Intended for healthcare professionals


Combating the power of negative thinking

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 05 October 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6175
  1. Kathleen Sullivan, professional careers coach
  1. 1KS Coaching, London
  1. kath{at}


Uncovering and overcoming limiting beliefs can help you take an important career step, writes Kathleen Sullivan

A belief is not merely an idea the mind possesses, it is an idea that possesses the mind

—Robert Oxton Bolt

The mind is our strongest ally when it comes to unleashing our potential, but let’s be honest: the mind can also be our greatest enemy. When we stretch beyond our comfortable reach and venture into uncharted territory, sometimes we can feel stuck and unable to make real progress. This is the point at which our inner dialogue can either facilitate the way forward, bringing our aspirations and ambitious goals closer to us more quickly, or block our career path by putting seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the way.

When we take time to tune into our own internal monologue, we may be surprised by what we hear. Is there a particular belief about your abilities that you are holding on to that could be the very thing that is holding you back? Negative self talk, repeated over time, stores up in our subconscious mind to form a limiting belief and is often what lies beneath indecision and procrastination when it comes to making a bold career move.

Limiting beliefs

A limiting belief is based merely on an assumption that we have made about ourselves. What is interesting about these assumptions is that they are not necessarily true. Our beliefs are formed at a young age by repeated messages from parents, teachers, and friends that influence our sense of who we are and that in turn shape our view of what we believe we can achieve in life. This conditioning provides the blueprint for our future performance.

Take, for example, a young doctor who has developed a negative view of himself and his abilities. On receiving a poor exam result he may think, “Typical. I knew it would go horribly wrong. It always does.” Conversely, someone who has a more positive self belief may react quite differently, perhaps thinking, “That’s not like me at all. I’m sure I’ll sail through the exam next time.” Breaking through these blocks begins by gently challenging the limiting belief, looking rationally at the underlying assumption, asking whether it is true or untrue, and understanding how it impedes our progress.

Challenging our limiting assumptions

We can challenge our existing mindset in a number of ways by picking apart the reality and rebuilding it in a way that supports positive thinking. Incisive questions are a good tool for removing limiting beliefs by cutting through the negative self talk and assumptions from which they are formed.

Imagine that you have a career goal that takes you well outside your comfort zone. An example might be: “I would like to establish myself as a respected conference speaker in my field.” You may have doubts about how well you could pull this off because you’ve talked yourself into a negative mindset about this goal, justifying your inaction because you’ve not delivered a talk to a large audience before or have had negative experiences, with nerves getting the better of you.

The first step is to reframe your limiting assumption by identifying another assumption that is not only credible but liberating too. In the example above, this could be achieved by shifting the focus away from an established, negative pattern of self talk—“I always feel nervous and let myself down when speaking in public”—and suggesting an alternative, liberating assumption—“If I know that I am confident and articulate and well prepared, then how would I approach my next talk to gain respect from the audience?” You could also challenge the assumption by asking yourself if it is “always” the case that you come across as nervous and let yourself down and seeing whether there have been times when you were confident and in control.

Seeking alternative evidence

Look for the evidence that supports your alternative, liberating assumption and that flies in the face of a limiting belief. An effective method is to create a success log of your achievements. Identifying your successes and committing them to paper can help to alter the mind’s “antenna” so that it picks up other, more positive “facts” that support a more liberating, empowering belief and can form the basis of a positive affirmation—for example, “I am a confident, knowledgeable, and compelling speaker.”

It can take time to alter the focus of the antenna, but once the notebook starts to fill up with success stories or the affirmation rolls off your tongue, you will be surprised at how easy it is to find plenty of evidence to show your mind just what you are capable of and who is taking charge of your career.


  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Kathleen Sullivan ( is a professional coach and part time teaching fellow for Brighton and Sussex Medical School and Kent, Surrey and Sussex Deanery’s postgraduate programme, Managing Medical Careers. She will be running a seminar at this year’s BMJ Careers Fair on “Tactical careers: goal mapping in action” on Friday 19 and Saturday 20 October at the Business Design Centre in Islington, London. Register online at