Each of us has at some point faced a scenario where we felt inadequate, or not up to the challenge. When confronted with new challenges, it’s not uncommon to doubt your ability, or to feel imposter syndrome. The simplest way to halt this kind of self-sabotage is a suggestion I offer to clients all the time: sharing with a past version of yourself. We’re often more critical of ourselves and our trajectory than anyone else. That critical voice is also not the most accurate.
Take for example, that you’re up for a local award for your writing, but you’re still waiting on a screenplay contract. You’re likely much more inclined to focus on the lacking element — what you don’t have, and what currently feels difficult to achieve, than to remember how wild and mind-blowing it is that you’ve even reached as far as this in your career at all.
Our challenges have the — at times annoying — tendency to scale in proportion to our success. This is not inherently a bad thing if it means you’re striving, in search of new heights and experiences, as opposed to stagnating.
Whenever we achieve a new level of success, the signpost moves, and we have the impression we need to achieve even more the next time, in comparison to what we’ve already accomplished.
Continuously challenging yourself can help you avoid becoming complacent, but it can also backfire if you’re not giving yourself enough credit where credit is due. But if the constant growth mentality leads you to be so hard on yourself you forget what you’ve done right and what you’re capable of, it will end up making it harder to reach your goals in the future.
Negativity Bias and Other Head Trash
Scientific research suggests we humans have an innate bias, known as negativity bias, towards remembering our failures more easily than our successes. It makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint; you need to remember bad experiences to avoid repeating mistakes — or being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger.
But in the modern world, where our challenges are not so often life and death, this negativity bias can be a hindrance. Doubts about your potential for future success is an Achilles’ heel for your capacity to do your best work. And negative self-talk fuels those doubts and negativity, creating an increasingly large heap of “head trash” which is difficult to see beyond.
Head trash is one of the five components of the air sandwich: the space between the goals and dreams you have, and your day-to-day reality.
A significant component of reaching for your goals is having confidence enough to even try for them. Without a reasonable belief in the possibility of success, it’s very hard to convince yourself to give all that time, energy, and attention to that project.
Being capable of replacing your negative self-talk with positive self-talk is the easiest way out of this conundrum — but it’s also easier said than done.
Replace Your Negative Self-Talk by Sharing with Your Past Self
Sharing with your past self is one of the best approaches to increase your confidence about future goals. I suggest it often to coaching clients, who report that it creates openings for them and a sense of motivation they were previously lacking.
As a coaching tool, it draws from some principles of mindfulness, since it involves interrupting an old habit of thought.
- Select a past version of yourself you can imagine clearly. Think back to those times, to what you knew and didn’t know, what you feared or doubted. As a teenager, you might not have needed to earn money to cover living expenses or pay for your own food. In college, you might have been trying to figure out how to pay tuition, cover bills, and still find time to study. Think about a time when you were seeking your first “real” job.
- Explain to that past self where you are now, and what you’ve accomplished. The goals you’ve struggled with and achieved. The mistakes you’ve made and learned from. Those that hurt at the moment, but long-term didn’t harm you (and made a good story). Talk about the resourceful ways you accomplished goals and overcame obstacles.
- If you encounter resistance, lean into that. If this conversation with your past self starts with or takes on a negative bent, try to remember all the challenges and fears that same past self encountered five, ten, or fifteen years ago. How many of those fears have been resolved?
- Notice the gap between where you were and where you are now, and apply that realization to your next level of success. Just as you took that previous challenge head-on, and arrived in a different place in life, the same will be true ten years from now.
Celebrate Your Wins During the Process
Recognizing you have already achieved some of your goals in the course of your life opens the door to see how many more you could still achieve. Another way to jumpstart this is to celebrate your wins during the process. Use a wins journal or other tool to capture those intermediate wins and learnings on the way to achieving your larger goal. Those can provide needed fuel when your energy or enthusiasm flags or you encounter resistance.
Staying motivated by your belief in yourself is a big part of reaching for your dreams — and celebrating during the process is key, not just at the end, when you get external, societal validation.
Celebrating your wins, whether with your past self or your current self at the moment, is an important part of building the confidence to reach for and achieve your next best-work goal. Remember all the things you’ve already made happen, and build upon those successes as steps toward your next big goal.
All of those steps were necessary for you to be in a position to see what’s now on the horizon.