Self-Loathing Rock Stars

Self-Loathing Rock Stars

March 9, 2021

Creating successful startups is hard. Those who sign-on understand that from the beginning. They are making a bet on the future of this enterprise, and in return for that possibility, they stake their energy, time, and an ongoing commitment to it. In return, they hope to create something that has never been done before. To be part of creating the impossible, they sacrifice much of their personal lives and time. But they know this upfront and take the risk.

Ordinarily, when I talk to founders and their teams, I hear exuberance and determination. But last week. I spoke to three clients from different companies, and while each was certainly determined and relentless, what they mostly expressed was anxiety.

Each of three individuals works in a highly consequential role within a super-fast-growing start-up.  One is the CTO, one the Head of Strategy and the last is Chief Marketing Officer. They are all incredibly smart, highly educated and very effective. All are running distributed teams across time zones and countries. It is no small undertaking.

When Susan (not her real name) called me, I was drinking my morning tea. In Tallinn, where she was working as the head of marketing, her working day was well-underway. But although it was 5 PM, she would likely work 4 or 5 more hours. That’s a typical workday.

On the surface it would be easy to interpret the anxiety I mentioned as being circumstantial. They are busy and expected to do far more than the resources they have allow. So, a seemingly impossible situation leads to anxiety. On the surface.

I always start these calls by asking if there is anything the client needs to say just to get fully present. Sometimes they need to complete an email or take a few breaths. Other times they need to vent over a frustration or celebrate a huge win before we can speak productively. This context-shifting is critical to every conversation, because if your mind is still preoccupied with something else, it is impossible to focus.

Susan had a few things to say.

She was thinking about the next thing on her calendar, a one-one-one with a team member. Delivering critical feedback was uncomfortable. But the real preoccupation was com

ing from within her – a relentless accusation about her ability. She was being undermined by her own thoughts.

The voice in her head was scolding her. It was telling her she was less than, not up to the task and sure to fail. It also repeated, over and over, that she had no place giving critical feedback to anyone. Not when she was so inept herself.

Like most of my clients, Susan is kind. She would always treat a colleague or stranger with compassion and courtesy. Yet, she speaks to herself with utter contempt. The contrast is staggering if you really stop and make the comparison. If you have ever noticed this kind of internal monologue yourself, try to get outside it enough to ask yourself: Would I ever say that to my sister or mother? The answer will almost certainly be, Of course not! Yet we won’t grant ourselves the kindness or compassion we would give a random pedestrian or a stray dog.

As I said, throughout any difficult mission there are a lot of challenges and obstacles. Participants may be drowning in work and subjecting themselves to a massive demand on their time and their brains.

To succeed, one needs an internal monologue that is supportive. During a long-term, impossible-feeling process, every new challenge contains a risk of failure. But, when those failures occur, they are learning opportunities on the road to success.  Since a startup is, at heart, an experiment, failure is baked in. It’s disappointing, but it also tells you something valuable that may move the needle. Understanding that is table stakes in an ambitious start-up.

When your mind is constantly berating you with a self-loathing and contempt, it affects your ability to weather the setbacks. From within that thought process, every failure becomes a new example of your personal ineptitude. Growing and scaling your team feels like a crucible because it brings your own imagined ignorance to the foreground. Or it may be difficult to interview candidates when your inner voice is telling you you’re on the wrong side of the table.

These kinds of thoughts are disconnected from reality. Instead, they are a form of self-imposed punishment. They only have power because we give it to them. That power causes so much real-life mischief.  

Brilliant people become convinced that they are not up to the task.

Although women report these self-loathing thoughts more than men, it’s clearly not confined to them. One of the three similar conversations was with a man. As CTO, he has architected a complicated platform that delivers life-saving technology to millions of people. Despite that, every day he’s certain it will be the day he is fired. According to the CEO, there is absolutely no threat to his job. It’s all in his head.

Is there a fix? Yes. But it may not be easy. The problem is not so much the self-loathing thoughts, it’s the significance we give them. Thoughts and feelings are not facts. They are things that occur in our minds. Yet, we regard them as true.  Then their content, however illusory, informs out being. We hear these internal monologues and believe them, letting them penetrate and alter our emotions and our behavior. They contaminate our sense of self and obscure our very humanity.

But how can we do otherwise? They’re loud and persistent, and worst of all, familiar.

The process begins with making a distinction between what we think and who we are. Thoughts are just that—thoughts. We have them –unless we allow them to have us. Their only source of power is when we imagine that they mean something. In themselves, they have no meaning. They are like weather – irrelevant to who we are.

When it rains, we don’t think it means anything in particular. We just acknowledge the falling water and don a raincoat or stay indoors. The rain is irrelevant to who and how we are.

So are our thoughts.

–The steps to gain this ability are simple, but not easy.

–Realize that thoughts are not facts.

–Notice that certain events and experiences give rise to certain kinds of thoughts; those are triggers.

–Notice what you say to yourself when those triggers occur.

–Distinguish that whatever those thoughts, phrases, or feelings are – they are not who you are.

–Finally, have as much compassion for yourself as you would for anyone else.

If you undertake this, you will fail often. But you will also succeed occasionally. Build on that. Remember the freedom from self-loathing is a freedom to be. Although it may never be a permanent fix — because you will always have thoughts — they will become whispers instead of shouts. And you will learn to dismiss them as you would an inconvenient thunder storm.


Many thanks to Work Chronicles for the use of the cartoon!


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