"You just need to back yourself more".
If you have ever heard these words (from others or yourself) you'll appreciate that, whilst they are provided with the kindest of intentions, they can be difficult to act upon.
I've seen very capable and talented colleagues, friends, family and more recently clients grapple with this challenge. So I wanted to share a simple, 5 step process, based on science as well as experience, that helps people ignite self-belief.
What are beliefs?
Beliefs are assumptions we make about our lives and the future based on our experiences so far in the world around us. They are our interpretation of reality and influence the way we think. Beliefs are not facts, although people can believe in something so strongly that it is easy to mistake a belief for a fact.
Beliefs reflect our values and ethics and we act on them because we believe them to be true. If our beliefs are validated through our actions, then we will continue to believe they are true, and that serves to reinforce our beliefs. If the results of our actions do not validate our beliefs then we change our beliefs. Beliefs are changeable.
What are self-beliefs?
Our perception becomes our reality. We all have beliefs about what we think of ourselves and of other people, including what we believe we’re capable of, as well as what we perceive others to be capable of. Therefore, self-belief is our conviction in our own abilities, often compared to others, and what we believe is possible in our lives, both now and in the future.
Why are self-beliefs important?
There is a saying in the field of neuroscience that “neurons that fire together, wire together”. This was the work of Canadian behavioural psychologist Donald Hebb who proposed that learning linked neurons in the brain in new ways. His research indicated that when two neurons in the brain fire at the same time repeatedly, chemical changes occur in both, so that the two connect more strongly. This is what is called neuroplasticity. With the relatively recent capability of being able to actually observe the brain in operation, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), science has confirmed this incredible morphing ability of the brain beyond any doubt.
Neuroscience has shown us that the brain can reorganise itself both physically and functionally based on what you think. In essence, the more we think something, the more embedded that pathway becomes in our brains, in turn reinforcing that thought.
Our brains have a negativity bias that overlooks good news and highlights bad news.
Our brains have also evolved to pay great attention to unpleasant experiences in order to protect us from threats such as famine, drought, attacks from wild animals etc. Neuroscience expert and psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson points out that this can result in a negativity bias that overlooks good news and highlights bad news.
This means that repetitive thoughts (our beliefs) become 'hardwired' into our brains. If those beliefs relate to some form of perceived threat or a negative experience in a social or work context, then we are more likely to pay attention to those beliefs than other beliefs about potentially positive outcomes. This then creates a bias effect and a vicious cycle that reinforces the negative or limiting belief.
Self-beliefs act as self-fulfilling prophecies.
Therefore self-beliefs are important as they can act as self-fulfilling prophecies. They are enablers to the things we want to achieve but also limiters to what we can do. If we believe we’re not capable of being effective leaders, it may make us act in ways which disengage our teams, so confirming our belief, even if we don’t want it to be true. If we believe we are capable of being effective leaders, we are more likely to seek out the development we need, try new techniques and seek feedback from the team as to how we are progressing.
How to overcome limiting self-beliefs
I have used a recent example (with permission) of how I coached a client through this process. I will refer to her as Amanda to maintain confidentiality.
The following approach is most effective and impactful if facilitated by a qualified coach. This is because a coach can pick up on subtle indicators of limiting beliefs in a client’s narrative and explore accordingly. However, the approach can also be self- applied and supported by journaling.
1. Be clear about what you want
This involves setting goals. Goal setting shifts the question from "what's wrong?" to "what do I want" and working towards a solution in a structured way. To be effective, goals need to be challenging yet realistic, you must be able to influence the result directly and they need to be measurable.
The goal that Amanda developed was to launch a small consulting business within 12 months that would provide her with interesting and challenging work, a sustainable income and a flexibility of hours to spend time with her family.
2. Consider obstacles
We explored the obstacles that Amanda thought may prevent her achieving her goal and then articulated them as beliefs. Amanda's limiting beliefs were:
"There are much bigger, more established consulting businesses in the market with more resources and access to research and I don't think I can compete with them as a sole trader"
"Networking is artificial and I am not comfortable with it, so I’m going to find it difficult to use networking to secure new business".
3. Explore limiting beliefs
Amanda was aware of established consultancies with experienced consultants, strong marketing, and impressive research resources to assist with client campaigns.
We explored some examples of these consultancies to understand the perceived competitive advantage and mainly this centred around the resources they had available to research emerging trends, including their partnerships with other specialist agencies. We concluded this was not insurmountable and something that could be achieved another way.
Amanda had also observed other people who had appeared false and awkward in networking environments. Again, when we explored this further, we discovered that Amanda was actually very well connected already through her existing network and it offered significant potential. I shared feedback with Amanda that she was a naturally interesting and engaging person and we agreed that she could experiment with just being herself in a networking environment, viewing it as an opportunity to meet like-minded people.
4. Articulate an empowering belief
Remember that beliefs can be changed. I helped Amanda articulate what she would rather believe instead of her limiting beliefs.
“I am a respected, well-networked Business Consultant with impressive client testimonials and international experience. My uniqueness is uncovering opportunities for clients by looking at the market from a different perspective, providing research & insights to support the approach and executing highly successful campaigns.”
5. Identify actions that will affirm your new belief
This can be most effective where there is a progression of a number of small actions that you can take that will help you activate your new belief rather than fewer / bigger actions which are more difficult to achieve and take longer. The affirmation of a number of small actions is motivational from the sense of achievement and progress it provides. The reward for completing actions with this approach also reinforces connections in the brain (neuroplasticity), strengthening your new belief.
Amanda and I agreed that she would attend a number of networking events to experiment talking to people about her business proposition in her own authentic way and also using the events and her networking to gain insights into latest trends and resources available so that she could compete with larger more established consultancies.
I was delighted to catch up recently with Amanda to hear how easy she was finding her networking conversations and what she had learned.
Since then Amanda's belief in her abilities and potential has continued to grow as she has become clearer about what she wants to achieve, and more confident about how to go about reaching her goals. I'm looking forward to the launch of Amanda’s business.
I hope this article has been useful and inspires you to think about your own beliefs –those that empower you, those that limit you and what you can do about it. I’d be interested to hear any comments or questions.
Alistair is an Executive Coach with ilume, Australasia’s only accredited and licensed ICC trainers, offering Executive Coaching, Executive Team Development, Leadership Development Programs and Academy Training Courses to many of New Zealand and Australia’s most successful businesses and executives for 10 years.
He has over 20 years experience in professional services and financial services in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand and in organisations including PwC, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Royal Bank of Scotland and Bank of New Zealand.