Ever get bitten by the “what if?” gremlin? It is part of a cycle that feeds our self-doubt and leaves us feeling like we are not good enough.
It’s a sneaky creature, slides up onto your shoulder just as you are about to go to sleep, give a presentation, go on a date, take a zoom meeting, just about any time you are going to start something new. It has a voice and it goes something like this;
What if they don’t approve?
What if I am not understood?
What if they don’t like me?
What if I am not good enough?
What if I make a mistake?
What if they find out who I really am and discover I am a phony?
And, on it can go for about a dozen pages! You know exactly what I am talking about because if you are human you have heard the chant and spent time speaking back to it. Or, in most cases let it overpower you and you stay stuck.
You turn down the opportunity to try something new, join a group, take up a new hobby, meet new people, go on a trip (pre-COVID days of course) and you end up exactly where you have always been – which isn’t really very far at all, except that you have lost sleep, and your blood pressure is on the rise because of the anxiety the “what if?” can cause in your life. We let the “what if?” enable us to avoid change.
Why do we do it?
Ah, the “why?” to the “what?”!
We listen to it because we are human and because humans have the propensity to sabotage themselves and create roadblocks to protect themselves from what we perceive may be dangerous.
We do it because we are creatures of habit and even if those habits are bad for us, like staying in a bad relationship, eating the wrong foods, staying in a rotten job, mixing with dreadful people, we learn to be comfortable in our discomfort.
We do it because somewhere in our upbringing and childhood development we learned that to be accepted, loved, and appreciated we had to follow conformity and if we take a risk to do something that might alienate us from others we fear we may be exiled into the abyss of isolation.
We do it because we have learned the norms for our behavior from other people’s responses to us, it is how we learned to fit in, and we internalize the values of society over our core values and we crave belonging.
How can we manage the “What ifs?”
- Track it – notice when it comes up and get curious about it. Ask yourself “What is it about this situation that this voice wants to protect me from? Is there a real danger?” Can you then reassure yourself that it really is okay and you can allow yourself to take a small step forward? If not then:
- Feel it – What emotions are behind it? Is it something that is residual from your childhood or previous experiences that were difficult for you? Give yourself permission to feel whatever those feelings are; nervous, fearful, doubtful, insecure, etc.
- Label it – Label the emotions and acknowledge them. Reach out to a psychotherapist or counselor if you need help unpacking those emotions. Acknowledging and labeling them will help you understand them and allow you to express them. Maybe you could write them out or speak to someone you trust to release them.
- Feeling not good enough has its roots in shame, was there a time when you were shamed for doing something that you can make peace with now? What experiences from your past are driving this feeling of “I’m not good enough”.
- Ask yourself what assumptions are you making about a situation, are you finishing the story about the possible outcome in a negative way? How would you like it to be? Can you give it a different perspective?
Finally, Do you know what your values are? Our values are our deepest desires for how we want to behave as a human being. They aren’t about what we want to achieve or get; they are about how we want to behave and show up as a human being on an ongoing basis.
Focussing on your core values and becoming really familiar with them will give you an anchor within yourself rather than seeking validation through external means.
When you have your values at the forefront of your mind and the “what if?” shows up you may find you feel differently about the situation and you can regulate those thoughts with more ease than before. Please remember, self-criticism and self-doubt is very common in us humans and our brain can go there by default so this may take time.
Doing new things, or old things differently with your values in mind and your own unique style and flair may not feel comfortable in the beginning but you will soon realize it gets easier over time. You don’t have to conform to other people’s ideals. The price tag of disapproval from others may just be worth it because, at the end of the day, when there is congruency in how you show up with your values you will build a wonderful sense of self you can always fall back on. Instead of the “what if?” gremlin showing up maybe the “why not?” warrior will appear more often leading to a life of greater opportunity.
You’ve got this!