There is an anthropomorphic little guy on many of our shoulders, from the downtrodden to the high and mighty. He whispers into your ear that you’re not good enough, should feel guilty, don’t deserve what you have, and that you should be fearful — very fearful.
This guy is the cumulative manifestation of all the baggage you carry around. He’s a product of your superego, that part of your mind that is semiconscious and supercritical, reflecting standards learned from parents, teachers, and other symbols of authority in your life. In other words, the people who have packed all that baggage you’re lugging around.
The superego generates criticisms, prohibitions, and inhibitions, which represent social standards being violated. This is the little guy insinuating that you’re not as good as the others, that you really can’t and shouldn’t do what you intend, and that you’re going to stick out in a crowd like some kind of lout.
The superego also creates an idealized self-image of aspirations, an image that you ought to attain. Here, the guy is yelling, “You’ll never make it acting like that!” and “You’re going in the wrong direction!” and “Haven’t you been listening to anyone trying to help you?!”
The little guy is not there to help you. And he is present at all social and economic levels.
Where the Superego Gets Its Start
The superego develops during the first five years of life in response to authority figures’ punishments and rewards. Children at this age embrace and internalize parental (and others’) standards due in no small part to a tropism to identify with parental figures. The idea of “family” becomes paramount.
Any violation of social standards produces guilt, anxiety, and the need to atone (which we see in religious rites such as Yom Kippur and Catholic confession). As young people continue to grow and develop, the superego embraces further role models and rules of a changing society.
By the time you reach young adulthood, the guy on your shoulder becomes a royal pain in the ass.
Chasing the Monsters
Many years ago, there was a popular science fiction movie, I believe the first in technicolor, titled “Forbidden Planet.” The crew of a spaceship encounters a mad doctor (of course) aided by Robby the Robot. He created monsters that plagued the crew — until it was finally revealed that he was merely re-creating their own psychological fears and worries. In other words, he had co-opted the little guy on their shoulders.
Once the crew realized they actually had control of their own bête noir, they were able to eliminate the monsters.
I think you can see where this is going.
We all have baggage, but it should be baggage we pack ourselves, not packed by authority figures in our youth and constantly reopened by the guy on our shoulder. We can’t just drop the baggage on the train, because it’s still with us traveling as fast as we are. We need to throw the baggage off the train and pack new stuff. Don’t be afraid to kill a metaphoric cow in the countryside.
To put it another way, we need to flick the little guy off our shoulder, let him hit the wall and bounce on the floor, and then stomp him until he bleeds out.
How do you flick him off your shoulder?
In four ways:
- Examine your belief system and ask yourself if it still reflects who you are today.
- Articulate your fears and ask why they’re valid. What are their origins?
- Ask yourself if you’re acting in such a way because you’re afraid to let others down, especially others no longer in your life.
- Examine what you’ve always believed and if conditions today still warrant such beliefs.
If you think this is silly or superficial, think again. It’s simple, but not easy.
Remember when you hesitated to let an entire hour pass before entering the water, lest you get cramps and drown after a meal? Someone would say, “It’s only been 52 minutes.” That seems incredibly dumb today, but it’s one of those authority tenets we didn’t question.
We have similar issues about appearing arrogant, or disappointing others, or being selfish, that too often control our behavior today.
Real fear is facing a tornado, or an illness, or a mugger. Fraudulent fear is allowing the little guy on your shoulder to intimidate you with ancient dicta and youthful paradigms.
It’s time to let the little guy know you’re cleaning house. It’s time to show him the door.
Alan Weiss, Ph.D.
Alan Weiss, Ph.D., is a consultant, speaker, and bestselling author. Described by the New York Post as “one of the most highly regarded independent consultants in America,” his consulting firm, Summit Consulting Group, Inc., has attracted clients such as Merck, Hewlett-Packard, GE, Mercedes-Benz, and more than 500 leading organizations. He is the author of 64 books, many of which have been included in university curricula and translated into 15 languages. His newest release is “Fearless Leadership: Overcoming Reticence, Procrastination, and the Voices of Doubt Inside Your Head.” Learn more at alanweiss.com.