On a recent Late Late Show two of my heroes, Bruce Springsteen and the broadcaster Jeremy Paxman, talked separately of their struggles with self-doubt. Springsteen talked of sometimes feeling like “a charlatan” and how in moments of enormous success (like being on the cover of Newsweek and Time magazines in the same week!) his response was “let me out of here”, meaning he was unable to enjoy the success he had worked so hard for.
It was reassuring and refreshing to hear them talk about such feelings of inadequacy. I certainly identified with what they were talking about, having such feelings regularly – probably most days.
It’s not just Bruce, Jeremy and me! A recent study of senior business leaders published in Harvard Business Review showed the number one fear of CEOs was "being found to be incompetent”. The impostor syndrome, the author of the study, Roger Jones, says, not only diminishes their self-confidence but also undermines their relationship with others – in the workplace and out of it.
Lack of self-worth is one of the biggest self-erected barriers to building the lives we aspire to. So what can we do to overcome the gremlins of self-doubt that have such a debilitating effect on us and limit us from doing what we could and would like to do, that stop us from being our best selves?
Here are three things which I find help:
1. Recognise your prejudice against yourself
“All actors search for rejection, and if they don’t get it they reject themselves.” Charlie Chaplin
Thinking of those internal gremlins as prejudiced against us makes it easier to question and challenge these voices. The leading British psychologist Paul Gilbert, in his book The Compassionate Mind, suggests we should observe the way we talk to ourselves. He says that many of us talk to ourselves in a way that we would regard as completely unacceptable to use with another person. Recognising this is a good first step to showing yourself a little more kindness and compassion.
On tough days I find that asking myself the question, “If I was to be more compassionate and kind to myself today what would I do differently?” can encourage me to rearrange priorities or cut myself some slack.
2. What’s the worst thing that can happen?
“What if I fall? Oh, my darling, what if you fly?” Erin Hanson
We are hard-wired to feel fear: it is there to help us to survive physically. However as the psychologist Maureen Gaffney observes, “Most of the time we are not fighting for our physical survival. But we are almost always striving for what we see as our emotional survival” (from Flourishing).
Michael Neill, a renowned coach, in his book You Can Have What You Want, suggests three questions to ask when we are feeling afraid of not being good enough:
i. What’s the worst that can happen if the fear came to pass?
ii. What’s the best possible outcome for me or for others if I “felt the fear and did it anyway”?
iii. What’s more likely to happen than either of those two things?
Personally, on my deathbed I would rather be regretting things I did rather than things I didn’t, and this serves to drive me on to do things (like writing this blog) that fill me with fear.
The more we look at the fears that hold us back in a questioning way, the more we understand that in many cases the loss we will feel will be far greater if we don’t do something – despite the fear – than if we do it.
3. Find (or create) your tribe
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Mary Oliver
We all need to have people in our lives who make sure that we don’t sell ourselves short, that we don’t settle for less than we should in life, and who cheer us on. People who know our vulnerabilities and imperfections, but also can see our strengths and gifts, and recognise our potential – even when we are blind to it.
I am lucky enough to have a few such wise people in my life, people who demand I make the best of myself. As one friend described them to me, “People who scare the bejesus out of you.... for your own good”. Some of them are in my life all the time; some have come in, asked a few provocative questions of me, and then disappeared out of my life.
Can you recognise people who play this role in your life? If you don’t feel you have this support network – look around you and see who might be there who could help. Try it out, ask for help – I am continually impressed by the generosity of people, their willingness to give me an hour for a coffee and advice... and sometimes much more.
My grandmother, who when I was a child was a doctor and nun in Africa, told me that there were occasions when she was faced with patients who would die if they were not operated on immediately. The nearest hospital was more than 500 miles away across bush terrain, so she faced a choice – operate on them or watch them die. She had no training as a surgeon – but she had a book on surgery. She would open the book and ask her deceased brother-in-law, who had been a surgeon, to help her, and she would operate! She said she never lost a patient!
I love the idea of creating a virtual tribe, our own personal advisors or cheerleaders who can help us in overcoming our doubts about being good enough. Why not call in Jane Austen to help you to write that novel, Einstein to help you in making that technical breakthrough, or your grandfather to give you courage as you go into an interview?
When we tap into this support, that says we are OK, gifted and loved, we send a message to our mind that soothes our anxiety and fears.
Overcoming our feelings of inadequacy, of not being good enough, takes courage and compassion... but it’s so much better than the alternative – playing small, and squandering our gifts. As the Boss sings, “Baby, we were born to run!”