“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford
This quote by Henry Ford is pretty much on the money.
Self-belief is essential for success. But too often, we set out to achieve something without believing that we can do it. As a result, we may end up procrastinating or not even starting. Or sometimes, we go through the motions of working towards it, without feeling convinced that we’ll succeed.
Not believing in ourselves — having limiting beliefs — will determine what we’ll achieve in our life.
What are limiting beliefs?
Limiting beliefs are false thoughts or opinions that you believe to be the truth. Limiting beliefs have a negative impact on your life because they put boundaries and limitations to what we believe is possible. They can stop you from achieving your goals by preventing you from even starting something, or by causing you to self-sabotage your efforts because you don’t believe you’ll succeed anyway.
Where do they come from?
Self-limiting beliefs can come from the family system we grew up with. For example, if you grew up with parents who believed it was too late for them to change careers after 40, you’re likely to believe the same thing.
They can also come from different things that happen during your life. For example, if you had a partner who cheated on you, you may believe that relationships aren’t worth it because you’ll only get hurt.
How do limiting beliefs shape your identity?
Your identity is shaped by what you believe to be true about yourself. This can be positive or negative. For example, if you were told you painted a great picture, you may believe that you’re a good painter and therefore develop an identity as an artist. On the other hand, if you were told you didn’t read very well, you’re likely to believe that you’re not good at reading, and then develop an identity of someone who is not a reader.
The more you repeat a behaviour, the more you reinforce that identity because you create ‘evidence’ that supports these beliefs. So by not reading, you have evidence that you’re not a reader, and you therefore reinforce your identity as someone who doesn’t read. While on the other hand, the person who believes they are good at painting continues to paint and reinforces their identity as an artist.
How does shame fit in?
Sometimes events that happen to us can cause us to feel shame, especially if they were negative events that happened to us when we were young and unable to process things properly. According to Brené Brown, shame is:
“the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. ‘I am bad.’ ‘I am a mess’. The focus is on self, not behaviour, with the result that we feel alone. Shame is never known to lead us toward positive change.”
Shame makes us focus inward and view ourselves in a negative way. It causes us to believe that there is something wrong with us and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. This belief that we are so flawed can cause us to develop feelings of low self-worth.
Shame can be fleeting or it can become toxic. Toxic shame is the shame that persists and contaminates how you see yourself and causes you to have a negative view of who you are. This can have a lasting impact, and affect many areas of your life, including your weight.
How shame, identity and limiting beliefs affect your weight
To explain how shame, identity and limiting beliefs can affect your weight, we’re going to share a case study. This is the real story of one of our clients, Nerissa. It’s her story of how a traumatic event caused her to feel shame, and how that shame shaped her identity and caused her to form limiting beliefs, which in turn impacted her weight.
Trauma that led to shame
Many people believe that trauma is only related to accidents, serious illness, acts of violence, verbal or sexual abuse, or natural disasters. But trauma can occur as a response to any event that is physically, emotionally or psychologically harmful or distressing.
I experienced trauma when I was very young. It’s only recently that I have been able to see that this event was a form of trauma, because it shaped my life from the moment it occurred and the effects of the event have stayed with me ever since. I still sometimes cry when I think about it.
I say this not for sympathy, but to let other people who may have experienced something similar that they are not alone in their feelings, and that they don’t need to carry the shame that often comes with a traumatic event.
I have carried my shame and held onto it tightly for 46 years. This shame caused me to form an identity that shaped my future and saw me struggle with weight, low self-worth and self-doubt.
My traumatic event occurred when I was 4 years old. It happened when I overheard someone comment that I was getting ‘chubby’. It may not seem like a big deal to some people, but back in the mid-70s, being chubby or overweight was one of the worst things you could be.
With the wisdom I have now, I understand the comment was made by someone who didn’t know me nor have my best interests at heart. I actually don’t know why they said it, because photos of me at 4 years old show that I was a normal-sized, healthy and happy girl.
But as soon as those words came out of that man’s mouth, my life changed.
In the seconds after hearing those words, I felt ashamed of my body and questioned its validity. I felt a burning shame about what my body looked like. I felt embarrassed, and I wanted to hide. And because an adult had said such a thing, I believed it to be true — because adults knew everything, right?
As a 4-year-old I had no ability to process such comments. I took the comments at face value, and believed them wholeheartedly.
This event caused me to identify as someone who was fatter than she should have been, and therefore needed to lose weight. Yep. That’s what I believed at 4-years of age.
Shame about my body’s ability
Not only did I feel shame about what my body looked like, I developed shame around what it couldn’t do. As a child I was not the fastest runner nor was I good at swimming. On sports days, I’d always come last in the 100m sprint, and because I hated putting my face under the water, I was never a great freestyle swimmer. I was also pretty bad at jumping as well. I think I made it over the lowest bar on the high-jump once in my life. And my first (and last) attempt at hurdles saw me have a nasty accident.
The kids at primary school laughed and teased me about how slow I was when I ran, how I could never get over the high jump, or how bad I swam at our weekly swimming lessons. I was already carrying the shame of what my body looked like, and now layered over the top of that, there was shame about what my body couldn’t do.
So as soon as sport was no longer compulsory at high school, I opted out, believing that I was no good at anything, deeply ashamed that I wasn’t as athletic as my peers.
Comparing myself with others
The identity of being someone who needed to lose weight caused me to question my body so much that from a very young age, I was extremely conscious of what I looked like and often felt uncomfortable in my own body.
I compared myself with other people all the time, always feeling ashamed because I believed I was ‘bigger’ than they were. As I became a teenager and my body and the bodies of my friends changed, I noticed that my body shape was different to theirs.
Not understanding that it’s normal for people have different body shapes, I believed that the hourglass shape was the ultimate goal. I didn’t have the characteristic defined waist of an hourglass. My shape was more straight up and down like a column. And even though my body was lean, I still believed that I was overweight. So I started dieting to whittle my body into an hourglass shape.
Of course, you can’t change a column into an hourglass. However, I didn’t have that awareness and so I began to believe that I couldn’t lose weight because my body shape wouldn’t change.
Living with the identity of someone who was overweight blinded me to my own reality. At 17 years old, I weighed 59kg. I remember this clearly because we all had to write down our body weight for a Physics experiment. But I thought I was fat because the girl I sat next to (who had a very petite build and was shorter than me), weighed 45kg. Because I compared myself all the time, all I could see was that I was 14kg heavier than her – which equated to overweight.
Failed diet after failed diet
Obsession with weight, body shape and dieting took its hold in my 20s. I would jump from one diet to another, often ending up bingeing because I was eating so little during the day. I also used to use food to soothe my emotions. I look back at photos of me from those times and I didn’t even look like I needed to lose weight. But in my head, I was the chubby 4-year-old who had to lose weight in order to feel worthy.
With every failed diet, I slowly began to take on another layer to my identity. I became the girl who needs to lose weight but struggles to do so.
I now know that I never needed to lose weight in the first place. And it’s only really been the last 15 years where my physical weight became problematic — after children and after decades of screwing up my metabolism by following diet after diet.
The emotional weight I carried weighed more than my body did.
But back then, I didn’t know any of this. I believed I was overweight, and I lived and thought as if I was. I lived my life in constant pursuit of the ideal body. I tried so many things – shakes, counting calories, several diets found in books or magazines, and Weight Watchers. But nothing made a difference. What I did notice though is that after every diet, I’d slowly start to gain any weight I lost, so horrified at the thought of becoming bigger than I already was, I’d go on another diet. I’d lose weight, go off it but in a few months, the weight would be back, plus a little extra.
My identity was well and truly the girl who needed to lose weight but constantly struggles with it.
After several years at Weight Watchers, I managed to lose 16kg. The weight didn’t come off easily. It was a constant battle. I became obsessive about counting points, weighing myself (up to 6 times a day), watching what I ate, worrying about my diet, planning my life around eating or not eating, and never fully engaging in life. My dieting behaviors were obsessive and my mental health was bad. Really bad. I was paying a very high price in the pursuit of the ideal diet that would shrink my body.
An unrealistic picture
I now look at photos of me after I had lost the weight and think I looked amazing. But the shame about my body and my identity as a fat person blinded me to what I really looked like. Inside, I still felt overweight, ashamed, and embarrassed. I hid from photos and constantly worried about what I looked like and what people thought of me.
After a while, no matter how hard I worked, I just couldn’t lose any more weight. I was only about 7kg from my goal weight, which I actually now believe was dangerously low, but by Weight Watchers’ standards, I was still ‘overweight’. This, of course, fed into my identity as the chubby girl who couldn’t lose weight.
I became depressed and frustrated as I slowly began to gain weight again. At the time, I didn’t understand that this was a physiological response caused by a really screwed-up metabolism. I simply believed that there was something wrong with me because another diet had failed. I had failed — again.
And so, my identity morphed for the third time. Not only was I the girl who needed to lose weight, I was now also the girl who couldn’t lose weight. Because all the evidence so far had proved that I couldn’t.
The shame I felt about this was immense. I began hiding behind a mask, still going through the motions of dieting but never really believing that I could lose weight. I just hoped I would. I thought that if I was seen to be trying to do something about it, then I wouldn’t be judged. Because to be judged again for my body, would surely break me.
Doing something different
In December 2017, I knew I needed to do something completely different and so I committed to undergoing a Body & Lifestyle Transformation with Imani Tribe Transformations. I have documented various stages of my journey and you can read these in the following blogs The price of a quick fix and If I knew then what I know now about diets and weight loss.
The thing about transformation with Imani is that it is NOT about food and nutrition. It’s about ‘unbecoming’ the person we currently are, and becoming the person we were meant to be all along. It’s about ‘unlearning’ habits and patterns of behaviours and thoughts that no longer serve us, and developing new ones, so we can have the life we really want — to lose weight and gain confidence. It’s about learning to be your authentic self and not hiding anymore.
Time to let go of shame
I have done a lot of work in the past few years on unlearning and unbecoming. But recently I’ve come to understand that the shame I have been holding onto for the past 46 years, and the identity I have been walking around with has been holding me back. And it’s now time to let them go.
It’s time to let go of the shame that has caused me to stay silent about what that person said about me all those years ago.
It’s time to stop feeling ashamed for what my body couldn’t do all those years ago, and what I still find challenging, and celebrate what it can do and be proud that I’m working on the things that I find hard.
It’s time to be vulnerable and courageous and speak about the shame that has controlled me for most of my life.
Bringing shame into the light
Shame makes me want to run and hide. It makes me want to run from all the hard work I’m doing and not show up at all. It makes me cringe at photos of myself, especially those on social media. It makes me feel embarrassed for carrying extra weight and self-conscious about how I look. It makes me want to go quiet and not talk about it at all.
But ironically, the only way to get rid of shame is to bring it out into the light — to speak about it, to voice it, to share the story of your shame. It’s a scary thing to do. It requires courage and vulnerability. But it’s the only way because shame thrives in the darkness, but it dies in the light.
Voicing my shame is a new thing for me. In recent weeks, I’ve finally been able to voice the shame around my body that I have felt for so long. It was terribly hard at first, but it is getting easier. Shame still rears its ugly head, but I am now aware of what that feeling is, and how to manage it. And every day, the shame is getting less.
A new identity
Part of letting go of the shame is understanding how my identity of being the overweight girl who can’t lose weight feeds into it. And so, in order to rid myself of the shame, I have to learn to identify as someone else.
You see, what I have learned — and it’s been a painful learning, as I look back on how much my life has been affected by the words that I heard when I was only 4 years old — is that I was never a chubby girl who needed to lose weight. I never needed to go on all those diets in the first place. And, it’s only because of dieting that my weight became a problem.
My body was never the problem. My identity was.
So, I’m no longer identifying as the person who is overweight and can’t lose weight.
I’m identifying as the person I’ve always wanted to be.
- Confident and happy in her body.
- Able to wear whatever clothes she likes
- Strong and self-assured
- Proud of what she looks like
- Someone who celebrates and loves her body.
I’m saying goodbye to the girl who is overweight and can’t lose weight.
And hello to a sexy woman who celebrates her body in all its forms, and who will never be defined by her weight, other people’s opinions of her body, or the need to diet again.
Changing my identity will require work. But most importantly, it will require a conscious choice every day of who I want identify as.
And that is the work that I’m now focusing on.
Healing from the past, and building a new identity.
How to change your identity
As you can see shame, identity, and limiting beliefs can impact your life enormously and actually lead to weight gain.
The good news is that you don’t have to let it continue to shape you. You can learn to get rid of the shame you feel, change your identity, and drop the limiting beliefs that are holding you back, so you can finally be on the path to lose the weight you’ve always struggled with.
The easiest way to change your identity is to choose who you want to be and embody the personal traits, behaviours and habits of that person.
For example, if you want to be a sexy woman, ask yourself what are the traits of a sexy woman. What do they do?
If you want to be a peak performer, ask yourself what are the traits of a peak performer. What do peak performers do?
Because every time you practice those traits you reinforce that identity. For example, every time you go for a walk, you reinforce the identity that you are someone who looks after their body.
It’s as simple as that.
If you have let your limiting beliefs, identity as an overweight person and accompanying shame hold you prisoner and you’re ready to free yourself, we can help you, just as we have helped Nerissa.
All you have to do is say ‘yes’.