How Do You Know Which Inner Voice to Follow?

Recently, I came to a startling recognition: I have a somewhat inconsistent view about life choices. On the one hand, I have railed against succumbing to the voice in one’s head so many times that I cannot account for them all. Yet, on the other, I have also said that my life transformed and became much happier when I started to listen to that little whisper inside that told me to try something new. A few weeks ago, it came to me in a flash that perhaps I was speaking out of both sides of my mouth on this one. How could one both ditch the voice in one’s head and yet feel compelled to listen to it to follow one’s bliss?

For me, this flash revealed a paradox more than a cognitive dissonance. I knew from experience that both things were true. The trouble was, though, that I couldn’t quite distill the factors that made them both true. So, I left the question open for a while and sat with it for a few weeks. Ultimately, I concluded that the answer had been staring me in the face all along: life experience was the only real way to tell the difference between the voices in one’s head because experience tells us not just how those voices manifest and feel but also shows us the results of heeding them.

Experience has told me that I have more than one kind of inner voice: the doubt voice and the childlike urge to explore. My doubt voice usually appears in the form of words. It is like a parent that comes to keep me safe and in line. It tries to present itself as the voice of reason but can quickly become abusive at the slightest hint that I may ignore it. The other voice, however, usually isn’t a voice at all. It rarely manifests for me as anything so organized as a sentence. At most, I might get a single word that echoes in my mind for too long. More often, though, I get a sense—just a sense—that I want to try something. It’s like the urge to touch a soft fuzzy blanket just to see what it feels like. If it lasts long enough, my mind may start to offer scenes and imaginings of how this newfangled idea might work. Sometimes my doubt voice may push the idea away as irrational or impractical, but the most powerful ideas come back to me repeatedly when my mind relaxes when I am driving, or exercising, or meditating.

Following the divergent paths my inner voices have offered has produced insights too. The doubt voice invariably tells me to take the road more traveled. In some cases, there is an initial sense of relief when I have decided to let an idea go. What ultimately caused me to stop listening to this voice every time, however, was the recognition that listening to it often led me not to feel safe, but instead cloistered and stuck. Where the voice told me staying with the familiar would help me feel secure, it regularly left me feeling insecure because I kept failing to trust myself. On the other hand, following the childlike urge to explore usually felt more like play. Most of the time I have followed this voice, I would think “I have no idea what I’m doing or why I’m doing it.” I can’t say that this necessarily felt good. In many cases, it felt bad as I worked to create or try something new while my doubt voice stormed in the background of my mind. But the thing was that I didn’t care. It was like I knew I would be proud of myself just for trying even if whatever I did was a total failure and a waste of time.

Unfortunately, I can’t offer anyone a line in the sand that can tell you which inner voice to listen to at any given moment in your life. I can say, however, that awareness of those voices, including how they feel and where they lead, can provide the experience needed to distinguish between the two (or more) inner voices for yourself. A sense of balance and proportion may also serve as a guiding principle for many of us. Lawyers often find themselves guided by the voice of doubt since it is so closely associated with the logic that is our stock and trade. We may, therefore, benefit from time to time in letting another part of our selves take the reins and following those less rational and teleological notions to explore, experiment, and create.

Ultimately, though, the desire to really know the difference between the voices in our head and to have unshakable confidence that we are listening to “the right one” may point to something more fundamental: the reality that we can’t predict the future or totally control our lives. Noting the differences between our inner voices may give us signs to help us make decisions in life, but eventually we just have to let go and give ourselves the grace to make mistakes. Thus, while it may be a challenge to have these competing voices in our heads pulling us in opposite directions, it is not entirely a bad thing.

When we listen to our childlike voice and seek adventure, we may find challenges and a life we never imagined. When those choices lead to mistakes and mishaps, and you can bet that they will, our inner voice of reason may offer us a path to safety and security so that we can heal and recover until we are ready for adventure once again. Perhaps, then, these varying inner voices don’t represent a cognitive dissonance or a fracturing of our psyche at all. Instead, they may just represent the fact that a complete life has many facets and many seasons. In the end, it may not be so important to know which inner voice to listen to in any given moment, as much as it matters that we listen to our inner voices at all.

Four Reasons Why I Don’t Like the Term “Imposter Syndrome”

It’s no secret that I am a self-doubter. I have struggled with it since I was a kid and, despite all my mindfulness training, I don’t think it’s ever going to go away. Doubt, it seems, is a part of my personality. So, you might be surprised to know that I don’t really like the term “imposter syndrome.” Clearly, I don’t dispute that the phenomenon occurs. And I know how self-doubt, even in the face of overwhelming evidence demonstrating competence, can harm individuals and the organizations who need their talents. But I just don’t like the implications of what the term “imposter syndrome” conveys. Here are a few reasons why.

1. It Pathologizes What Might Just Be a Normal Human Experience.

A “syndrome” doesn’t have to be a medical condition, necessarily, but that is the most prevalent use of term. By saying “imposter syndrome”, therefore, we are reifying the notion that self-doubt is somehow aberrant or harmful. Certainly, as stated below, I don’t doubt the potential for harm on an individual or social level. I am saying, though, that the idea of self-doubt as inherently problematic may not be altogether fair.

Sure, self-doubt hurts and at times it can put us in boxes that we may have to escape. But it is part of the human condition too. Self-doubt, like all so-called negative emotions and experiences, doesn’t necessarily have moral value. Instead, it’s a state that comes and may go if we learn to let it. In my experience, it’s also a personality trait that, when balanced with some care and courage, can have beneficial results. I’ve learned to accept that, though my own self-doubt drives me nuts on occasion, it also makes me check my facts and keeps me honest, humble, and connected to my human experience.

For this reason, I don’t like the implication that “imposter syndrome” is inherently wrong because that view can contribute to self-judgment and impede the understanding and self-compassion that are needed to keep doubt from impeding growth. I think the better approach is to recognize that self-doubt is a part of the human condition and to account for it, with appropriate supports, as part of the healthy path to growth.

2. It Suggests that We Should Feel Solid in Our Identities, Despite the Fact that They Are Always Changing.

Identity is at the core of imposter syndrome. The use of the term “imposter” is intended to convey an experience most of us have had: that other people will somehow discover we aren’t as perfect/talented/smart/capable/kind/beautiful/worthy/lovable, etc. as we may seem. If you break this down logically, you will see that the concern here is that our “true” identities may not measure up to the perceptions others have of us. If you know anything about Buddhist philosophy, however, alarm bells should be ringing in your ears because, according to that school of thought, no true identity in fact exists.

The concept of “not self” or “anatta” as it is traditionally called tells us that there is no stable and lasting self to which we can cling. And even if you haven’t studied Buddhism, you can experience this for yourself. Go ahead and look for your self. Or watch that self of yours behave over time and in different contexts. You can test me on this if you like, but I bet you’ll find it hard to find a sold, steady self in there driving the bus of your life.

What does this have to do with imposter syndrome? Well, imposter syndrome suggests to us that it’s a problem if we feel unsure about our identities. If you look at it from a “not self” perspective, though, it’s not a problem at all. It actually is far more consistent with reality than the so-called “confident” and “normal” people who don’t question their identities. Now, of course, when this analysis becomes protracted, painful, and gets in the way of necessary action or growth, that can become a problem. But those issues are likely to be the result of attempts to cling too tightly to identity. The way out isn’t to strive to feel more solid in our identities, but instead to recognize that identity shifts as life changes and so doubts about it inevitably may arise.

3. It Suggests that People Who Don’t Doubt Their Abilities Are Necessarily Higher Achievers or Better Performers.

How many times have you been told that confidence is essential to success? Probably many, many times, right? Well, did you ever ask that person what confidence means? If you did, they’d probably look at you quizzically and say something like “You know, feeling good about yourself. Feeling capable or self-assured. Feeling strong.” That’s close to the dictionary definition of the term “confidence” to be sure. But, does this mean that, in the midst of a challenge one must in the present moment feel capable, strong, or self-assured to get good results? As a lifelong self-doubter and high-achiever, I can tell you that’s not true. Not all self-doubt impedes performance. As I’ll discuss when I review The Confidence Gap, it’s the self-doubt that impedes action which is the problem.

And that’s the problem with thinking of imposter syndrome as a syndrome. It doesn’t distinguish between the self-doubt that should be expected with growth and new challenges and the self-doubt that keeps us from taking the actions necessary to grow and face challenges. To truly understand that distinction for ourselves, we need to look at our self-doubt without judgment to see how it affects us. If we assume it is inherently bad or detrimental, we may get the wrong idea that we are destined to fail or be stuck in our current circumstances until we can force ourselves to feel assured even in the face of risk. But, that’s not confidence, that’s bluster and potentially arrogance and it doesn’t necessarily translate to better long-term performance. So, instead of focusing so much on the detriments of imposter syndrome, it may be more effective to re-think what confidence really means.

4. It Suggests that the Problem Is with the Individual When We Are All Interconnected.

Finally, I don’t like the term imposter syndrome because it perpetuates the myth of separation. While the nod to identity in the term acknowledges that we are social beings with deep needs for social approval, most of the discourse on the subject has focused solely on the individual experience of it.  Last year, the Harvard Business Review offered a refreshing take on the subject which suggested that imposter syndrome for many may be the byproduct of systemic bias. In this discussion, the authors suggest that it is time to dispense with the notion that individuals must fix themselves by overcoming imposter syndrome because, instead, we might spend our time better fixing the systems that have created it.

That’s a pretty good point but I might also add that there are some other cultural biases at play here, including the preference for certainty, authoritarian leadership, and the aversion to vulnerability and emotions in professional life. In this way, I’d agree that the emphasis shouldn’t be on “fixing” the people who have experienced imposter syndrome. Perhaps, the emphasis should be on creating a society and workplace culture where people, including leaders, feel safe acknowledging risk and doubt. To do this, we probably need the talents and wisdom of the people who know what self-doubt feels like and what to do about it. If the advice continues to be that imposter syndrome must be shed before leadership and success can occur, we may never get the leaders who can help us make that change.

In short, I don’t doubt that imposter syndrome occurs. I have experienced it most of my life. But I don’t like the way it is portrayed most of the time because it is at odds with my mindfulness training and my life experience. I don’t think my self-doubt makes me a bad lawyer or poor leader. Rather, I think facing my self-doubt and learning to care for it is what makes me a great leader and courageous lawyer. So, instead of focusing on ridding ourselves of imposter syndrome, overcoming it or even fixing it, maybe we should learn instead to accept ourselves as we are and life as it is to build the skills needed to face the inherent doubts, risks, and uncertainties in life and work.  

How My First Residential Meditation Retreat Freed Me from Self-Doubt

Full disclosure: this title is a bit of a lie. It’s mostly true. My first residential retreat forced me to turn and face my self-doubt, when I had previously run, hid, and thus, found myself controlled by it, for most of my life. That created an opening in my awareness and the result was a whole lot of freedom to expand. But it didn’t set me “free” from doubt in the sense that it made it go away. In truth, I am not sure that anything can. It’s a pattern of the mind that is so engrained that I suspect nothing short of enlightenment (which doesn’t seem to be happening for me any time soon) is going to dislodge it. So what do you do when you can’t beat something? You join it. That’s what the retreat made me do. It made me meet the doubt half-way and the freedom came in when I realized I didn’t have to make it go away at all.  

I didn’t go to the retreat with the specific aim of taking down my self-doubt complex. I had been meditating long enough by that point to know that isn’t really how this works. I knew that I couldn’t control—and shouldn’t try to control—the retreat experience by setting any goals. The point was to take what comes and work with it because that’s what I’d have to do in my life when the retreat was over. Fortunately for me, however, the retreat went exactly according to my non-plan.

I had thought it wouldn’t be a big deal. I had been meditating for about 5 years, I had done some 1-day intensives before, so I was not without skills. At least that’s what I’d told myself. The first night was pretty easy. The silence didn’t start until after dinner and the talk and sit were pleasant. The retreat was at a Catholic facility well out of town, so the only noise was the crickets singing me lullabies. Nevertheless, I could not sleep because I always struggle to sleep in unfamiliar places. Though I avoided a total melt down, it was much too late when I eventually drifted off to sleep.

The morning gave me hope that the day wouldn’t be a total loss because I didn’t feel too bad. I started with a sit before breakfast. It was hazy and uninspiring but not awful. Breakfast, coffee, and a walk outside helped immensely, so the next sit was better and I enjoyed the talk from the teacher leading the retreat. I started to think I might be okay, but by the third sit everything started to change. The weather turned to rain. In a silent retreat, where you can’t talk, engage with other retreatants, or—gasp—even look at your phone, there are precious few distractions. Food is one and walking meditation periods when you tend to basic needs or just move is the other. When the weather is nice, you can get a change of scenery and enjoy the air. When it’s not nice, you have no choice but to find a spot indoors and awkwardly try to avoid running into the path of the other yogis doing walking meditation, who always look so much more focused, devout, and serene than you.

After lunch, things got worse. The coffee had worn off and the meal told my body that it was time to take a nap. Having done several retreats since then, I now know that on retreats my body just wants to sleep from the hours of 2-4 PM. On that retreat, though, I hadn’t learned this yet. I spent the sits fighting off sleep and the suspicion that I was a hopeless failure at meditation. I had also totally failed to appreciate the physical toll that lots of extra meditation would have on my body. At the time, I meditated only about 20 minutes each day. By Saturday afternoon, I had already done about 4 times that, sitting on a cushion with no back support. Everything hurt, so meditation was just sitting with one source of physical pain after another. Even walking meditation wasn’t much help since I was so tired. Feeling defeated, I headed to the kitchen for a snack, hoping maybe a boost in blood sugar might help raise my spirits. I brightened when I saw apples and peanut butter, one of my favorite after school snacks, and sat in near solitude to eat them.

My doubt voice, however, took this opportunity to enter stage right like a diva for its big aria. “Aren’t you supposed to be doing walking meditation right now?”, it asked. I ignored it and sliced my apple. “Did you really come here to eat? You could have had an apple at home.” I smeared some peanut butter, rolled my eyes at myself, and sat. The voice didn’t like being ignored so it turned up the volume. “Why do you have to do stuff like this? Can’t you just be like everyone else?” This was harder to hear. I might have cried but for another yogi standing across the room. I held it together but then the really low bows started, “You could have spent this weekend with your children and you chose to spend it here navel-gazing.” Ouch. I was sinking fast. But then the voice got arrogant, and made a mistake when it tried to land the finishing blow.

When it said “This is a waste of your time,” I suddenly thought “Wait, what?” I might doubt myself but I knew my meditation practice had been good for me. I knew the studies demonstrating its benefits. I had seen my life change consistently for the better since I started meditating and had relied on it countless times to pull myself off so many mental ledges. Thus, when the doubt voice started to attack my practice, my bullshit detector went off like an alarm clock to wake me up. But I didn’t respond with anger. I didn’t punch back at the doubt voice like Rocky after being battered on the ropes. Instead, I laughed (at least internally). I laughed because I suddenly realized that I had been the object of a life-long prank. In a flash. I saw how many times I had listened to that voice and ended up feeling lost, or stuck, or weak. I had tried for years to push the doubt away, puff myself up with feigned confidence, or take the path of least resistance and none of those strategies had worked. So instead, like pulling the mask off a friend at a costume party, I said to the doubt voice in my head “Oh, there you are. I was wondering when you’d show up. Take a seat. We’ll be here for a while.” It did just that and let me finish my snack in peace.

That little exchange also helped me see that I had been beating myself up physically too. I accepted that I was tired and hurting, so I made the rebellious decision to skip the last sit before dinner so I could do some light yoga in my room and shower to prepare to sleep as soon as the evening sit was done. It helped me a lot and my outlook was better at dinner than it had been all day. The evening sit was wonderful and included a guided loving-kindness practice that helped me connect to my daughters and community, even though I wasn’t physically with them. As soon as it ended, I got up, went to bed, and fell asleep immediately.

I awoke the next morning to sunshine, a clear head, and a lighter spirit. As I did the first sit, the truth of what happened the day before was distilled for me in this flash of insight: “Doubt feels a lot like truth.” When you are in it, doubt feels like the real truth. Truth with a capital “T”. It feels like all the lived experience before that was the illusion and the doubting construction of the facts is what is real. But it isn’t and the struggle is seeing that. The doubt had also caused me to be withholding of care for myself at a time when I needed it most. I had been physically in pain for hours before I finally accepted that I needed to do something about it. When I let go of the doubt that backed me into the corner of trying to look like a perfect yogi, I cut myself slack and took care of my body. This is when my mind and heart relaxed and opened enough for me to see clearly.

After leaving that retreat, my doubt did not ride off into the sunset and my tendency to be harsh with myself did not fade into oblivion. They come back to me frequently and sometimes catch me off-guard and knock me down. More often than not, however, I see them in time before they can do much damage. I see them now because I look for them. Before that retreat, I had not wanted to look for my doubt voice because I didn’t want it to be there. I wanted to feel strong, confident, and capable, not weak, and scared and unsure. So, when doubt cropped up, I didn’t know what it was and couldn’t see what it looked like and too often mistook it as a sign of my own frailty. In reality, doubt is just a part of my personality that wants me to be good, to do things well, and to follow the right path. For too long, doubt had let me wander only on a narrow and constricting path, but in a world full of hubris and recklessness a tendency to check myself and check again isn’t entirely bad. The retreat helped me see that doubt was not truth, but only a flavor of it. It helped me see that I could love that doubting part of myself and bring it along with me as I moved forward into the unclear future.

There are lots of stories that people share about how they prevailed over doubt. I don’t quarrel with any of those. For some, the “do it scared” approach works. For others, fake it until you make it may convince even self-doubters of their own abilities. But for me, doing nothing was the only way that I could have made peace with my self-doubt. I had to stop fighting it, stop ignoring it, and stop trying to control it. When I did, I could get a look at it. To my surprise, I found that it wasn’t that scary or ugly after all and I could just let it hang out with me when it chose to show up every so often. The retreat therefore didn’t make my doubt go away, but it changed my relationship with it and that’s what set me free.

Want the condensed version of this story? Here’s a reenactment of the retreat experience. We promise no mommies, meditators, or little doubt voices were harmed in the making of this film.