Photo via Getty Images/gremlin.
Excerpted from The Deep Heart: Our Portal to Presence by John J. Prendergast, PhD. Sounds True, December 2019. Reprinted with permission.
What Is a Core Limiting Belief, and How Do I Recognize It?
In the closing circle of a recent retreat, a delightful woman in her early sixties shared what had touched her the most. She admitted that she had attended the retreat mostly to be closer to her daughter (who was also a participant), but what struck her most was that she had never realized how much her entire life had been ruled by a core limiting belief. She confessed that she never knew that such a thing even existed. Seeing her belief and beginning to feel some space from it was a liberating revelation for her, and she was delighted to come out of a box that she didn’t know she had put herself in for most of her life.
It’s like that for most of us. Core limiting beliefs form in childhood and mostly reside outside or on the edge of conscious awareness. They are core in the sense that everything about us organizes around them — how we relate to others, work, and take care of ourselves. They are limiting because they constrain us, holding us back from living our lives as wakefully, freely, wisely, powerfully, joyfully, lovingly, and creatively as we can.
Beliefs are mental maps — approximations of reality. They help orient us, and most are benign. Generally, the closer they correspond to facts, the more useful they are. Of course, some nonfact-based beliefs provide solace and meaning in the face of existential uncertainty — for example, the desire for a pleasant afterlife somewhere up in the fluffy clouds or in a celestial desert oasis.
Core limiting beliefs are particularly powerful lenses through which we see ourselves and the world. Our view of the world always has a corresponding view of our self. If we see the world as a hostile and dangerous place, we will also believe that we need to either armor or conceal ourselves in order to survive — becoming aggressive or invisible depending on our temperament and conditioning. Conversely, if we perceive the world as friendly, we will feel safe to let down our guard, come out of hiding, and shine just as we are.
Core limiting beliefs about our self can be stated in short, simple, and childlike sentences. A few examples include I am not good enough, I am worthless, something is wrong with me, I don’t deserve to exist, I am a mistake, I’m bad, I’m flawed, I am broken and beyond repair, I’m unlovable, and I don’t belong. There are endless variations on these basic themes, and it’s important that we recognize the specific form that they take in our own lives. For example, I’m flawed may take the form of I’m really screwed up (or something more vulgar) particularly suited to our family and culture. You can tell that you have correctly identified one of these beliefs when it evokes a strong emotional charge and contraction in your body.
This happens because our core beliefs are a complex of semi- or subconscious thoughts with accompanying feelings and sensations. When I work with groups, I sometimes invite participants to try the following brief, unpleasant experiment.
Take a moment to reflect on a compelling core limiting belief that you have about yourself. Keep it as short and simple as possible, using the language of a child. You won’t need to disclose it to anyone. Experiment with different variations until you find the form with the most charge. Once you have found it, notice the impact emotionally and somatically. Observe it carefully for a little while and note that it is caused by your thinking. Take a deep breath and let it go.
I then ask group members who are willing to share the impact of their core limiting beliefs without necessarily disclosing the belief itself. I frame the invitation this way because there is often tremendous shame associated with these beliefs. Invariably people report unpleasant feelings such as shame and fear along with sensations of gripping or freezing in the interior of their body — somatic contractions. Core limiting beliefs induce a shutting down and pulling in — an inner collapsing, gripping, and armoring. The stronger the belief, the greater the impact.
It may help to do this experiment by writing down a list of your top five “hits” and then narrowing your list down to one or two that seem most central. Try it now. Pick the belief with the most impact. It may seem strange or unpleasant, but keep in mind that these highly confining beliefs with their attendant emotional and somatic reactions are also entry points for discovering your fundamental nature, and they can work like keys to unlock the depths of your heart.
Some people find that speaking these beliefs out loud with a trusted friend or therapist helps them to identify which ones have the most charge. During the process of heartfelt meditative inquiry, which I will describe shortly, these beliefs may also further clarify or even dissolve to be replaced by ones that are closer to the core. When this happens, we simply continue with the inquiry. We discover and see through each layer with increasing clarity.
When people start to attune with their heart, they report a sense of homecoming.
Another way to recognize a core belief is to focus attention on a familiar emotional reaction — shame or fear, for example — or a somatic contraction, such as a knot in the solar plexus or the heart area. Take a few minutes to simply feel the feeling and sense the sensation as it is without trying to change it. Then ask yourself: “Is there a belief that goes with this?” Be quiet and wait, trying not to grasp with your mind for an answer. Usually the belief will bubble up quickly. Whichever approach you take to recognizing your core limiting beliefs — asking yourself directly, making a list, or starting with reactive feelings and sensations — you are learning how to look under the hood of your conditioning to discover the patterns that drive you. It’s a crucial step in freeing yourself from illusion.