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"I'm just not good at this"

How to catch the harmful lies of your inner monologue and find a better path forward
Simon Lepkin

Executive Coach for Software Engineers, Ex-Upstart

“an abstract painting of someone plagued with self-doubt, unwelcome thoughts looming over their head” / DALL-E

In my last article, I wrote about a defensive response to being rejected for a promotion. A few observant readers pointed out that this is not the only common response; another is the self-critical one: “I guess I don’t deserve to be promoted.” I wanted to dig a bit into this, especially since that sentiment hits me where I live.

The Thought and its Catalyst

Actually, let’s talk about that whole family of self-critical little stories. Here are a few of its siblings:

  • “I’m not good enough at this.”
  • “I’m not a ‘real’ engineer.”
  • “I should be fired for this screwup.”

When one of these Thoughts barges its way into your consciousness, it was usually summoned by some unfortunate event, which I’ll call the Catalyst because I’m insufferable. Just to name a few examples, off the top of my head, that I’ve heard (or um lived):

  • My code broke production
  • My PR was rejected in its entirety
  • My promotion was denied
  • My favorite mentor left the company

The narrative that emerges is that the Catalyst provides evidence that the Thought is a fact: “I’m bad at this, so my PR was rejected”. But in truth, the causality runs in the other direction: “My PR was rejected so I think I’m bad at this.”

Sometimes the real Catalyst is outside the workplace, connected to the Thought by a long causal chain. For example, if your apartment floods or your kids get sick, you’re not going to blame your work ethic. But you are likely to run short on energy, which degrades the quality of your work, which breaks production...

You probably know all this. In fact, when you say it out loud, I bet you can immediately recognize what’s going on: Imposter Syndrome has reared its ugly face.

Power in naming

You recognize it easily because you can see it so clearly in other people. When your favorite actor or writer delivers that heartfelt diatribe about their own inadequacies, it seems obvious that their inner monologue deceives them. The notion that Taylor Swift could think that she’s never achieved anything of significance is silly!

But when it comes to your own self-judgement, the voice of Imposter Syndrome feels painfully true, like Everyone Has Imposter Syndrome, Except You. Even when your loved ones call it out within you, you smile and agree, but you don’t really believe it. You are grimly sure that you have tricked them. In a feat of mental acrobatics, you juggle two incompatible thoughts at once: “This is probably just Imposter Syndrome” and also “I’m actually not that great.”

Since the Thought is coming from inside your head, it’s tempting to assume that it carries as much validity as all your other thoughts. So to disempower it, we’ll instead attribute it to a monster that lives in your brain.

Molly Graham, one of my favorite writers on the subject, named her monster Bob. I’m going to shamelessly steal both the name and the art.

This is Bob. He says he’s here to help, and he’s terribly bad at that job.

Bob is not you, but he is trying to protect you. By constantly critiquing you and evoking every worst-case outcome imaginable, he hopes to make those outcomes better! Tragically, he is so very bad at his job. So let’s figure out how to pat him on the head and send him on his way, instead of letting him dictate our actions.

How to build self-empathy

Your loved ones are great at spotting when Bob is in control. That applies in both directions: you can hear their monster’s voice coming out of their mouth, too. But we don’t call it out in ourselves, because we have more empathy for our close friends and family than we do for ourselves. That’s good news, because it means we already have the skills we need to intercept Bob:

  1. Talk or write out your fears, doubts, and whatever Catalyst “proves” your apparent incompetence.
  2. Choose whichever Loved One (maybe a partner, sibling, or child) you most instinctively protect. (Don’t worry, I won’t tell the other ones.)
  3. Imagine if they said all of (1) to you, about their own life. What would you think? How would you support or comfort them? What evidence can you find to contradict their thesis?
  4. In your mind’s eye, transform your Loved One into you. Say the same thing.

Don’t worry, I won’t tell the other ones.

The key here is that you already have the ability to convincingly contradict Bob, because you leverage that ability in your relationships with others. Trick yourself into using it on yourself. Be your own Loved One; you deserve it.

You don’t need Bob to motivate action

A warning: when you use this strategy to fight Bob, he’ll fight back. “If you ignore me and stop criticizing yourself, you’ll never get any better and you’ll keep making the same mistakes!” Ah, a classic “tough-love” defense. And I suppose he’s partially correct: you do need to take action, but he’s wrong that you need his help to do that.

  • If you broke production, add tests.
  • If your PR was sent back to the drawing board, talk to your reviewers and figure out what really needs to change.
  • If your promotion was rejected, take the solid advice in this great article.
  • If your favorite mentor left the company, find a new one (either within the company, or in the community at large)
  • If your kids are sick or you need to move, explain what’s happening to your manager and ask for whatever space you need.

Note that none of these actions require shame or anger. You can change and improve without an iota of help from Bob! The hard part is learning to do this every time Bob chimes in, because he chimes in a lot. Worse still, after reading this article, he’ll chime in more than he used to. Have patience, and stay the course! That’s just his survival instinct kicking in.

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