Yes, you read that correctly: Brain Weasels. Brain. Weasels. Brain Weasels are those little voices in our heads that whisper mean things to us when we make a mistake. They tell us that everything we fear is going to happen. That our self-doubt is simply being reasonable. That whatever we imagine will go wrong is currently going wrong and it’s all. Our. Fault.
The use of the term, “brain weasel,” comes to us from the mental health world where they use narrative therapy and externalization to help folks with anxiety and depression isolate and combat this harmful internal dialogue. Rather than referring to the negative self-talk as one more thing we are doing wrong, decentering the behavior to our “brain weasels” and using therapeutic humor helps to break the cycle and allows us to explore our self-critical dialogue.
Our brain weasels are our fears, and like all emotions, they are trying to tell us something. An important part of our personal development as leaders is to learn to look at our fears objectively, so we can find the foundation of our concerns. From there, we can take back our brains from those weasels who want to keep us down.
In matters of leadership, one of the biggest brain weasels has a name. He’s big, he’s loud, and he loves to show up when you’ve done something well. He’s the worst of them all, because he takes the joy and the feelings of pride out of our accomplishments. His name is Imposter Syndrome.
Imposter Syndrome is a common issue among high achievers. He tells us we are inadequate and incompetent. He tells us our successes are based on luck and not skill, and eventually everyone around us will know that we are frauds. When we break it down and get to the foundation, we find the brain weasel is a fear of failure.
Here are the most common types of Imposter Syndrome behaviors as outlined here. If you see any of these in yourself, it might be time to confront your brain weasel!
- The Perfectionist. These folks set excessively high goals for themselves and are harsh with themselves for any deviation from their desired outcome. They tend to be control freaks/micromanagers who have a motto: “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” This type can lead to burnout and negative interpersonal relationships, particularly with those who report to them.
- The Superhuman. These folks are convinced they are phonies and try to make up for it by overachieving. If their coworkers are at work for nine hours, they will be there for ten. They gave up all of their hobbies to hyper-focus on their work and their only happiness comes from external validation. Constructive criticism is like a blow to the chest. This type often ends up a workaholic.
- The Natural Genius. These folks are often young or have risen to a high place of power very quickly. They base their own competence on their ease of adjusting and the speed at which they achieve their goals. They have to “just be good” at everything. This is common amongst people who were high achievers in high school, typically seen in graduates with high IQs who never really learned how to study or work on something hard for them. This type tends to quit as soon as they realize they can’t just do it.
- The Soloist. These folks are independent to a fault. “I’ll do it myself,” and “I don’t need help” are their mantras. This type often experiences failure when they need to ask for help, because they feel asking for help reveals their incompetence. Fear of asking for help can lead this type to drown and need rescuing.
- The Expert. These folks measure their competence by how much and how many things they know or can do. They will never be enough and fear they will be outed as unintelligent or inexperienced. They don’t apply for jobs unless they already meet every requirement, they constantly seek out trainings and certificates in case they will need them later, and shy away from being called a SME no matter how long they’ve been in their role. This type has a tendency to procrastinate AND over-prepare all at the same time. They hoard knowledge, but because they never feel like they have enough, they miss opportunities by putting off taking advantage of them until they are “ready.”
Studies suggest that ~70% of adults experience imposter syndrome at some point in their career. Our brain weasels tell us we will never be enough, that we don’t deserve our accolades, and that our successes are based on luck. Ward off your brain weasels by learning to accept and embrace your capabilities and your accomplishments. We will never be done learning. We will never know everything or be perfect, and we need to learn to make peace with that. Otherwise, the brain weasels win.