Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
October 10, 2023 · 10 min read

What are limiting beliefs? How to overcome them and succeed

What are limiting beliefs? How to overcome them and succeed: Illustration in blue, black, white and grey showing the title of the blog and two brains. One is in a glass box and the other looks like a balloon and is floating in the clouds.

Have you ever had a moment where you doubted yourself? Despite years of knowledge and experience, are you still scared of being “found out?”

While many people refer to this sort of situation as imposter syndrome, there’s actually something deeper at play: limiting beliefs.

Limiting beliefs are false opinions we have about ourselves that hold us back. They can be about anything from our own skills to the kinds of people we want to work with or even the structure of our day.

Limiting beliefs can hold you back in life and work. But as a project leader, your limiting beliefs don’t just affect you — they impact your entire team’s morale, motivation, and productivity. That’s why it’s essential to recognize, understand, and overcome them before it’s too late.

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In this guide, we’ll dive deep into what limiting beliefs are, what the most common ones are for project managers, and how you can defeat your own limiting beliefs to lead your team towards success.

What are limiting beliefs? How do they cause issues for your team?

Limiting beliefs are thoughts, opinions, or entire states of mind that restrict your ability to live and work the ways you want to. These beliefs are often false and cause you to feel low, kill off your motivation, and negatively impact your productivity.

For example, if you tell yourself you’re “not good enough,” “don’t have enough time,” or “just aren’t confident enough” to do your work.

These beliefs aren’t always about yourself, either. Instead, they might focus on your work environment, your perceived opinions of others, or the broader world around you.

Limiting beliefs are rooted in complex psychology, and often caused by factors such as negative past experiences, imposter syndrome, fear of failure, procrastination, and low self-esteem.

In the project management world, limiting beliefs center around your capability, leading you to question your knowledge, decision-making, and relationships with your team.

Left unchecked, your limiting beliefs may lead to:

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Limiting beliefs can greatly affect you and your wider team. As we’ll come on to cover, the key is to recognize, understand, and overcome them quickly to limit the impact on those around you.

The 6 worst limiting beliefs for project managers

Now that we know what limiting beliefs are, it’s time to look at some of the more common ones you could face as a project manager.

Illustration showing the title The 6 worst limiting beliefs for project managers in the middle and surrounded by

Let’s look at these six in turn, exploring what you may be feeling, why that belief is so common, and the impact it could have if you don’t resolve it quickly.

1. “I’m just a project manager, not a project leader.”

Many people become project managers because they’re structured, well-organized, and great at communicating. But, as you take more senior positions, you’ll naturally become a project leader.

Because we’re flooded with examples of great leaders in areas such as politics, sports, and business, it’s easy to compare ourselves and come to the false conclusion that we’re not fit for the project leader role.

If you keep believing this, your team will suffer as they don’t get the required direction, support, and inspiration. After all, you don’t need to be Barack Obama or Steve Jobs; you only need to be a leader and mentor to your own team!

2. “I don’t have enough project management qualifications.”

Project management is a profession full of qualifications. But, unlike doctors or lawyers, you don’t actually need a qualification to work as a project manager.

In fact, being a great project manager is all about using your own unique management style to guide your project team toward the objective. While most organizations have a general structure for project management, how you execute your project is entirely up to you.

Worry about qualifications for too long, and you’ll miss deadlines, overanalyze decisions, and lose the confidence of your stakeholders.

3. “I don’t have enough experience in a certain project management skill.”

Being a project manager is a varied job. You’ll spend your time juggling many responsibilities, such as jumping from strategy workshops, one-to-one meetings, building release plans, and reviewing your budgets.

Because there’s so much variety, project managers wrongly tell themselves that they need to be the master of everything to have a chance at success. In reality, great project managers utilize the skills of their team and stakeholders to keep things moving smoothly.

If you get fixated on the things you’re weakest at, you’ll dampen the impact of your strengths, and reduce your overall productivity. And in reality, you’re probably not as bad at those skills as you think!

As a project leader, your limiting beliefs don’t just affect you - they impact your entire team.

4. “I’m not senior enough to manage these stakeholders.”

Until the robots take over, the critical component of any successful project is bringing stakeholders together.

As your experience grows, you’ll begin managing bigger and bigger projects and working with more senior stakeholders. Especially when your project sits at the C-suite level, it can be daunting managing demanding characters, leading you to question your own seniority.

There’s a good chance those beliefs are completely false, as you wouldn’t have been handed this project if you weren’t capable. But, if you fail to overcome your limiting beliefs, you’ll lose your stakeholders' trust and your team's control.

5. “I don’t have enough time to think strategically.”

When working on big change initiatives, it can, at times, be hard to see the wood from the trees. Because of this, many project managers think they’re failing because they aren’t being strategic enough.

Especially at the project level, strategic thinking isn’t always required, so there’s a chance you’re worrying yourself over nothing. In fact, strategic thinking is more commonly aligned with program management as projects are often smaller in size, scope, and value.

Spend time working on unnecessary strategy, and there’s a chance you’ll miss what’s right in front of you. That may lead to your team missing deadlines, now identifying critical risks, or falling victim to scope creep.

6. “I’m not confident enough to manage this project. It will fail.”

Projects don’t happen in their own world. There’s a lot that can go wrong, with risks, issues, and challenges around every corner.

As a project manager, you need to have confidence that you can manage the twists and turns and arm yourself with the resilience to keep pushing forward. But resilience is like a muscle that needs strengthening. If you’re stressed, or on the edge of burnout, it can be easy to lose your confidence.

If you believe you’re not confident enough, you risk your limiting beliefs becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a project manager, you must stay focused to keep the team moving toward the objective.

How to get rid of the limiting beliefs that are holding you back

So, you know what to look out for, but what do you actually do when a limiting belief comes into your head?

Let’s find out as we walk through a 6-step action plan you can use to defeat your limiting beliefs before they become an issue.

Recognize your own beliefs and behaviors

To begin overcoming your limiting beliefs, first, you need to identify them. Most of the time, these negative thoughts come into your head during times of stress and discomfort, so keep an eye on your work-life balance.

But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, limiting beliefs are unconscious and manifest in your day-to-day behaviors. While these can be harder to identify, some honest self-reflection will help you uncover these more profound limiting beliefs.

Actions you can take right now:

A real-life example:

Faith is a project manager at TurboCode, an application development company. Faith is working on a high-profile project and, after only two weeks, has begun questioning her abilities. She’s been having limiting thoughts and shying away from engaging with her project sponsor, regularly canceling meetings, and only communicating via email.

Use the "5 Whys" technique to analyze the cause of your limiting belief

No matter how big or small, your limiting beliefs will always have a root cause.

Image showing the side of a male face with the causes of limiting beliefs in separate bubbles around his head. Limiting beliefs in the bubbles are negative past experiences, imposter syndrome, fear of failure and deeper psychological reasons.

While there may be some deeper psychological reasons, in most circumstances, limiting beliefs in the workplace stem from a negative past experience, imposter syndrome, or a fear of failure.

With your limiting beliefs identified, the next step is to trace them back to their root cause, understanding where they stem from and what’s caused them to arise.

Actions you can take right now:

A real-life example:

Faith reflects on the limiting beliefs about her abilities. She identifies something that went wrong in a meeting on her previous project where a stakeholder was rude to her, creating a deeply upsetting negative experience. That same stakeholder works on her current project as the Sponsor.

Get some perspective from the world around you

Limiting beliefs tend to grow and grow in our minds. Once you have an idea in your head, even if you’ve investigated the root cause, it can quickly consume everything you do. This is when limiting beliefs can become dangerous and affect those around you.

A great way to begin dispelling limiting beliefs is to get some perspective by considering your wider environment. Especially in a work setting, it’s easy to forget that there are far more important things in the world than your project, and if things go wrong, the consequences aren’t actually that severe.

Actions you can take right now:

A real-life example:

Faith sits down with her manager to discuss how she’s feeling. Faith’s manager offers some perspective on the situation, reminding her of the success of her previous project despite the negative experience. Faith’s manager also suggests she speaks to another project manager, Jack, who has experience with the same Sponsor and how best to manage them.

Create positive affirmations to change your belief system

Positive affirmations are a silver bullet for defeating limiting beliefs. Affirmations are positive statements that can help you challenge and overcome self-sabotaging and negative thoughts — so they’re perfect for limiting beliefs.

Positive affirmations have the best results when written down and said aloud and are part of many project managers’ daily routines. A great example of reframing a limiting belief as a positive affirmation is:

Turning “I’m not good enough to manage this project” to “I have the skills and experience to manage projects for my stakeholders”.

Actions you can take right now:

A real-life example:

After meeting with her manager, Faith takes some of the feedback and turns it into a set of affirmations to tell herself daily. Faith focuses her affirmations on confidence, reminding herself of occasions she has effectively managed tricky stakeholders.

If you fail to overcome your limiting beliefs, you’ll lose your stakeholders’ trust and your team’s control.

Test your new beliefs and put plans in place for the future

It’s now time to take your new beliefs for a spin, working with your team to lead and manage a great project!

Armed with your positive affirmations, work at your speed to take on the things you thought you couldn’t do, and watch for evidence of your success. But remember, limiting beliefs can strike at any time, so put good habits and plans in place to prevent triggers such as stress in the future.

Do that, and we’re sure you’ll realize those limiting beliefs were completely false, and you have the power to do whatever you set your mind to!

Actions you can take right now:

Screenshot of a Planio Agile board showing the tasks in each status and colored according to their priority and each have a progress bar so you know how far along the task is coming.

A real-life example:

Faith uses her daily affirmations to build her confidence with her Sponsor. She schedules regular meetings with him and decides to tackle new challenges head-on. The team is pleased with how the project progresses and praises Faith for her strong leadership. Faith also puts some good habits in place for personal organization and time management to help her keep anxiety at bay moving forward.

The bottom line: Don’t let limiting beliefs hold you back

Limiting beliefs are the false opinions we have about ourselves that hold us back and negatively impact those around us. Limiting beliefs can strike at any time, but given the stressful nature of project management, they’re more likely to strike people like you.

But the good news is you’re not alone. The trick to defeating limiting beliefs is identifying them earlier, understanding the root cause, and fighting them off with positive affirmations. Do that, and we’re confident you’ll stay on top form and deliver excellent projects.

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