We all get that sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs sometimes. You know, the one where you’ve been asked to do something, speak to someone, or engage in a task – and your brain goes into overdrive as you realise that you actually have no Earthly idea what you’re doing.
Here are the kinds of things that fly through your brain:
- I’m not up for this
- I’m not good enough for this
- surely someone else could do this better?
- what is everything goes wrong?
- what happens if I stuff it up?
- what if they realise that I’m not as good as they think?
It has a name – it’s called impostor syndrome.
It’s a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist in the face of information to the contrary.
So your job in such a situation is to figure out this: is it just perception (ie – impostor syndrome) or are you genuinely under-powered?
The First Question you Must Ask Yourself – Is it Perception… or Reality?
When you’re faced with this situation, the absolute first thing you have to do is this: find out if your reaction is connected with perception, or reality.
Only once you’ve properly considered that question can you then consider how to approach the issue.
You can spot perception problems because they have a tendency to be irrational. They are reactionary, chemical and instinct driven. They come from the same place that the desire to crawl into a hole rather than do public speaking comes.
Reality problems are more considered. They come from an understanding and appreciation of what you are faced with, and a clinical decision that you simply are not armed with the necessary tools to get the job done.
Now that you have identified the problem, you can start to move on to the solution.
At its core, the solution is simple. You can either change the perception. Or change the reality.
Since that’s sounding a little bit like Matrix at this point, let’s dive in to see what I’m actually talking about.
When it’s a Perception Problem
When the issue is one of perception, your problem is, unfortunately, yourself.
I’m not going to ask you to tell me about your mother at this point, or suggest you lie down on a couch and take an ink blot test.
What I am going to suggest is that a healthy dose of self-awareness is in order.
What are you actually good at?
What are you actually bad at?
Then consider this: is how you would answer those questions the same as how other people would answer those questions?
If not, then you may have a self-awareness problem.
Changing your perception can be difficult (especially if you’re stuck in the negative) but it’s not impossible. You need to consider changing the habit of how you think about yourself. Many people haven’t ever thought about it this way, but ultimately the way you think about yourself and others is just as much a habit as everything else we do.
If you can start to re-wire your thinking habits using some common strategies, then you’re well on your way to correcting your perception.
When You Actually Can’t Do It
Sometimes, of course, no matter how much self-confidence we might have, the fact is we simply can’t do something. We might be underprepared, underskilled, underpowered in some other way – but for whatever reason, the objective truth is that we don’t have the ability to do the thing.
If this is you, the starting point is this: don’t get overwhelmed.
For any task that you’re simply not up to (but that you have to do anyway) there is a straightforward procedure:
- Break it up into pieces. Identify what, specifically, you cannot do or are unprepared for;
- For each piece, determine what you would need to do in order to become OK with your status in that area;
- Find out how much time you have to gear up for the thing (I accept it’s often not that long);
- In the time available, starting on the things that are most critical, work your way through the list.
In practice, of course, this can be very difficult. However if you can get control of the situation, chunk it up, and do the best you can – then it’s going to be hard to criticise yourself later on for what you did.
If, however, you just freak out, put your head in your hands, and collapse in a heap – then you’re ultimately going to be disappointed with yourself, and you’re going to continue the habit of feeling like you’re not good enough.
What’s your Worst Experience?
Every lawyer has them. The time they remember that they were thrown in the deep end and something went wrong.
We don’t like to talk about it that much, but if you’ve got something that you can share to encourage us all – please do in the comments.
For my part, I’ve already shared 3 total failures of my own, so I think that’ll do for now.