One of the biggest challenges in acting on our big dreams is this: it’s a part of our human nature to focus on self-preservation. Our fear of making big changes has been explored in scientific studies about behavioral economics. William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser first proved the existence of a human, “status quo bias,” in experiments conducted in the late 80s.
Participants were asked in a series of hypothetical questions about how they would react given a set of facts. The study found that it was most common for participants to answer with the choices that involved doing nothing new or maintaining their current or previous decision. This bias to focus on the status quo is often observed in real life. Think about the last time you choose from three or four different health plans at work. Did you go with the default? The one you chose last year? If you’re like most consumers, you choose the plan you knew or were familiar with (i.e. the safe option) or the one that was the default or middle ground (required less decision-making.)
It takes extra work to discover the pros and cons of the new health care plan on the list. It also opens you up for the potential to “choose wrong.” The fear of loss is weighed more heavily by the mind than the potential for finding new gains by choosing a new plan. Weighing losses more than potential positives is also a human tendency observed in behavioral economics, known as the “loss aversion bias.”
Status Quo Works Against Our Big Dreams
The same thing happens with us and our dreams for our life. We can often name what our big dreams are to our friends or our mentors and advisors. However, we often immediately discount or let go of them because the “safe” thing to do is to maintain the status quo. It’s a path we know well. Adding something uncertain to the mix can create fear of loss or be demotivating. An easy response to acting on our dreams would be to say, “not now,” because that lets us hold on to the dream while letting us off the hook for not taking any action toward achieving the big goal.
It’s also much easier to focus outwardly on the external journey of “adulting,” paying our bills, moving through a career progression, buying a house, having a family, and generally “doing what we’re supposed to be doing.” This represents the status quo. Working a new big project that fulfills a passion, taking a sabbatical, or changing a career to do something more fulfilling all represent a departure from the norm and the status quo. We avoid the hard work trying to examine whether our “adulting” and keeping to the status quo in our life decisions hurts or helps us getting to our big dreams.
Yet, simply being aware that we all have a bias toward keeping the status quo or averting potential loss is not enough to fix the flaws in our decision making.
The Inner Journey
That’s why I advocate for lessening the focus on the outward journey and instead focusing on the inner journey, so that we cannot just name our biggest dreams, but go about living them.
“It is easy – maybe too easy – to stop asking yourself what would make you happy and stay close to the things that you think will make you safe,” Sady Doyle, a feminist author once wrote. “This is wrong, and I will tell you why: you are never safe. Loss and change are constants. You will never be safe, and you may not always be happy – but you owe it to yourself to start asking the question.”
How do we start getting comfortable asking, “What will make me happy?” and trust the answer. How do we begin to feel OK making decisions which might take us away from the safe zones of what we know into the potential unsafe places of the unknown that represent our big dreams? The answer is inner work.
For some people this inner work may be about discovering lost memories, analyzing trauma in your life whether from childhood or adulthood. For many of us we have to learn how to be safe being vulnerable with our loved ones. Still others may need to learn to get comfortable with the gifts they already have, or work against imposter syndrome.
As I prepared to write The Resiliency Effect I researched or interviewed more than 50 people. I included those from the LGBTQ+ community, black people and other people of color. The common denominator of the women I profiled was that they made a big change to live a life more in sync with their purpose and passions.
They had untapped potential and found the courage to harness their creativity, their values, and a vision for creating a better community around them. The majority of them also experienced a period of burnout prior to making the big change. What I learned as I researched is that there were some common sources for their resiliency.
Many of them required a complete break or sabbatical from work to get their mindset right. Some of them spoke openly about work they had done in therapy to discover how adversities they, or their families, experienced were impacting them and creating limiting beliefs today. All of them spoke about self-reflection and discoveries they made about what truly provides energy and purpose in their lives. More than half pursued self-employment. More than half of those who are self-employed did so by changing their career path.
The book details four common themes from these discussions about resiliency: how to unlearn coping mechanisms, how being vulnerable can be a catalyst for change, the role cross functional learning plays in success, and ways to unearth and lean into your passions in life. As the people I profiled made these big changes in life, a side effect was that they found not just outward success in whatever path they chose, but had developed more emotional wealth too.
Grab a copy of the book to explore questions for reflection at the end of each chapter that will help you on your journey.
In the latest episode of the BossedUp Podcast, Emilie Aries about how to stop surviving and start thriving. We cover everything from the steps you can take to overcome adversity, make big changes, and propel yourself forward to success with resiliency. A big theme of the episode is embracing curiosity. Give the episode a listen.
We all struggle with self image issues, self doubt, and feelings that we are not good enough. Sometimes self doubt can prevent us from trying to push toward our biggest dreams. That’s part of the reason I wrote The Resiliency Effect.
The problem with self-doubt is, it usually doesn’t matter how often we hear we’re smart or successful or great at what we do from our loved ones, our colleagues, our peers and our bosses. Self doubt persists.
One reason it crops up is because it’s human nature to compare ourselves to others.
It can also be left over from experiences we had as children or young adults.
Sometimes when we aren’t nourishing ourselves or are feeling burned out it’s easy for us to give into feelings that we’re not so good or right or smart. This can be especially bad in corporate environments.
If we stay in our own heads this can run rampant.
As humans, we have a negativity bias. It’s not learned: it’s inherent, and it’s even been found to exist among babies less than a year old. When comparing negative thoughts or things that have happened to us with positive thoughts and events, we both remember and place more weight on the negative.
It takes work to “undo” negative thoughts. Oftentimes, we have to unlearn this habit because it’s a coping mechanism designed to protect us. Evolutionarily, it was more important to remember where the bear lived because that increased our chance of survival. In fact, for every negative thought we have (about ourselves or others) we need five positive thoughts to undo the effects of the negative. This was first discovered by John Gottman as applied to marriage conflict, but I think it works for starting to overcome our own limiting beliefs about ourselves as well.
We have to be aware of these things that we have taken on, and beliefs about ourselves, that are just not true.
I definitely see it in the corporate world. I have not coached a woman yet coming out of a corporate job and starting her own business, that didn’t relate to me in one way or another, that she had issues around confidence around the ability around being good enough or smart enough to run a business. This is just extremely common because our world is still so focused on output, results, and achievement which drives us to push too much and burnout. This is not at all conducive to deep creative problem solving.
Knowing how common it is, what can you do when self-doubt strikes? Here are two ideas to try:
Set up weekly wins:
I had a lot of success when I first started my business sending myself a “weekly wins” email every Friday. It serves two purposes: 1) to keep tabs on everything I did that week that moved the needle, and 2) to remind my brain to do a little celebration for all the things that went right this week.
Once you get into the habit, you’ll find that you begin to recall more of the good things happening instead of getting wrapped up in all the might be going wrong. Even the littlest thing can serve as a “win” you can tout for yourself. Making the perfect cup of coffee, ending work on time 5 days straight, finishing a section of a project. Get creative!
I even apply it outside my own business. When I participate in study groups of other financial advisors, I request that we each share three wins and only one loss when we meet so that we try to focus more on the good things. Try suggesting it during your next meeting / status update at work and see how much more cheery people are.
A well-designed affirmation can help fix the ratio of negative thoughts and help us work through being uncomfortable as we explore getting vulnerable about the reasons we’re fueled by overwork, burnout and perfection. A tool I use and teach to others is how to design good affirmations.
When we first start writing affirmations we may use tentative language (such as “I can, I may, or I will”) or take great strides to create an affirmation about how we will avoid something destructive or depleting to us. I’d encourage you to take the time to tweak your affirmations so that they put your brain in a place of acting “as if” you’ve already experienced the desired result. Avoid using negative words and make sure you’re sending your brain the right signals. Avoid using phrases like “I won’t” or “I don’t.” Here’s a read out from my actual client sessions where we tweaked affirmations:
- You said: I don’t want to build other people’s dreams. I want to support that, but I don’t necessarily need to put other’s goals above what mine are.
- A better affirmation might be: “I’m working to build the awesome life that I’ve dreamed for myself”
- You said finding a job “is going to be hard and going to take time”
- A better affirmation might be: “The perfect job that meets all my qualifications is out there, and I’m actively searching to find it.”
- You said, “I typically charge what people can pay, honestly.”
- A better affirmation might be, “I work with the right kind of client who sees the value in my standard fee.”
- You said, “I want to have more cash to spend on fun stuff for me too.”
- A better affirmation might be, “I’m worth making the salary that allows me to live all my biggest goals.”
Here are some real affirmations that I have used in my own personal life which help me let go of some of my perfection. I often pull out my list of affirmations and either read them or say them to myself when I take a walk. Notice you could put tentative language like, “I can,” “I may,“ or “I will” in front of many of these, but it’s more powerful if you tell your brain that you are already doing these things by leaving out the tentative words can, may, or will.
- It’s OK to make mistakes, hear criticism and grow
- I treat myself gently
- I distinguish with wisdom and clarity my past emotional reactions from my current emotional response
- I deserve stability
- I am open to considering a range of ways to be or see a situation
- Today I am enough
- I ask for help when I need it
I consider using affirmations to be an integral part of my self-care. When I say them and mean it, it helps me remember to take care of myself and actively works against my default position which used to be runaway overachievement and perfection. It may feel hokey to say such things to yourself, especially if you’re in a place where you’re hurting, but it’s made a huge difference in my life.
I will warn you, there’s always a period of time initially where an “inner critic” voice in your brain immediately tells you this isn’t true/right. But that’s the point of saying and repeating these. The more we repeat, the more that voice of disbelief quiets down.
Many of these techniques we acquire while we’re focusing on our inner journey can help us in unexpected ways. They can help increase our resilience against future adversity, help us see patterns, and make us more creative problem solvers.
As I was getting my small business ramped up in 2015, I came across a podcast featuring Carl Richards, a well-respected financial advisor, author, and thought leader on the intersection of finances and human behavior. He’s known as the “Sketch Guy” because he creates simple, easy-to-understand sketches on the backs of napkins. During the podcast, Richards shared how he ended up with a weekly column in The New York Times. It was simple. A reporter emailed, “Hey, I love these [sketches]. Will you do them for us?”
But Richards’ reaction wasn’t what I expected. He said he worried about people’s opinions and wondered how he could consistently generate good content. He explained his paralyzing fear, adding, “I could feel how close I was to not doing it.” But he said yes and decided to figure out the “how” later.
Let’s put that into context. He was already a well-known columnist and the author of two books. Yet still, he had self-doubt. “I don’t know that I can take much credit for [being chosen], to be honest,” he said. He described his fears around success: “the fear of rejection, fear of failure, and the fear of laughter—like people are going to look at it and judge it.”
I was floored. Here was a man who snagged more than $25,000 for keynote speeches talking about how he still struggles with imposter syndrome. I thought to myself, “You mean, men feel this way too? Highly successful, well-respected men get the feelings that, despite their success and achievements, they might not deserve it?”
I had never heard a man in my own industry talk about struggles like this—struggles I quietly dealt with all the time. I wanted to know why imposter syndrome strikes and how to deal with it.
Imposter syndrome—feeling doubts about myself despite outward success or achievement—typically hits me immediately after or leading up to a big career achievement. I also have trouble accepting compliments from others about my work. I am quick to dismiss or diminish the good things people say about me.
Because I’m afraid people will see it as a weakness or prove I don’t know what I’m talking about, I have been reticent to share too many personal details or struggles from my life publicly. Imposter syndrome has even struck while writing my book, The Resiliency Effect. I have thoughts like, “Haven’t others already written about this? What do I have to offer that’s any different? What makes me so special?”
How Could SHE Feel Like an Imposter?
But get this: even the most successful people feel this way. Michelle Obama. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love. The Sketch Guy. Even you, I bet.
While giving a 2018 speech in the UK during her book tour for Becoming, Michelle Obama said, “I still have a little bit of imposter syndrome that goes on. It never goes away . . . that feeling of, ‘I don’t know if you should take me that seriously . . . What do I know?’” She said she sometimes wondered, “Am I good enough to have all this? Am I good enough to be the first lady of the United States?”
Obama acknowledged that sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves that we all have doubts in our abilities, or about our power and what that power is, and that’s okay. It’s normal.
“I still feel like I have something to prove because of the color of my skin, because of the shape of my body, because who knows how people are judging me,” she said.
Having the courage to share her fear of letting her guard down allowed me, and I’m sure all those who have heard her speak, to realize we’re not alone in this.
Another example, Elizabeth Gilbert, had worldwide success after the publication of Eat, Pray, Love, which was turned into a movie starring Julia Roberts. But in a 2014 TED Talk, Gilbert discussed the dread she felt trying to work on a second novel, saying that the thought of not being accepted was debilitating. (The book later bombed).
“How in the world was I ever going to write a book again that would ever please anybody? I knew well in advance that all those people who had adored Eat, Pray, Love were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it wasn’t going to be Eat, Pray, Love. And all those people who hated [the book] were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it would provide evidence that I still lived,” she said.
Gilbert theorized that it’s hard for the brain to distinguish between the good experiences (i.e. success) versus the bad (i.e. failure). She said she believes our brains only measure how far from the normal we’ve veered. And the sooner we can get back to the normal, the better we feel. For her, the “normal” was to continue writing no matter what, even if some books fail and others succeed.
Feeling Self-Doubt is a Human Condition
It turns out there is data backing up how prevalent imposter syndrome is. Research by psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Gail Matthews showed that up to 70 percent of people experience imposter syndrome during their lives. It’s not a rare state of mind by any stretch.
They found there was a common theme among many who experienced imposter syndrome: messages left over from childhood were often a factor in whether someone experienced it.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t just hearing frequent criticism that led to imposter syndrome. Being raised to highly value your intelligence and your accomplishments can also inadvertently set you up to be overly concerned about “measuring up.”
These experiences provide a subtle message that can lead us to believe it’s not OK to make mistakes, have doubts, or not know how to do something.
Researcher and entrepreneur Lou Solomon says, “You can recognize [people with imposter syndrome] by the way they shun compliments. People with the imposter mindset don’t attribute their success to their own capabilities, so they squirm a bit when they’re recognized.”They often chalk up their success or accomplishments as luck.
While imposter feelings can often be rooted in family life, according to Solomon, there are also an array of situations that can bring on these feelings. They include doing something new or novel, like getting a new job or a public speaking opportunity, or having a big transition in work or life.
The solution is to find ways of silencing the self-judgment voice and unlearning our limiting beliefs. I think we all must figure out the best ways to do that for ourselves, and there will be many suggestions throughout this book you can try. Without taking this step, we will continue focusing on overpreparing and perfection and potentially miss out on opportunities due to fear.
Carl Richards, the “Sketch Guy,” had a few final bits of wisdom to share after writing about his experiences with imposter syndrome in his column in The New York Times. He said, “I think part of the impostor syndrome comes from a natural sense of humility about our work . . .When we have a skill or talent that has come naturally, we tend to discount its value.”
In other words, if it’s easy, then why would it be valuable to the world? Having things come easy, though, is usually a result of integrating our experiences and fine-tuning our abilities. Once you put in the work, “Isn’t it sort of the point for our skill to look and feel natural?” he said.
The bottom line is imposter syndrome is something almost everyone experiences. It’s not one of those gut feelings you should blindly trust. The research shows it’s an indicator something exciting has happened or is about to happen. While we may never be cured from it, we can work to lessen its effect on our lives. Don’t let it be a dream-killer.
Recap: How to Recognize and Combat Imposter Syndrome
- Take heart that imposter syndrome is extremely normal
- You’re more likely to feel it the more success you experience
- You’re more likely to feel it when you’re “the first” or “the only” one to achieve something
- You’re likely to be uncomfortable with compliments and easily brush them off when you’re feeling like an imposter
- Recognize and focus on “unlearning” limiting beliefs when you’re feeling like an imposter
- Sometimes self-talk such as, “even though I’m feeling like an imposter, I can do this,” is helpful.
- Recognize that the brain is just alerting you that something exciting or out of the ordinary has happened when you’re feeling like an imposter.
- Tell yourself “I’m excited,” when you’re feeling like an imposter
- Recognize that something may come easy for you because you worked hard and you’re inherently good at it.
- Remind yourself that you’re normal if you have doubt, fear or feel uncertain. These are human feelings.
- Remind yourself it’s ok to make mistakes or change your mind.
This is an excerpt from The Resiliency Effect. To download another chapter, click this link.
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