Limiting Beliefs are something I’ve discussed a lot, but not usually in connection with writing. So I’ll address the topic generally, and you can apply to your life and your characters as you see fit.
An underlying limiting belief is a core belief that exists within your operating system. Your operating system consists of your beliefs, thoughts, memories, triggers, go-to reactions, and more. Underlying limiting beliefs affect your perspective (how you view the world), your beliefs (about yourself and others), and your behavior (how you react and interact). Underlying limiting beliefs usually pop up in early childhood, at a moment when you felt separated from love (for whatever reason) and made up a story about how this separation meant something about you. The belief seeps into your foundation and becomes the basis for how you operate.
Some common limiting beliefs are:
- I’m not good enough.
- I’m unworthy.
- I’m unloveable.
- I’m a failure.
These are some basic ones, but there are many, many iterations of them. Any kind of “I’m not ___ enough” thought is the result of a limiting belief. You might feel unworthy of love, but someone else might feel unworthy of success. What you’ll probably notice by this point is that limiting beliefs keep us small (thus limiting our growth) and are rooted in fear.
A note about fear: Fear isn’t a bad thing, in and of itself. It serves a function, to keep us safe from wild animals in the forest or whatever. But fear stems from our lizard brain that’s focused only on survival and jumps at every shadow. Most of us don’t have to worry about bears or sharks or whatnot. We don’t want to banish fear altogether, because it has a purpose, but for most of us, in the lives we lead, fear absolutely does not need to be in the driver’s seat all the time. Fear will tell you to stay small, to not take chances, to stay in the comfort zone where it’s safe. Fear might serve our survival, but it does not serve our growth. Don’t let it drive the car.
Back to limiting beliefs. Sussing them out in your psyche can be hella confronting. Every time I’ve worked with someone to uncover and identify a limiting belief, there’s this sense of wonder, amazement, and even a little embarrassment when they finally announce it. “I don’t think I’m good enough,” they say with wide eyes. But here’s the truth: limiting beliefs are not true, and you’re not the only one who has these thoughts. I won’t go so far as to say all, but most people have some of these common limiting beliefs. It’s normal. There is nothing wrong with you. And the good news is, we can learn to identify and be aware of these beliefs when they pop up, so we can choose to stop listening to them (or at least turn down the volume).
Because these thoughts do pop up. Any time you’ve self-sabotaged, or held yourself back, or told yourself you were comfortable in a situation where you really weren’t, your limiting belief has been at work. The things that we hide about ourselves, the things we feel are undesirable or wrong, will eventually pop up and smack us in the face, sometimes with disastrous results. (I could talk a lot more about this concept, but I’m trying to wrap this up. The shadow, or upper-limit problem, relates to limiting beliefs, fear, and self-sabotage. Check out The Dark Side of the Light Chasers by Debbie Ford to learn more about the shadow, and The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks for more about the ULP.) I don’t have space to discuss how to go about releasing fears and working with beliefs, but maybe I’ll do that in another post. Anytime you find yourself thinking or saying “That’s just the way I am,” you want to examine that.
Now, how do we relate all of this back to writing? You look for your character’s fundamental flaw. (Libbie Hawker explains this well in her writing ebook Take Off Your Pants.) I connect the flaw with the character’s underlying limiting belief by asking, “What do these characters believe about to be true about themselves? What thought, feeling, or belief is holding them back?” This is especially important when writing romance, because it’s much harder to keep these beliefs hidden when you’re in a close relationship with another person.
I’ll use my recently completed ms as an example. Outwardly, Venus, the heroine, has a lot of self-confidence. However, she feels this way because people praise her excessively. When the hero refuses to return her attempts at flirting, it pokes at her limiting belief. She needs external validation from others because she does not know how to validate herself. Others define her self-worth. In essence, she does not feel worthy. The hero’s behavior helps her realize this about herself, and over the course of the story she must learn that she is inherently worthy, and that her value does not come from the opinions of others. She has fully learned her lesson when someone criticizes her work (tied to her purpose), and she realizes she doesn’t care what the person thinks about her. By the end, while she’s still happy to have found love with the hero, she knows her worth doesn’t come from his compliments or attention. It comes from within her.
I think of my characters’ limiting beliefs when I develop their character arcs. Because I’m writing romances with HEAs and not tragic heroes, however they begin (seeking external validation) determines how they end (validating herself). Their motivations also stem from these beliefs. Because Venus thinks she is unworthy and seeks validation from others, she will of course go after the one man who ignores her.
Takeaway: Know your character’s limiting beliefs so you can determine their goals, motivations, and how they end the story, but also know your own. When you have an awareness of your own limiting beliefs, you can recognize them when they pop up. And when that happens, you can take a step back and say, “That’s not true.” This takes fear out of the driver’s seat and makes sure you are the one driving the car of your life.
I hope that was helpful! I usually do this as a 2-3 hour in-person workshop, so it was quite a challenge to fit it all into a blog post. I’ll admit, it’s part of why I fell behind in the A to Z Challenge, although I also had some unexpected stuff come up last week.
Do you think you’ll be able to use this concept while developing characters?