By Ron Carucci
At some point, most of us feel paralyzed with a sense of inadequacy. A boss asks us to present a project in a meeting. We have the chance to put our hat in the ring for a plum assignment or bigger job. We dream about publishing an article or speaking publically. Regardless of the trigger, feeling inferior is most commonly provoked in the face of opportunities to desire something more.
At moments of great potential, our hyper-vigilance compiles unreliable data to make the case for why we, in fact, aren’t good enough for the opportunity at hand. With think to ourselves, “Who am I to….” or “Why would anyone take me seriously if I….” Given how intimately our inner critics know us, they have the most insidious, personalized ways of raising those doubts. “You’ll make an idiot of yourself if you attempt….” Or “There’s NOTHING special about YOU!” or “There’s no way you can compete with Sue for that job.” It’s an age old dilemma. William Shakespeare wrote in his play, Measure for Measure, “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”
As is the case with any bully, our inner critics need to be stood up to, firmly and honestly. Stomping our foot in a petulant declaration, “I am TOO good enough!” isn’t going to cut it. You need to stare down the bully with disconfirming information that squarely refutes the most tantalizing self-doubts. Here are some of the more common ploys used by our inner critic bullies, and how to fight back.
Choose comparison yardsticks wisely. We’re all prone to compare ourselves to others we want to emulate, whose accomplishments fill us with envy. Their awards, social media following, wealth, looks, titles, favor with others, all conspire to convince us of our inadequacy. Comparing ourselves to people we could never be on parity with is foolish and takes you out of the game. If you’re a new writer, comparing yourself to a Pulitzer Prize winning multi-bestselling author only deflates you. But the truth is, having a “pace horse” to which you can create a fair comparison can serve as a motivator to keep reaching for more. My coach recently asked me to make a list of fellow professionals I sought to emulate (and yes, made me envious) but who had achievements I could reasonably aspire to make as well. I isolated what it was that made me envious that I’d want, was clear on why I wanted it (achieving something just to say you did it is a costly endeavor –better to serve clear professional goals), and went about learning how the person achieved what they did to see what might apply to my plan. Just as marathon road bike racers draft off other riders, having others to draft off of, and learn from, can be motivating, not discouraging. You just have to pick a realistic comparison set.
Don’t project your doubts onto others. When our inner-critics fill our heads with lengthy inventories of our inadequacies and reasons not to try, our limbic brain (where our emotional flight instincts reside) naturally normalizes those conclusions. The next step is often to project them onto others. Our inner evidence bank declares, “Well given the preponderance of data proving how inadequate you are, surely (fill in name of person whose approval you desire) thinks the same of you.” Our rational minds know this to be faulty, but our limbic brains just can’t help themselves. Don’t try and settle the inner argument about what so-in-so believes about you. Just go ask them – here’s how to do that. If you really want to know how someone important to you views your strengths and development opportunities, better to get the real data instead of making it up. They are likely far more objective than you are, and far less harsh. (HINT: resist the temptation to dismiss their praise of your strengths and assume they are downplaying your gaps). Which leads to my final point….
Lean into real gaps, don’t embellish them. Caution – blinding flash of the obvious approaching…. You are highly imperfect. And anytime one of our shortfalls shows up, proving our inner critic’s point, the accuser screams, “You see! I told you that you sucked!” And often, our natural response is to amplify the magnitude of those shortfalls, large enough so they completely eclipse the inventory of our talents. Holding the paradoxical tensions between being brilliant at some things, ok at some things, and completely lousy at others, can be very difficult. Once again, our brains play tricks on us. Our cognitive biases only want to believe (and embellish) one list at a time. Our self-affirmation bias wants to maintain a positive self-perception, so we downplay shortfalls. Until they show up. Then our brains spotlight only those weaknesses, negating the efficacy of our strengths. Learning to hold the truth of both is the key to disarming our inner critic’s ability to rub our noses in places we lack greater ability. Having one or two developmental goals, the discipline to work on them with help from others, track honest progress, and celebrate the acquisition new muscles, is your greatest ally in the war against the inner prosecutor finding you guilty of being defective.
The most sinister part of your inner critic’s ploy when inviting you to ask, “Am I good enough?” is the implied false binary within the question. You’re either lured to believe their answer of, “Well, duh, no!” or you’re forced into a lame pep talk of “Yes I am! Yes I am! Yes I am!” Self-honesty is your ultimate checkmate. The honest answer is, “Yes and no.” Whatever the opportunity is at hand, or the kindling ambition needing to be flamed, you bring great things to the table, and you bring gaps needing to be shored up. Next time that inner menacing finger points at you with a shaming voice of exaggerated critique, raise a different finger right back in its face, and give the honest answer instead. Then, go about your plan proving that your self-honest answer was right.