My clients sometimes ask me whether I see a career ceiling in the legal industry or other professions that keeps women from being promoted and reaching their true potential.
My response: Absolutely. But there’s one that you might not know about.
There are definitely very real barriers to women aspiring to rise to the top echelons of their fields. Discrimination and bias unfortunately still exist across many industries. Family demands still fall disproportionally on women’s shoulders. Sexual harassment and unequal pay still exist. These barriers are real and any actionable cases of workplace gender discrimination or harassment should definitely be addressed in full force to the available legal and organizational support mechanisms. That’s the ceiling that we all know about and we should do everything in our power to obliterate it.
But there’s another ceiling that also needs to be understood.
The ceiling that I’m talking about here is a very real but invisible barrier that keeps female professionals from reaching the highest heights. It keeps us stuck, confused, and playing small.
The ceiling that I’m talking about exists in our own minds. It is the one that keeps you from believing that you are capable of achieving whatever you want to achieve. I call it the Belief Ceiling. If you don’t know about it, it can be hard to realize that it’s holding you back.
Once you discover that ceiling, you can smash it to pieces and continue your upward journey.
Understanding The Source Of The Belief Ceiling
The Belief Ceiling is a collection of beliefs, both conscious and unconscious. A belief is really just a thought that you continue to think until your brain believes that it’s the Truth. Sometimes beliefs come directly from what our parents or others told us when we were children. Sometimes they are conclusions that we reach from past experiences. Sometimes they seem like universal truths that we all accept.
When Roger Bannister broke the record of the four-minute mile (previously thought to be impossible) he shattered a collective Belief Ceiling. Shortly thereafter, other athletes started doing it too. Once they believed that it was possible, they expanded their abilities.
Whether you’re bumping up against a collective Belief Ceiling or one that is uniquely yours, the result is the same. When we tell ourselves that what we want isn’t available to us, our brains stop trying to find a way forward.
If you have thoughts that are limiting you, such as “I don’t know if I can do this” or “I don’t know how” or “I could never”, I can assure you that you’re not alone. I coach high-achieving women who have already attained success in their careers and they still grapple with thoughts like this each time they set a new, more challenging goal.
Humans have unlimited potential. I often marvel at the power of human ingenuity, especially when we have a compelling reason to break through our collective Belief Ceilings. And yet for most of us, our self-perception is so much smaller than our actual abilities. It limits us in ways that are difficult to see when we’re in the thick of it, trying to navigate our next move.
Part of doing the work we came here to do is learning how to recognize and break through the Belief Ceiling.
Here is what you need to know.
Don’t Confuse The Belief Ceiling With External Circumstances
One of the trickiest aspects of the Belief Ceiling is that your brain will tell you that something outside of you is keeping you stuck. For example, you might have thoughts like “women just can’t get ahead in this industry” or “I can’t win at work AND be present with my family”. And when you think thoughts like that, your brain will find plenty of supporting evidence to prove those thoughts true.
But even if there are real obstacles, telling yourself that they are impeding your progress is not a good use of your time, energy, and skills. Here’s why.
First, as you may have noticed, you can’t control external circumstances (including what other people say or do) and it’s mentally exhausting to try to change something that is not in your control or argue with what is.
More importantly, when you think that you’re being limited by an external circumstance (be it your boss, your employer, your colleagues, or systemic bias) you likely feel discouraged or maybe even defeated. And when you feel discouraged and defeated, what do you? How do you show up at your job? Confident, strong, and resilient? Probably not.
When you’re feeling discouraged or defeated, you probably shrink back or second-guess yourself. Perhaps ask yourself “what’s the point?” and stop trying. That’s because discouragement drives inaction almost 100% of the time. That is a problem because inaction doesn’t get you closer to your dreams.
But there’s another option. You can notice that there may be external obstacles without also believing that they have the power to keep you stuck. You can choose to think that your success is inevitable even when those external obstacles exist. How would you feel if you thought that? Determined? Committed?
How would you show up differently if you felt that way? I’m guessing that if you believed your success were inevitable and you felt committed to making that a reality, you would take action and get unstuck. Maybe you would get another job or maybe you would start your own business or maybe you would create the change you want to see exactly where you’re at. And if you committed to taking that kind of action, your success would be inevitable.
Your Belief Ceiling Is Hiding Options
My clients often come to me because they’re confused or lacking clarity about what to do next. But most of the time, after we explore possibilities, I find that they know exactly what they would like to do. They just don’t think they can actually do it because of the way they are currently thinking about themselves and their life circumstances. They have thoughts like “I’m not sure if I can do it” or “I might fail”.
I call these “dead-end thoughts” because nothing good can come from them. If you observe what happens in your own mind when you decide to think these types of thoughts, you can see that they lead you nowhere. They don’t help you actually get closer to what you want to do. They don’t help you figure it out. They create confusion and doubt, which inevitably drive inaction and keep us stuck.
But when you believe that you are capable of achieving any goal, you see clearly the options before you and it’s easier to figure out the one that you really want.
Notice What Is 100% Factual—And What Isn’t
One of the main problems with limiting thoughts and beliefs is that they feel so true to our brains. They feel like facts, not thoughts. That’s why it’s often difficult to separate out the facts from the thoughts in our own brains.
Facts are facts but thoughts are completely optional. If you see that a thought you’re having is keeping you stuck, you can decide to change it to a thought that feels more motivating.
For example, the thought “I don’t know what to do” feels really true when we’re struggling with a decision. Telling yourself “I don’t know” causes your creative mind to check out completely. It believes that thought and so it has no reason to go looking for solutions. And when you don’t find solutions, your mind uses that as evidence to reinforce the original belief.
But it’s not actually a fact that you don’t know what to do. The moment you absolutely have to make a decision, you pick an option and go with it and the world continues. “I don’t know” is an optional thought that keeps us stuck.
Conversely, it’s just as easy to think a more productive thought, such as “I am determined to figure this out.” This thought assumes that there is a solution and it brings your creative mind back online and ready to go to work to find a way forward.
This is not about positive affirmations that you don’t believe. It’s about shifting your thought patterns to focus on what is actionable to you. You do this by practicing thoughts that create the feelings that will drive you to take action and create the results you want.
Since thoughts are optional, there is no good reason to continue having thoughts that are keeping you stuck.
Applying This To Your Life
Our brains have the remarkable ability to form new neural connections throughout our lives, which are strengthened with use. This means that you can form new thoughts and new beliefs at any point in your life. In other words, you can shatter your current Belief Ceiling if you commit to discovering it and breaking through it.
Here are four steps to help you do that.
Step 1: Awareness. Become aware of the ways in which your current beliefs are holding you back. You can get a good look at them by answering these questions in writing:
- If I knew I could not fail, what would I do?
- What is keeping me from getting what I really want?
- Why am I feeling stuck?
Write down ALL of the things. Then take a step back to analyze what you’ve written. Circle the statements that are 100% factual. As in, everyone on the planet would agree with you. (For example, not everyone on the planet would agree that “there are no good work/life balance jobs out there.”) The statements that are not 100% factual are the thoughts and beliefs creating your belief ceiling.
Step 2: Observe the results. Notice what results those thoughts and beliefs are creating for you right now.
- How do those thoughts cause you to feel?
- What do those feelings drive you to do or not do?
- What are your results when you show up that way?
- Do those thoughts take you in the direction of what you want? Or do they keep you stuck?
Step 3: Notice how they are optional. Notice how these thoughts–like all thoughts– are 100% optional and decide whether you want to continue to have them.
- Who would you be without the limiting thoughts? What would your options be?
- How can you reframe your current thoughts in a way that will help you feel more motivated to take action and move toward your desired results?
- What is another thought that is just as true but more motivating?
Step 4: Choose a new belief. Create a new overarching belief that you can use to break through the beliefs in your Belief Ceiling.
What is one overarching belief that will crack your Belief Ceiling? What can you believe today that will help you begin to take action toward the results you want? “I can figure this out” is a good one. If you have trouble believing that you personally can figure it out, you might try a more de-personalized thought, like “there is a solution to this” or Marie Forleo’s famous phrase “everything is figureoutable”. If you believe there is a solution, your brain will go to work to find one.
Knowing that all thoughts and beliefs are optional and that you can direct your brain to create new beliefs just by being intentional about what you tell yourself, what are you going to choose to think about yourself and your abilities?
The limit is whatever you decide it is.