The Power of Self-Limiting Beliefs

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Here’s a great story to illustrate the power of self-limiting beliefs and a thought about how we can apply it to dyslexic learners. A man in India was once passing a group of elephants, when he suddenly stopped in his tracks. Here were these giant animals, all docilely standing near one another, each one tied by a length of rope to small sticks poked in the ground. How could such massive, strong creatures be restrained by hemp rope tied to sticks smaller than his wrist?

The animals’ trainer approached, so the man asked him how he was able to control the elephants with only sticks and rope. “Why don’t the elephants pull free? Why do they stay where you want them to stay when anyone can see that they could break free whenever they wish?”

The trainer answered, “When they are born, we place a chain around their leg, and chain them to a rock. For several days, the baby elephants pull and pull against their restraint, and eventually see that they cannot break free. The chain and rock are always stronger than the baby’s efforts. It is conditioning. Once the baby believes they won’t ever be able to move and break free, all I need to control them for the rest of their lives is a rope around their leg attached to a stick.”

Cartoon showing a content adult elephant eating hay while tied to a small stick with a thing rope. In the foreground, a baby elephant is tied to a heavy rock with a big chain and it struggles to escape.

The man was shocked. Even though the elephants now had more than enough strength to escape their restraints, they never tried again, because they had failed to do so when they were young. They had stopped trying due to believing they were powerless against this limitation.

This parable has such meaning for all of us. How many beliefs that we formed in childhood shape what we believe is possible (or impossible) for us throughout our life? How many gifts and talents have been lost due to the power of self-limiting beliefs?

As dyslexics, unchallenged childhood beliefs are especially limiting and they can include any or all of the following:

  • I’m slow
  • I’m stupid
  • I’m broken
  • I’m ashamed
  • I can’t do anything right
  • No matter how hard I try, I can’t find a way to make my brain work
  • If I failed once, there’s no point in trying again, since the same thing will happen

As parents and educators, helping our children prevent or see the inaccuracy of these beliefs is the goal of social and emotional learning. Without it, they run the risk of being unaware of how powerful and strong they actually are.

With all of us making social and emotional learning a priority, may there never again be a child who believes that having dyslexia means that their only choice is to give up and stay stuck.

Baby elephant running free, no longer under the influence of the power of self-limiting beliefs (figuratively). It's really just a cute baby elephant running around.

For a thorough discussion of the social and emotional support children with dyslexia require, read my award-winning book, Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know, available in softcover, hardcover, eBook, and audio.

Cover of the book Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know by Don M. Winn

Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Amazon author page for more information.

One Comment

  1. Sinclair says:

    Lovely and thoughtful blog. Thank you, Mr. Winn

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