The Impostor Syndrome: It’s More Common Than You Know
It’s finally spring, and I have been thinking how delightful it would be to open up my scalp and give my brain a thorough cleaning, shaking out the old cobwebs and beating the mites out. I’d especially like to find a way to connect my neurons for success, instead of letting my mind wander down old, hard-worn pathways that take me to places I’d rather not go: certain I am a fraud doomed to failure in every aspect of my life. Wouldn’t it be great to wake up every day feeling perfectly confident, upbeat, excited to face the challenges of the day, without wrestling the dreaded demon most commonly known as “The Impostor Syndrome”?
The term dates back to at least the fall of 1978, when Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes published “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” in Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. It’s defined as the feeling that you are a fraud and that any day the people around you will discover the truth. Or as Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian newspaper puts it, “A classic case of comparing your insides with other people’s outsides.” It’s a bit like looking in a fun house mirror and believing the distorted picture to be what you really look like.
In other words, only you know what’s going on inside your head, and you assume that means you know the truth about your abilities. Although women do seem to suffer from this syndrome more than men, plenty of men suffer from it as well. Margot Gerristsen surveyed engineers and earth scientists via Facebook in 2012 and got 220 responses in 24 hours (80 male, 140 female respondents), out of 2,000 people that actually viewed the post. She found 43% of men and 62% of women “often or always” think “I am afraid to be found out.” To quote Gerristsen’s results further, when asked whether having “impostor feelings” affected performance, 52% of men said, “Yes, negatively” (“scared,” “avoidance behavior”) and 27% said “Yes, positively” (“work harder”). In comparison, 87% of females said “Yes, negatively” (“scared”, “avoidance behavior”, “exhaustion”, “negative impacts on personal relationships”) and only 7% said “Yes, positively” (“work harder”).
“The impostor syndrome describes the countless millions of people who do not experience an inner sense of competence or success,” writes Dr. Valerie Young in her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive In Spite of It. She adds, “Despite often overwhelming evidence of their abilities, impostors dismiss these as merely a matter of luck, timing, outside help, charm—even computer error. Because people who have the impostor syndrome feel that they’ve somehow managed to slip through the system undetected, in their mind it’s just a matter of time before they’re found out.”
If you do get better and better at whatever you do and rise to the top of your profession, it may not fix the sense of being an impostor. Actually, the feeling could get worse, because the higher you go in your own field, the more people you encounter with knowledge equal to or greater than your own. The insecurity induced can paralyze a person.
The cruel irony is that the impostor syndrome can lead to both success and failure. You succeed when you change your self-talk to something more positive, and you learn to embrace the times you feel totally in control and competent. On the other hand, if you hold yourself to a standard of rarefied perfection that no one can possibly achieve, you may stop yourself from even trying… a sure way to prove to yourself that you are, indeed, a fraud.
Graduate school was the place for me that I felt the sense of being an impostor most keenly. It is possible to beat it, as I know from personal experience, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to beat it back again and again. Getting out of academia helped me put my abilities back into perspective somewhat, but the fear still rears its ugly head from time to time. So, what can you do?
“Research shows that one of the best things we can do is name impostorism, to give students [and I will add, anyone else, too] the sense that what they are experiencing is more common than they believe,” blogged Jessica Collett, an associate professor of sociology at Notre Dame in Scatterplot on September 5, 2013. She adds, “Researchers find that impostorism is most often found among extremely talented and capable individuals, not people who are true impostors.” The bottom line is you are probably not going to be able to completely rid yourself forever of these feelings of being an impostor. Tina Fey, an amazingly successful comedian, is quoted in Dr. Young’s book as saying, “The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.”
Other steps you can take:
1. Celebrate successes, big or small;
2. Remind yourself that everyone makes some mistakes, and the vast majority of those mistakes are not fatal;
3. Remember that other people (advisors, mentors, supervisors, bosses) hired you because they think you are perfectly capable;
4. Know that feeling like a fake may just mean you are out of your comfort zone and into a learning zone; and
5. Realize that challenges lead to growth, personally and professionally.
By the way, there is a flip side to the impostor syndrome, which is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is when people greatly overestimate their abilities and competence and come to grief. But that, as they say, is a story for another day.
Courage, Risks and Rewards: 10 Reasons to Act
“Look before you leap.” As a rather impetuous and curious child, I heard that admonition from my parents, especially my mother, on a fairly regular basis. In an event my father no doubt does not remember, I clearly remember when I stopped using my middle name at about age 8. After climbing onto the roof of the garage at our (one-story) house, standing thoroughly entranced with the view from above down the block, I heard my father’s stern voice, “Hillary Lee Hutchinson, you get down from there this instant.” I knew I was in big trouble from the tone, and as a result, I have never been able to disassociate the use of my middle name from being in trouble.
OK, so scrambling up on the rooftop might not be the best example of good risk taking, and my father’s anger was most likely due to the fear I’d fall off and seriously injure myself. However, taking a risk doesn’t have to mean arbitrarily jumping in where angels fear to tread. It may actually mean taking a calculated jump: you might first want to brainstorm some other ideas about how to get that great view from the rooftop, then figure out a more secure way, possibly using a ladder, to get up and down. Then you might want to spend some time evaluating the possibility for success or failure in taking the risk, perhaps even discussing the options with some trusted advisors (in my case, sister and brothers) before you actually put the plan into action.
But don’t let the fear of risk overcome the will to action. It’s human nature to magnify the possibility of failure over success. It’s a brain thing. To paraphrase Richard Hanson, “Mistakes stick to our minds like Velcro, but successes slide off like Teflon.” From an evolutionary point of view, mistakes can kill you, but success is a kinda of “so what.” We humans also have a tendency to think we cannot handle things when they don’t go perfectly, and that is not true either. We are in fact designed as pattern-detecting instruments, and we often have more options sitting there ready to be launched when something goes wrong than we ever realized. Calculated risks are the ones where the downside is reasonably limited (or at least we think so!) and the possibility of a great outcome is virtually unlimited. In simplest terms, it truly looks like the gains will outweigh the risks.
So, as we in the Northern Hemisphere continue to hope for the final winter thaw, what risks do you feel ready to take? It may help to remember that everything we do in life is risky, from getting in the car to pick up kids from school to taking an airplane across country to a convention where you are giving your first public talk. As Helen Keller once said, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.” Yes, taking a risk is scary. But not taking a risk can be deadening, and in it’s own way, set you up for failure. Risk taking lets you live on your growing edge.
Here are a 10 more reasons to take risks:
- You learn to conquer your fears;
- You grow your skills, talents, and abilities;
- You get to make things happen instead of waiting for things to happen to you;
- You learn that failure isn’t necessarily or automatically fatal;
- You find that mistakes are part of any process;
- You may learn to let go of the judgments of others;
- You recognize that no one ever achieved their dreams without action;
- You grow in confidence and stand out to others as a success;
- You feel exhilarated and fully alive when taking the risk pays off; and
- You understand that taking calculated risks is indeed rewarding at many different levels: financial, emotional and developmental.
You have to learn how to take a chance to change your life. To help you overcome your fear of taking risks, you can get my 5-part self-paced course Courage, Risks and Rewards for just $97.00. You will get one short lesson a week by email, including exercises to find where you are getting stopped, and help you “get a move on” as you start thawing out.
Letting go when you feel out of control is counter-intuitive, isn’t it?
In general, we humans have a tendency to hang on harder and longer when we feel ourselves spinning wildly around. But sometimes, the best thing to do is just let go.
I don’t know how many of you got caught in the polar vortex over the holiday season. I heard one commentator describe the amazing snowstorm and cold in the Northeastern United States as “a drunken polar bear that just sat down on the front porch and refused to leave.” That’s certainly what it felt like from my perspective.
I planned a trip to visit a brother in northern Germany with a departure date of Thursday morning in order to give myself enough time to get over jet lag, unpack and generally relax before meeting with my first client of the new year at 9:00 AM on Monday.
All went smoothly in the trip from Beilefeld to Frankfurt and connecting on to Philadelphia. I was even sitting on the airplane on the tarmac at about 4:00 PM on the 2nd of January, congratulating myself on beating the big storm. But it was not to be. As I sat there waiting for the plane to take off, huge white flakes began to fall, and within 15 minutes there was about an inch accumulation on the wings.
To no one’s surprise, the pilot announced we would have to get in line for de-icing. Even then, it did not seem like too big a deal: we would simply be slightly delayed. But then we waited and waited…and waited…until finally the big machine came around pouring fluid on the wings, and we watched the ice melt away, taxiing around on the tarmac and getting back in line for takeoff. And still the snow came down. And down. And down. Finally, the pilot came on the loudspeaker system and announced that after about four hours on the tarmac idling, we were running out of fuel. Furthermore, the crew was beginning to time-out on how long they were able to work. Then he sighed and said, “I’m sorry folks, but it looks like we are going to have to take you back to the gate…however, at the present time, we do not have a gate.” Meaning, “by the time we get you all unloaded, you will be lucky to locate an empty hotel room,” though I was indeed fortunate enough to get one with a little help from my local friends.
For those of you that travel, you know the drill: there is no redundancy in the system, and once the system begins to fail, there is a true domino effect. The planes pile up, and the next plane is full before you know it, then it gets cancelled and now two planes worth of people are trying to get on the third plane out, etc., etc. You have to call and reserve your seat on the next flight and usually the next available flight is 24 hours later.
This is what happened to me, until finally on the fourth day, after once again going through security, waiting over two hours at the gate, and finally being told again that the flight was canceled, I threw up my hands in despair and gave up all hope of flying out of Philadelphia. I admit I did not want to drive in the snow and ice down I-95, the highway where my family was involved in an accident that killed my husband in 1997.
What was left when I gave up? A different option: Take an overnight train to Charleston! And so I did, sleeping fitfully but arriving at 6:30 AM, in time to make that 9:00 AM appointment. I don’t know that I was at my absolute best that day, but neither was I at my worst. Giving up on the plane was the best thing I could have done…and had I tried to get on the flight, I might have actually been stuck an additional three days, as a brand new storm headed into the area.
So, what’s the lesson here? If you can give up on the things you cannot control, you just might find you can control something else. How else might you apply this lesson to your life, whatever you are doing now?
Don’t wait to celebrate your life – do it now!
It’s the end of the year and time to take stock of yourself and where you stand. Rather than beating yourself up over anything you did not get accomplished over the past twelve months, I want you to look at everything you have gotten done. Don’t limit yourself to your professional life: celebrate every aspect of yourself.
Did you step out and try something new in any area, whether it was romance, athletics, or a new volunteer position? Are you managing your emotional life better, learning to operate from love instead of fear? Have you made a decision to stop doing something that no longer gives you joy but only anxiety? If so, celebrate! Celebrate all that you have done, and how far you have come.
For those of you wondering how to take stock so you can celebrate your life, here are 5 tips:
- Stop, breathe and listen to the quiet. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever seen about meditation is reminding yourself that you can no more stop yourself from thinking than you can from breathing. On the other hand, you can let the thoughts go, just like clouds passing across the sky. A great Zen expression is “Don’t believe everything your mind says.”
- Celebrate all the little things, no matter how small. Mastering a new yoga pose, writing that long-overdue thank-you note, finally getting out your first agenda for a new committee meeting, learning a new way to present data. We have a tendency to belittle our own accomplishments. Every one of these counts!
- Look at where you were this time last year. If looking back only one year doesn’t help, try looking back five years, or ten. You would not be who you are today without what has already happened to you, and how you responded to it. Personally, I am celebrating getting older and wiser, a truism now verified by brain science, that proves neuroplasticity and an ever-learning mind.
- Ask people around you what changes in you they would celebrate. You might be surprised to hear them say, “you’ve gotten calmer” even if you didn’t adopt a dog, or, “you seem lighter” even if you never lost a pound.
- Reassess and “take in the good.” Remind yourself that no matter what you are trying to accomplish, there will always be things left undone. Sometimes that can be good, as things change and evolve and maybe those old ideas or projects should fade away when new, more exciting ones take their place.
As the song says, “Celebrate your life, come on!” Don’t wait. Do it now.
Gratitude isn’t always as straight forward as you would think
I’ve discovered something interesting about gratitude: you really have to find new things to be grateful for so that you do not get so habitual in what you recite to yourself that it ceases to have real meaning. For instance, I am always grateful for my family, but sometimes I truly need to be more explicit about what exactly it is that I appreciate about someone in it. I was privileged to visit with my parents over this past month, and I have been reminded again what amazing people they are.
Especially my mother. How many 81-year-old women do you know who read things like the integral theories of Ken Wilber, A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss, and write haiku when they are sitting in traffic frustrated by a red light that is delaying them? Not many, I’ll wager. Here’s one she wrote that resonates for me living in South Carolina:
Framed in white railings
Sea, clouds, lighthouse, coast—
How did I get to be so lucky to be born into her circle? I don’t know, but I do know I need to appreciate it! Oh, we’ve had our issues, don’t get me wrong. Both my parents have high standards for their children and expected excellent grades and good behavior as I grew up, and the teenage years of asserting independence were sometimes quite painful for all concerned. Then, in my twenties and thirties raising a young family and working, overwhelmed by daily tasks, I felt I had little time for them. Now my own children are grown, I am taking another look at these unique people, and find myself giving profound thanks.
I only wish to suggest that in this month, when we make an overt practice of giving thanks for all we have, we take a closer look at those we may have taken for granted and see how unique they are, and how they have contributed to our lives. You may not feel that your relationship with your parents is one to celebrate, but consider: you may have learned exactly what you did not want to do by watching some particular dysfunction. You can be truly grateful for that.
Contentment with my lot has been difficult for me to attain. It’s all too easy to wallow in self-pity. I hope my mother’s poem will remind me when I feel lost or bereft that much remains to be appreciated. In the meantime, I seek to breathe deeply and absorb the beauty all around me, reminding myself to give thanks for the sea, the clouds, the lighthouse and the coast that buoy me up time and again, as well as giving thanks for a mother that helps me give voice to this.
If you need some more pragmatic reasons for expanding gratitude in this season of reaping what has been sown, consider these benefits:
- Gratitude can keep fear at bay by reminding you that there are good things as well as bad ones in your life, providing a broader perspective.
- Reminding ourselves of the good can keep us from being mired in always wanting something more than what we already have.
- That in turn reduces stress, improves our health and strengthens our relationships with each other. It literally eases our minds.
In expanding your own understanding of gratitude, consider moving beyond rote recitations of thanks by celebrating the unique idiosyncrasies that make the people in your life so weird and so wonderful. Family, friends, acquaintances, alive or dead, they are your companions along the way. I think I will have to keep working on this, but remembering the unique stories and idiosyncrasies is another way to keep smiling, too.
Seeking Balance In Your Life? Forget About It!
Maintaining balance in your life isn’t easy. In fact, I think it is impossible. What you are actually doing is making conscious choices about how you choose to spend the time you have, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. As Jack Welch put it, “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.” In her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead Sheryl Sandberg writes, “I have never met a woman, or man, who stated emphatically, “Yes, I have it all.’” Because no matter what any of us has—and how grateful we are for what we have—no one has it all.” At this time of year, a lot of academics are wondering “How can I possibly get everything done, especially my own writing?”
Sometimes I am asked what the difference is between a life coach and a career coach. “Not much,” is the answer. Although my work focuses on finding the right career trajectory for my clients, it must work with all aspects of their lives. So many demands are placed on our time and energy, especially for the academic, that life can feel like a three-ring circus. Making choices about where you will put your time and energy is what it is all about.
Many life coaches begin their process with a “wheel” that asks clients to rate how satisfied they are with eight areas of their life: physical environment, money, health, fun and recreation, personal growth/spirituality, romance/relationship, family, and friends. This can be an eye-opening experience for some people, when they realize that just changing one aspect of the picture could make a big difference to their life satisfaction. For others, it is a recognition that they are choosing to put their time “where it matters most to them” and that is actually fine. Here’s the thing: at different points in your life, one element will be more important than another. When you have a parent in ailing health, or a child with special needs, “family” is where you will spend your time and energy. When you are working on a book project that will help you advance, “career” is where you will be putting your time and energy.
The trick is to keep yourself from getting caught in any one area, and keep your awareness open to the other areas of your life that need tending. In old age, “friends” is often the category that becomes supremely important. Paying attention to that category earlier in your life, can make it easier to get what you need and want later.
Basic life-work balance questions start by considering how well you take care of yourself, both physically and emotionally. Do you eat healthfully and exercise regularly? How are your sleep habits? Do you get check-ups and take preventative precautions? Do you set aside personal, quiet time for yourself? Do you make time to enjoy nature and art, “filling yourself up” again and again in order to renew your energy? How often are your time boundaries violated by too many commitments?
After that, move into examining the external factors, such as your work, your physical surroundings, the people you currently associate with on a regular basis. Ask yourself: am I energized or drained by these interactions? Does this space hinder or enhance my ability to “flow”? Are the day-to-day demands of my work deadening or enlivening? The answer to these questions can help you decide what choices you want to make daily that will play out in the long term.
Speaking strictly for myself, balance is actually about knowing my priorities, setting boundaries and sticking to them, as well as actually enjoying the choices I make. Being consciously aware of the impossibility of balance and making choices is a wonderful way to practice gratitude for all that you do have, and all that you can do. Maybe knowing that everyone struggles with this issue can help us have compassion for both ourselves, and each other, helping us grow in experience and wisdom.
Is Solopreneurship Right for You?
If you are not familiar with this term combining “solo operator” with “entrepreneur” read on. “Solopreneurship” is a real option for many academics no longer satisfied in the world of higher education. Working independently and following ideas from conception to completed projects are just a few of the easily transferable skills. Here’s guest blogger Jackie Peterson on the topic of solopreneurship:
Not to brag, but I’m a pretty good mind reader.
Think about your dream job for a minute. How would you spend your days? Really spend some time on this. Visualize your schedule, your work environment, and your daily tasks.
Okay. Do you have a clear picture in your mind?
Good. Here I go:
Your dream job would consist of doing exactly what you love and already know how to do. Your schedule, work environment, and tasks would be tailor-made to fit your preferences.
How’d I do?
Okay, so I’m not really a mind reader. It’s just that everybody’s dream job looks pretty similar. Even though we all have different passions, backgrounds, and work styles, there’s a good chance that we’d all love to make a living by doing what we love. And that’s why I’m so excited about solopreneurship. Could this rapidly expanding business model be right for you?
Back up a second—what exactly is a solopreneur?
In the simplest possible terms, solopreneurs are entrepreneurs who work alone. They might be artists, CPAs, web designers, acupuncturists, counselors, or motivational speakers …and the list goes on! At first, many of these professions don’t seem to have much in common. But what they share is passion: they want to make a living doing what they love.
I wish I could tell everybody in the midst of a career transition that solopreneurship is an exciting and increasingly viable business model.
I’ve worked with solopreneurs for years, and I can assure you: it really is possible to follow your dreams. Solopreneurship is growing rapidly and seeing ever-higher rates of satisfaction.
The first step is identifying your expertise: What are you passionate about? What do you love to do? What are you already good at?
I’ve worked with a lot of solos who started out thinking that they didn’t have anything to offer. They couldn’t imagine that people would pay them to follow their dreams and use the skills they already had.
Over and over again, I’ve seen them proven wrong.
The beautiful thing about solopreneurship is we’re all so different. There really are people who love whipping other people’s finances into shape, designing websites, and giving massages! And I can’t tell you how grateful I am—I certainly don’t want to give myself a massage. How fabulous is it that I can pay someone to pursue their passion for healing…and get a heavenly massage in return?
Think about it for a while. Maybe you’d paint all day. Maybe you’d spend your time writing, or counseling, or dancing, or designing dream vacations. Maybe you’d take care of children, make quilts, or motivate thousands of people with your inspirational speeches.
Turning your passion into a living might sound scary, but it’s completely doable—as long as you focus on doing the work you love to do. Solopreneurship is the perfect way to build on your knowledge, support your financial independence, and monetize your expertise.
The options are limitless. All it takes is acknowledging that you have something unique and beautiful to offer the world: yourself.
Jackie B. Peterson is a coach, consultant, and speaker based in Portland, Ore. She is the author of Better, Smarter, Richer: Seven Business Principles for Solo and Creative Entrepreneurs, and she specializes in helping people make a living by doing what they love. Find out more about solopreneurship at www. BetterSmarterRicher.com
Fake It Till You Make It: How To Fool Your Brain Into Helping Instead Of Hindering
Do you bomb standardized tests? Maybe you are smarter than you think!
My book group has been reading Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to (2010) by Sian Bielock. Although many of her examples are from the competitive sports world, there is still something here for those of us that have problems with mental competitions like standardized tests. And one of her more interesting assertions is that being smarter might make testing harder for you. Keep reading for both why this happens and what to do about it.
Bielock’s premise is this: you have two types of memory, procedural and working. Working memory is a bit like a computer buffer, where you put the stuff you have to remember and you anticipate accessing in the very near future. Procedural memory is defined as “implicit or unconscious” and can be honed by practicing until your practice itself is perfect, so that you can perform under pressure even when the stakes are high. This is sometimes referred to as “muscle memory” in sports, like knowing exactly where to swing your golf club or where to place your leg when you kick in tae kwon do. (Bielock further distinguishes procedural memory from “explicit memory,” an underpinning for our ability to reason.)
“Working memory” is defined as “cognitive horsepower” found in the prefrontal cortex. It’s literally what you are holding in your mind aka “the buffer zone.” (My words, not hers.) It’s what lets you remember a telephone number while you are still looking for a pen and paper to write it down. Intuitively, you would think that having more cognitive horsepower would help in a high-pressure test situation but that’s not necessarily true. Other factors come into play.
Instead, having a bigger working memory can cause you to bomb standardized tests. Especially if you clutter up your working memory with bad thoughts like “I’m not smart enough” or what she calls the “stereotype threat,” such as “Girls aren’t good at math” or “Boys aren’t good with words.” Now you’ve used up that useful buffer zone with stressful thoughts that quite literally take up the space you could otherwise use for cognitive activities like answering questions on a test.
So, what’s a person to do? Here are just a few of the tips from Bielock’s book:
- Reaffirm your own self-worth. Before a big test (or presentation) be confident in your ability to do what’s in front of you. This may include reminding yourself that you are not defined by a single test score or a single presentation.
- Write about it, then forget about it. “Outsource” your worries by writing them down, then disposing of them. Put all those self-doubts out of your mind before tackling your task.
- Meditate, to stop obsessing about the negatives. Train your brain to let go of those bad thoughts before they take possession of you. Breathe deeply as you notice the negatives but let them go. Breathing deeply is a simple way to slow down, too, and more oxygen to the brain helps you think better.
- Practice under pressure. Don’t just reread notes for your test or presentation: Actually try it out in circumstances that will be similar to the real event. This gets you used to what you will truly experience, and that makes it easier to perform when you must.
- Reinterpret your own reactions. For instance, if you are getting sweaty palms, are short of breath, or having any other physiological reaction, “My adrenaline is high because I am ready for this,” rather than “I’m hyperventilating because I am a nervous wreck.” In this way, you get your body and brain to work for you and not against you.
These are just a few tips that will help boost your confidence so that you perform at your best when it really counts. Let your body work for you and not against you as you practice these tips and fool your brain into helping instead of hindering.
How To Stop Your Weaknesses From Bringing You Down
What happens to you when you realize you aren’t good at something that would be helpful to you in your career? Say mathematical modeling or writing clear reports. Do you invest in training to learn how to do it better? Or throw up your hands in despair and say, “I’m too stupid to get this.” It’s time to change!
For most of us, trying to improve our weak areas in teaching our classes, operating our business, or managing our department comes with the territory. Whatever the area, we feel as if we are required to do battle with what we don’t do well. I spent more time than I care to remember trying to master Excel, but it never excited me.
As it turns out, the majority of people around the world feel this way. In their groundbreaking book Now, Discover Your Strengths authors Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton reported that across all ages and cultures in their 2 million Gallup poll interviews, people were more concerned about their weaknesses than their strengths. We believe that our weaknesses matter more in holding us back than our strengths matter in advancing us.
That’s nonsense, say the authors—widely held nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless. In their provocative theory, they suggest that the better strategy is to play to your strengths, building upon your core talents, and work around your weaknesses. You can add skills and knowledge to increase your performance in any area, but unless you are building upon one of your innate talents (aka strengths), your efforts won’t produce exceptional results—some results, yes, but not dramatic improvement.
What kind of energy are you feeling?
In their book, strength is defined as “consistent near perfect performance in an activity.” The key here is consistency, and the “acid test” the authors suggest using is: Can you imagine yourself doing this activity (teaching, golfing, managing a department) repeatedly, happily and successfully? If you actually feel good when you perform an activity, chances are you are operating from strength. Only you know what you truly enjoy doing.
On the other hand, if imagining performing the activity drains you of energy, then you are not operating from strength. If you then proceed to beat yourself up for NOT performing well when you are operating from weakness, you are making up a bad story about yourself that will not serve you well in the long run. The weakness orientation persists in research and academia to the detriment of people working there. In every culture these authors studied, the majority of parents focused attention on areas where a child did not do well in school, rather than focusing on what a child did do well and had the potential to grow into excellence.
What happens when you let go of the “oughts?”
Operating from weakness is a confidence assassin. Identify your dominant talents first. These are your strengths. What do you do easily, naturally, and well? What do people tell you that you are good at? Know that you can always refine your talents with knowledge and skills, and that you can always outsource the weaknesses, and people will say you are a great delegator!
This self-awareness will help you get rid of all the “shoulds” you may be telling yourself about your life. Letting go of what doesn’t work is wonderfully liberating and energizing.
It will also help you know and appreciate the talents and strengths of the people around you. Start telling yourself about your strengths and acknowledge what you do well, whether it’s strategy, project management, teaching or writing. As Shad Helmstetter, author of What to Say When You Talk to Yourself wrote: “Of all the self-help concepts I have uncovered, the concept of ‘programming’ the brain with a more successful ‘new’ picture of yourself is the most sensible… that whatever you put into your mind–in one way or another–is what you will get back out–in one way or another.”
How to Stop Overreacting To Criticism
If someone criticizes you do you rush to defend your feelings?
Has this happened to you? You’re in the break room with a colleague, when she looks over and asks, “Do you always put that much sugar in your tea?”
Ha, ha, ha, you laugh. But inside, your narrative is: Who does she think she is, Miss Manners? What’s wrong with 2 teaspoons of sugar? She doesn’t have to drink it. What a jerk. She’s always so critical of me. Why can’t she leave me alone?
You are still standing there trying to figure out why you are upset, and your colleague has long since left the break room. If something as minor as sugaring your tea can provoke such feelings of defensiveness, imagine what can happen when more important issues are at stake. Defensive feelings can stop you in your tracks at work or at home.
It’s not you. It’s your brain on evolution.
Human beings are operating with a layered evolutionary system: the reptilian (brain stem) instinctual survival at the base, the mammalian limbic system overlaying that (more or less the middle brain area) using emotions and feeling, and the cerebral cortex system (the primate on top) capable of strategic thinking about survival. The moment you feel inadequate or imperfect, criticism is threatening and makes you feel that you have to defend yourself. When you are secure—not perfect, but secure—you can respond without having to ratchet up all those mental defenses.
Here’s another factoid related to evolutionary threat response: we are designed to learn from mistakes. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t live. The classic example is how fast you will jump out of the way of a perceived threat, a snake on the path in the woods, only to have your brain tell you a second later, “you dummy, that was a stick.” But if it had been a snake, you might not have lived to tell the tale. This translates in modern life to feeling threatened with survival when criticized. It’s why you reacted so strongly when your colleague merely mentioned how much sugar you put in your tea.
Take this quiz to see how defensive you tend to be.
1. When people criticize or judge me, I am quick to point out their own faults.
2. If people are upset or disappointed with me, I let them know with explanations and excuses why they are wrong.
3. I’m always looking for the hidden critical message beneath people’s requests.
It’s extremely easy to get drawn into a defensive posture and strike back. I’ve done it myself to huge embarrassment. In the past, I might have responded to the sugaring comment with “well, at least I don’t eat donuts by the handful like you do.” Uh-oh. A war of words has commenced. And sadly, because evolution has trained us for survival in the wild and not in the office, it is going to take at least seven positive comments to outweigh the hurt of the one painful comment. Plus all the energy you will have to expend repairing the relationship to get back to where you want to be.
In her book, Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication, Sharon Ellison estimates that we use 95% of our communications energy being defensive. Indeed, as soon as we feel any threat, either of not getting what we want or of being harmed or put down in some way, we are ready to protect ourselves by being defensive. Imagine how much more enjoyable our communications could be if we learned how to respond non-defensively and to avoid provoking defensiveness in others.
Track your own reactions. Recognize your emotions and responses. What body sensations, thoughts, emotions arise? Remind yourself that the perceived threat is just that: merely perceived.
Recognize that whatever arises in your mind is your own responsibility. It is not the other person’s fault you are responding as you are. Here’s the best news about being a homo sapien: You get to choose how you think and how you respond.
A new strategy: Change your defensiveness to curiosity. You don’t have explain or defend the amount of sugar in your tea. Just say these three little words: “Tell me more!” You may be surprised by the answer. Your colleague may have dietary issues you never knew about before like diabetes. Or she may respond, “My partner always tells me I put in too much sugar, but I always thought two teaspoons was about right.” By staying open and curious, you can stop overreacting to criticism and learned something new, too.