You’d be surprised by how many competent and well-respected leaders have a secret fear that they’re not good enough.  Many. On the outside they appear confident and capable. On the inside they struggle with doubt, constantly worrying others will discover they aren’t quite as perfect as their persona portrays.

I have those fears myself.

But at least I know I’m not alone.

According to Brené Brown, a shame and vulnerability researcher most well know for her TED talk on vulnerability and author of a new book, Daring Greatly, chances are you have a similar fear as well.

Brown says the fear of not being “good enough” is really shame. Her definition:

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of aceptance and belonging.

The word shame is not a word you usually think of when talking about leadership development yet this feeling of not being good enough is alive and well even in those who exude confidence.

In conversations I have with leaders about their professional development “not good enough” shame sound like this:

  • I know what I need to do (to influence, delegate more effectively etc.) and I’m embarrassed that I can’t make it happen consistently.
  • I should be able to influence this change but no one is hearing me!
  • I’m embarrassed that I need help. I should be able to figure out this new role/challenge on my own.
  • I’m ashamed to see these areas of improvement in my 360/feedback.  I’m embarrassed that people see the cracks I thought I was good at hiding.
  • I’m glad I was promoted but I’m starting to think I’m in over my head. I worry I won’t be able to live up to the expectations in this new role.

If you’ve ever uttered or thought the same, know you’re not alone.

Picture this: There you are fearful that you are not doing enough or capable enough (or fill in the blank for your own not-enoughness) and then you try to lead your team, your project, and your life. With this shame and not enoughness in the back of you head you hear a question as an attack instead of curiosity, you get defensive rather than collaborative, you fear the response to your nascent idea and opt to stay silent, you listen to the chatter in your head instead of your partner/friend and miss connecting with them.  In short, it doesn’t go well.

How is this playing out in your life?

When you take action from a state of fear or embarrassment about your ability (even if it is a secret hidden fear), you lose the capacity to bring your best to the table. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The tricky part is what to do about it, how to shift it.

Here Are 4 Ways to Get Good Enough

1. Share Your Shame

Brown’s research shows that empathy is the antidote to shame. Reach out to a friend or advisor who can be trusted with your story and tell them about the negative chatter in your head. When you’re met with empathy (not sympathy) the shame recedes. Knowing you’re not alone does make a difference. Know that we all (and I mean all) have our moments of self-doubt and fear that we are not enough. It’s how we move through them that matters.

2. Shift Your State (physical and mental)

When we change our physical state, it shifts our mental state. It’s often easier (and more powerful) to shift your body into a new position than to attempt mental gymnastics as a way to quiet the negative talk inside your head.

If you’re feeling embarrassed your mind transfers that emotion into your body in the form of slumped shoulders, a concave chest, down cast eyes or a more subtle protective crossing of the arms. It’s difficult to lead and inspire others from this position.

So, throw your shoulders back, plant your feet firmly on the ground and watch the chatter in your head change to one that will support rather than undermine your next leadership move. Check out this brilliant Ted Talk from social psychologist Amy Cuddy on “power posing”.

3. Refocus

It can seem like the evidence of how we’re not enough is lit up in neon, if not externally, at least inside our minds eye. Instead of letting it draw your attention, shift your focus to what is going well. Not to ignore or pretend there are no issues, but to shift yourself out of your fear-based lizard brain and into the more productive and creative juices that are flowing when you access your pre-frontal cortex. When we are in fear, our brain shifts into the primal fight or flight of the lizard brain and we lose access to the parts of our brain that can help us come up with creative solutions to the issue we are facing.

4. Strategize

Raise your self-awareness so that you know what your shame or “not enough” triggers are.  Then have a conversation with a friend or trusted advisor about what strategies will help keep you from falling into the trap long before the ground falls out from under you.  If you aren’t sure what those triggers are for you, a good place to start is by paying attention to when you tell yourself you “should” or “shouldn’t” do/know/say something.

For example, if asking for help makes you feel like you’ve failed, take on a practice to notice others who ask for help. Pay attention to what it allows them to accomplish. Check your assumptions.  Ask friends and colleagues what they think of people who ask for help. Notice your own assumptions about what it means to ask for help. When other people ask for help do you see them in a positive light as collaborators yet when you reach out, your perspective shifts to the negative?

How do You Want to Spend Your Energy? 

Even people who seem outwardly confident still have these “not good enough” fears. Some have developed strategies for hiding them but that takes a lot of energy. Do you really want to spend your energy on hiding what you fear are the ways you’re not enough?

Instead, acknowledge that you (and all of us) have these moments or areas of self-doubt. Notice what effect your “not enough” story is having on your life. Decide for yourself if the cost is too great. If so, put some of these strategies into play. Share your shame with a trusted advisor, shift your state, refocus on what is going well, identify your triggers and develop strategies specific to your area of focus.

What is your best strategy? I’d love to hear from you!


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