President, Lefkoe Institute

Low self-esteem affects everyone from teenagers to CEOs. Here’s how to overcome it.

June 01, 2011

Are you one of the many executives who secretly feel that you are an impostor who doesn’t deserve your success? You are not alone. So many business executives have this feeling that it has been labeled the “Impostor Syndrome.”

This common psychological phenomenon demonstrates how it is possible to hold negative beliefs about oneself despite a tremendous amount of evidence to the contrary. It seems that once we form these negative beliefs as a child, logical arguments are not sufficient to get rid of the beliefs.

Why do many people who believe “I’m not good enough,” fail to achieve business success while other people with the same beliefs achieve tremendous success in business. There is a simple answer: a special type of belief that I call a “survival strategy belief.”

Imagine you are a young child who has created a host of negative beliefs about yourself or about life. At this point you are in school, interacting with lots of other kids and adults. It dawns on you that you are going to grow up and will have to make your own way in life. You are confronted with a real dilemma, albeit an unconscious one: “How will I make it in life if there’s something fundamentally wrong with me?”

Imagine the fear and anxiety you must feel when you experience these two conflicting “facts”: On one hand, you sense that you must make it on your own in life. On the other hand, you have concluded that “There’s something fundamentally wrong with me that will make it difficult, if not impossible, to make it on my own.”

Anxiety is a painful feeling, so children who have it try to find ways of not feeling it. In tens of thousands of sessions with clients, I’ve discovered that people have two basic ways of dealing with the unpleasant feelings that are caused by negative self-esteem beliefs:

  • First, they use alcohol, drugs, sex, food, or other substances to cover up the feelings and numb themselves or to make themselves feel good. Underneath all addictions is a negative sense of self-esteem.
  • Second, they develop strategies that help them deal with the anxiety that stems from their negative beliefs. I call them survival strategies because the fear one experiences when one has negative self-esteem beliefs often makes one feel as if his survival is being threatened.

When a survival strategy is formed, the child also forms a belief about that strategy:

“What makes me good enough (or important, or worthwhile, etc.) is having others think well of me (or making a lot of money, or taking care of people, etc.)” A variation of that is: “The way to survive is ….”

Survival strategies are based on a child’s observation of what it takes to feel good about herself, to be important, to be worthwhile, or to be able to deal with life in spite of negative self-esteem beliefs.

Lawrence, a former client who worked as an executive in a Wall Street firm, earns over $1,000,000 a year. His core belief is I don’t matter, and his survival strategy belief is: “What makes me worthwhile is being seen as important by others.” As a result, Tom becomes anxious whenever a new person gets hired, or a colleague wins praise. In addition, that same belief has him work 14 hours a day, seven days a week, achieving things that his peers will see as important.

One consequence of being run by survival strategy beliefs is that you experience your survival as dependent on the success of your survival strategy. The need to fulfill the terms of your survival strategy dominates your life. Once you say you’re not worthwhile just the way you are, no amount of accomplishment or praise will provide the unconditional sense of self-esteem you want and need.

So it should now be clear how it is possible to reach high positions in management and have all the trappings of success and still doubt yourself: you have a survival strategy belief that drove you to succeed and, at the same time, you had a lot of negative self-esteem beliefs underneath that makes you feel like an impostor.

Luckily, it is possible to eliminate your negative self-esteem beliefs, which will enable you to enjoy your success and no longer fear it will be taken away from you.