I have so many personal heroes, and it’s gratifying to notice that most of them are women. Not that there aren’t scads of brilliant men I openly adore and admire, but as a woman I still feel like we have more to ‘prove’ in order to be successful. So every time I see a woman standing apart from the crowd and being embraced for her natural genius, some part of me breathes a sigh of relief: ahhhh, yes, it can be done.
When I read books and blog posts by these women, I feel inspired and buoyed. They remind me of what’s truly important and give me nourishing food for thought. But then my brain runs a funny mental loop that I’ve only recently begun to take conscious note of. It goes something like this:
“This new book by So-and-so is amazing! She’s so insightful… she’s given me so many great strategies to try out. I feel really inspired to take on the world. I’m going to start today. Well, after I get three other projects done, and go for a walk, and eat a late lunch. Hmm. Maybe not today. I don’t think I’ll have time. I bet So-and-So always has time for the kinds of strategies she recommends, because she’s super successful and can pay people to do everything else in her life. She doesn’t have a day job anymore. Sure, she got successful by working hard—she wasn’t always wealthy. But she always knew what she wanted to do. She was always an overachiever, and led her own start-up when she was 21. She’d accomplished more by the age of 24 than I’ve ever done. She had the confidence to self-publish her work 15 years ago. She had enough faith in herself to endure rejection and failure over and over for years, until the stars aligned for her…”
It doesn’t matter who you put in front of me, if they’re successful, my ego will eventually find some way to distance myself from them and explain how I can’t have the same kind of success as them. And make no mistake, I’m not suggesting these people are born with silver spoons in their mouths. Most of them had to bootstrap their way to where they are now, and are only successful because they worked damn hard and put themselves and their work out into the world, despite their fears and feelings of inadequacy. Maybe they just knew that the worst thing that could happen really wasn’t all that bad. Or they risked it all and stepped up anyway, because the compulsion to authentically express themselves was that strong.
My ego tells me I don’t have that kind of faith or self-confidence. I don’t have the character, conviction or work ethic to achieve what they did. So best to just keep playing small, stay in the background, do the kind of work I’m already known for. Be practical and realistic.
Now, if I just allow myself to run on autopilot, I keep myself stuck in that bleak mental groove.
But when I actually look at those words, they start to look pretty ridiculous. I can recall all sorts of moments in my life where my faith and confidence in my abilities were pretty high. I’ve had conviction and character to spare, in times when it really mattered to me. And when I have a project to complete, my drive and focus are relentless. I have the skills and strengths to get where I want to go, clearly.
So what gives?
I know I’m not alone in this. There are several dear people in my life who appear to struggle with similar demons. Do you do this too? How can we stop this maddening self-sabotage? I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, and 3 approaches come to mind:
- Have compassion for yourself. My tendency towards self-criticism and perfectionism are what have brought me here today. The more I can bring compassion in to meet whatever is happening for me (internally and externally) the more space I can create for magic to happen. I’m so done with the whole hard-ass approach to self-improvement that I see everywhere on the internet these days. Tara Mohr’s book, Playing Big, takes a very compassionate approach to helping women work through their fears and live a more fulfilling life.
- Stop comparing your beginning to someone else’s middle. Jon Acuff said that, and it’s taken off as one of the rare internet memes I actually resonate with. When looking at your heroes, it’s easy to put them on a pedestal and feel hopeless when comparing their output to yours. Ira Glass spoke about this topic beautifully, explaining that when we feel compelled to create something, it’s generally because we’re an avid consumer of that kind of work or art, and as such, we have great taste in that arena. And when we start out, the work we produce doesn’t stack up in any way, shape or form with our heroes’. So we’re tempted to quit, because we can’t bear the thought of putting mediocre work out into the world. But if we persevere and get our 10,000 hours of practice in, we’ll eventually create high-caliber work we can truly admire.
- Remember your successes. Write down a chronological list of accomplishments in your life, starting with your earliest memories: winning the science fair in first grade, making $50 with your lemonade stand when you were 8, becoming the busiest babysitter on your block, running a half-marathon when you were 18, scoring the most coveted internship amongst your college classmates, getting a raise, getting promoted, mastering online dating and meeting the love of your life, or perfecting your chocolate chip oatmeal cookie recipe. Write down as many things as you can think of at every age, and keep this list handy so you can keep adding to it. It’s important to continually remind yourself of what you’re capable of.