Not long ago a client struggling with his conditioning asked a telling question: “If I can’t be sure that the messages I’m sending myself are true, how on earth can I trust my own judgment?” The conditioning he battled had to do with his constant worries that he was making too many mistakes in his work, mistakes visible to his manager and others in highly placed leadership roles. He might find a minor error in a report he’d written and be devastated by personal recriminations — as if the error would cause everyone to lose faith in him and his career instantly would turn to dust. It was as if he could feel their profound disappointment in him — a very uncomfortable projection.
I thought his question had merit. How could he trust himself if his internal world can be so easily flooded with anxiety and guilt over an error whose importance he has severely catastrophized? In this situation it was quite clear that others did not see his minor errors the same way that he did. In fact, they saw him in a strong position for advancement. They considered him to be a critical problem-solver for the organization and a respected collaborator, someone deeply valued for both his technical and human relations skills. If they noticed anything, it was that he sometimes appeared to lose faith in himself. What they couldn’t see was the major internal devastation that went on privately behind that apparent loss of external confidence.
My client’s question about trusting his own judgment is a core leadership question — a question only he can answer. All the reassurances in the world from others cannot permanently erase it, although they might briefly ease the inner pain. He can’t simply be informed that his self-judgments are inaccurate. Somehow he has to find that out for himself, and in a way that is indisputable. Only then can he truly mutiny against the personal misinformation and self-gaslighting that are going on within himself. In the meantime, he lives on the face of a cliff feeling as if his future is constantly precarious, as if he is someone climbing vertical rock without a rope. He is driven by a combination of anxiety and guilt — by anguish — which is to say by the need for emotional survival.
How does he come to trust his own judgment? It might be helpful for him to risk asking others about how they perceive him and the minor errors he believes he’s made from time to time. Undoubtedly, his colleagues would try to provide the reassurance that he’s doing not just fine, but exceptionally well. But again, this strategy only works so long as he uses that feedback to decide for himself that it is primarily something internal that is scaring him and placing him on the cliff; that he is hampered by conditioned bullshit he tells himself — a pattern learned early in his life that has set him up for this experience as he progresses in his career to ever “higher” stations. Indeed, there’s also been a pattern of him leaving a variety of organizations over time whenever his misperceptions about his ability to perform cause him to panic.
People often use the term, “bullshit meter,” to point to times when it’s obvious somebody else is presenting bogus information they’d like us to believe. Less frequently we discuss the bullshit meter we need to use to accurately judge ourselves. Sometimes that meter might evaluate our egocentricity, but in my coaching experience it’s just as important to use it to evaluate conditioning that causes personal fear or humiliation.
All of which raises the question of how we know who we really are, for surely there must be something — some ultimate criteria — upon which we can rely. And yet, as awkward as it may seem, there doesn’t seem to be any such absolute at all for us, only a void or something meaner, a swamp of twisting inner channels that only lead us back to where we started. We may pretend by trying to rely on personal values, by holding on to some fragmenting concept of self-esteem, by trying to float on whatever personal philosophies or spiritual practices we’ve developed over time. In the end, we may find all such ideas are booby-trapped. Our rational brains may not seem able to reach across the gulf and we are left alone with only the existential quality of the inquiry and a feeling of emptiness.
In the end, I think it’s enough for us to see how we are capable of lying to ourselves, sometimes deeply, often as part of entrenched patterns of perception we have inherited. In this our memories can help us, if we are willing to acknowledge the patterns we find in how we are triggered and what that experience is like. If we can see the patterns, recognizing them for what they are — old forms of self-protection — we can begin to break them because we are more than our programming, more than a machine that only thinks one way. Our intelligence is not artificial. By acknowledging an untruth we’ve told ourselves, we choose to trust ourselves a little more. We find we are enough, even if we can’t explain exactly how that discovery ultimately makes itself known.