I am not enough. I suffer from Imposter Syndrome: an inner dialogue that insists any success I have is a fluke and any failure proves my inadequacy. In moments of triumph, I am flooded with anxiety and fear of being outed as being the “phony” that Holden Caulfield lamented in Catcher in the Rye. Waiting for someone to point and yell: “She isn’t one of us, she doesn’t belong, she isn’t (fill in the blank) enough. These beliefs usually focus on four themes:
- Professional/Academic Competence: I am not as smart, skilled, rich, polished, or pedigreed as my peers.
- Body Image: I am not thin enough, strong enough, tall enough, or pretty enough.
- Internally Flawed: I am the “wrong kind” of person. I am broken and can’t be fixed.
- Unloveable: No one could love me as I am. I will only be loved if I achieve, perform, give, sacrifice, and convince others that I am somehow different/better/other than who I really am.
If you are like me and hear defeating voices chatting away in your head all day, they are likely the result of a deep wound that occurred early in life. We internalize lessons learned and messages heard in our childhoods and store them as memories at the cellular level. Some of us responded to our feelings of inadequacy by developing coping mechanisms that helped defend us from the seemingly intolerable pain of confronting the truth about people we loved and circumstances beyond our control
Sometimes our inner-critic is inherited from a parent and is unconsciously handed down through generations. Once planted, the seeds of shame take root and grow into low self-esteem, anxiety, and fear. Living in the shadow of these disabling conditions sets us up to sabotage ourselves, both personally and professionally.
For years I tried to fight the voice, and/or drown it out with alcohol, relationships, and overachievement. Each worked for a while, but eventually, stopped. I found that while I battled my demons, the strongest among them lay in wait, blasting Rage Against the Machine, while pumping iron – growing stronger every day. My own self-loathing was actually fueled by my struggle to suppress it. Once I accepted this voice as a wounded part of me, I was able to bring it out of the shadows and into the light. Once illuminated, the voice lost its power. Not because I silenced it, numbed it, or beat it into submission, but because I engaged it and integrated it into my whole self where it could be healed.
How can we integrate negative self-talk into a program of recovery? Here are some things I find helpful. These are answers you can give your inner-critic when you invite them in for coffee and conversation:
1. We are Perfect: Wherever we are right now is exactly where we need to be. We are perfect and this moment is perfect because it is. We cannot change what is, we can only accept the truth of it, look for the lesson of it, and know that like all moments, this one will also pass. There are no “good people” and “bad people”, just people. We are all made up of good and bad, light and dark, yin and yang. We all respond and react to our environment and experiences. We make mistakes; and if we are able to honestly evaluate our mistakes and make amends for our misconduct, we will learn and grow. In so doing, each of us is perfectly human.
2. We Are Not Our Judgments: Humans judge. Our judgments may, or may not, be helpful. Notice the judgment, invite it in, ask yourself where it comes from and whether it serves you. If it doesn’t, there is no need to attach to it, instead, you can let it go. A corollary of this is that we are also not other people’s judgments. If someone is judging you, it really has very little to do with you and nearly everything to do with the person with the judgment. Remember that what others think of us is none of our business.
4. The Past is Over, You Are Safe in This Moment: In times of fear, remember that you are capable of taking care of yourself, and your wounded inner-critic. Nearly all suffering is related to regretting the past or fearing the future. When I am able to be completely present in the moment with my attention on my own breath, I am at peace. This mindfulness technique helps to reduce the fight-or-flight response. When cortisol floods the frontal cortex of the brain it is difficult, and at times, impossible, to access higher forms of thought and problem-solving skills – a phenomenon known as “monkey mind.” Each conscious breath opens a small channel in the brain which incrementally increases our ability to reduce anxiety and reactivity over time.
5. Make Self-Care Your #1 Priority. Yes, you heard that right, put yourself first. While I believe that service to others is the highest form of love and crucial to ending suffering, I have learned the hard way that I have to put on my own oxygen mask before I can help anyone else find their breath. If I am not whole, not balanced, not healthy, I am no use to anyone else. When we are kind and compassionate to ourselves we are in the right space to be kind and compassionate to others.
And remember, everything you want is on the other side of fear.