A Research Paper By Tracy Sharp, Design Thinking Coach, ITALY
Unlocking Limiting Beliefs
Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right. Henry Ford
When I was considering potential topics for my research paper, I wanted to use it as a perfect excuse to dive into something which I had seen in myself and a lot of my peer coaches and clients.
Limiting beliefs are something that impacts all of us and affects our mindset, behavior, actions, and most importantly, in action.
What Are Limiting Beliefs?
It’s a feeling of certainty about what something means to you.
This feeling will have been derived from a number of different factors, extending back to your childhood; Knowledge, Environment, Future vision, Past Results, and Events.
All of these contribute to how you perceive the world and how successful you will be in it.
I brought to the coaching space my attitude towards my own creativity. I had chosen to define creativity as a set of skills, used in a particular way. With my background in the design industry, I viewed creativity as creating a completely new product by means of a sketch. I saw my colleagues doing this every day and I was completely intimidated by it. It caused me to be stuck in a state of paralysis at work, to be not able to draw a new concept because it was not completely new. I stopped before I even started.
I love to paint and often participate in improvisation. I disregarded everything else that I did because it did not fall under my preconception of creativity. I did not see what else I was doing.
It was incredibly damaging to my self-esteem and my professional working life to carry this limiting belief. I was becoming stuck in a spiral of self-doubt which caused me to define to myself and then to others that I was not creative.
By realizing that I had a limiting belief and then using the coaching space to redefine it, I am in a current state of creative enlightenment. I feel freer and more creative than I ever have.
Methods for Unlocking Limiting Beliefs
In this report, I review four methods that I found to have the highest potential to be used effectively in the coaching space.
I have ensured that the methods examined do not
- Require a medical or psychology degree to use
- Tap into the past of the client
- Do not use close-ended questions or betray the potential usage in ‘pure coaching’ environments
This will ensure that these methods can be used ethically within the coaching space.
- The Meta Model
- What If?
- Creating Alternate Beliefs
The meta-model in Neuro-linguistic programming (or meta-model of therapy) is a heuristic set of questions designed to specify information, challenge, and expand the limits of a person’s model of the world. It responds to the distortions, generalizations, and deletions in the speaker’s language.
- Generalizations e.g. She never listens to me
- Deletions e.g. They don’t listen to me
- Distortions e.g. You make me sad
The system was developed by several leading psychologists of that era – John Grinder, Richard Bandler, Fritz Perls, and Virginia Satir.
The Meta Model is used to challenge the belief systems of the subject by asking specifically targeted questions to elicit more details about the situation or limiting belief in which the subject is currently lamenting e.g. I can never be creative
If a client had a limiting belief, this could be very effective to formulate powerful questions with the most impact.
There are several types of subcategories below the three mentioned and each of these can be handled in a specific way, but the key method of reframing the perspective of the client is normally by structuring the powerful question beginning with the following question words.
- g. She never listens to me
- What would happen if she did?
- g. They don’t listen to me
- Who doesn’t listen to you
- g. You make me sad
- How is what I am doing causing you to choose to be sad?
There are two approaches to applying this method:
- Sequentially asking the client these questions and continuing to phrase the subsequent question using the same technique until the base reality has been found by both parties
- Ask a few preliminary questions and use coach intuition to ask a more direct powerful question using the above as a framework
Another powerful and simple tool to unlock limiting beliefs is the ‘What if’ Language Pattern technique, also found in NLP practice.
After exploring and naming a client’s limiting belief in which they are completely stuck, the coach can ask ‘What could it look like if (insert limiting belief) wasn’t true. Although simple, it can be very powerful to give the client permission to explore another scenario mentally.
As a client, I have witnessed this to be very effective in unlocking my own limiting belief around my creativity. This belief was connected to a former work colleague who I had put on a pedestal to be a god-like creator, which I could never surpass. The question ‘what if you removed the colleague as who you regarded to be most creative, what could that look like?’ After deep contemplation, I used other people in my life as benchmarks of creativity who were my peers, who I had worked in parallel with and had collaborated with. Bringing the what-if scenario, allowed me to realize my creative capacity with realistic expectations and has allowed me to jump forward in my creative endeavors.
It gives the client permission to think in a lateral way to reach a positive and creative solution.
Create Alternate Beliefs
There have been several sources that adopt a 5-7 step process (depending on the source) to help create an alternate, healthier belief. It is seen as follows;
- Write down all your limiting beliefs
- Choose one to focus on
- Recognize it as a belief
- Challenge your belief
- Recognize the damaging consequences
- Choose an alternative belief
- Start practicing this belief
Regarding section 4 of challenging your beliefs, it can be very difficult for the client to examine the situation impartially. It is possible to challenge this by writing down the facts in your life which directly oppose your belief and reflecting on them. In the coaching space, this could be discussed from client to coach.
There are also other techniques that can be used to challenge the belief, one of which is The Four Questions from Byron Katie.
Not all of these questions are regarded as acceptable in the coaching space as they are close-ended questions e.g. can you absolutely know that it’s true? This is a yes or no answer.
However, it is acceptable to ask 3 out of the 4 questions;
- Is it true?
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without that thought?
Question 1 is also a close-ended question, but it is acceptable to be used sparingly in the coaching space to ensure that the client is suitably challenged in their thinking.
Questions 2 & 3 can also be used for steps 4 & 5 of the process which are the consequences of this belief. It is important to explore this with the client, but there could be moments that touch on childhood trauma or the past which would need to be treated with psychological support.
The key is to dive deeper into the feelings connected with these beliefs. If needed, clients could be provided with a list of feelings and emotions to help further clarify how they feel which are provided by Katie Byron.
Regarding question 3, it could be further modified as a powerful question in the coaching space to ask, ‘what could it look like to be without that thought?’ which would move you into creating an alternative belief. This is like the What-if scenario discussed earlier.
What I personally have found to be useful to shift very stubborn limiting beliefs is to allow the client to step into the shoes of someone else, or to use a slightly different language to move them further. This is discussed in more detail later in the report through self-compassion.
The key is to replace the core negative thought impacting the client.
Once you also reach step 7 it is also important to recognize that a change in personal habits takes time and that making a jump from one perspective to the other is bound to have some retention difficulties.
The language that a client tells themselves is important and should ensure that it is framed that the change is in progress, that they are recognizing the positive effects that come from this change, and that they are open and excited to learn and grow. This is more sustainable and empowering.
In the coaching space, you could also ensure that the client has space to think about what they could do to continually challenge their limiting beliefs to get further data to reinforce the positivity which can come from making changes.
In the coaching space, the client could also create a positive mantra that will support them in moving forward and maintaining an empowered attitude.
This suggestion should come from the client themselves if the coach is practicing pure coaching or could be suggested during blended coaching.
As I mentioned above, it can be useful to take the client out of their current situation and change their perspective. This includes changing the voice to be something positive.
With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.
Adopting self-compassion allows you to forgive yourself more, especially when you make mistakes, or you have issues with a challenge. This is key when you are first making a transition to a new routine or change.
There are two areas of interest derived by Kristin Neff, which I explore here;
- A letter of self-compassion
- Yin and Yang of self-compassion
I have used a letter of self-compassion myself in the past and witnessed a variation of it in use in an ICA coaching lab with RazanKilani. The idea is that the client will first describe (or in the letter separately, write) how they feel about a particular situation or limiting belief; they might feel ashamed, unworthy, or inadequate. The idea is to imagine the voice of someone that loves you; a partner, best friend, or family member, and write or think through how that person would perceive the same situation and what they would say to you.
Reframing the perspective from a point of kindness, understanding, and non-judgment can bring the client to see from another angle.
Seeing this letter of compassion in the coaching space was very powerful.
A student was having some difficulties regarding the declining health of her mother and was being very tough on herself regarding her options to ensure her mother was comfortable.
Razan asked the client ‘What would the spirit of your mother say to you at this moment?’.
The client paused and her perspective and energy on the situation changed entirely. She acknowledged that her mother would understand her predicament and that she was not acting as she normally had been. The client felt the love from her mother and started to clearly see the reality of her situation. It helped unblock her and moved her forward.
Regarding Ying-Yang of self-compassion, it divides some of the core elements into two parts.
Yang offers protection, providing, and motivation.
Yin offers comfort, soothing, and validation.
It is possible to use these types of self-compassion to ask powerful questions in the coaching space.
- What is one thing you can do to take care of your emotional needs (Comfort)
- What is one thing that you can do to make yourself feel physically calmer and more at ease (Soothing)
- What is one thing that you can say to yourself to validate your feelings (Validation)
- What is one thing that you can do to stop others that are hurting you or stop the harm that you are inflicting on yourself (Protection)
- What is the one thing that you can do to give yourself what you need? (Providing)
- How can you motivate yourself with kindness, support, and understanding, rather than criticism (motivation)
I think these questions could be most effectively used in two parts of the coaching space.
- When the client is making some changes to their life after unlocking a limiting belief and is finding it difficult (questions 1, 2, and 3)
- When the client is challenging their existing belief (questions 4, 5, and 6)
Having a range of compassion-based questions can be useful when coaching people with different personality types and can give people different options that could work for them.
For example, an assertive client could potentially use protection to create boundaries at work, whereas a sensitive client could use comfort and soothing to have a healthy self-care routine at home.
Of course, it would be the act of the coach to decide which of these questions would have the most impact and to also adapt it slightly to ensure you are using the language of the client for maximum impact on them.
In addition to my references throughout this report on practice and its impact on my own coaching space and that of others.
In recent sessions with a client, I used a what-if reframing technique. The client had recently gone through a divorce and was in a state of limbo in which she felt she was ‘waiting’. ‘Waiting’ for her ex to maybe get back in touch, waiting for her career to satisfy her, waiting for a home that she could open to others to build relationships, waiting for feedback on a project. I could really sense that this feeling was causing her frustration and weighing her down.
I asked her ‘What if you weren’t waiting? What other word could you use that could help you move forward?’
Her answer, after some thought, was ‘What if I was exploring?’.
This gave her such momentum and energy to move her life forward with curiosity and engagement in a phase of self-discovery and investing in her future.
She started living her life at cause and purposefully to satiate what she could do for herself.
Recently, for myself trying to work through some old trauma from my past, I used a self-compassion letter to a younger version of myself. When I was reflecting on something which had happened about 15 years ago, I was so disappointed with my actions. I was angry at myself and rejected that version of myself.
I used self-compassion letters to write about what tools and knowledge and understanding I had 15 years ago compared to me now, in 2022. It completely changed how I felt, almost immediately. I had so much love and care for my younger self; she was so ill-equipped to deal with the situation presented to her that it was unsurprising how events had unfolded.
Unlocking Limiting Beliefs in Coaching
In my examination of combating limiting beliefs, without having a degree in psychology, challenging the use of language and giving the option to think about the situation from another set of eyes are key to allowing clients to effectively reframe their perspectives.
Using my personal experiences and those that I have observed in the coaching space, I have found that the most effective have been those which allow the client to completely shift perspective either take on the mind of another person or envisage a new reality where something is different from their current one.
Therefore, in my experience, I believe self-compassion letters and what-if scenarios to be most effective.