Stop coaching "limiting beliefs"

In one of our recent meet-ups, I was asked “how Solution Focus deals with limiting beliefs”. My answer was short (and maybe not sweet): “We don’t”. Solution Focus differs from other approaches in that it looks at people in interaction rather than at “inner mechanism”. You could say that we take the psycho out of psychology. As a social constructionist approach, Solution Focus is interested in the emergence of new identities rather than “understanding” (in our words “constructing”) the old. In this blog, I’d like to give a short overview of how other approaches conceptualize and “treat” limiting beliefs and then offer the Solution Focused alternative. “Limiting beliefs” are mentioned in many forms of psychotherapy and therefore, also in the coaching methods that are based on them. In the following, I would like to give an overview of my understanding of these approaches in the hope that I am doing my best to present them as they would like to be presented to avoid creating a strawman argument. If I got something wrong, let me know.

Cognitive behavioral therapy might treat “limiting beliefs” under the heading of a “cognitive distortion”, a thought that someone holds which is not true. Cognitive distortions may be unconscious, not known to the client. The task of the therapist is to identify the distortion and make the client aware of it, so that the client can then change the belief or distortion that is the obstacle to becoming better. The position of the therapist here is one of an observer and maybe also of an analyzer. When the therapist has identified a cognitive distortion which is unknown to the client and the client does not agree that it is a “distortion” but thinks that their belief is true, the client can become “resistant” in the eyes of the therapist. In Solution Focused coaching, we would not take the stance of an objective observer but rather do our best to collaborate with the client. We would think that if we think the client is “resistant”, we are in the wrong and need to work on listening more closely.

Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Therapy (Albert Ellis Institute, 2014) also uses the concept of “limiting beliefs” and even has a nice mnemonic for it: ABC. An activating trigger (A) for the false belief (B) and the consequences (C) that flow from the false belief. Understanding the activating trigger and coming to a new belief is recommended as a course of action for the therapist. In Solution Focus, we would not go looking for “activating triggers” because this might lead to a re-activation. Rather than asking for the story of the trigger (which is usually linked to the problem of the client), we would invite the client to speak about their responses to the problem, instances in which they were able to act like they want to act and explore those.

Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) is based on the analysis of inner human structures as they present themselves in language. Dilts (1990) identifies 5 levels of inner organization: (1) environment and external constraints, (2) behavior, (3) mental  maps and strategies defining capabilities, (4) capabilities organized by belief systems and (5) beliefs organized by identity. An NLP practitioner can identify limiting beliefs by the language a client uses. For example, the client may be using presumptive language, language which “hides” a presupposition, e.g. “I don’t have time to go to the gym” hides the presupposition that time is the limiting factor and not, for example, prioritization. Challenging the presupposition might help the client see that they have more agency in the matter than they thought they had. Solution Focus would assume that the client has good reasons to think the way they think and rather than challenging the presupposition would invite the client to “suppose you had more time”, for example. Also, we would not look at the person as an “individuum” in control of their inner workings but treat our clients as embedded in relationships which contribute to what the client thinks about themselves.

Solution Focus does not “believe” in “limiting beliefs”. A “belief” is an unjustified reification, something that is made into a thing (latin: re) by language which is not a thing. A “belief” is something that is observed from the outside and shown in a person’s action. For example, if you believe that we have some peanut M&Ms left, you will go to the drawer with the sweets where they usually are (not knowing that I have eaten them, which makes it a “false belief”). So rather than go look “into” the human being, we would look at interactions and descriptions of preferred realities.

Examples of situations in which other approaches would identify a “limiting belief” are

• I don’t deserve…

• I am not strong enough for…

• I am too old for …

• I will never be able to…

Ways of working with situations like this in a Solution Focused or social constructionist way would be:

Accepting that this is what the client thinks right now

We would not argue with the client and let the client’s description stand. We then might explore what kind of relationship the client would like with this statement. Does the client want to explore what they would like to believe instead, would they like to prove that statement wrong, is it actually sometimes even a helpful statement that they want to retain (or parts of which they want to retain).

Exploring the preferred future

Suppose the client had the relationship with the statement that they would like, what would that look like? What might they be noticing that is different? We would ask for a detailed description of who would notice what and what the interactions look like.

Client: “I would like to feel I deserve care from others.”

Coach: “Suppose you felt like that, what would be the first sign that would tell you?”

Client: “When I wake up, I would not feel guilty to ask my husband for a cup of coffee.”

Coach: “What might you feel instead?”

Client: “I would feel joy and gratitude.”

Coach: “How might your husband notice this feeling of joy and gratitude?”

Exploring instances of the preferred future already happening

We would invite the client to talk about instances in the past where they already felt like they want to feel or acted like they want to act or thought the way they want to think. These instances may contain valuable hints for the future. They also say something about the client and their abilities. Exploring these instances in rich detail paints a different picture of who the client is and opens new ways of thinking about themselves for the client.

Maybe the way Solution Focused coaching helps clients in these situations is not much different from what other approaches do. What I like about it, however, is that Solution Focus keeps me in the role of a partner of the client. I center the client and I collaborate with them. I am not analyzing or thinking I know something about the client that the client has yet to discover about themselves.


Albert Ellis Institute. (2014). Rational emotive & cognitive-behavior therapy. The Albert Ellis Institute. Retrieved from (last accessed March 30, 2023)

Boden, M. T., John, O. P., Goldin, P. R., Werner, K., Heimberg, R. G., & Gross, J. J. (2012). The role of maladaptive beliefs in cognitive-behavioral therapy: Evidence from social anxiety disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 50(5), 287-291.

Dilts, Robert (1990): Changing belief systems with NLP.

If you would like to explore these or other topics, discuss a case, learn about our program or simply hang out with us, why not join us for one of our free meetups and exchange sessions?

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