In 1978, Drs. Clance and Imes coined the term “Impostor Syndrome” to classify individuals who don’t feel that they are worthy of their successes in life. Other references that also reflect this voracious and insatiable element of our human psyche include: The Inner Critic, The Saboteur, The Internal Judge or just plain old, “Negative Self Talk”. So…who here at some point has told themselves that they “aren’t good enough”? Well, you are not alone.

The Fable of the Two Wolves

If you search the web for a story called “The Two Wolves” you will see not only that this fable is very popular, but also that its origin is debated. What is not debatable is the relevance of the fable in helping us understand our confidence and sense of self.

A version of the fable is attributed as a Cherokee Legend and is recorded as follows:

“An elder is telling his grandson about the two wolves inside each of us that are always fighting. One wolf is anger, envy, sorrow, guilt, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, inferiority and ego. The other wolf is joy, peace, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, compassion and hope. The grandson thinks about this for a moment and then asks his grandfather, which wolf wins the fight? The elder then replies, ‘The one you feed the most’.”

Feeding the Right Wolf

Unfortunately, it is not always easy to know which wolf is gaining ground or being fed the most because a lot of our negative self-talk is insidious to the point where we don’t even know that we are shoveling food down its throat. Two or more people all feeding their Bad Wolves soon becomes a pack of pain or a pity party. “You think YOU suck? Let me tell you what real sucking is all about!”

The other challenge with this situation is that often the only food the Bad Wolf needs to feel nourished is your energy or attention. So the more you focus on trying to tame it, kill it, or even actively ignore it, the more energized and influential it can become. So what is one to do?

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You Will Always Have Your Two Wolves

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First of all, it is important to understand that the two wolves will exist inside us for as long as we live. Accepting that your “inner critic – The Bad Wolf” will show up from time to time is not a sign of failure or weakness but rather a sign of health. Accepting that it exists will release you from the burden of trying to kill it. It is enough to just notice that it is there and hungry. Also remember that the more you focus on it and try to diminish it, the more energy it will have.

Name the Fear

Secondly, it is valuable to “name the fear” behind the self-talk as this has the effect of taking what is a very emotional response, e.g. a fright or flight sort of situation, out of your reactive limbic brain and elevating it to your conscious thinking process. If you are not sure what the fear is, a good starting point is to consider one (or more) of the following:

  • My fear is that I am unloved, unlovable and no one likes me.
  • My fear is that I am powerless, unable to act or do anything of significance.
  • My fear is that I am unintelligent and incapable of understanding.
  • My fear is that I am unknowledgeable, slow witted and dull.
  • My fear is that I am inadequate and incapable of growth.

Once we know the fear and can think about our situation rationally, it is often beneficial to consider one of the following strategies.

Is the fear comparative?

Often we can find ourselves feeding the Bad Wolf because we feel we are not as good as someone else. It can be helpful to evaluate if a comparative assessment even makes sense in the situation. The score in various games can be rationalized as the winner will have scored more points than anyone else.

But what about “love” or “performance” or “potential” or any myriad of other situations where even if such things had a measurement, having “enough” is much more important than believing that someone else has more. Saying that “Kim is better than me at everything” is clearly hyperbole and impossible to rationalize. However, there is merit in acknowledging that “Both Kim and I are awesome at many things”.

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There is a lot of negativity associated with not being “the best” or having “the most”. Real satisfaction and serenity is possible in seeing yourself in absolute terms, (I am awesome) instead of relative terms, e.g. in comparison to someone else. No one has to be worse than you for you to be awesome. There is more than enough awesomeness to go around!

Who sets the standard?

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We are surrounded in our world today with extrinsic standards that few “normal” people can live up to. These figments of marketing imagination can cause us to feed the Bad Wolf, not just table scraps but full five course meals. But wait a minute, is that standard relevant, feasible or even desirable?

Many of us, even if we were capable of achieving some of these extrinsic standards would make other choices based on the sacrifices required. We don’t all want to be a CEO if it means not having a family life. Consider the power of the intrinsic standard – the one that lives inside you and encourages you to live up to your potential and not someone else’s.

What is that standard? It is simply, “Did I do my best and did I honour who I am in this situation?” You won’t be able to say yes to these two questions each and every time and when you can’t, you also know what to do to elevate yourself the next time.

What is the gift?

This is as simple as rephrasing your negative self-talk in the following way: “By saying ‘yes’ to this, what am I saying ‘no’ to?” For example, if you are feeling unintelligent because you didn’t get the job you applied to, it may be beneficial to consider that by “Saying no to that job, you are saying yes to an even better future opportunity or more time with loved ones or less business travel, etc.”

This technique helps reframe a specific situation into the broader context of our lives and experiences and in so doing, opens up different pathways for us to consider when we are in the process of ordering pizza for our Bad Wolf.

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Affirmations can help.

Finally, there has been a lot of work on the power of affirmations in creating new neural pathways in our brains. You may have noticed this phenomenon when someone close to you gets a new car and all of a sudden you start seeing that make and model all over the place. What is happening there is that your brain is no longer filtering out that data as irrelevant because now there is a reason to let it through to your conscious thoughts.

The fact that your companion bought that car makes it exceptional and worthy of note. The question then becomes, how can we ensure that opportunities to feed the good wolf are not filtered out as irrelevant before they hit our consciousness. The answer lies in affirmations.

Vocalizing affirmations can make the routine exceptional enough to get past our brain’s filters. Even saying: “I am going to make it a great day today”, can cause you to see things that reinforce that belief and as a result, the probability of having a great day increases.

Now consider the same impact that saying: “I look really great today” might have on your day. Maybe you will see people noticing you. Maybe your walk will have that little extra spring in its step. Maybe feeling great is enough to look great.

Working with a Professional Coach is not the same as working with a cheerleader. Relentless and unjustified optimism can be very fatiguing and even frustrating. When you work with a Professional Coach however, they don’t tell you to “Be Confident”, but rather they can highlight when you are talking down to yourself and help you understand the subconscious beliefs you hold that are feeding the Bad Wolf.

Once you know what is going on and why it is happening, it is much easier to identify it and deploy the right strategy to keep the Good Wolf strong and the Bad Wolf….well…where did he go, anyway?