Common Limiting Beliefs About The Social World
If you've read your share of personal development or self-help writing you've likely come across the concept of Limiting Beliefs. Some sources use the term pretty broadly, to refer to any belief someone can have that can hold them back (e.g., "I don't deserve to be successful"). In this article I'm going to be more specific, and focus on some common limiting beliefs I've seen people have about the social world.
An example of the type of belief I'm talking about is, "It's impossible for me to make friends where I live now. No one here is very friendly." I'll go into the beliefs I've frequently seen below, but first I want to talk about their traits:
Characteristics of limiting beliefs
People may use the term differently, so I'll quickly cover the features of limiting beliefs as I think of them:
Limiting beliefs are false overall, though they may have a ring of truth to them
A good test for whether something is a limiting belief is if pretty much everyone you tell it to argues with you that it's not true. To most people it seems like the most obvious thing in the world that the belief is false. In response to hearing, "It's impossible to make friends in this city" they may say, "Of course you can meet at least some people in the area, even if it'll be a bit harder for you. It's not a lost cause."
Limiting beliefs often do have a kernel of truth to them. It's just that the belief holder's mind has taken it too far. Instead of thinking, "This may be harder because of X", they believe, "This is impossible because of X, and I shouldn't even try." There may be some very real barriers to someone making friends in their location. However, it's probably not completely out of reach.
Limiting beliefs are usually rooted in past negative experiences or anxiety
Most people explain limiting beliefs as originating in prior negative experiences or the messages someone received growing up. The belief holder is overgeneralizing the "lesson" they learned. For example, they may have been rejected by some classmates while in high school, and now think everyone is going to be put off by them. Someone may think of themselves as flawed and unworthy on the whole, and be predisposed to developing limiting beliefs about social situations when faced with only a small amount of discouragement.
When it comes to socializing in particular, I think some limiting beliefs are rooted in anxiety. They can be an excuse someone has unconsciously made for themselves, so they don't have to face a situation that makes them uncomfortable. Like they have a lot of worries about making friends, and convince themselves that no one in their area would be a good match for them, so they don't have to get out there and try. Our anxiety can also paint things as more difficult and threatening than they are, a theme in many limiting beliefs.
Limiting beliefs can be entrenched and resistant to logic or evidence to the contrary
Some limiting beliefs are really hard to get rid of. They feel very real. Another good sign someone has one is that no matter how much everyone else tries to convince them that their ideas are not true, they never seem to change their mind. If they feel stuck and frustrated, they'll think it's because the obstacles their belief blames are getting in their way. Everyone else will tell them it's because their belief itself is so false and maladaptive.
One reason limiting beliefs can be so stubborn is that once someone has made up their mind, it's easy for them to unwittingly cherry pick and focus only on the instances that agree with their preconceptions. Someone who believes other people aren't friendly could ignore all the times a classmate or co-worker tried to strike up a conversation with them. On occasion people can also unintentionally create a self-fulfilling prophecy where they provoke the behavior they expect in others. Someone who thinks other people are unfriendly may be prickly and guarded themselves, and then wonder why no one wants to talk to them for long. However, if you tried to tell them about this dynamic, they'd passionately deny that's what was going on.
"Frozen" emotionally charged upsetting memories are another explanation for limiting beliefs can seem so true. The theory is that if you go through a difficult experience, and don't work through it at the time, then the way you felt as it was happening gets preserved in a little metaphorical capsule in your mind. For example, you got teased by your Mean Girl classmates when you were twelve. In the moment you felt angry and humiliated, and truly believed all popular women were evil. It doesn't matter if that's true or not. It's what you felt as a kid. Later in life similar situations, like being around pretty female co-workers, or even just thinking about them, can cause you to snap back into that preyed upon younger headspace. As long as you're under the influence of that mindset it feels deeply true that all good looking women are out to get you. You can't be argued out of your position because it's not coming from your usual logical adult self. You're temporarily channeling a hurt, scared middle schooler.
People with limiting beliefs can react negatively if you try to tell them that's what's holding them back
Not only can people with limiting beliefs seem blind or stubborn to the underlying issue, they can even come across as annoyed or whiney when others try to explain what they think is really going on. To them it feels like nobody comprehends their uniquely difficult situation or what they've been through. They feel dismissed, and like everyone is giving them a bunch of canned solutions and platitudes instead of taking the time to really understand their circumstances.
Another reason someone may be touchy about being told they have limiting beliefs is that socializing is an emotionally charged area for a lot of us. We often base a lot of our self-worth around how our relationships and social lives are going, and can be reluctant to admit we're having trouble because of mistakes we're making. It's easier to tell ourselves we're a victim of uncontrollable outside forces, and we can get angry when someone challenges this notion.
Finally, an anxiety-motivated person may react poorly because they feel like they're going to be forced to confront their fears before they're ready. They perceive other people trying to point out and discredit their limiting beliefs as taking away their safety blanket. Sometimes people get flustered and react emotionally when they feel they're going to be pushed to do something scary.
Common limiting beliefs
Here are some common limiting beliefs about the social world and someone's prospects for doing better in it.
"There's something about my area that makes it too hard to meet my social goals"
Some examples of beliefs along this line:
- "No one in my area is the type of person I'd want to be friends with."
- "The people in my area are too standoffish and unfriendly."
- "The people in my city are too busy to make new friends."
- "The people in my town are too cliquish and hostile to outsiders like me."
- "There are no good places where I live to meet new people."
You can see what I meant when I said limiting beliefs can be based on a smidgen of truth, but unrealistic overall. Many people do live somewhere where it's more challenging to make friends. However, it's probably not impossible like they may feel it is. They just have to work a bit harder, be more resourceful, or give themselves more time. Also, most places have some characteristic that gets in the way of making friends. Big cities provide more people to meet, but they can also be lonely, impersonal places. In small towns everyone may be friendlier, but there may not be as much variety in the type of person you run into.
"There's something about me that makes it too hard to meet my social goals"
There are many variations of this one. Again, several of these present very legitimate challenges. A view becomes a limiting belief when it becomes too inflexible and extreme:
- "I'm too short/fat/ugly/deformed in some way. No one wants to be friends with me because of it. The world is too prejudiced against people like me for me to have social success."
- "None of my interests are appealing to other people. It's not like I'm into basketball and can just join a team and make friends that way."
- "It's too hard to make friends when you're my age."
- "My social anxiety is too severe. I'm a lost cause."
- "I can't make friends because of my race. People around here just don't want to be friends with an Asian person."
- "I'll never have a satisfying social life because of my sexuality. Everyone is too bigoted toward gay people."
- "I have Asperger's Syndrome. I'll never be good enough at conversation that people would want to spend time with me. It's just not feasible for me to learn how."
- "No one wants to hang out with a woman in a wheelchair. I'd just be holding them all back from what they would really want to be doing."
- "Some people just aren't meant by the universe to have a social life and be happy."
"There's something about other people that makes it too hard to meet my social goals"
In these cases it's easy to see the signs of overgeneralization from scarring past experiences. Are some people toxic jerks? Absolutely. Is everyone? Of course not, though if you've been burned many times that can be hard to see.
- "People are all mean and judgmental."
- "People are all shallow and stupid."
- "People are selfish and only care what you can do for them, not about who you are as a person."
- "People are all insincere flakes. They'll talk about getting together, but never follow through."
- "There's no point in making friends, because they'll all turn against you eventually."
"It's inappropriate and wrong to do certain things while trying to meet my social goals"
Here someone sees an action as being totally weird and out of bounds, when it's a perfectly common or realistic thing to do, even though it does their push comfort zone:
- "I can't just go somewhere to try to make friends. Who does that? People will think I'm pathetic and desperate."
- "I can't go to a social event alone. Only the biggest losers do that."
- "I can't try to start conversations with strangers in public. People will think I'm a creep."
- "I can't ask someone I just met for their number or social media info. They'll think I'm way too forward."
This article has suggestions for tackling limiting beliefs by logically challenging them. Even if it's not 100% effective, it can still put a dent in them:
This one is about how you can diffuse the difficult memories that make these beliefs feel so true on a gut level: