“For the first time ever, I felt like an adult, with a real sense of pride of who I am in the community”.
She had hosted a community event over the holidays. Seeing all the people gathered at her initiative, talking and having an enjoyable time, it struck her that she felt … good. Proud. Like a valued member of the community. And with a noticeable absence of her usual self-doubts and “I’m not good enough”.
The first time?
Two things are remarkable about her statement. First, it was a victory moment for my client to genuinely own her value in her family and community. She’d been working diligently on her mindset and actions to get there. High-fives all around. She said that experience would serve as a marker for how she wants to feel and show up in the future.
Secondly, and perhaps even more remarkable, is the fact that she felt “like an adult” and a “real sense of pride” for the first time. The first time! Let me tell you a bit about her, and you’ll know why that’s noticeable. She’s in her early 50’s. She’s raised three kids by herself. A few years ago (after her first round of coaching), she finally realized her long-standing dream of quitting her job and starting her own business. Business has been doing great ever since. She bought a house. She’s an accomplished dancer. She overcame an abusive relationship. She has lots of family and friends who love her. I could go on. By so many metrics, she’s a success; someone others look to and say, “What a badass!”, and rightfully so.
So how is it possible that she’s over 50 years old before she has her first experience of feeling like a real adult and proud of herself? She’s been a productive adult for over three decades, after all!
It goes by many names (depending on context): Impostor syndrome. Gremlins. Negative self-talk. Low self-esteem. Self-loathing. Shadow. Or my preferred short-hand, “shitty voice in my head”. I use that term because that’s how it presents itself. For my client, the voice delivers messages like, “I’ll never get my shit together. I’m always an outsider. I’m not successful, smart and beautiful enough”. For a coach friend of mine, the Gremlins (his term) say, “Why would anyone want to hear from you!? You’re nobody!” I’m sure you have your own versions.
Both my client and my friend said, “I know it doesn’t make any sense. I’m actually doing quite well, I have family and friends, I pay my bills … etc.” But somehow they still think that if they just do X, Y, or Z they can silence the “shitty voice” and won’t feel bad about themselves (I say “they”, but I am with them. “Shitty voice” has been with me as long as I can recall).
Working with impostor syndrome, shadow and “shitty voice” for over 20 years, here are some insights I’ve found useful:
It’s independent of facts or circumstance. It’s going off in our heads whether we had a banner year or the worst year. This is easy to test: If your “shitty voice” says you’re worthless because you don’t make enough money; see if it goes away next time you increase your income. Or, does it move the goal post and continue to deliver its messages?
Since it is independent of circumstances, it cannot be out-performed, out-run, or out-smarted. This is a crucial insight. Early in my career, “shitty voice” told me I’d be worth something once I made a big sale. I still remember the first time I made a $10K sale, expecting to feel victorious. Instead, I felt … the exact same as the day before, and the “shitty voice” kept on going.
Counterintuitively, “Shitty voice” has a positive, loving intention. When you look deeper, you’ll find it’s trying to either protect you from something or motivate you towards something.
Sometimes “shitty voice” is your own voice, sometimes it belongs to someone else, like your mom, dad, or teacher.
You don’t have to believe anything “shitty voice” says, ever. When you believe, or start to argue with, its messages of “You’re a nobody” or “No one really loves you”, you only make it real for yourself. You get caught up in chasing evidence to “prove” your worth. That’s an unwinnable game.
How to deal with the noise
What can we do about “shitty voice”? How do we change our relationship to this unwelcome intruder and hopefully create a more peaceful, confident self-environment? Here are a few ways to work with it:
Even if “shitty voice” can’t be out-performed, it can sometimes be out-loved. I like to treat it like a little kid. The kind of kid that sounds grumpy or tantrum-y, but really just needs a hug and a cookie. I imagine putting an arm around him and letting him know he’s loved and not alone. He’ll be along for the ride no matter what, so it might as well be on my terms (he can come along, but he won’t be allowed to drive the car:-).
Treat the messages from “shitty voice” like you do the news, or the internet: Never believe everything you hear. At the very least, fact check and examine the source. Ask questions, inquire.
If you do go looking for evidence, be selective about it. Find evidence to support your best case. For instance, my client took on making a year-end list of everything she’d accomplished, both personally and in her business. That’s a long list of evidence to illustrate that she is, in fact, a good person, a loving mom, a hard-working business owner, and a valuable member of her community. Which everyone else knew all along!
If you had a coach, what would you be working on?
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