Skip to main content

Confidence, self-defeat, and the circus

| February 25, 2020

by David Sweetman

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is by Dr. David Sweetman, MOR Associates Leadership Coach and Consultant.  David may be reached at [email protected].]

In my experience coaching, teaching, and leading, one of the greatest limits to our potential are self-defeating assumptions.  In the words of the great automotive pioneer Henry Ford, Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.

It’s like the story of the elephant in the traveling circus.  Keeping such a large, strong animal safe and secured was a challenge for circus leaders.  But they found a way.  At a young age, one of the elephant’s feet would be tied with a rope to a ground stake.  This served as a leash preventing the elephant from wandering too far and getting into mischief.  But young elephants are very curious.  Initially, the young elephant would tug and pull to try to escape and roam freely.  The young elephant learned that the stake could not be pulled out and the limitation of the leash remained.  The young elephant got used to this underlying assumption in its life.  The small, weak elephant grew into a large, strong elephant.  Did it use its new-found strength to escape?  No.  The elephant remained securely leashed, even though its strength could have easily pulled that stake free.  Despite its desire to roam free, the elephant had a self-defeating assumption, learned at an earlier point in life, that limited where it could go in life.

What are those rope-and-stakes that may have once tied us down, but no longer limit our potential?  What limits may we have learned to place on ourselves earlier in our lives that we have outgrown? … especially those we may not even realize?  These are very powerful questions, ones we should all ask ourselves from time to time.  We need to recognize the assumptions we are making and consider the logical – perhaps self-defeating – outcomes of those assumptions.

Once we’ve identified those self-defeating assumptions, what do we do?  Of this list of seven ways to reprogram self-defeating thoughts, I have found the following four tactics get the majority of us the majority of the way there:

  • Imagine yourself without fear or doubt.  What does your world look like when you cast those aside?  Visualize that.  Use the visualization as a path to live it.
  • Fake it ‘til you make it.  While our emotions often trail our actions, our actions can also lead to our emotions.  Prove to yourself you can do it, and those actions will beget the emotional feeling that you can do it.
  • Reframe words to refresh attitude.  Language matters, especially the words “I get to” vs. “I have to.”  Think of your aspirations earlier in life.  In what ways are you living those dreams today?  We are often at a place of privilege in our lives that our earlier selves would only have dreamed of, but our present selves take for granted.  Not only that, we sometimes even sound like we loath (have-to) … reframe to the opportunities (get-to) we have.
  • Be like others and give yourself more credit.  You know you, especially your potential shortcomings, better than anyone.  You nit-pick and judge yourself more than anyone.  Humble yourself by remembering that others don’t nit-pick and judge you like that.

Confidence is so key across our lives, including in reducing imposterism as Jim wrote last week.  If you’re looking for ways to increase confidence in addition to removing self-defeating assumptions, a prior Tuesday Reading provided actionable steps to Overcoming the Eight Barriers to Confidence.

Whatever self-defeating limitations you may be placing on yourself, I hope these tools can help you reduce those.  As a leader, you have the privilege to not only grow yourself, but to also use these tools to help others around you who may be limiting their own potential through their assumptions.  How can you help someone you know this week to escape the limit of a self-defeating assumption?

Please make your day a leaderful one for you and your team,


P.S. Thank you to the many, many people who responded to my invitation for feedback on Tuesday Readings.  If you haven’t yet offered your perspective, you can do so through March 8.