into account all of the potential impacts for himself and others to ensure that the goal is ‘ecological.’

As with all coaching interventions, the golden rule here is that the client has all the answers and the coach has all the questions. The use of Cartesian questions may help John reach a decision as to whether it is his goal or his belief needs to change.

Instead of making sacrifices he is not comfortable with in order to progress his career, John may decide that he needs to take a different approach and therefore arrive at a completely different goal. His belief now has become an empowering rather than limiting belief.

Identifying Limiting Beliefs

The example above highlights the importance of effective and ethical goal setting with clients and the role of the coach in helping the client establish exactly what it is he is looking to achieve and what that will give him once he gets it – materially, emotionally and spiritually.

Through coaching we ask many intelligent and probing questions that are intended to stimulate our client’s minds and imaginations. Asking questions is the easy part, active listening is the key to interpreting what the client is really telling us and identifying their limiting beliefs.

Few people are consciously aware of their beliefs being self-limiting having simply accepted them as being part of who they are. The role of the coach in identifying and challenging these self limitations is therefore crucial for success.

In order for a client to achieve their goals there are three key components that they must believe in. They must firstly believe that they are possible; they must believe they are achievable and they must believe that they deserve them. Without all three keys the door to success will remain permanently closed. We must therefore watch and listen carefully to what our clients are telling us in order to identify and remove these barriers.


If the client doesn’t believe that their goal is possible then there is little point in attempting it. As previously noted a presupposition of failure is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We should be mindful here that whilst everyone has the ability and potential to improve, we are all human and have limitations. However, we don’t know what these limitations are until we try to achieve them and where a client might tell us that their dream is impossible, what they really mean is that they don’t believe they can do it. The story of Paralympian Canoeing gold medallist Anne Dickens is an inspirational anecdote to any client who does not believe their goal is possible.

Anne was a former endurance mountain bike rider who was left with a weak right leg and unable to cycle after a freak back injury in 2011. She was a volunteer at the London Olympics and so inspired that she decided to “have a go.” There were countless reasons to assume that her dream was impossible; she had never been in a boat, she suffered from sea sickness, she was a working Mum and was ‘too old.’ Four years later at the age of 49 she won Paralympic gold.

The coaching intervention here in 2012 when Anne believed her dream to be impossible was to reframe the belief by asking “What would need to happen to make it possible?”


Without thinking we all happily admit to our perceived limitations regarding our abilities. We leave our colleagues, friends and family to work out for themselves where our strengths lie while freely telling them all the things we are incapable of. This may be due to modesty but actually places a glass ceiling on our potential.

Without question we can be sure of one thing in life and that is that none of us have reached our full potential. We can only know what our true potential is when we achieve it and not achieving something doesn’t mean we can’t; it just means we haven’t achieved it yet. This statement can act as a powerful coaching tool in helping clients understand how they are holding themselves back.

Prior to 1968 it was believed impossible that any athlete could run 100 metres in less than 10 seconds until Jim Hines achieved this feat running 9.9 seconds. Although nobody else managed to break the 10 second barrier for a further 9 years, Hines had proved that it was possible and that he had the ability and potential to so. As a consequence the glass ceiling had been smashed and top class sprinters across the world now view this as a target rather than a barrier. To date a further 115 people have achieved this goal. Usain Bolt holds the current world record at 9.58 seconds meaning that just a third of a second has been shaved off in over 40 years.

It would be easy therefore to assume that no one will ever run under 9 seconds but until someone tries how will they ever know? Although an extreme example, coaching in this context should centre on making 9 seconds a target instead of a barrier and focusing upon the steps and intermediary goals that eventually see this become a reality.


If a client does not believe that they deserve to be successful then it will be incredibly difficult for them to become so. There are numerous reasons why they may feel that they are not worthy and it is important to listen out for these during coaching as this forms part of the ‘ecology’ of the goal.

Some examples of where clients may feel uncomfortable with achieving their goal may include;

• Belief that someone else may have to fail

• Belief that people may see them differently

• Belief that they can only succeed if others help them

• Belief that they will have an unfair advantage.

• Belief that they are betraying their social roots.

Beliefs relating to worthiness are potentially the most deep rooted, relating back to their childhood. It is important here that the coach does not assume the role of counsellor or practitioner and focuses solely upon finding a way to move forward with a new belief that allows the client to believe that they do deserve rather than delving into the reasons why they believe they do not

Having established an understanding of how our clients limiting beliefs are formed and manifest themselves along with their destructive impact on success, it is vital that the coach is skilled enough to recognise them when they appear. This may not necessarily be as straightforward as the client making a bold declaration of “I can’t do that.” Often the client will inadvertently drop them into conversation as clues that the coach must be able to listen out for and return back to.

Examples of Limiting Belief ‘Clues’

• It takes a long time to make things happen

• There aren’t enough hours in the day

• I’m used to being second best

• I’ve never been part of the in crowd

• Other people have been there longer than me

• It’s impossible to get anything done

• Anything for an easy life

• If only I was younger

In each of the above sentences the client has made what they considered to be a throw away comment but is actually extremely meaningful. A coach must pick up and challenge these rather than confirming the belief by allowing it to pass.

Avoid the Why?

A fundamental error in coaching is to challenge a client’s belief by asking them why they believe that to be true. This presupposes failure. The question itself reinforces the belief that the client can’t do it and when asked they will search their mind for reasons to support this belief.

To paraphrase George Zalucki;

“The Thinker thinks and the Prover proves. If the Thinker thinks I can’t, then the Prover has to prove you are right.”

To take an example from the list above to demonstrate the point there are two potential scenarios to consider

Scenario 1

Client: “Our offices are all open plan and it’s a nice place to work but it’s impossible to get anything done.”

Coach: “Why can’t you get anything done?”

Client: “Oh you know, there is always too much noise and people stopping by my desk to ask me things or for a chat. Then there are all the emails and the phone ringing nonstop.”

Scenario 2

Client: “Client: “Our offices are all open plan and it’s a nice place to work but it’s impossible to get anything done.”

Coach: “Tell me about a time when you have managed to get something done”

Client: “Well I managed to get some reports out for the Board last week but I had to work from home for a day.”

Even without expanding these conversations further it is clear that the first scenario is leading down a blind alley. The coach may attempt follow up questions to guide the client back out but he has already reinforced his belief that the office environment is an insurmountable barrier to success. In the second scenario the coach has reframed the issue and the client has disproved his own prophecy. From here the coach and client can move forward and explore options.

Overcoming Limiting Beliefs

The role of a coach in helping the client to overcome their limiting beliefs is critical. Simply being aware of them does not alter their behaviours. The client must replace their old belief with a new one and be able to retain that belief in the long term

According to research carried out by The National Science Foundation in 2005, throughout the course of a day the average human has between 12.000 and 60.000 thoughts. Of these 95% are repetition from the day before and 80% are negative. We all use self talk constantly, chatting away inside our heads which often leads to negative thinking and disempowerment.

For a client to be able to change a belief they need to be able to change the thought process that allows the limiting belief to exist in the first place. A first step on this road is to encourage them to change the language that they use in their self chatter by introducing a pattern interrupt. This can take the shape of a new positive statement even though it may not be true at the present time or the client may be more comfortable with a more realistic and softer viewpoint.

For example;

“I’m a terrible cook,” can be replaced with “I’m an awesome cook,” or “I’m not a great cook at the moment.” Either of these statements are acceptable providing the client replaces the old belief with the new one whenever they begin to doubt themselves.

For many people, just articulating their limiting belief out loud brings about an immediate realisation of how ridiculous it actually is.

Visualisation is another important item in the coach’s toolkit and allows the client to own the success before they have actually achieved it. The coach helps the client build this virtual success through the use of key questions that make the goal tangible.

There are numerous coaching models and processes that deal with overcoming limiting beliefs and understanding a range of these provides flexibility to adapt the best approach for the client and situation. The essence of them all though is asking questions that help guide the client away from their old limiting belief and towards a new empowering belief.

One very straightforward approach is the ‘Can’t to Can’ model (Nick Drake-Knight, Boomerang) which uses ‘freedom questions’ to introduce the notion of possibility. An example of a freedom question could be, “What would happen if you could do that thing you can’t do?” This then moves to identifying and confirming benefits before underpinning with a second freedom question. From here the coach and client can agree timelines and summarise before confirming with the final ‘killer question’ that confirms the client’s commitment.


Our beliefs are important and unique to each individual and whilst they can be limiting they are also incredibly powerful in empowering our behaviours and success. Where a client truly believes that they can achieve their goals then they have already taken a significant step towards doing so.

The role of the coach is to empower the client through effective questioning, dialogue and activities that facilitate identifying limiting beliefs and replacing them with more powerful and positive thought processes. The benefits of this reach well beyond achievement of a specific goal or objective and will benefit their overall confidence, self value and happiness.

Ultimately our beliefs are self-imposed rules and it is within our own control to change or amend them at any time. Our values act as governance and ensure that we remain true to ourselves.

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