Feeling like a Fraud: When you have the voice in your head that tells you you’re not good enough and you have no idea what you’re doing.
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Are you guided by a belief that something is wrong with you? That you’re not good enough, and that you can barely keep people fooled about the fact that you’re smart. Maybe you constantly seek out the likeness of someone worthy but always seem to feel just as worthless as before: you’re never thin enough, you’re not as successful as you’d like to be, or maybe you’re living a life that you KNOW you don’t want but you’re too afraid to do anything about it because it’s going to show the world that you’re a weak and shameful loser. So it’s better to just stay safe, and protected in the lie. Even though you feel suffocated and stifled by this life. Well if this sounds like you then you’re in good company – this is a universal human trait: to feel that we’re not good enough. And that’s because so much of the self is defined by things we learn from others. The brain we use to drive and make money is also the brain that computes risk based on a very specific structure we’ve built via our life experiences. So it’s natural to have grown up with a set of beliefs that are – to say the least – not in favor of your confidence and self-love.
So many of us grow up with a subconscious understanding that we are only good and worthy if we do x, y, z –and that we have to keep trying or else we’re unlovable. That X, Y, Z depends on your parents: how they were taught their worth by their parents. But in the west it usually revolves around being strong, not having weakness, being a leader, getting the right job, look thin and sexy, have a specific kind of house/car, have attained a certain status by a certain age, etc. So it’s a standard upheld by you – as you grow and mature – and also by everyone around you. Thus – the deceptive nature of this damaging belief system. We cannot tell we are a victim to a lie. It operates so powerfully beneath all our actions, all the time. And as the lie progresses, so does the depth of our feelings of worthlessness.
If this sounds like you I hope to offer you some relief in the form of understanding, plus a few tools to manage the effects. As usual there are 3 parts: the what, the why, and the how: the tools. This one is for Guy.
Part 1: The What
We often seek validation from outside ourselves – because when you don’t feel convicted in yourself it’s a quick fix to feel okay: if this, then that. If this person says I’m good, then I am good. Which is fine, while it lasts. The negative of this construct comes when we slow down. Or heaven forbid, we are told we are not good. If it’s rejection, external feedback has the power to crush your soul and reduce you to a shell of a human. Because based on this deductive logic, if you’re not the best, you’re stupid and talentless. Which is a very dangerous parallel, because the fall is so severe. A need for external validation can never be “quenched” – because it’s never enough to make you believe you are finally worthy. Beneath it will always be the dark lurking truth: I’m a fraud, I don’t know what I’m doing, I am worthless, and everyone sees it. I should have done better. I am secretly bad. I am a lie. All of these dark thoughts also perpetuate themselves to darker and darker degrees, training in neural pathways and mental associations with our image of self. This self-loathing narration becomes a dark secret truth that never stops torturing us at any sign of less-than. The voice is that of the ego, or the thinking organ we call a brain. This is the logic center that solves incessantly and measures things to create a sense of control. The “if this, then that” is merely a habit of thinking that can get very out of control – especially when left to its own devices. And it’s motivated purely by fear and perceived threat. It’s deceptive, this ego, because it is built by our life experiences and therefore it appears to be our self: it pretends to show us who we are.
I want to frame the way you think about this episode by telling you a story of a lab rat experiment. And yes this is sad, so I am sorry that you have to read about something mean done to rats. Let’s pretend they were okay in the end… In this particular test, there are two rats in two separate cages. They are both fed by tubes. One of the rats gets a shock every time it feeds from the tube, but it continues to feed from it regardless, because it can CONTROL when it feels pain, and therefore it grows more and more tolerant to the shock. It’s able to stay mentally acute and emotionally healthy because it can predict and control when it feels the pain. The other rat however, gets shocked every time the first rat feeds – so in its experience, the pain is random. It’s overwhelmingly terrifying because there is no order to the pain. It cannot manage this anxiety, so this rat has a breakdown. It begins to suffer health and emotional problems, and degrades on every level because of how this random pain stresses its fight-or-flight system. The same shock, when out of a rats control, is intolerable.
The reason I tell you this story is because we humans are the same. In order to manage pain and be able to tolerate it, we need to place it within our control. We need to give it a label. The reason I feel bad is because of…THIS. When we grow up with feelings of anxiety or fear, the healthy survival response is to control and manage that pain by labeling it with something we can hold onto and see in our life. For example, weight or success or title. The reason I feel low and self-loathing is because I don’t have that job that represents success. The list of reasons is endless. And often you’ll find yourself SEARCHING for the reason, desperately trying to make something stick: I’m upset because I didn’t do THIS right. Like when you throw a party and see ONLY the one thing you did wrong. “Everyone had a great time but it was a failure…the soufflé wasn’t warm when it was served.” It’s a bad habit and built into us from a very young age as a way to manage and control feelings of fear and pain. The belief can take a million different forms but it translates quite simply as: I’m not good enough.
The truth is, your value as a person is always equal and perfect, regardless of external bars. As we live life from this whole and perfect place, external validation should be a “nice to have” but irrelevant to your definition of self. Great, in theory – WAYYY more difficult in practice! I know! We underestimate the power of an external factor to allow us to feel “okay” about life. Often personal happiness has little to do with our sense of “okay-ness” with life. The accolades and external validation is more of a blanket to soften the overwhelming fear of being not good enough. Having the right “stuff” can make you feel temporarily at peace with yourself or make the anxiety slightly more manageable. Your brain can continually look to it as proof that you’re not such a loser, “If this, then that…” Poor old, broken solving machine... But that’s not easy or fun and it’s cheating you out of your true potential and the freedom to be yourself. So this post is really about growing the base you have inside of yourself – knowing your worth outside of external validation and deliberately not seeking validation from anywhere else. When you tame the voice of negativity inside, you milk out every last shred of enjoyment in life – which is what is available to you right now and what you deserve. You only get one of these – do it right.
Part 2: The Why
A lot of how sensitive you are to the opinions of others is designated by genetics: how tough, how tolerant and how extroverted you are, etc. Childhood rearing also plays a major role as your parents set the stage for your understanding of self vs. the world. We retain the patterns from our childhood. So if you grow up with parents telling you that you’re amazing and talented, you’ll more likely believe it as an adult. If you grow up with parents who instill confidence in you while allowing you to test your limits, you end up developing into a confident and surefooted adult.
The opposite is also true. So if you grew up not feeling completely loved, you will likely grow into an adult who feels the same way. Forever believing you’re not enough as you are– desperately seeking any sign of your worth and secretly believing yourself to be unworthy. The same goes for if you grow up unaccepted by a parent: the adult self will retain the dark belief that you are bad and unlovable.
The same effect can also come from a major change, like a move to a new place or a breakup of a home: something that caused you to feel unaccepted and alone. For example, if you moved to a new place where you felt foreign or different, you might develop an overwhelming need to fit in and please others. The anxiety of being different is too painful, therefore you take it into your own hands by becoming “correct” like the others. However, a part of you will always feel false and not good enough.
The same effect can also come from a shock or trauma during childhood – if you suffer PTSD, the reliving of the trauma will cause many to put themselves into dangerous and similarly traumatic situations, so that they can begin to feel more comfortable with the original experience. Their brain needs to create context and order to manage the upsetting visions and feelings of terror. When it comes to a trauma like sexual abuse, kids often begin to enact behavior to provoke the abuse so that it’s within their control and therefore, predictable. If a kid is abused, they will take on the belief that they are bad and deserving of abuse: This is in my power = I’m the bad one. And the belief begets more of the same.
We all develop a fear of rejection based on how we were given love by our parents, how we were taught by our peers and societal influences. Parents, universally tell kids to act: To not be the way we are, because it will only lead to a life of pain. Usually it's unconscious, and delivered through negative reinforcement. Like when a parent tells a kid, with their reaction, that being loud and acting silly is shameful. It can be as simple as a look of disdain or a comment that makes the behavior about them. “You’re embarrassing me!” This also tells the kid they are invisible and their feelings, invalid. Or, a parent who reacts to tears with disappointment: this unconsciously tells a kid that it’s bad to be needy or show weakness. The kid, in turn, will hide their neediness – despite the fact that the feelings persist: the cycle of the secret truth has begun.
Why parents would enact these patterns is the result of the faded effects of the way they were parented. Whatever parents improve upon with their own kids depends on what they focus on as important or valuable. Additionally, parents are human! They often look to their kids as a reflection of how they’re doing as individuals. They use their kids as an extension of their personal validation and a mirror to their own worth. So the attempt to control and devoid their kids of the right to feel what they feel comes from a place of insecurity. The cycle of the secret truth never ends.
Kids who are brought up into a strict and closed-minded religion often grow up with the residue of the religious beliefs, whether or not they subscribed to it themselves. The coding of good and bad, wrong and right, pleasure and guilt will forever shape the way they experience their natural selves. Many grow up subconsciously believing themselves to be sinners who must be afraid of their true nature, and therefore they begin to suppress and hide their true selves. A dominant belief system has the power to create a fear-based framework within your sense of self, one you cannot see your way out of easily. Life becomes an exhausting battle to suffocate and silence what you fear, inside. A lot of cultural beliefs can scar work invisibly inside us regardless of whether or not we subscribe. Because to be different in itself evokes shame and isolation: if you are more sensitive, the instinct is to hide your differences so you don’t stick out.
Another source of inner worthlessness stems from wanting to be accepted into a group. The flip-side being, a fear of sticking out as different. Because culturally, we are taught to be popular, compete and win among our peers. And when it comes to social circles, many of us don't think and act the same as those around us: it takes years to find your tribe. Being unique becomes a great blessing later in life, but in childhood it tells us we are bad and must conform to be loved. If you feel like you’re not like anyone else – most kids take that to mean “There’s something wrong with me.” Finding your tribe is a wonderful moment in life: the people who share your sensibilities and make you feel you truly belong. If you're lucky, you grow up with your tribe, but many don't find like-thinkers until much later, and often, one person at a time. So as a child, if you have a fear of not fitting in, then your instinct will be to conform – change, be like everyone else. And if you’re lucky – you grow out of this. However, if you’re fragile, that can take many years of living a lie. And with that time, you lose sight of the immense value of who you are as your authentic self. All that lives is the voice telling you – keep up, keep up! Or else they’ll know, you’re not like them – you’re a fraud.
It’s also the case that if you grew up fearful and nervous, and never went outside of that – perhaps you had parents who did everything for you – then you likely never got the chance to earn your own sense of self. You never got to witness your own power.
The flip-side to feelings of worthlessness appears as ego and arrogance: only feeling like yourself when you’re receiving applause or accolades. The tragedy of this comes when the applause ends and you realize it was all you had to feel your worth. Many celebrities fall hard late in life because they lose a connection to value within their self – and so without the external, they end up feeling like garbage. Other times, a person who feels worthless will feel hate and disdain for others – attaching to their faults and how they’re not good enough. This is really a way to manage their own pain and anxiety by putting other things lower than themselves. They are able to temporarily feel superior and soothed in the worthless self-hate. It’s also a welcome distraction to hate on anything other than their self, whether it be the weather, taxes, the people on a reality show, etc.
So if any of this sounds familiar to you, you likely dream of feeling like you belong just as you are: of letting go of all this worry and self-hate. Of being able to laugh and love yourself, and feel great about who that is no matter what is going on in your life. We all live in quest for belonging. But this secret belief of worthlessness, will trick you and keep you always feeling outside of happiness, and your own group. You will always perceive yourself to be a liar and a fake. From this place you perceive everything negative in life to be somehow your fault. So if bad things happen, you might see it as the result of your shortcomings. And the upkeep is exhausting. Because this filter is constantly searching for possible negatives. We’re human and therefore we’re beautifully imperfect – thus, your ego will inevitably find something to hate on.
The manifesting of a belief that you’re not good enough: you’re bad, crazy, messed up, not good enough as yourself, and not worthy of unconditional love – becomes a system that allows you to control all different kinds of overwhelming fear and anxiety. It creates relief while at the same time creating a vicious cycle that perpetuates more fear and low self-worth. This empowering yet damaging rationalization becomes something you live out, forever more, until you look deeper at what has originated the belief. The belief is that we’re not good enough, and so we take the actions of a person who is not good enough. By hiding, we maintain the belief: by boasting when we feel insecure, by lying about our successes to protect our failures, by feeling the need to be something other than what we are. Each time, the cycle has begun again: you have reaffirmed, with your unconscious actions – that you are secretly not good enough. And when this becomes your pervasive sense of being – you lose complete sight of who you are and your truest value in the world. You change course. Everything becomes seen through the lens of “I’m worthless and hate-worthy.”
This is how many of us get stuck in the hunt for the fix– anything to fill the bottomless pit: for stronger skin products, the fancier car, the cool but not-fun hobbies. It’s never ending and that’s because we’re looking for the solution to a problem that has no face. It’s the pain – the same old pain, that’s always been there, lurking, that freaks us out and causes us to point to something. Anything! Give it a name. Because the pain of worthlessness is quite unbearable. It’s dark and deep and scary, and from this place we have no friends, no relationship, no cred in the world – so the lie is a desperate way to keep what we desperately want and love. Running away becomes something driven by extreme terror. It can be SOOO viscous – the voice you hear in your own head. Man, can you imagine if someone were able to hear those words? Sometimes they’re unspeakable! And the depression they cause can be debilitating – so this is at least a way for us to empower ourselves.
External validations are a culturally supported ruse! Because everyone’s doing it, so it’s normal – it gives us the illusion that we’re solving something by “managing” a problem. It’s a cultural habit that can lead to serious addiction – whether that be to food and alcohol or stuff, or work. When we martyr ourselves with long hours, it’s a way to make our value more tangible. To prove via our sacrifice, that we are worthy. All of it is an attempt to numb the fear. Fill the bottomless pit. It’s always waiting for you at the first moment of stillness, so we must stay busy and distracted! If things slow down we start looking to things we can worry about tomorrow, or a week from now.
The tragic irony is by doing all this work to be good or better, you are fast-forwarding your way to your own death. When you’re running, you fill the silence and keep a state of numb busyness. The preoccupation robs you of your truest, richest life – and with that, knowledge of who you really are. And that is the most wonderful journey that exists. To know thyself is the point of it all! The saddest part of our distraction is that we unknowingly remove ourselves from this wonderful ride designed for us to grow, understand, accept and evolve. Because the pain of failure is too great, we would rather stay same and good enough than risk going for our dreams, and what makes us happier. It is this fear that keeps many in roles that others deem worthy, despite the fact that they find no joy in it, which is something they regret once the ride is up. “I never liked this ride in the first place. My dad told me to take this one.”
Spirituality is the process of uncovering the truth: a slow melting away of the boundaries taken on by a fearful life. Shedding the ego and what it creates to torment you and keep you stuck. So with that – let’s get to the good part: the tools.
Part 3: Tools
One major caveat: We all have our own specific cocktail for healing - there are some deep pockets of pain that can persist despite great efforts. It can cause you to assume you're doing it wrong, or that you’re just broken. You might even mistrust that you are healing yourself right now, just by reading this. That it won't be inclusive of you because you're not as good as everyone else – or you’re doing it wrong, somehow. But that is the perception of your mind’s lie. If you don’t find what soothes you, try a different ingredient. The truth and relief will come eventually – the trick is to not give up.
TOOL 1: Recognize
This sounds sooo no-duh, but I want you to do this right now. Think about yourself and try to see whether or not these have been ringing true for you. The key to freeing yourself from the voice of negativity you have inside, is to acknowledge and recognize that it exists. Notice it. See it as a presence in your life and examine its edges – how big is it? What shape does it take? DEFINE it to yourself. Truly from this vantage point, you can see the outside of your personal belief prison – and it is from here that you can begin to have hope for relief.
It is from this place that you can also for the first time – grieve and see how much of your life you have stolen from yourself thus far! It might shock you and make you sad for yourself, because yeah – it is a lot to lose. But now is the time to focus on moving forward. To shed this belief and grow. So it is symbolic of something wonderful. Instead of getting mad at yourself, feel compassion for yourself – these systems developed into you for a good reason originally – and that was to manage pain. It was a healthy and empowering system when you needed it – now, however, it’s holding you back. By looking at the pain, you heal it. You are stronger now and away from the things that threatened your capacities before. This moment, right now, is a positive and new stage– so a major high-five to you. When you let go of this you come into the knowledge of who you are, deep down – and you allow that self to grow.
TOOL 2: “I Am” Affirmations & Gratitudes
Don’t roll your eyes at me! I know this is the dorkiest self-helpiest tool ever! I know that! But it’s in here because it actually works. Even if you hate it I want you to start going through the motions and create a journal. Even a temp one. If you refuse to get a journal, at the very least write them in your phone and delete them immediately after you write them. This tool is basically a daily writing practice to train in a positive mindset. No joke, it works. Write five adjectives that you decide to be; all of them good. For example, mine are “I am happy, powerful, loving, inspiring, a beam of light.” (I know the last one’s fancy.) And then three things – from your last 24 hours – that you’re grateful for. So make them new each day. And YES, you have to write these things each day. DOOOEEET!
TOOL 3: Eye-Witness Friend
This is a mental visualization tool for stopping yourself mid-self-hating-thought. Imagine you’re saying the same statement to a friend, or even in front of them. If its something they would be taken aback by, stop it! It’s not okay to talk that way. If it’s not something you can say aloud in public, then you a-thousand-percent shouldn’t be saying it to yourself inside your own head. Shut it down. Not cool.
TOOL 4: This Label Maker is Broken!
This is a visualization tool for you to use when your brain begins to label other things in your life as the root of your worry or suffering. Think of your thoughts as the part of your brain that’s a broken label-maker: the labels are coming out all wrong. It’s not your weight or your lack of money that is making you feel sad or bummed out – it’s the same old anxiety you’ve always had! Don’t obey the signs! They lead you down a rabbit hole! Just soothe the effects as quickly as possible and get yourself back to center as soon as possible. Remember that these labels are meaningless – you’re hunting for a face to the pain, but it’s false and only gives the pain more momentum. A true role gives it “motivation” – all of the focus on pain and worry is a waste. Move on. The labels are all wrong!
TOOL 5: Sucky Catch-Phrase
This is a tool to immediately identify the voice of your self-loathing and self-hate as soon as it rears its ugly head and sends you into an auto play of something old. We all have pretty consistent self-loathing catch phrases that we tend to say when we’re reaffirming our tired old roles. For example, standby’s like, “I feel bad.” Or, “That xyz sucks.” When we hate on things, it’s usually secretly validating our fear of worthlessness. Maybe you get triggered when someone gives you constructive feedback – or around the topic of weight. Whatever your hotspots are, make note of them in your journal – and begin to transcribe the phrases you hear yourself say. Once you know ‘em, decide to shed them – deliberately. They are not helping you be better or nicer – and they’re probably annoying for you to hear yourself say. Begin to watch yourself saying them – and then soon, you’ll be able to anticipate them. Once you can do that, you can choose to retire them instead.
TOOL 6: The Roads Get Potholes When it Rains!
(They get fixed though – so don’t be afraid.) This tool is for anyone who has been doing work on themselves to let go of pain and self-hate. It’s more a heads up for the future, because the tendency is to belief your growth is not permanent and you’ll regress at any moment.
When we are taxed by a challenging factor in life, we have a tendency to regress to old managing tactics. If you’ve been working on yourself for a long time it can be terrifying because it feels like everything has unraveled. However, it’s only temporary – so this tool is a visual I would like to implant in your brain so you do not freak out if that happens to you. The reason a temporary regression and panic happens is your energy is low and you’re also managing a lot emotionally. So the reservoir becomes drained. Just like, during more primitive times when life was about survival – humans had no capacity for spiritual thinking. When life’s tough, you just don’t have the ability. You are operated by your base level survival brain when you’re tired and/or operating from a stressed states. For example, think of a time when you vented raw anger at someone due to fatigue. It's the weaker reactive self, not the reflective self. You haven’t regressed – it’s more a sign for you to soothe and take extra good care of yourself. Most important: don’t listen to the voices of negativity. They lie and they will always doubt you. The way you improve yourself is by learning to better ignore them. :)
We are by nature, imperfect. And that’s beautiful. It’s the way it should be! Thank goodness we are not the same and not flawless. We are organic and special – we bloom and change into something unknown to us, always yet to be discovered. Your job is to get out of the way and allow that to happen. Bravely and with grace. That is the natural state of all things that live! We grow and mature and change, so why would you ever attempt to deny that? The peace and enjoyment of life truly comes when you accept your humanity and let go. When you realize it’s silly and pointless to fight it. When you’re trapped in the struggle, you forget that there is a flowing river inside and all around you that guides you and you need to stop trying to row the other direction. When you stop the need to control, you realize you have a bright energy that can be free and open and experience every moment, relieved of the pain of resistance and fear.
Allowing yourself to fuck up and be bad at things is how you get to everything good that will happen in your life. On a personal level, when I go outside of what I feel comfortable with I know I’m doing something good! Like writing a blog, or doing a podcast! When you scare yourself with your bravery– that’s a good sign – a sign that you are allowing things to change you. Opening yourself up to the ability to fail, to not know, to not be the best, to not get chosen – that is how you get to the most wonderful parts of life. AND it’s a big part of growing into a confident and happy person – because, just like anything else– you get good at change! You become more and more free with every new step you take in a new direction! And the fear and “holy shit I’m going to fail” feeling – it doesn’t go away, but you get used to it, and you expect it – and eventually you learn to recognize it for what it really is: an old habit of thinking that signals you are human and alive, and this is just a normal part of life. The fearful narrative is not real – it’s manufactured by the voices and opinions of others. It has no relevance, no weight – no bearing on the value that is your life. If you want to promote this growth in yourself, surround yourself with people who are able to say, "I don't know" and are smart enough to know they know nothing. That is where authenticity and bravery lives. That is where real confidence and peace reside.
Who you are and what you are worth exceeds what anyone person or thing can tell you – and in order for you to know that, you must choose to meet and know this self and let go of the darkness. Move into the light of truth.
I send you my well wishes... be brave, loves. Smile!
Featured image via Flickr
For my reading list check out this section of books on self-love.