I want to share a conversation I had with my client and friend last week about beliefs. Beliefs we think are totally true about ourselves, and no matter the evidence, we can’t help believe them: I’m not racist. I am generous. I am smart.

Whatever your belief, can you relate?

My client (let’s call her Jordan) is a stellar businesswoman with tons of charisma—a woman you look at and say, “She’s got it.” Jordan runs a company, and when we talked about her career, one belief kept creeping up: No matter how successful she was, Jordan didn’t feel successful. In fact, she felt the opposite—like she couldn’t “handle” things no matter how hard she tried. This made her feel like a fraud because a business owner is supposed to have stuff together. Right?

To be clear, Jordan is not a failure. Far from it. She has actually had great professional success. But because she feels she can’t “handle it,” she can’t see the truth. That’s why we were on the phone—because it’s bothering her now, making her anxious and stressed, not allowing her to feel good about herself.

I asked if she ever felt this way as a kid, hunching the root might be deeper than just her business. She told me her family moved cities as a kid and that she had trouble adjusting to her new school because she was younger than other kids. She didn’t make friends easily, which led her to stress out. One day, she overheard her dad casually saying she wasn’t coping well. Sounds benign enough, but something shifted inside Jordan when she heard that.

Without realizing, she internalized the belief that she was a bad “cope-er” because her family had noticed it. And when your family notices, they might also get annoyed and stop accepting you. And if they stop accepting you, they may also stop loving you. If they did that, your safety net would be gone.

For humans, safety and love are the only things we seek out, so any potential threat to those things is thwarted at all costs (i.e. bad coping).

It’s a big deal to not feel safe.

Jordan saw that coping = safety, not coping = no safety, and started choosing safety each time. This is all happening under the radar, subconsciously, by the way. Now, as an adult, she’s created the safety she needs by trying to keep it all together at all times.

Controlling your environment for safety gets tiring after a while, and it’s a tough gig no matter how old you are.

I launched into the truth. “Actually, Jordan, you’ve been coping very well since you were a kid, maybe your entire life. You’ve structured your adult life around safety, and that’s not a bad thing; it’s natural.” I explained it’s a good thing because coping gave her what she needed to survive and got her to where she is now. But now it’s holding her back. “There must be more to life than feeling overwhelmed,” she said.

There is more. Jordan’s business and life were asking her to thrive, not just survive now—take more risk, not less. And the “ask” came in the shape of her business.

Why? Because business is messy. And the business of business is even messier. Business operates under the assumption that you must make decisions without all the answers. It requires you to handle things outside your control: market forces, human emotions, human behavior. It’s not about if you can cope; it’s about knowing you won’t cope at one point, and it being okay.

But if you’re used to coping, feeling out of control even for a second is painful. And there are many moments in business where feeling “put together” is a distant dream.

Hence Jordan’s tension. She needed to stop appearing like she had it together and give up control, but these were the very things that had kept her safe so far.

Angst. Recognition. Pain. Relief. This is the moment where personal progress and evolution happen.
@ishitagupta (Click to Tweet!)

The only thing to do, at least initially, is to be aware of the forces at play. Jordan’s great at this because she’s very aware. She realized a few things as we talked:

1. Her belief that she couldn’t “handle it” was false. She was actually a damn fine cope-er doing her level best, and her business reflected that. She now accurately saw her need for safety stemming, in part, from when she was a kid. She gave herself credit for getting herself this far, and now it was time for a new belief that fit her new goals (i.e. more risk, not less).

I remember a time when not only did I cope poorly, but I coped like shit. I had a full-time job, ran my business at night, embarked on a new career, and tried to save a failing relationship at the same time. I thought I was a failure for not being able to manage it all. Years later, I saw that I had coped pretty well and actually turned out some great work and life experiences during that time. But for a while, I falsely presumed I’d never have it “together.“

To really identify your beliefs, see where they might be stemming from. This isn’t simply a psychoanalytic reduction into your childhood; it’s about realizing that your beliefs aren’t coming out of the blue. Most beliefs have a root cause, and identifying them may lead you to what’s really operating right now.

2. Jordan and I separated her feelings about not coping from the act of coping itself. I told her that confusion and overwhelm (emotions associated with coping) are mutually exclusive from the actual act of coping. So she could feel overwhelmed regardless of if she thought she was coping or not.

3. Business (and life) will level you if you need to have it together all the time. There is no “right” way to manage your life. Everyone has different triggers and capacities, and one crisis does not fit all. My tolerance for stress is pretty low, so to avoid it, I gauge my triggers and work with them. My best friend? She doesn’t need to see her triggers or even know she has them. She’s cool as a cucumber during certain stressful times. Does that make one better than the other? No. I have seen her royally stress out when she may have actually benefited from knowing her triggers. The point is: don’t judge what you need to do to feel solid and strong. What you need, you need, and that ain’t needy.

4. We did an exercise together where Jordan found evidence that she was totally managing her life and wonderfully so. She has employees. She makes payroll. She wants to grow, a sign of a successful business. She wasn’t falling apart. Sometimes you need to get it on paper to really see it before you believe it.

Jordan’s not the only one. I’ve worked with beliefs about myself that were false and have successful friends who’ve done the same. It happens to us all. Whether from crap advice as kids from people who meant well or a bad experience that confirmed an existing belief, we mistakenly think we’re crazy when, really, it’s our beliefs in play.

No situation, no matter how bright or successful, can compete with our self-belief.

I’d love to hear what beliefs you feel you have operating. Is there an experience you can identify that created that belief? I want to hear what you do when you feel this creeping up. I read every one of your comments.

Ishita Gupta is the publisher of fear.less magazine. She worked at The Domino Project, runs the Potential Project, and helps people overcome fear and design their best lives. She also consults for authors and businesses on marketing and publishing. You can also follow Ishita on Facebook or Twitter.

*Image courtesy of SlinkyDragon.